By Jeff Smith
Last year 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 announcers noted that Nebraska's players trained in the sand during their spring season, and one of their star players, all-American libero Justine Wong-Orantes, played sand volleyball competitively each summer while on school break.
Their head coach, John Cook, was such an ardent believer in the merits of sand volleyball for improving indoor players' skills and athleticism that he gave the team's sand training much of the credit for Nebraska's 2015 national title run.
The ideal complement to indoor volleyball
It's easy to see why Coach Cook is high on the benefits of sand training. Running, jumping and executing volleyball skills in sand while covering an entire half of the court with just one other teammate strengthens the fast-twitch muscles in your legs, back, core and shoulders and sharpens your all-around skills. This leads to greater leaping ability, quickness to the ball and conditioning.
Sand volleyball also improves your skills in looking across the net, reading what the opponent is doing, reacting to your opponent's actions and executing your response to your opponent. Its long list of benefits is one reason why I strongly encourage athletes to play sand volleyball in the summer with Chicago Sand Volleyball or another organization.
Sand volleyball takes endurance, conditioning, grit, determination and commitment to develop 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 what the best avenue is for growing their child's game, I always mention sand volleyball first. One former pro and collegiate standout, Pat Powers, even goes so far as to say that two weeks of sand 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 sand improves young athletes' volleyball skills, both as a sand coach and as a parent of two sand athletes.
Two real-life examples
For example, I saw significant strides made in the skills of my daughters through sand. 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 sand 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.
They especially loved the opportunity to serve receive, defend and pursue balls all over the court. In 8-9 weeks of sand training and tournaments, my daughters received roughly 1,000 serves and even more opposing attacks, a volume of serve receive and defensive practice they couldn't replicate on any indoor court over the summer. Sand soon became a mainstay in our bathtub that summer, including last summer with Chicago Sand Volleyball.
By the time her first year of sand volleyball had ended, Jessica's quickness, court coverage and digging, 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 four summers. She'll next be a DS/libero at a local college.
Nicki benefited just as much from sand training as a setter, as it greatly improved her quickness and her ability to "better" the ball, tracking down a wide range of passes in order to set hittable balls to hitters. The rigors of setting in sand has made indoor setting seem easy by comparison. Today she is able to not only hustle to take second balls all over the court but can then deliver accurate bump sets from a variety of angles thanks largely to her sand training.
Speeding up your skill development
Not every volleyball athlete will undergo the drastic change in their career trajectory that Jessica did. But athletes who work diligently to learn the sand 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 sand 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 sand 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.
One expert's take on sand volleyball
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 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 indoor game, you touch the ball in every rally. And with 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 with just two of you to block and hit every rally, and communicating effectively is essential. Most coaches encourage players to play as much as they can on the beach."
When athletes combine sweat, sacrifice and dedicated sand training together, success almost always follows, along with a deeper love, enjoyment and appreciation for the game.
Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.