It’s getting to be club volleyball season soon, and in the first of three installments from club directors we talk with Aaron Benning.   AB is currently working in sunny Southern California as an assistant coach for Loyola Marymount’s indoor team.   Prior to that he spend 9 years in the Northern California South Bay as the director of City Beach Volleyball.   We talk with Aaron about his transition to NCAA D1 coaching from club, and some of the challenges that he addressed while the director at City Beach.   Aaron is bright and thoughtful, and has fully adopted the LMU culture of continual improvement.   Enjoy the show!

Suggestions on Running a Great Volleyball Club

With Aaron Benning, Assistant Coach at Loyola Marymount and former club director of City Beach Volleyball Club.

Chris: Welcome to another episode of Volleyball Life podcast with Gold Medal Square and I’m Chris McGown today we are talking with Aaron Benning. Aaron is in his third season with Loyola Marymount University as an assistant coach, and is doing a wonderful job with that program and that coaching staff. We talk to him today a little bit about the transition from club volleyball into collegiate coaching. Then we talk to him about his experience at City Beach where he was the club director there in Northern California for nine years. Talk to him about some of the challenges of running a club program and how they addressed some of those issues.

I think you’ll find it fascinating if you’ve been involved in juniors’ volleyball. Aaron’s got a lot of really good ideas, he’s a really bright guy and did a lot of great stuff for City Beach, so thanks for joining us and welcome to the show.

All right, thanks for joining us on the Volleyball Life podcast I’m Chris McGown and again joining us today is Aaron Benning and Aaron is an assistant at Loyola Marymount University in his second season, is that right, second season?

Aaron Benning: My third season.

Chris: Third season, where have I been? Third season with LMU and was up in Northern California before that with a club up there, City Beach and Aaron it’s great to have you.

Aaron Benning: I’m glad to be here thanks for having me.

Chris:Yeah I tell everybody that comes to this show, you are my favorite but I think you really might be my favorite here.

Aaron Benning: It’s because I’ve got stories.

Chris: You do have stories. You are like me to some degree but I think you for sure way more than I came to volleyball in a little bit of a roundabout way. You’ve had some interesting career moves along the way that brought you into club volleyball and then eventually down here to LMU but maybe we can get into that a little bit later. Things are good at LMU how do you like it down there?

Aaron Benning: You know being a Northern California guy, I was raised to believe that Los Angeles was one of the rings of hell pretty much, then I moved down here and it is nicer than you can believe. It’s so great down here and volleyball, the community down here is so strong between all the AVP pros and all the former college players and all their college coaches, there’s so many schools down here. Just volleyball has this incredible pulse in Southern California so it’s great to be in the middle of that. Working with Tom is really a dream come true and our other assistant Felicia is fantastic, we’ve got Joe Trinsey on staff so it’s a pleasure to come to work every day. After a lot of years of grinding, I feel like I’m being rewarded all the time now.

Chris: That’s awesome, we’ll try and keep the lid on the secret about southern California by the way hopefully nobody else knows that it’s awesome. So long as you stay west to the 405 right?

Aaron Benning: Exactly and or somewhere around Disneyland yeah, that is all a dream come true.

Chris: Avoid at all cost. You guys have to have one of the… like if you are my favorite, you might have my favorite staff as well. I mean talk about a bunch of superstars and just really really quality people and awesome volleyball minds and you guys are doing a great job.

Aaron Benning: Thanks we grind pretty hard.

Chris: Yeah and you guys run a tough conference the WCC and people I don’t think understand the level of volleyball in the WCC is really high and there are wonderful coaches and wonderful athletes so it never comes easy for you guys.

Aaron Benning: No, it’s a funny thing that I don’t think most people realize is we’re always somewhere between the third and fifth best conference in the country, and you look at our… for the pre-season, everybody else had beaten the Pac-12 team they played until we messed it up against UCLA. We put out a lot of really good wins every year as a conference.

Chris: What surprised you if anything at this level? You’ve been involved heavily in juniors’ volleyball prior to this but what surprised you if anything about taking this job and just hey I didn’t expect that.

Aaron Benning: I think the biggest surprise would be I think of two things. I think of just the parody like within Division I. There’s a big group of very good coaches that do a really good job so they give it their all. I’ve learned so much by being around Tom but also talking with other assistant coaches and other head coaches and finding out just how diligent and how professional these people really are. It’s really been motivating to see sort of this path that’s taking your coaching game to this even higher level than I thought it would be.

