It is almost 12 months since the start of the first Covid lockdown, and it has been a difficult period for everyone. As we look forward to better times ahead, Bill Stobie, Head Coach at Nuvoc VC in Edinburgh, reflects on the last year and wonders if there’s a silver lining to the Covid cloud as far as club development goes.
Unbeknownst to all, Nuvoc’s final matches of the 2019/20 season took place on the weekend of 7/8 March, and our Friday junior tournament on 13 March turned out to be our final hall let of the season. Things happened quickly after that and by the end of the following week, schools were closed, and everything was eerily quiet. It soon became clear there would be no completion of the leagues, no NL play-offs, no JNL play-offs, no cup final weekend. Instead, we were shielding as a family, and playing volleyball in the garden.
Planning our return
These felt like long weeks and months and it was sometimes hard to imagine that volleyball would ever restart. However, Scottish Volleyball ran some great online sessions to keep us all motivated during May and June. As a club we participated in a series of online workshops with Lynne Beattie, Simon Turner from the Crags Centre Edinburgh and City of Edinburgh VC. This proved crucial in helping us think through what needed to be done to ensure an effective and safe return to sport for the club. It gave us a framework for planning. We were reminded of the contribution sport makes to individual wellbeing and the social fabric of communities. This stuff matters! We were still daunted by the challenge ahead, but we were ready to take it on!
It was a time to re-engage our club members. One of the key messages from the Changing Lives workshops was the importance of good information and communication, for members and potential new members. We needed to give certainty in a time of great uncertainty, we needed to instill confidence. And so, in June, social media were engaged, Zoom sessions established (especially with our juniors), skill and fitness videos created. The club website was also upgraded to provide enhanced information, and enable online registration, session bookings and payments.
Behind the scenes we were busy developing protocols and thinking about the practicalities of running Covid-safe volleyball sessions. With Scottish Volleyball working hard to prepare guidance, the all-clear was given in mid-July to start outdoor sessions for juniors. It then took two weeks to firm up our plans and give assurances, to players and parents alike, that we were returning in a responsible way. A setup was devised based on training bubbles within our now infamous orange enclosure. We applied for new outdoor nets via Scottish Volleyball’s Pop-Up-And-Play initiative, we bought fencing, basins and sanitiser, we created notices, we laminated signs, we advertised sessions. By the end of July, we were ready to go!
In line with guidance at the time, our first outdoor sessions were small, with an initial maximum of 8 juniors allowed per ‘bubble’. We didn’t know what the uptake would be, and were pleased enough with the 6 boys and 4 girls signed up for our first sessions. Over the remainder of the summer and into the autumn, we offered junior training sessions (with a focus on game play) three times a week and (once permitted) senior recreational sessions twice a week, with constant updating of formats as the guidance evolved. By the end of the summer we regularly had 30 at each junior session (split across different bubbles), and were often over-subscribed. Likewise, with the senior recreational play, we went from 4 players on one court playing socially distance 2v2 at the first session to offering 4 courts for up to 24 players.
The protocols we put in place were devised to ensure Covid-safe play. We created a fenced playing area, incorporating Scottish Volleyball Play-It-Safe signage, our own ‘bag station’ signs to ensure social distance during breaks, and cleaning stations. An online booking system allowed us to advertise sessions, control numbers and maintain a list of those attending each session for Trace and Protect purposes. A notice board provided information to the public about our activities and how we were meeting Covid guidelines, and also promoted the club to potential players. In contrast to previous summer sessions which had run on a casual turn up and play basis, we now required all participants to join the club so that we had their details. We charged a modest joining fee, and then operated a low cost pay-per-play system, charging per session attended. People understood and liked what they saw, and we started recruiting new members, both junior and senior. The website received a steady stream of enquiries. Our junior ranks grew from a previous high of 50 to over 90. Our senior recreational membership had increased to over 60 by the summer’s end. Maybe there was a silver lining to this Covid cloud after all.
Getting back to indoor play was the goal, and this became possible (for juniors) at the end of September. However, with school halls still unavailable, the hunt was on for a venue and by early October we’d secured two evening lets in a community leisure centre, and had our first indoor touches for months! For six weeks, this was home to our junior sessions (and, for a brief 10-day spell, to adult sessions too).
Our regular school halls re-opened in mid-November. With adults once aqain unable to train indoors, we were offering nine separate well attended junior sessions a week plus two social games sessions.
