If you visit a women’s volleyball practice you might be surprised to see one or two men on the court. There they are, playing against the women, spiking the ball over the net or jumping high to block a shot. These men are practice players, helping the women hone their skills. The men serve as hitters, blockers, motivators or whatever else the team needs.
This year’s male practice players all happen to be engineering students. They play on the men’s volleyball club team and were recruited from there. They say they volunteer for the fun of it, to help out the women’s team and to improve their own volleyball skills. They are not compensated for their time, but have the opportunity to register for classes early and sometimes get free shoes or other gear.
Using male practice players “has become a tradition over the last seven years,” said women’s volleyball coach Kevin Hambly, who first proposed bringing in men to help the women train when he was an assistant volleyball coach at Illinois.
“We have 6-foot-2 guys that jump pretty high. They’re bigger and more physical and they hit harder than most of the girls we see,” he said. “So we’re hitting against the bigger blocks and we’re trying to defend hitters who jump higher, are more physical and hit harder than what we typically see when we get into matches.”
Matt Condon, 21, a senior in mechanical engineering from Glenview, Ill., said a former practice player urged him to help out the women’s team and recommended him for it.
“The coaches don’t want anyone to get hurt, so they want everyone to have control of their bodies,” Condon said. “They don’t want anyone who will be too dominant. I’m not 6-foot-7; I’m 6-foot-3, so I’m not a huge individual. So it’s a little bit more fair.”
There are some differences between the men’s and women’s games, the most obvious of which is that the women’s net is 8 inches lower than the men’s.
Before he started as a practice player, Condon thought the lower net and the fact that his opponents were women would give him an unstoppable advantage.
“When I came in for the first time, I thought, oh, I’m going to be so much better, so much stronger, so much smarter about it,” he said. “But they proved me wrong right on the first day.”
Condon has played volleyball since he was in the sixth grade. Many of his family and friends played volleyball and he was on the club team at Illinois. His only experience with women’s volleyball, however, was in high school.
“I guess it was different in high school between girls’ and guys’ volleyball,” he said. “The guys were just a lot more athletic. But in college, with such a strong program, that’s not the case. There’s still a bit of a difference, but they’re very athletic and they’re very good at what they do.”
Condon said he learns a lot from playing with the women. The male club volleyball team, for example, uses only one blocker against a hitter, unlike the women, who use two.
“When I play with the girls it forces me to really look at the court before I hit and see where there’s an opening,” he said. “It’s also forced me to be quicker because the net’s a little bit lower and they use fast sets, so the ball’s going from one spot to another really fast. On the guys’ club team the sets are more loopy. So it’s forced me to be quicker, which I like.”
Another practice player, Trevor Weiskircher, 19, a sophomore in chemical engineering from Rockford, Ill., also appreciates the differences between the men’s and women’s games.
“The women’s games are all about technique and finesse filled with long rallies, and are usually won by the defense, whereas the guys’ games are won at the net,” he said. “I have actually learned how to play defense better just by watching the liberos and defensive specialists play at practice.”
Steve Drent, a 6-foot-2-inch 22-year-old senior in chemical engineering from Westchester, Ill., has been a practice player since he was a sophomore. He said he’s proud to play with a top program at the U. of I. and he learns a lot during practice.
“The team has really great coaches, so when they give the girls advice, we tend to listen in too because it could be useful for us as well,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot about blocking and hitting and defensive positioning.”
Hambly said having the men play against the women when the women are practicing their defense also “saves a lot of jumps.”
“Most of the injuries that occur in our sport take place because of jumps – just the jumping and the landing and the wear and tear that that takes on the body,” Hambly said.
Drent said he and the other male players like having the opportunity to simulate the most difficult players the women are likely to face.
“When they’re doing drills and they just need a hitter or a blocker on the other side and they just want to save their legs, they use us to hit and block against them,” he said. “Boys tend to jump higher and hit harder than a lot of the girls, so they like to use us to practice against competition that might be similar to people that they’re going to play.”
“The boys usually do all the hitting at us during practice, so (our hitters) don’t have to hit and also play defense,” said outside hitter Jocelynn Birks, 20, a 6-foot-2-inch red-shirt sophomore from Willow Springs, Ill., who is majoring in elementary education. “They tend to block us pretty often, so it’s just good to have to work around something that’s so much bigger than what we normally see. So then when we do get to those games where we’re being blocked by someone who’s big, we’re used to it. That really helps a lot.”
Weiskircher is one of the bigger practice players on the court.
“Since I am 6-foot-7, I am used mainly for blocking and attacking because I can provide a different kind of attack that the top-ranked (female) opponents can only perform,” he said. “I usually get the ball hit into my face at least five times a practice, and the girls always seem to laugh at it.”
Birks said the men do add an element of humor to the game.
“I feel like during every practice something funny happens with one of them, like one of them trips or they get hit,” she said. “They fall pretty often and trip, or they dive and it looks pretty funny because we’re not used to it. I feel they’re not as agile on defense as some of our players, so they can be a good target for getting a point.”
Libero Jennifer Beltran, a 5-foot-9-inch senior in kinesiology and community health from Reseda, Calif., said having the men available during practice helps out a lot.
“Just having their physicality in our gym of course pushes our hitters to hit over a bigger block and it also helps the defense face tougher hits,” she said.
“It’s really nice to have somebody on the other side who is trying to hit their shots and hitting them hard. They definitely helped me and helped the defense overall,” said Beltran, who is working as a student assistant coach this spring.
Hambly also likes the spirit the men bring to the game.
“I like what it brought just with the vibe in the gym with those guys, just how competitive they are and the energy that they bring. That’s been very positive,” he said.
The men have developed a nice camaraderie with the women, and with Hambly, who thanks them again and again for volunteering their time.
“When I was a sophomore I was pretty intimidated by the girls on the team, but they welcomed me,”
Condon said. “I liked that. That was cool. That was something that probably kept me around.”
And the women are grateful for the time the men put in, a commitment of three hours, one or two days a week, all semester long.
“I know that they take a lot of time out of their day to be there and help us out, which is really awesome of them,” Birks said.