sand volleyball

The best way to improve your child's indoor skills is playing outdoors

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.

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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.

Long-term gains

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.

Versatility adds value to your volleyball future

by Jeff Smith

Julia Conard is one of the most revered players in West Chicago High School volleyball history. As an outside hitter, she became the school's all-time kills leader and paced the Wildcats to conference and regional championships in 2011.

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Less than a month later, she reached the pinnacle of her career when she signed a full scholarship to join the volleyball program at the University of Illinois -- as a defensive specialist. By her senior year, she was even team captain.

At 5 feet 10, Julia was too short to be an effective outside hitter among the 6-1 to 6-4 pin hitting giants at the Big Ten Conference level. But, because she had developed strong back-row skills in high school, the Fighting Illini coaching staff took notice and awarded her a coveted scholarship and an opportunity to shine at one of the premiere Division I schools in the country.

In this age of specialization, where many clubs, schools and coaches like to pigeonhole players at one position for years on end, Julia's story is a breath of fresh air. As Julia experienced, your ability to play a variety of positions and areas of the court and execute a range of different skills will increase your value, not only to your current team but for your volleyball future.

Middle school: where versatility must take root

This is especially true for middle school athletes. Players in fifth to eighth grade should not be narrowly defined into one position. Doing this not only will stunt their growth in the sport but is incredibly short-sighted. It is next to impossible to confidently predict what position an 11- to 14-year-old girl or guy is best suited to play before they reach high school.

Here's just one example. The director of one of the area's largest clubs once confided to me how she wanted a middle school player on one of Serve City's teams to join her club the next year so she could make her a setter on one of her club's national teams. There was just one problem: While she liked setting and played some setter that season, the player in question absolutely loved being an outside hitter. She ended up sticking with Serve City the next year, and two years later she made her high school's varsity team at outside hitter.

If she had been restricted to only being a setter, she wouldn't have realized that she was a great fit for outside hitter and wouldn't have discovered her passion for that position.

Middle school is the time for athletes to experience as much of the sport as possible. This helps them develop into well-rounded players and get a taste of the full range of positions on the court to see where they might best fit in.

Versatility should be part of every club's middle school philosophy

This is Serve City's training philosophy for middle school teams. After I enjoyed a stint coaching 18U and 16U teams with another club, when I joined Serve City I coached three 14U teams. Most of the players on each team were trained at two positions over the course of the season and a handful even learned three or four positions. Regardless of their position in our lineups, all of the athletes were taught how to pass, set, serve receive, dig and hit no matter if they were 5 feet 10 or 4 feet 7, and each of them regularly practiced all of these skills.

That doesn't mean athletes shouldn't learn and play a specific position. The team's tallest player can in fact be trained at middle hitter. But, at the same time, that tall middle hitter should be given numerous opportunities in practice to learn and refine other skills besides blocking and hitting. She should be regularly trained to set, serve, pass, receive serves and play back row defense, too.

If she's trained to be a volleyball player first and a middle hitter second, someday she could find herself as a six-rotation outside hitter, a setter or a middle hitter who also plays back row in high school. Training middle schoolers in a variety of skills opens the door to greater future opportunities.

This was true in my own family. My older daughter played setter in middle school but also frequently played in the back row both in serve receive and defensively as well. When she tried out for the freshman team at West Chicago High School, she made the team as a libero. Three years later, she earned all-conference honors as a libero, which never would have happened if she'd strictly played setter in middle school and never practiced serve receive.

Versatility should continue throughout high school

The need for players to be versatile doesn't end after middle school. Versatility is a valuable trait in high school, too, particularly at the large public high schools in the Chicago area.

Let's say you are one of 12 outside hitters trying out for the freshman A team at your school, and the freshman A coach will only keep four outsides on the roster. Unless you're the clear-cut best outside hitter at tryouts, your odds of making the team will only increase if you display the ability to play other positions. If you have good back-row skills you could stick on the team as a DS or libero, or if you can also hit from the right side of the net, you could win a roster spot as an opposite hitter. Perhaps you're a good blocker who can make the squad as a middle hitter, or you have some experience at setter and can earn a spot as a combination setter and opposite hitter.

