By Jeff Smith
Last fall my daughters and I continued a weekly tradition of gluing ourselves to the TV to watch Big Ten women's volleyball on Wednesday nights on BTN. On one particular night, the University of Nebraska's top-ranked team was on the air. Nebraska is always must-see TV in our household.
Early in the match, the TV announcers revealed that Nebraska's players all trained in the sand during their spring season, and that one of their star players, all-American libero Justine Wong-Orantes, actually played beach volleyball competitively each summer while on school break.
In fact, the Cornhuskers' head coach, John Cook, was such an ardent believer in the merits of beach volleyball for improving indoor players' skills and athleticism that he gave the team's beach training much of the credit for Nebraska's 2015 national title run.
It's easy to see why Coach Cook is so high on the benefits of beach training. Running, jumping and executing volleyball skills in sand while covering an entire half of the court with just one teammate strengthens the muscles in your legs, back, core and shoulders and sharpens your all-around skills. It takes endurance, conditioning, grit, determination and commitment to developing your skills and understanding of the game. It's short-term pain -- though it's not really pain because it's such a fun sport to play -- that produces long-term gain.
In fact, whenever families ask me what the best avenue is for growing their child's game, I always mention beach volleyball first. One former pro and collegiate standout, Pat Powers, even goes so far as to say that two weeks of beach training and tournaments are as effective for player development as an entire season of indoor club.
I'm not ready to make that same statement, but I do see Pat's point. I've personally witnessed first hand how beach improves young athletes' volleyball skills, both as a beach coach and as a parent of two beach athletes. Even anecdotally, one of the liberos on the Serve City indoor team that I coach in Elgin participated in an eight-week beach training class last summer that dramatically improved her game, her quickness, her confidence as a passer and her command of the court. A dad of one of her club teammates the last two years even pulled me aside a while back and expressed his amazement at the transformation in this player's back-row play after one summer of beach training.
I saw similar developments in the skills of my older daughter through beach. Jessica primarily played setter for three years in middle school. But, at 4 feet 11 inches tall, she didn't think she had much of a future at the position in high school.
The summer after eighth-grade graduation, Jessica and her sister, Nicki, joined a beach volleyball program that significantly altered Jessica's volleyball career path. The girls quickly grew to enjoy sand volleyball, entering a slew of area tournaments and playing in practices and recreationally every chance they got. Jessica especially loved the opportunity to serve receive, defend and pursue balls all over the court. Sand soon became a mainstay in our bathtub that summer!
By the time her first year of beach volleyball had ended, Jessica's quickness, court coverage and passing and ball-control skills had markedly improved, convincing her to try out for the public high school's freshman A volleyball team as a libero. She made the team, became their starting libero and has played that position for her school and club teams ever since ... all while continuing to hit the sand courts for the last three summers.
And this new path began during a beach volleyball class in West Chicago.
Not every volleyball athlete will undergo the drastic change in their career trajectory that Jessica did. But athletes who work diligently to learn the beach game will see skill development that will translate to their indoor volleyball experience, whether they play for a club and/or school program. When kids get serious about beach volleyball, it makes a tremendous impact on their all-around skills, understanding of the game, specific individual skills and their quickness and athleticism on the court.
After spending most of the summer getting to do it all in beach volleyball -- serve, pass, set, hit, dig, block and touch the ball every other contact -- transitioning to a specialized role as a middle blocker, opposite or outside hitter, defensive specialist, setter or libero in six-player indoor volleyball is a stark adjustment; the indoor game can seem slower and even less enjoyable by comparison.
But don't just take my word for it. John Kessel, USA Volleyball director of beach volleyball, is far wiser about the sport's benefits than I am. Mr. Kessel recently wrote, "The beach game is GREAT for improving your indoor game. Whatever your weaknesses are, you get to work on them a ton. Unlike the six-person (indoor) game, you touch the ball in every rally. And with just two of you covering the court, you learn to read and anticipate much better. Dealing with the sun and wind helps you be more adaptable. Player height is less important outdoors; ball control and skill is most important. It is a great way to improve your jump, as there are just two of you to block and hit every rally, and communicating effectively is essential in the sport. Most top-level coaches encourage their players to play as much as they can on the beach."
Like anything worthwhile in life, beach volleyball isn't easy. But, when athletes combine sweat, sacrifice and dedicated sand training together, success almost always follows, along with a deeper love and appreciation for the game.
Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.