David Lee is someone you can safely call a true-blue daredevil. The American volleyball veteran almost plays sport on the side of living a life to the fullest, be it in a beach volley contest in Puerto Rico, surfing in California or heading out to explore the rocky terrains of South America.
Funnily enough, the David Lee you see at the helm of the Bengaluru Torpedoes in the ongoing Prime Volleyball League (PVL 2023) is in stark contrast to Lee’s original personality. Yes, the risk-taker still lives, albeit a lot more cautiously. Every step, every strategy, every decision is documented and rethought of twice, thrice.
The jitters, although Lee says there are none, are understandable given it is his first foray into the coaching bullring after calling time on his indoor career.
“I am turning 41 next month and that’s a very old indoor player. There’s not many guys who continue to perform that late, especially middle blockers,” Lee tells Sportstar.
“It’s a hard surface and it beats up the body so I am happy to take my role as a coach and try to teach these guys as much as I know about volleyball,” he adds.
The charms of being an Olympian
Lee may be a first-time coach but his resume is stacked. The Olympian was part of the American side which won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and then bronze in the Rio de Janiero edition in 2016. He has a World Cup gold medal from 2015 among a bunch of other medals from competitions around the world. He is quite the globe trotter too. His volleyball travels have taken him to Greece, Russia, Italy, France, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Indonesia and India as well.
However, if a certain basketball coach who trained him growing up had his way, volleyball would have been robbed of Lee’s legacy.
“I was really on a pipeline to play basketball in college. My basketball coach tried to get me to quit volleyball and said I must dedicate myself to this sport. I made up my mind against that suggestion. I love playing volleyball. I love the people involved. He gave in saying he won’t be able to cut me out as I was one of the star players. So, I continued to play both for a while. I entertained the idea of becoming a basketball player. But I knew of my chances to be an Olympian and I knew that my goals and the people I wanted to be around in life were in volleyball and not in basketball,” he says.
Lee knew he was turning down a potential pot of gold when he left basketball behind.
“If you can go NBA early on, it’s a no brainer, I just didn’t. I was a center in high school and I was kind of undersized and I hadn’t fully become as big as I am now. If I knew I was going to get up to 240-250 pounds and jump high, I would have continued to play basketball, but that was just not my path,” he says.
Lee confesses that the urge to be an Olympian swung the odds in volleyball’s favour too, an ambition that took root during his sophomore days.
“When I was a sophomore, I played the World University Games - my first multisport event and that ended up being a catalyst towards the dream of being an Olympian. Just the energy of having athletes - elite athletes - from all over the world, having opening ceremonies and having this huge sport display is something I really liked and I thought, “Man, this is so much fun. This is all I want to do.
“The purity of the sport at that time, being a youngster, was so different than what it became later on when you started doing it for a living and for a job. I still love it equally, but it was just a special time in my life to be a young kid and just only want to be representing your country,” Lee recollects.
“I became a starter in 2007 and remained so till the end of my career in 2016 when I was captain. I participated in three Olympic Games and won the gold in 2008, which was surreal because I was so young. I was 26. I was only three years in with the national team and it was a really experienced team and I thought, that’s all we do at USA - win gold medals like it’s so easy. I kept going back. In 2012, I thought we could do it again,” he says.
USA finished a disappointing fifth in that edition but Lee’s final Olympics - the 2016 Rio Games - saw the USMNT take home the bronze medal.
“It was nice to go out on the podium, but I really wanted another gold. But it’s a very difficult thing, especially in volley. We’re not the most dominant team in the world. USA is always in the top five, but there’s other teams that consistently perform better, like the Brazilian national team, the Russians, and the Polish - there’s a lot of very good teams,” Lee says.
Learning to be a loser
Being his team’s mainstay through his active years and considerable, if not consistent, victories in national colours also helped Lee understand the value in defeat.
“I’ve lost so much in my life. I’ve learned to be a loser which is the weirdest thing to say. As a team, we identify all the problems and then we try to review those problems during training. And so, for me, I ask, ‘Are there regrets? Are there things we could have done? What I could have done as a coach, for sure, to change that situation.’ But that’s just a part of the learning curve, and we’re going to take what we can from this game and just move on as quickly as possible. And I think my guys get that too. This is a marathon, not a sprint.,” he added.
This lesson came handy for Lee on the very first day of the season when holder Kolkata Thunderbolts handed a 2-3 defeat to the Torpedoes.