The need for versatility continues throughout high school. If your school's varsity team is loaded with outside hitters, you may need to make the team and carve out playing time at another position.

How to make yourself more versatile -- and valuable

Of course, versatility doesn't just appear out of thin air. It's a trait that you have to work hard to nurture. This subject could take up an entire blog post, but here are three steps you can take as a high school player to develop your versatility:

1. Seek out opportunities to round out your game.

I can't speak for all coaches, but when I coached high school club volleyball, if a middle hitter or right-side hitter asked me if she could get regular serve receive reps in practices, I would do everything in my power to make that possible for her. Be bold yet respectful and ask your coaches for instruction and for reps at a certain skill, even if that means staying 15 minutes after practice getting swings as a hitter with a teammate or coach setting you. And play grass doubles, quads and other games outside of practices, too.

2. Play sand volleyball.

Sand doubles is the ultimate tool for developing well-rounded volleyball players. In sand you get to do it all: serve, serve receive, defend, set and hit. There's no better way to diversify your game than to train in the sand and play beach doubles. Just ask Julia Conard, who played sand volleyball to expand her game prior to college. Check out Chicago Sand Volleyball for more details.

3. Play for a club that trains versatility.

I'm obviously biased, but Serve City is one such club, as many of you know who already play with us. Having coached at another Chicago-area club before coming to Serve City, I can attest that our training style promotes versatility more than most other clubs. I've personally seen clubs pigeonhole middle hitters on national teams so narrowly that the middles never received a single serve nor played back-row defense in any practice aside from an occasional scrimmage for the entire season, and setters never were trained to receive serves or to hit.

Such a philosophy might suit that club and its teams just fine, but it does the athletes a total disservice. Even at the high school level, athletes should think of themselves not as outside hitters, setters, liberos and middle hitters but first and foremost as volleyball players. Like Julia Conard, one day they may find themselves needing to switch positions for the good of their careers or their team.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.

20 questions with our new girls club director

by Jeff Smith

I began working as Serve City's girls volleyball director August 15, but my journey as a club director actually was borne 32 years ago out of disappointment.

As one of the veteran players on our boys basketball team, I had high hopes for my senior season of high school, but our coach didn't share those aspirations. He didn't push our team to grow or excel. He was a kind man and cared about each of us on a personal level, but he wasn't driven to help us get the most out of our talent as individual players or as a team. Our practices didn't stretch us outside our comfort zone, teach us new tactics or strategies, train and extend us to be our best or prepare us well for games, either.

Not surprisingly, my senior season was a difficult one. Our team finished in last place in the conference, and my hoops career concluded on a dismal note. I still remember walking out of the gym following a lackluster season-ending loss thinking that, if I ever got the chance to coach my own team, I would push my players to reach their potential. I didn't want any athletes to experience the frustration and lack of development that marred my final basketball season.

More than three decades and nearly 1,400 games as a coach later, I start my tenure as Serve City's girls director ready to pursue the same philosophy that has guided my volleyball and basketball coaching career since 1998. I believe the most effective way a coach communicates that they value their athletes is by giving their players the best possible coaching they can each day. Conversely, I believe athletes demonstrate how important their team is to them by giving their team their best possible effort at each practice and match.

In short, excellence, improvement and realizing our dreams don't just happen. They take commitment, hard work, dedication, investment, enthusiasm, preparation and intentionality.

At Serve City, sweat plus sacrifice will spur on success.

I look forward to watching our coaches and athletes dedicate themselves to striving for excellence at each practice and match this season. The goal will be simple: to get "3 percent better" at their coaching or playing craft every day. If that happens, our athletes will experience significant growth in their skills and understanding of the game, our coaches will grow as leaders and teachers and our teams will make great strides throughout the season as well.

