For almost 50 years I have created time in my life to grow the game together in places beyond my backyard.  One of my principles in learning is that which you teach, you learn. Since retirement from USA Volleyball, these chances have increased greatly, both at my family’s legacy project in North America, and around the world.

This summer at Bison Peak Lodge, a veteran/first responder retreat, we are working with the Department of Defense to train 50 trainers from all over the country to share best practices in a Train the Trainers PTSD healing project. As an alumni of the State Department’s Sports Envoy program (I taught coaches and players in UAE last December), I had a grant accepted to train up to 20 coaches from Native American Nations from both the USA and Canada, which will take place at Bison this August. The chance to bring these leaders together at 9,000 feet in the wilderness to share in the ancient tradition of storytellers will no doubt be very special. Add in that my daughter, Mckenzie, gets her Master’s degree in speech pathology and is engaged, and my other daughter, Elysse, gets married at Bison in July, and it is a busy summer….the picture below is of my son, Cody, training on our AstroTurf field during a summer visit. My amazing wife, Lily, has kept all things in the valley moving forward, not just events, finishing the Event Center she has been a visionary for, and the cabins and tipi repairs for the summer ahead.

Currently I am in Bonaire, working on a three-month-long FIVB grant to help the Federation here. Most of my friends have to google to find out where I am, suffice to say less than 100 miles from Venezuela, on a 12-mile-long island that is part of the “Dutch ABCs” (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), with less than 25,000 people, including about 4,000 kids. First settled in 1499, this territory is known as “Diver’s Paradise,” as it is encircled by a barrier reef, that is protected by law. Indeed they are planting more coral trees underwater as part of the Bonaire Bond project between Earth Day 2022 to 2023. Cruise ships arrive daily, swelling the population by about 20% and there is world class windsurfing, kiteboarding, and land sailing, along with snorkeling and diving.

As part of NORCECA, the two top, hardest working leaders of BOVOBO (Bonaire Volleyball Bond – aka Association), Gisette and Joe (pictured below), submitted a three-month-grant to the FIVB Development Department. I still serve as the Secretary of the NORCECA Development Commission, and our President, Mushtaque Mohammed, is someone I have known for over 30 years after first mentoring him at an International Olympic Academy in Olympia, Greece . He is from Trinidad and Tobago and brought me into TNT to develop there, and then asked if I could help Bonaire, which is part of his CASOVA zone of NORCECA. As my wife is an avid scuba diver, we have been thinking of moving here part time, so while she holds down things at Bison, I am here teaching and learning.

So far I have been able to work with all six barrios (each has an Elementary/Middle School) to develop their Physical Education teachers. We are working to open the schools in the evening since they currently close the athletic spaces, including the small gyms, at about 4pm. There is just one main high school, and every morning to early afternoon I have been teaching the PE classes and teachers how to make volleyball more fun. This week was King’s Day that celebrates the Dutch King’s birthday, so I put on my Beach Nation hat and brought the top leaders and players to Sorobon Beach, where windsurfing was founded. I taught them how to build temporary courts from rope nets and wood posts including “deadman” anchors.

The Bonarie citizens really know how to party, not just with Carnavale or Kings Day, but with Labor Day as well.  Each barrio celebrates their day (Rincon was settled in the early 1500s and is celebrated every April 30th, and that means live music on truck-towed trailers and cultural costumes and dancing, along with great street food and a celebration of their history. This youtube clip from 2020 captures what I survived, and I did not do any of the seven laps of the parade route, but maybe walked one loop in total. This picture on the right was from Sunday’s Labor Day parade that went from my barrio area to downtown.

I feel so grateful that while here, thanks to, I get watch my son Cody’s Berlin Recycling volleyball team live on their Bundasliga playoff run. They went down 0-2 in the best of five match series, then came back to Berlin for match three and won in four sets. Then they went to VB Friedrichshafen’s home court (a team coached by long time coaching friend Mark Lebedew, who previously coached Berlin) and won 3-0, and then forced the derby back in Berlin. For the first time ever, a team down 0-2 won the title. Meanwhile, I am also following his alma mater Princeton Men’s Volleyball in the NCAA tournament who qualified by beating #2 Penn State in the EIVA semifinals. Hard to believe he has been playing professionally for seven seasons already, and is headed to train in Anaheim again.

Ahead is the school championships, which will select the school to send to the ABC championships next year. These inter-island events were stopped due to COVID, and in the return of sport, only four are being offered – dodgeball, chess and volleyball included. There is a shortage of Officials for all of the boys and girls matches, so I brought in the top PE class volleyball high schoolers and trained them to officiate, to grow the game together.

The biggest impact project we are working on is retrofitting an old soccer field, next to one of the schools that now has a beautiful new soccer and futsal stadium. With lights and a smooth surface already there, we have designed a seven-sand court layout (including one permanent 6×6 meter kids court), which can also host quality NORCECA Tour beach stops. Additionally six “Bolas” (Bocce) courts, and a bar/restaurant/viewing deck will be made from the many leftover shipping containers that come into port four times a week, stacking them up for better viewing. In several nations I have worked, Tonga, Samoa and St. Kitts come to mind, getting beach courts lighted allows programming to happen outside the heat of the day, and after work hours. Rick Swann, former head coach at my alma mater Colorado College, brought the St. Kitts beach courts under cover in another FIVB NORCECA project like I am doing.

After this visit, I will be doing an FIVB course for the coaches and PE teachers of Jamaica. In September, I am fortunate to keynote along with Julio Velasco at the CEV (Confederation of European Volleyball) Youth Summit, something we have been waiting to do in person for over three years. It is taking place in North Macedonia, a new nation to visit and help.

Many of the core ideas in making youth volleyball fun are simply done by teaching the Olympic sport of beach doubles, even if it is on grass or hard court. Beach Nation leads this development the best for all ages, so check them out. Basketball has added 3 v 3 as an Olympic sport as well and is already seeing the impact of this smaller sided, faster game. My newest ideas are part of a new Gold Medal Squared project I did on behalf of my late mentor Carl McGown. Check out their website and program and excellent podcast they host, Coaching Your Brains Out, if you have not already. Of course, my Growing the Game Together blog is still something I am posting on when time permits.

In closing, I want to remind all readers of how they are helping to provide not only playing opportunities of a sport for a lifetime, but of leadership. The fact that there are 221 nations as part of the FIVB, yet only 12 slots in the Olympics, means 209 nations stay home and wait four more years to fight for gold. Qualifying is REALLY hard, and only two nations have been able to be repeatedly part of the games since 1984: Brazil and….the USA. That is in no small part due to the efforts of all of the school and club coaches who give a chance for volleyball to be a kid’s sport….Thank you to all in this process that can last a lifetime.

About the Author

John is a Coach and Member of the Leadership Team at Beach Nation. He is known for his coaching innovation through positivity, motivation, incorporating motor learning with cognitive development and keeping learning fun. John served as USA Volleyball’s director of sport development, and in 2019 he became the 50th recipient in history of USAV’s highest award for a lifetime of service, the “Frier Award.” Kessel has “strived to help all coaches become more efficient, positive and creative, no matter what level – from the elementary school level to USA National Team programs”.