“Yeah it was tough. Being a coach and losing hurts much more than being a player and losing. I felt like our team played really well. I think we beat them in most of the statistical categories as far as attack and block are concerned. It’s just that we came up short in these crucial moments. In the first set we had a huge lead. They got a super serve. We called our super point. They ended up getting a trickle ace over the net, which is just really unfortunate. That just sort of set the tone for the rest of the match, you could see our guys were a bit deflated - when you feel you have something in your hands that slips through. It’s just kind of crushing and debilitating to a team,” Lee says.
The towering middle-blocker, standing at 6ft 8in, could be seen grimacing and pacing nervously along the touchline. While the team got its feedback and points to work on, Lee did not spare himself the criticism either and maintains a separate notebook to document his own performance as a coach.
Perfecting his coaching method
“Yeah, I actually should be a little more introspective on my own role. I have one note that’s dedicated to coaching and it’s literally turned into this massive amount of data. I’m just writing my thoughts and feelings after these games and where we could improve or I can improve. As a player, you’re a little bit more concerned about your own performance and where you could have been better. But as a coach, you’re looking at the performance of 12-14 players and how you’re using those resources and tactics in a game.
“There was a moment in the third set where we served the ball out and I’m pretty sure it’s out and we had a review left and that could have been a chance. We, basically, at that point had lost the match. So, there’s no reason for us to have even kept that review. Ninety percent sure the ball’s out, but still, why not give that review a chance? And so, that was one of the things I think about right now. There is a lot of strategy involved and a lot of risk too. It’s all about gauging those risks and whether you should just play straight up volleyball. It’s about balancing that,” he explains.
Volleyball. Rinse. Repeat
A maiden coaching stint, pressure of playing in a foreign country, man-management stresses and corporate expectations can be a lot for one man. But Lee is happy to eat, sleep and breathe volleyball.
Before coming to India, Lee interviewed a number of his friends and coaches to try and mould his own philosophy.
“One of those guys during the interview gave me a book from my old coach I won a gold medal under, Hugh McCutcheon. He is perhaps the person I emulate the most. Much of how I coach is honestly based off that book. And I haven’t told him not yet, but I will. I’ve had a tonnes of great coaches and I’ve definitely cherry picked information from them and put it into my own style,” he says.
His wife Lavinia, despite being away in the US, also pitches in here. Being a player herself, she lends him an ear about his games, strategy conundrums and more.
“It’s really nice to bounce ideas off as many people as possible that are willing to listen. The more I can talk about it, the better it is,” he says.
That said, Lee identifies the need to be able to take a break to reset.
“Recently I’ve been trying to take an hour here and there to listen to a podcast or something else, just to kind of get away from it, which is nice. Right now, Lex Fridman and Joe Rogan are on my playlist,” he adds.
He ensures that calm is something his team has access to and uses the phrase ‘safe space’ to describe the atmosphere he is attempting to create.
“The athletes feel way more pressure than I do, honestly. Sometimes during the game, guys feel a little bit different. Some of those nerves start to hit them and they start to change what they’ve been doing naturally for the last month or even years and they kind of revert back to this very cautious and fearful way of playing. As coach, I think about that a lot. Are they feeling safe in this environment and am I making them nervous. Am I putting too much pressure and stress on them? We’re trying to make it as safe a space as possible for them to learn and get better,” Lee says.
After the loss to the Thunderbolts, Lee’s side also fell to a last season’s runner-up Ahmedabad Defenders before mounting a comeback of sorts with three wins on the trot against the Mumbai Meteors, Chennai Blitz and Kochi Blue Spikers and is currently placed fourth on the table. He is careful not to be complacent though.
“It’s not always the best team that wins. Underdogs can beat better teams, so for me as a coach, it’s just I hope I leave here with these guys understanding a bit more about what I came from, how we do it in the States, and I hope they can take some of that and bring it back to their other teams and spread that knowledge,” he says.
In an interaction with this publication in 2019, Lee pointed out that the lines between player and coach were blurring.
“I give a lot of inputs, I think, sometimes too much. And there needs to be a separation between a player and coach, but now we are blurring these lines. But, in all honesty, I don’t mind taking up that role,” he had said.
With PVL 2023 set to end a few days before his birthday, the Olympian will hope to mark a new chapter with a trophy by his side.
The Prime Volleyball League can be watched live on the Sony Sports Network or streamed live on the SonyLIV app.
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