It’s fantastic. I literally have so much respect for literally everybody in our conference, if for one thing they work so hard and they do such a good job with their players. The WCC, we don’t always get the top kid in a class from the nation but the kids that we have, they get better. Everybody’s team you see them later and they get better by the end of the year. That’s just by blood, sweat, tears and a lot of preparation so that’s been the coolest thing; is just to see how deep the rabbit hole goes on trying to be a great coach.

Chris: Yeah and to some degree I suppose that isn’t anticipated and volleyball coaches you don’t think about hey they are continually refining their craft necessarily. A lot of the coaches you think they are good and then they’ve just got there and they go. But like you talked about it, I see that as well especially with you guys everybody’s always, trying to get better at their job and that’s pretty neat.

Aaron Benning: It’s a great thing when you are scouting a team and you’ve played them, now you know from my experience, I have two previous years and then I’m starting to watch them as we scout this year, and I see these adaptations and I see things they are bringing in from somebody else’s system to get more out of a certain player on their team. Nobody is stagnant in our conference and just everybody’s growing and we are stealing pieces from each other because they work better for the personnel we’ve got all the time, it’s great.

Chris: Yeah, that’s fun. How involved are you on the beach side at all?

Aaron Benning: No, we’ve got John Mayer and he’s stud out there on the beach then we’ve got Tom and we have one of our alum players who and then Betsy Flint and she was AVP like Newcomer of the Year last year. Those guys really handle all that sand stuff, I just kind of hang out and listen you know when I’m not out beating the pavement doing recruiting.

Chris:  Which is pretty awesome for you actually not to maybe have to cross over I don’t know how do you feel about it?

Aaron Benning: My wife loves it.

Chris: That always seemed pretty daunting to me, to have to compete in the WCC and then run… you guys have a really high level beach program there and are doing some neat things there too, but that always seemed like holy cow, that’s a big commitment.

Aaron Benning: It is a big commitment but I’ll tell you it’s a bigger commitment for our kids but that really is sort of the secret to our success. A lot of the other teams in the WCC that are able to have their athletes play both… it is enormous for what it does for the level of practice and the way everybody competes to have the kids play the spring too.

Chris:  That’s neat. The other thing I wanted to talk to you about is just where you came from to some degree, we are entering into the time of year where club volleyball is going to get going for the girls, and high school’s just wrapping up and so you spend… how many years were you at City Beach?

Aaron Benning:  I was at City Beach for nine years and I did smaller clubs where I coached Ohlone College over in the east bay before that. I was over in the east bay by Freemont and then spent nine years with City Beach in the South Bay.

Chris:  Yeah city beach is in Santa Clara, at least the main facility there and when it was at its biggest with you, how many teams?

Aaron Benning:  I think our biggest was 33 and that was mainly within our main sight but also spread out to some sort of auxiliary sites as well.

Chris: Just as you started thinking about, “Hey, club season’s starting up again,” what were as you saw some of the bigger challenges for you as you are kind of directing the club and overseeing virtually everything? Personnel, quality control, just technical training, you had a big role there.

Aaron Benning: The biggest challenge I think every club director faces is having qualified staff, and staff who are good technically, they are great when it comes to having the right decorum and professionalism, they set the right kind of boundaries working with youth. Then it’s somebody who’s also really good at people management, and that goes from players to managing parents. It’s the kind of thing that those folks are hard to find so it really becomes the obligation of the club is to sort of setup the parameters and lay out the guidelines and do a lot of training.

That’s the thing I realized as the director of City Beach was that, if I wanted really good coaches, we were going to have to build them and improve them and keep having an educational component that we offered and that really helped us retain coaches there.

Chris: What were some of the things you did, I suppose to kind of measure that? How did you get a sense of this is a good coach or hey this might not be a great fit for us?

Aaron Benning: We started out… we would go out beat the pavement during club tournaments and it didn’t matter if it was my 12 little regional team or if it was my 12 nationally competitive team, I’d go watch their matches, and I would see the coaches that are playing against them from our area. I would do that at the 13’s, the 14’s all the way up through 18’s. I would get a sense for the families that had a really good engagement and I would just sort of pay attention to the talk and the reputation of the coach and of course go form my own opinions.

