Welsh Sports News meets Yvonne Saker of Volleyball Wales

The problem of developing a sport without a large player base or a steady source of income is one that has faced Volleyball Wales since its inception.

The organisation, which is one of the newest governing bodies in Welsh sport, was founded in order to ensure that Wales was represented in the volleyball event at the UK School Games in 2009.

Yvonne Saker, the chair of Volleyball Wales, explains the background: “There was a group of people who were invited to a meeting to discuss volleyball in Wales and we were basically being asked to put a Welsh junior team into the UK School Games.

“But to be able to have a Welsh team, we needed a Welsh association, so a group of interested people were called together and that’s how it evolved, really.

“So we created a board using people’s strengths. I was leading that and we had people interested in coaching, people interested in events, and we kind of built it up around this junior team that we needed to put into the School Games.”

With the London Olympics on the horizon, it was a boost for volleyball to be one of the sports included in the prestigious schools event, which Yvonne describes as a “mini-Olympics”, but a lack of Welsh representation would have jeopardised that.

“There was a threat that if we hadn’t entered then they would have taken volleyball out of the competition themselves and replaced it with another sport that could have been competitive at all home country levels,” she adds.

Therefore, Volleyball Wales was established specifically to prevent that scenario from happening, which Yvonne admits has caused problems since then.

“Normally you would have a playing base within Wales that would drive the need for a governing body. What we did, we set up a governing body and now we’re trying to drive the need and trying to increase participation. So we’ve kind of done things backwards.”

As a result of this, Volleyball Wales does not receive subscriptions from players or clubs, limiting its capacity to grow the sport.

“Because we don’t have a membership base, we don’t have any regular income coming in, so that’s one of the things we need to address: how can we fund the things that we want to do? We’re all volunteers in this sport; no one’s paid for it as a role.”

Introducing the sport to as many children and young people as possible is understandably high on the agenda of Yvonne and her colleagues at Volleyball Wales.

They have been able to do this recently via a project that was funded by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB). “Our remit with that was to develop school-level volleyball and increase participation.

“So using things like the Urban Games, Street Games and the Community Games that have been running through schools in the area recently, we’ve managed to reach about 1,000 youngsters in the last four weeks.”

Volleyball Wales’ head coach, Sandra Stoll, has played a key role in delivering this project. “She’s taken four or five nets with her and she’s been able to introduce volleyball to all of these children and they range from year six through to year nine or ten.

“It’s a huge opportunity to reach all those players who wouldn’t necessarily have any contact with volleyball otherwise. They don’t tend to play it in schools over here; there’s only a few schools that actually do it.

“It’s very difficult to get in there and actually get the kids exposed to it. It’s not really advertised on telly, it’s not really shown.

“So volleyball isn’t really high on their priorities, yet as soon as they play it, they love it. Certainly, the feedback we’ve had from these events now is that they’ve absolutely thoroughly enjoyed the sport.

“What our challenge is now is to change that from just enjoying it to actually wanting to take it up, so we’re looking at some different opportunities for them.”

These opportunities include junior teams at Yvonne’s own club, Cardiff Celts, and Team South Wales, as well as an academy at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

Both the aforementioned clubs have been successful in the national volleyball pyramid at senior level, with Team South Wales’ ladies having secured promotion to the Volleyball England Super Eights, the UK’s top league, for next season.

“They’re performing really, really well. It will be interesting to see how well they get on this year… They had to start from the bottom league and they’ve just been phenomenal all the way through.”

Meanwhile, Cardiff Celts are the leading men’s club in Wales; they are currently in Men’s Division 2 South, the third tier of UK volleyball.

Indoor or beach volleyball?

Welsh volunteers at London 2012 (left to right – Nicky Stallworthy, Sofia Santos, Jose Castro, Yvonne Saker)

So far, the attention of Volleyball Wales has been mainly centred on the indoor form of the game, says Yvonne. “We’ve got a very small volunteer base, so we’ve had to be fairly focused in what we’re doing and we’re looking at developing our juniors indoor.

“Our focus has been very much on the indoor scene in terms of getting the juniors in and playing, but also from our mentoring of coaches and new coaches and referees, it’s all been very much focused on the indoor.”

However, this emphasis is set to change due to funding from UK Sport and the enthusiasm for beach volleyball created by the 2012 Olympics in London. “I think there will be a shift towards beach volleyball going forward.

“We’ve got a brand new centre opened in Swansea and we’re having a big launch event at the end of September where there’s going to be some invited teams down as well as some more local teams playing.”

Volleyball Wales has donated some of the legacy equipment it received from Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) to the 360 Beach and Watersports Centre in Swansea, where temporary beach volleyball courts are already available to the public to either hire or pay for coaching sessions.

Yvonne hopes that the launch of a new semi-permanent court in September will raise awareness of both the facility itself and volleyball in general in Wales.

She is keen to stress that “people can still be playing in this country” in the wake of the Olympics. “There’s lots of opportunities. There’s another club that play weekly down in Barry Island and they’ve set themselves up: a bunch of keen enthusiasts.