Compared to the summer sessions, our indoor sessions were more organised, structured around age and ability, and we engaged more young coaches to cope. Prices for the sessions now had to cover hall lets as well as coaching fees and additional expenses associated with Covid compliance, but the club made funds available to subsidise costs for those facing difficulties with payment.
During this time, we continued with weekly outdoor adult recreational session – not ideal at this time of year, but we were keen to continue offering some form of volleyball to the enthusiastic group of players who had supported us all summer! As we headed towards the end of the year, underfoot conditions meant drawing a halt to the grass sessions, which were replaced with occasional beach outings instead. However, we were sure things were heading in the right direction and were looking forward to resuming senior activities in the new year. Things were looking positive at last.
Christmas…on the beach
With so many enthusiastic youngsters attending sessions, we organised a 3-day Christmas camp – indoors, of course! This would build on all the good work that the players and coaches had been doing over the past six months. Alas, our plans were upended with the announcement of a return to tight restrictions after Christmas. After a brief hesitation, we decided the camp would go ahead – at the beach – in December! We were grateful to Edinburgh Beach Club for allowing us to use their courts. For many of our young players, this was their first taste of beach volleyball, but the weather was kind, cold but sunny each day, and the camp was a success. We also ran our final recreational adult beach session of the year alongside the camp. It was a great end to our six months of Covid-hit volleyball in 2020.
And then, we were in lockdown. Again. With Covid cases rising quickly, we entered level 4-plus restrictions. It was a blow for us, but this time we were ready. We focused on the junior section of the club, with the aim of maintaining the momentum we had built up. We restarted weekly Zoom catch-ups and twice-weekly online fitness sessions, and successfully applied for a grant to support expansion to an additional indoor venue when the time comes. We have also taken the opportunity to review club governance and related policies and procedures. We are all set to restart outdoors when permitted – we have the equipment, the arena set-up is ready, and our booking system can be re-activated at the click of a button.
We are so looking forward to getting our youngsters back out, our recreational players back playing and hopefully our senior players back to 2v2 grass training in preparation for the upcoming beach season. We hope it won’t be long. We have a great base to build on, but the work isn’t over. Our challenges from here are to retain as many of our new members as a possible, as recreational or competitive players, to re-engage our previous members, and to provide sufficient good quality volleyball opportunities for our new increased membership. Nuvoc are ready for the challenge!
To my mind, the last 12 months have been a success for the club. No trophies were won, but a lot of volleyball was played, and we have grown our club in challenging circumstances – we feel bigger, better, stronger. So, how did we get here, and what are the take-away points:
- This wasn’t easy – it took time and effort – fortunately I am a teacher and had a summer holiday to fill and, while I led the process, I had fantastic support from others in the club.
- Our new website gave us a means to manage the whole process, from raising our profile to allowing us to offer an automated membership and booking system.
- We weren’t starting completely from scratch – we were already a well-established club, with an active junior programme, and a particularly keen cohort of young players.
- Scottish Volleyball provided great support and guidance throughout the whole Covid period.
- We had easy access to the Meadows – a busy, central outdoor space – which gave us great visibility.
- We benefitted from a volleyball ‘buzz’, with other clubs also operating on the Meadows and working hard to make sure that volleyball went ahead.
- We wanted it to happen, and we made it happen!
A bright future for the junior side of the club
The biggest surprise – and most pleasing outcome – for me has been the sheer number of juniors who have engaged with our sessions. We now have 90+ junior members on the books, ranging from age 7 up to 17, almost doubling our junior membership. New juniors came through various routes: website enquiries, existing players bringing friends and siblings, people approaching us on the Meadows. The development work we have done in over the last four years (funded through our Sportscotland DCI project) also paid dividends with players who had had their first exposure to volleyball in school activities supported by Nuvoc becoming involved with the club.
I firmly believe in the importance of sport to physical and mental wellbeing and it was uplifting to see that we were providing a much-needed social outlet for our juniors in particular. It was encouraging, too, to hear from parents who were pleased that we were offering their youngsters the chance to participate in sport and physical activity, and mix with their peers in a safe and structured environment.
We will be working hard to retain this membership. We have a great bunch of really keen and committed youngsters to work with, and are very positive about the future, and looking forward to making our mark in junior competitions when they restart. We also know that not all of our new players will want to play competitively, and we will be making sure we provide recreational opportunities for player of all levels of interest and ability as well. We want to be a club that really does provide volleyball for all.