A lot of times during the high school season, we would go out and watch and City Beach being such a large club, pretty much we’d have a player or two at about just about every high school around. So I could go and sit down with a family I’d know and say, “Hey, can you tell me about that assistant coach on your JV team? How did the families feel about him,” and you can get a great sense of their people management and if they’ve earned respect over time. That was kind of my beginning point was to go do a little bit of investigating.

Chris:  Just get firsthand knowledge.

Aaron Benning: Exactly. Then we would reach out and we would try to use an interviewing style that really got them talking, really kind of got them to talk about their philosophy, just what they thought about managing people, what they believed their leadership style really was. And if they actually had one, if you could tell it was a matured idea and that it was in line with the direction we go as a club. Then that’s somebody we keep talking to and at that point we’d start sharing with them where we are at to see if they find that appealing. But again, you have to have all this things laid out. You have to lay out who you are as a club; if you are going to try to bring people in and make them part of something.

We had our priorities laid out and we would go back to them and the priorities were this; number one is the kids, number two is the club, number three was the coach, number four was the coaches’ ego, number five was Aaron and number six was Aaron’s ego. Believe it or not, just having our priorities laid out…

Chris: I love the fact that parents didn’t even make that list. You guys are such a foregone conclusion; we are not even including you in the priority list.

Aaron Benning: We figured that if we are taking care of the kids, then the parents are going to be happy.

Chris: Yeah, that’s a good call. I was just thinking I would have loved to have been in on some of these… tell me about your leadership style conversations. “Well you know I’m a big believer in brutal physicality actually, I like to lead by beating.” How did some of those conversations go? They just must have been…

Aaron Benning:  I’ve had people who talk about the power of running a team and how they don’t need to talk; they just need to run you. They don’t debrief after a drill, they don’t set up sort of a perspective or a focus before a drill, and they think running is going to take care of it for them. This is a person whose coaching like a 14s team so I’m thinking about the pace of learning for a 14 year old and their lack of understanding and I’m hearing this coach say all this and I’m just like we are good.

Chris: You might want to go like football or track or something.

Aaron Benning: Here’s the thing, I mean if you really do lay out what your priorities are and you lay out clearly for the families what type of programs you offer. If it’s purely competitive playtime or its competitive development, if it’s just a participation level where playtime is equal. If you really lay these things out and you spell out how it will be managed before hand, and everybody knows what they are going into, it really resolves a lot of the conflicts that can happen. By having those other products that we had at City Beach, when a family was not… they landed on a team with a level of management and participation that they go, “No, I was really looking for something else,” well we could switch them to the other team within the club.

That really worked out well to keep those people happy and try to make them a lifelong customer. When you think about it at City Beach, if I had a player from 12 ones all the way through our 18 ones which we did, City Beach was going to have to work real hard but we could earn about $45,000 from that one family, over the course of that child’s playing career, when you try to do that 300 times, you can have a pretty good sustainable business.

Chris: I understand that we are talking about Bay Area, Dallas here so that might not scale if you are in the middle of nowhere Mid-West kind of thing. The same principle applies, “Hey, we are looking to retain families; we are looking to retain players.” I really like what you said and I just want to revisit it but just kind of the idea of really clear communication from the onset, and then consistency in how you act based on that communication. You guys did what you said you would do and you told them what you were going to do and how it was going to work really early in the process in an unmistakable way.

Aaron Benning:  Absolutely, and that is the absolute lynch pin to having a successful club and drama free teams, is that front loading to a real just get real good clarity there. Make sure you go through the examples of how these things going to be worked. We would go through our conflict resolution procedure. We signed that we would use it always, they signed that they would also engage in it. If a parent tried to break this policy, which was designed around conflict resolution principles; it wasn’t just to the advantage of the club. It was to technically achieve resolution. We could really, from a tough situation, develop a lifelong customer.

We would also not let our coaches break from it. They are having conversations with one family and letting them grieve… I’m sorry… air their grievances outside of the procedure. We wouldn’t allow the coach to do that, we wouldn’t allow the family to do that. We wanted it to be a fair process; everybody has equal access to the coach. We don’t favor some and not favor others, and when that’s all laid out and somebody is straining and trying to push their own individual agenda because that’s a real thing. People will try to operate as an individual at the expense of the group so that they can benefit as an individual.

We had these things laid out so that none of these behaviors could really take place.

Chris:  That’s really good stuff. Beyond good staff and all that that entailed, what else do you think were some of the bigger challenges?