“It will be great to have something in the Cardiff area and something in the Swansea area. Hopefully, there’s going to be a bit more competition in future years, so that we can actually start generating a bit more interest locally.”

Ideally, this would lead to one of the Welsh venues eventually becoming part of the series of events on Volleyball England’s beach tour.

“For example, last weekend they were playing in Weston-Super-Mare and Sky came down and actually filmed all the finals. So if we can have something similar in Wales, then ultimately that will be fantastic.”

The university scene

Despite the limited number of clubs – Yvonne is only aware of seven that are currently active – volleyball is played all over Wales in some form or another, particularly in universities.

“There are pockets up in North Wales and Aberystwyth University, for example, have always got a very enthusiastic team, but because they are quite a long way out, they find it quite difficult to actually make it to competitions. However, they do run their own competition each year, the Welsh Open, which is our pinnacle tournament.

“That’s the one that people go to and that’s run by the students themselves and there’s a lot of teams outside Wales who still come back to that each year, especially ex-students who leave Wales and go back to their own home clubs.”

Indeed, Yvonne’s own connection with Welsh volleyball began at university when she moved to Cardiff to study at what was then known as UWIC, but has since been renamed Cardiff Metropolitan University.

“In effect, I’ve been here ever since,” the 36-year-old, who is originally from Somerset, says. Her love affair with volleyball had been ignited by her music teacher at primary school and continued at secondary school, to the extent that she earned her first representative honours – for the South West Under-15 boys’ team!

“I was selected for the boys’ team and then was selected for the Under-17 South West team for the girls and then just after that came to university.”

She later represented Welsh Universities and performed various roles for UWIC’s volleyball team, including fixture secretary and manager. “I’ve just enjoyed it and got stuck in wherever I was, either in school or university and then afterwards as well.”

Yvonne is still based at Cardiff Met thanks to her job as programme manager of the university’s MSc Sports and Medicine course, which is primarily aimed at doctors, physiotherapists and osteopaths. “They are already qualified, but they can go on then to work with teams.

“We’ve got students working for elite sports teams, we’ve got a large military contingent and we’ve got those who are working in the NHS as well, with an interest in sports med. We had about 30-odd alumni working in or at the Olympics as well.”

London 2012

Yvonne Saker at the beach volleyball arena at the 2012 Olympics

Yvonne was also heavily involved in the Olympics in London and her name features alongside the likes of athletes Aled Davies, Dai Greene, Gareth Warburton and Brett Morse, rower Helen Glover and 2012 ambassador Lynn Davies on Cardiff Met’s Wall of Fame celebrating the contribution made by some of the university’s staff, students and alumni to the Games.

“I was working for Locog as the admin group leader for beach volleyball,” Yvonne told Welsh Sports News. “I was working in the head office just preparing everyone and everything that I could in time for the Games.”

The experience has clearly left a lasting impression on her. “It was awesome. It was hard work, but it was such an amazing opportunity. The team around us, as well as all the volunteers, were absolutely fantastic.

“The work that went in – you can see this across all the sports as well – the attention to detail was absolutely immaculate.

“It was such an amazing event. We couldn’t have asked for any better. I think we only had rain once as well, which was a bonus!”

She reserves special praise for the sizeable military contingent who helped manoeuver 15,000 people in and out of the beach volleyball area three times a day. “There was a turnover of about an hour and a half to get the next crowd in. I was there; I saw it and I still can’t believe how smoothly it went.”

Yvonne has volunteered to take part in next year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow – despite the fact that volleyball is not on the 2014 schedule.

At the moment, beach volleyball is a category two sport, which means that it could be introduced, at the discretion of the hosts, at future Games.

“I know the president of the BVF [British Volleyball Federation] is working with all the other Commonwealth countries to try and generate the interest to actually be able to put on beach volleyball in future events.

“Hopefully the momentum’s going to keep going now and we can get something off the ground for future Games, which for our sport would be really, really good, especially for Wales.”

Anyone thinking about starting playing volleyball will receive plenty of encouragement from Yvonne, who still captains Cardiff Celts, and Volleyball Wales. “It’s a unique sport. The whole atmosphere with volleyball itself can range from social to very competitive.

“There is a level for every person, depending on what they’re going in for. Generally it’s a very physical game, it’s a very social game and there’s a lot of discipline, but there’s also a lot of fun at every level.

“You tend to use a lot of skills that aren’t common in other sports. For example, you don’t tend to use your forearms in other sports whereas you do a lot in volleyball. Again, in terms of reading the ball, you’re obviously not allowed to let it bounce.

“So it does take a little bit of getting used to. But it’s great. Because it’s a team sport, it’s a really, really fun environment for everyone to play.”

For more information about the opportunities that are available to play volleyball in Wales, please contact Yvonne Saker by email: ysaker@cardiffmet.ac.uk; or via the contact form on the Volleyball Wales website: http://www.volleyballwales.org/page11.htm

July 12, 2013

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