A native of Grinnell and a 1980 graduate of Fort Hays State, Ray Bechard is in his ninth season as volleyball coach at Kansas University. Bechard has taken KU to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Bechard visited with Journal-World sports editor Tom Keegan for a question-and-answer session.
Only 64 teams can make the NCAA tournament field. If the 11 Big 12 teams (Oklahoma State doesn't field a team) were spread throughout 11 different conferences, how many would you guess would qualify for the tournament field?
I feel like all 11 would have a legitimate chance. We've got a lot of quality wins outside conference play by all 11 teams. The reality is we're all going to beat up on each other. We're going to have to win at home and fight on the road and hopefully be one of the six or seven or eight when the smoke clears to get invited.
Nebraska is a perennial powerhouse, and Texas has been coming on strong the past couple of years. How much better has the rest of the conference gotten in recent years, and to what do you attribute the improvement?
The top of our conference has always been capable of winning the national championship, but the real strength in our conference has developed over the last couple of years with the willingness of teams that have not been all that successful to hire new coaches and put a lot of resources into those programs.
You mentioned needing to win your home matches Why is it easier to win at home?
It's just a comfort level with staying in your own bed the night before, keeping your game-day schedule at home consistent, and you get to compete in an environment you train in every day. The familiarity of all those events add up to why teams like ourselves have success at home.
The men's basketball players seem to be regulars at your matches. Are they volleyball fanatics, or is there more to the story?
I think they enjoy watching good volleyball, and I think they are like many of our other student-athletes. We support each other in all that we do. I know that's one of our goals as a team that we treat other teams with support and respect during their seasons. I think it's great to see not only them but all the student-athletes at our matches.
The basketball players can be such icons in this town, does it ever become a distraction at your matches, or have they become just a part of the fabric?
I think initially there is the "wow" factor, and maybe it would be that way if they only came on an occasional basis, but since they are regulars at the matches, they've just become part of the support group that our team has. You would see them at other athletic events as well.
You've been coaching volleyball for 25 years, the last nine at KU. Tell me what training tools were available when you started coaching at the high school level compared to what's available now at KU.
I took a job at a high school as a favor to the superintendent. I wanted to coach high school basketball, and he said 'OK, we'll let you do that if you also coach our volleyball team.' During those three years at Lewis High School I began a really sincere appreciation for volleyball and how females could express themselves in so many different ways athletically in the sport.
In what different ways do they express themselves?
There is a level of lateral movement. There's a level of explosiveness. There's a level of decision-making. There's a timing factor between setter and hitter that is as high a level of communication as in any sport I've ever been around.
Hydrotherapy is big at KU now. Did you have that at the high school?
We got rained on once in a while, but that was about the extent of the hydrotherapy sessions. Lewis High school did not have a swimming pool. Kansas administration has given us every avenue available to be as successful as we can be, and obviously the hydrotherapy room is one of those avenues.
Tell me exactly what the room is, how it's used and what are the extremes of the temperatures.
For the most part, it's thought of as a use for rehabilitation because of the underwater treadmill. It takes a great deal of stress and pounding off the athletes, and it's a way to stay fit, keep your cardio workout up when your legs and body can't take the pounding and stress it takes to run. You also have a hot pool and a cold pool, which athletes use for different reasons, cold water to recover quicker from workouts. I don't know the exact temperature, but I know it's cold.
You know it's cold, or you've heard it's cold. Have you ever been in there?
Part of my right foot's been in there, and that's as far as I've been in there.
Do you believe in all this modern therapy, or is it a lot of bells and whistles that really don't have much impact?
I think there is a great need for what our athletics training staff and support staff in the areas of nutrition and sports psychology have to offer our student-athletes. Athletes need to be taught how to swing efficiently, how to land efficiently, how to differentiate between pain and injury. Volleyball specifically has a lot of overuse injuries because we jump and swing so much. So it's vital to have an athletics staff that can keep you going from day to day.
How sore are the players the day after a long match, and where do they typically experience the most soreness?
The more veteran players seem to have more aches and pains as they progress. Freshmen come in every day wanting to jump, jump, jump and hit, hit, hit, but they'll learn as they advance through their careers there are only so many swings in a shoulder and only so many jumps in a set of legs. Our kids who play a bunch and jump and swing a lot are very sore the day after a match, and we will limit the number of swings and jumps until the next match.
You mentioned a sports psychologist. What might be some issues that could creep into the head of a volleyball player that could keep her from performing at her best?
There is a lot of self-talk that goes on during a match, internal self-talk that an athlete has, and it's important that it's being monitored and providing positive and useful information. What's your self-talk like before you're serving the ball? Are you giving yourself positive feedback? Or are you worried about making a mistake, which obviously would not be the type of feedback you're giving yourself before an important skill like that.
Would someone who has never been to a volleyball match and does not know the sport still find a match at KU enjoyable?
Most definitely. No. 1, you're very close to the action. It's an easy game to score because every time the ball is served, somebody earns a point. The games move fast. A 30-point game takes 15 or 20 minutes. And even if you don't understand some of the nuances of "why this, why that," you get a sense in the Horjesi because it's so intimate - the physical part of the game, how quickly it moves, and how dynamic the athletes are - and I think you come away with a feeling of "Wow, that was pretty exciting," and many of our fans are motivated to find out more about how the sport really works and why we try to do what we do.