It will take French volleyball fans some time to get used to not seeing Laurent Tillie on the bench of their men’s national team, especially after the sensational gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
There were ups and downs during Tillie’s nearly one-decade commanding of the France National Team, but speaking about downs somehow does not make sense when you look at the medal balance, especially the gold medal balance, during that time. Yes, there were medals for ‘Les Bleus’ before he took over the team (seven in total), but neither of them was of the shiniest glare.
The year 2015 was the turning point. That is when France won the FIVB World League and put its name in the history of the country’s volleyball. That is also when Tillie put his name there…
You’ve probably been asked this too many times so far, but we have to ask that question too. How does it feel to say goodbye to the bench of the France National Team with gold at the Olympic Games?
“It’s a strong feeling, a feeling of full satisfaction and joy, a fairy tale, like a Netflix show GOT, with 9 years of work, a lot of which with very good results and tough loss and defeats, so many small stories in the team with drama and comedy, players becoming heroes, tragedy with injuries, tough choices, heroes leaving, new stars… and, in the end, with the team winning the most beautiful achievement that we can realize in sport – the Olympic gold medal. It’s so nice to see the big impact that our sport, volleyball, had on all of us in France – 6.7 million spectators watched the final against Russia on TV.”
Could you describe France’s path to gold at the Tokyo Olympics from your point of view?
“9 years ago, we started putting in the minds of all players and staff that our main goal was the Olympics, and all the competitions before Rio or Tokyo were different steps we needed to climb. So we decided to practice more, like commandos, and play all the matches of all competitions with the same goal – to WIN. Our plan was to take 3 medals in each international competition in the 3 years before the Olympics in Rio if we wanted to have a chance to be just qualified. And then, we chose to play the way we’re able to play, with the young players and their strength and potential, starting with service and passing, defense and attack… We had 2 cycles – between 2012 and 2016, improving and winning our first medals, and between 2017 and 2021, keeping our level with more pressure and stress because we weren’t a surprise to anyone anymore and the players became older.”
Was there a moment when you doubted your team’s ability to get a medal and honestly – could you have guessed that France would go right to the very top in Tokyo?
“You always have doubts and self-hesitation. The coaching job isn’t an informatics or mathematics job, you work with emotion and motivation, with bodies hurting, and against opposite teams working hard too. So yes, when you lose some matches and competitions you start to think about IF and WHY. But, the players always believed that winning a medal was possible and it was our last goal. And this feeling that everything is possible keeps you motivated at looking for solutions to reach the next level – the Olympic medal. We wanted a medal, and GOLD is the best.”
How difficult was it to leave the position of head coach of such a renowned national team as the French team after almost a decade of uninterrupted work?
“It was a tough decision because of Paris 2024 and because we have had so many good results as a team. And, because we were able to work and mix old players with new young players in good harmony.”
Which moments would you single out as the happiest during that period? Also, what are those moments when you felt disappointed (if there were any)?
“Every win is a happy moment, but the first nice moment was the 2014 World Championship in Poland, the entire competition. And then, the first frustration came – the defeat against Brazil and then Germany. A great moment was the year 2015: winning the World League second division, one week after that, winning the first gold medal of France – in the World League finals in Brazil, and then winning the European Championship without losing a match! And, of course, the happiest moment of my sports life – the Olympic gold… The worse moment was the elimination from Rio Olympics and the European semi-final 2019 defeat against Serbia in France.”
Could you explain in more detail the specific reasons for leaving the position of head coach of France?
“Two things happened: First, I had the feeling that the team and players needed to work with someone different to reach the next step, which is to win more games and more competitions until 2024, and to keep the motivation of the players to have a new system, new habits, new way of speaking, and coaching volleyball. I’m so proud and so thankful for all these years, gold medals at the WL 2015 and 2017, and European championship 2015 (plus a silver medal at VNL 2018 and 2 bronze medals – at WL 2016 and VNL 2021), so many emotions, and passions. The players and the staff have accepted so many sacrifices over these years that today I’m already nostalgic. And, at the same moment, I’ve had a very exciting proposal from the Panasonic Panthers to be a head coach. Japan is an important country for volleyball for all the medals they won, for the skills and the way they play, their philosophy, their culture… So the challenge seems to me very exciting not only in regard to volleyball but for a new life, new culture, new food, new philosophy, and discovering a different way of thinking and living.”
You were succeeded by another top expert, one of the greatest volleyball legends of all time, Bernardo Rezende. How do you feel about the decision of the French federation to appoint the Brazilian to the position of the head coach?
“I’m proud that the French federation was able to sign Bernardinho. It’s a very good choice for the team and the French volleyball. The players want to play for him and he’ll change their habits in new ones, and he already has. They will have a very nice journey until the 2024 Paris Olympics Games.”
Did you exchange opinions with him and did you give him any advice?
“He doesn’t need advice, but we’ve had a short but very friendly exchange because I was in the rush for the preparation and the Tokyo Games tournament.”
You continue to work in Japan. What are the plans and ideas for next season as far as the Panthers are concerned?
“The conditions here in Japan are so good. Sorry, not good – excellent. The players are very good, hard workers, and very passionate about watching all matches and practicing. They are able to stay in the gym for hours to improve every move and skill. So, it’s very interesting, but the challenge is high because the level of the V.League is very compact. You can win or lose against every team, and the formula with 2 matches every week is tougher than we can imagine! Last year we finished second everywhere – Cup, Championship, and playoff – so, this year, we’ll try to win some finals (laughter).”
Do you see yourself working in volleyball at the level of national teams again in the near or distant future?
“Why not? Am I too old? I still have the passion and want to share my experience, but now I want to do my very best with Panasonic and see my family that I miss.”