Aaron Benning:  There’s always the whole battle I’ve always heard when it comes to how to grow your club and players, and getting enough players and getting players of the right skill level. This is always where tryouts get really tricky. There’s an idea that a lot of times that because a player played at a club one year, they sort of have to come back to the club, and the club gets a sense of entitlement a lot of times. I think all too often, clubs forget that we live in a free market and you have to go out and make the best offer possible to this family.

If you had a pretty good batch of kids on the 15s team, and the next year you put a coach on that team who has a weaker resume, you shouldn’t be too surprised that these kids are maybe not that interested in returning to your club. You’ve got to always be proactive in building on your good teams, giving your good teams what they need. The staff they need, get them to the right tournaments, get them a good schedule, make sure that they’ve got resource for their recruiting needs. They are a good squad and they have a greater recruiting demand, and it’s also important that you try to… if your team has positions it needs to upgrade, you reach out.

You talk to families and say, “Hey, we have a pretty good squad and we’d like you to come to our try out.” Now that is the real moment right there, there’s a lot of people who say, “Is it really a try out?” It’s a clean slate when you start and everybody’s equal. You try out and they just pick the best people. Or should you instead kind of align some players and get a core together and then through the tryouts process build on that core. Honestly, I don’t believe there’s a right answer with that, each of those strategies meets different people’s needs and to meet a club’s philosophy.

For families, tryouts are horrifyingly stressful. Kids are out there going to four or five try outs in one weekend. Not sure where they’ll land, not sure how good they are going to be. If there is an opportunity to have a few people that are going to kind of be the anchor that is going to help a team form. I don’t really judge clubs too harshly for doing that but I do think that if you do have a team that’s formed, and you only have a limited number of positions available, you should advertise that, you should be honest.

If you put on the facade that this is an open try out and everybody’s equal and I’m going to charge you $50 to come try out, then that’s what it should be. I could think of a club in Northern California last year that they had a team… they already knew who was going to be on the team. On their website, it read, “This team is already closed,” and that’s perfect. That way families didn’t go in there and get cheated out of money for positions they never had a shot at.

Chris: Makes me think of the question; what realistically in your club, what percentage of the kids were maybe… there are two different percentages. What percentage of the kids were there because they wanted to get recruited and go on to play and of that percentage, how many were realistically going to go on and play? Some kids I think were probably just there because, “Hey, I want to play volley ball and I love volleyball and it isn’t probably something that’s going to happen for me at NCAA, NAIA or competitive level post high school, but I want to play in this club.” Then there are some kids for whom, “Hey, I’m moving on,” and where did that fall in your club?

Aaron Benning: I would say you kind of have to look at it by age group, so the kids that were below 14s, they were getting excited about volleyball trying to decide if this was something they wanted to get more into so they would start on kind of a low commitment level team. Then you would have some kids who would be younger and play on more serious teams with more travel. Maybe that’s about of the younger kids that’s about 20 percent. These are kids who are really focused on like, “I’m trying to go to a really good private high school in the bay area that’s got a real great volleyball reputation.”

“I know I’ve got to get on the competitive team early if I’ve got any shot to make it in on my high school team.” That’s kind of the first goal for the younger players. Then as soon as they start making high school teams, the focus shifts towards wanting to be recruited. I would say on 15s and 16s teams, it’s about 95% of them want to go on to play. Of that, I would say at that age, within our club it was actually probably about 45% would be at the level and continue on. The reason why I say it’s 45% is from 15s to 16s, there is a huge change with the girls and their growth, and how they develop and how tall and how strong they get.

And if they are able to keep competing with everybody else who kind of advanced physically. Then you’ll see a bunch of people who they kind of plateaued right at about 15 but everybody else as they were turning 16 and 17, kept getting bigger and stronger. The bigger and stronger crowd tended to be about 45% of them.

Chris:  The thing I find fascinating is more and more schools are pushing into 15s for commitments. What you end up doing is you are committing kids at 15 that then stop and it’s probably bad for both groups at that point.

Aaron Benning: I totally agree. It’s really interesting that so many people are pushing for kids who literally don’t even have the developmental ability to make such a significant decision. There is that issue, there is also the physical issue…

Chris:  I mean think of yourself at 15 years old, did you have the slightest idea in the world about what you wanted to do between your age at 18 and 22? I mean come on.

Aaron Benning:  No, I was busy trying to argue who was cooler Tony Hawk or Mike McGill at that point.

