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Representing Canada away from the court

Dalhousie University Tigers volleyballers Michael Donovan and Talia Vydykhan are no strangers to provincial and Team Canada volleyball camps. Yet while attending Volleyball Canada’s virtual camps this year, the two are in less familiar waters.

“It’s very different from what I’m used to. Sessions are only once a week. Last summer, I would be at camp every day for two weeks,” said Vydykhan, who attending Tigers team practices at Dal while completing the online Volleyball Canada program.

Talia Vydykhan is trading the court for the computer screen as a participant of Volleyball Canada’s virtual training camps. (Photo provided by Talia Vydykhan)

“It’s a change. There isn’t really a usual day at the camp. I’d call the camp a series of video sessions, which keeps it interesting,” Donovan said. “It’s the most we can do right now because we’re not on the court.”

Due to COVID-19 and the resulting precautions, Volleyball Canada decided to shift junior-age national team camps to a virtual setting this summer. They announced rosters for the U19 and U21 men’s and U20 women’s teams on July 2. Vydykhan, who played with Canada’s U18 team, is with the lone women’s group, while Donovan is a part of the U21 men’s roster. In 2018, Donovan was chosen for Volleyball Canada’s youth men’s team.

Unique learning experiences

The July 2 announcement states the goal of this year’s virtual training is “to further connect, educate, and continue the development of the selected athletes.”

Donovan has enjoyed learning through guest calls during his camp’s virtual meetings, including a meeting with Canada’s senior men’s national volleyball team coach Glenn Hoag.

Michael Donavan was selected for Volleyball Canada’s U21 men’s virtual training camp. (Photo provided by Michael Donovan)

“Since we’re together virtually, people can join calls from all over the world,” Donovan said. “I don’t think we would have ever had this chance [to speak with Hoag] in an in-person camp. He’s normally busy around this time of year with the senior team’s training, and he coaches in Europe too.”

Guests in Vydykhan’s virtual sessions included Olympian Sarah Pavan, who won a gold medal in the 2019 Beach Volleyball World Championships for Canada. Vydykhan said a common theme unique to these virtual sessions is the focus on mental skill development and preparation.

“[The sessions] focus on mental training. Since we can’t be on the court and around one another, the approach has become more mental prep than physical prep,” Vydykhan said.

What about volleyball Canada’s pledge to further connect athletes? Surely this is trickier to achieve with players scattered across the country. But Vydykhan said there’s a strong social connection between players and staff in the virtual setting.

“You still get to speak your opinion. You still talk within different groups and to the girls on the team,” she said. “We discuss amongst each other what we’re learning. It’s a good way to stay in touch.”

“I think we’ve done a good job to keep things team-oriented, always staying in touch with other guys on the team and looking out for one another,” Donovan said about team bonding from a distance. “This year, it’s harder to get that team interaction part of the camp, where you meet guys from around the country and make friends. But Volleyball Canada has done a great job here, connecting us even when we’re off the court.”

A valuable opportunity, no matter the circumstances

Rick Scott, the head coach of Dal’s women’s volleyball squad, said experiences like these are valuable regardless of the format.

“Any time that you get to be part of a national program, whether on the court or virtually, is a learning opportunity,” Scott said.“Obviously, the competing and playing part of the camp didn’t happen this summer, but the camps let you see what’s out there. How good the best players in Canada are.”

Vydykhan and Donovan said no team will be picked this year; a separate selection camp is supposed to happen next summer. International competition isn’t expected to resume this year, and its return depends on COVID-19’s impact.

“I’m hoping by next year [COVID-19] will die down and I’ll be able to try out for the team again,” Vydykhan said.

Donovan gave Volleyball Canada kudos for creating a successful virtual camp despite not being sure what to expect at first. He said the next few months will also be uncertain.

“We won’t know much [about team selection] until next summer,” Donovan said. “Right now in the world, it’s so hard to know what will happen.”

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