Chris: There you go. Mike McGill for sure.

Aaron Benning:  No doubt. I’ll tell you what; it’s definitely pushing the pressure on younger for recruiting. But I’ll say this, most colleges… so if a parent’s listening, hello parent. Most schools are going to start really watching your child as a freshman, and what we are looking for is to see if they are going to grow and to change. You’ll start getting invitations to come out to campus and that’s when the school wants to learn how this kid’s being raised to deal with adversity through talking to them while they are on their visit. How does this player feel about you know are they kind of a fixed mindset kid or are they a growth mindset kid?

Are they in love with the work; are they in love with the journey of trying to get better? Or is this a kid who’s kind of gleaned on to just an image of being a cool volleyball player and on the cool team. We are going to get to know kids as freshmen and sophomores and then that’s when you are going to start to kind of tell who’s going to separate from the crowd, physically.

Chris:  Well, what else? Anything else you know as you look back on the club years that you are thinking to yourself, “Boy, am sure glad that I don’t have to do that part of the job anymore?”

Aaron Benning:  You know the tough part is definitely the tryout process. It’s really just to be frank, it’s a nightmare in that you are judged as a coach, and people say, “Oh, they didn’t give me an offer.” That means I’m not worth anything or you know or they want to rationalize and say the team was already picked and that’s why we didn’t have a shot. Or you could have just as easily have taken this player but some of the other staff are arguing for another player and you kind of try to balance it all out. You are never going to, as a director or as a club coach, have a perfect judgment of any player, but all too often the families and the kids take that to be that way.

They can hold it against you. I remember there were kids who’d leave the try out and they’d be really upset. We would try to talk to them and say, “Hey, again, this is what we think we need and we are not experts,” but that couldn’t stop the tears from flowing.

Chris:  Sure yes and you hate to be a part of that in their lives too. You looked at it as best as you could, you guys and there weren’t elegant solutions that fixed all those issues.

Aaron Benning: No, not at all. One strategy we had, if this could help somebody, we brought the kids out, we’d have them start doing small group activities; threes and fours. We would then go into sort of almost a type of a drill that would look like a tutor for outsides or middles. Where they are making a transition move before attacking or they are working, going from serve receive to attacking so we could see them do something fairly game like, but specific to their position because we are trying to fill positions. Then we would take it into some six on six and see what they look like actually playing.

We had a lot of eyes out there and we had a lot of people taking notes and we would work with myself and the head coaches sort of being the information hubs. If you see somebody, you bring it into the hub so that we try to not let anybody slip through the cracks. Then the coaches would come up with their list of the kids that they want to give an offer to, and some kids that would be on the wait list if one of the offered kids were to decline. Then what we would do is, once we would figure out let’s say the top 20 kids, we would have everybody else take a break.

I would let them know, I’d say, “Hey, right now we’ve kind of figured out who we think the top 20 for getting an offer or getting a wait list position will be. If you want to keep…” and this is the key was we would say, “Now, we still have our 16-2’s team and our 16-3’s team, which we have not done this for. Again, we’ve only made a list for our 16-1’s team, if you want to keep trying out to be part of our 16-2’s or part of our 16-3’s, we want you to keep trying out. Let’s take a little break you can go talk to your parents, you guys can talk about your strategy.”

“If you want to keep going and try out for the 2’s and 3’s, then let’s meet back out here on the floor in about 5 more minutes.” That gave the chance for the kids to talk to their family, resolve what it was they were really looking for when it came to our club’s situation. That way, the kids who came out to the floor were more motivated and made it a lot easier for that 16-2’s coach. It made it so that kids weren’t being flat out rejected, they were really more self selecting if they chose to leave. We saw a lot less upset folks when we did that and we had an easier time getting kids on to the 2’s and the 3’s teams by doing that.

Chris:  All right, well hey I know you got a lot going on, middle of the season here, you probably got a film to watch and practice to go to so I really appreciate your time and I’m looking forward to watching you guys play the rest of the season here and hoping to see you in December some time on more good things.

Aaron Benning: Right on, that’s our goal too.

Chris: Okay, brother. I’ll talk to you soon and thanks again so much.

Aaron Benning:  Sure thing, have a good one.

Chris: All right, you too, see you. If you want more podcast, video, articles and other volleyball instruction resources, you can find us at goldmedalsquared.com. On our YouTube channel, on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter, follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the latest interviews news and other promotions…