Few things are more satisfying in volleyball than to watch your skills and knowledge of the game improve as you pour yourself into your development as a player or coach.

We'll talk more about what excellence looks like in a practice setting in my next blog post. If you'd like to learn more about me, you can read the questionnaire below and visit my girls director page. Otherwise, I look forward to seeing you in the gym this season!

20 Questions With: Jeff Smith

Coaching stops: Faith Christian (fifth- to eighth-grade teams), Illinois Heat VBC (18U, 16U, 15U), Harvest Christian Academy (middle school), Serve City (14U, 13U), Serve City sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Chicago Sand Volleyball (middle school and high school), Blaze sand volleyball (middle school and high school), Geneva Park District (middle school), Serve City Recreation (volleyball, basketball), CoachUp.com (private volleyball and basketball lessons for 10U to 18U)

Favorite quote: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence,  then, is not an act but a habit.

What I enjoy most about volleyball: It's the ultimate team sport, teaching amazing life lessons about teamwork, sacrifice, putting others before self and playing for a cause greater than yourself.

What I enjoy least about volleyball: when teams play not to lose instead of playing to win

Greatest accomplishment: watching my daughters play the game they love

The most important trait for athletic success is: a growth mindset

Favorite volleyball memory: each time I've gotten to help a team or an athlete achieve more than they thought possible

Coach I most admire: John Wooden

If I could change one thing about volleyball: award 10 points for kills off back-row pipe attacks! (my favorite play in volleyball)

Favorite volleyball skills to teach: jump float serve, setting, back-row play, hitting

Favorite volleyball moment: 2013 Aurora Central Catholic tournament championship (coaching my daughters' school team)

Most embarrassing volleyball moment: getting my glasses smashed by an errant serve during a tournament, which has unfortunately happened about a dozen times over the years

Best advice for athletes: There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.

What I enjoy most about working with youth: their energy and optimism

Biggest pet peeve in volleyball: athletes who think success comes easy -- you make "easy" happen through commitment, hard work, consistent enthusiasm, learning and a humble, hungry and teachable attitude

Favorite book: the Bible

Favorite movie: Duck Soup

Favorite musical group/artist: DC Talk

Favorite TV show: Man vs. Wild unless Big Ten women's volleyball counts as a show ;)

What's most important to me: my relationship with Jesus Christ

Three words that best describe me: committed, driven, thinker

What would Reid Priddy do? How to follow the four-time Olympian's example this summer

by Jeff Smith

Reid Priddy's speech at the Serve City Volleyball Banquet was inspiring and uplifting in numerous ways. One of my favorite takeaways from his story of how he grew into a decorated four-time U.S. Olympian was how his perspective on volleyball changed shortly after first being introduced to the sport in middle school.

"I began playing volleyball all the time," Reid told our athletes, families and coaches at the banquet. "I couldn't play the sport enough."

Reid's love for the game drove him to play volleyball every chance he got: in open gyms, his backyard, on the sand, at parks, during camps and clinics and on his school's teams. He continued this habit into and throughout high school, college and the professional and Olympic ranks.

Now that most of Serve City's girls teams have wrapped up their seasons, you might be wondering what your daughter (or your son) can do next to continue fanning the flame of their love for volleyball. Following Reid Priddy's advice, here are four ideas to help your child keep developing their passion for the sport along with their skills and understanding of the game.

1. Play the sport recreationally.

Reid's love for the game grew largely out of playing the game with his friends outside of structured team practices and matches. This is also where your kids will learn the game more than any other venue. Volleyball requires countless hours of play in order to learn how to read your opponent -- looking across the net to determine when your opponent is hitting vs. tipping, where they are going to hit or pass the ball to before they even contact the ball, where they are setting to and where and how they are serving. This massive amount of information can only be instinctively learned through game play.

Plus, playing pick-up games of 6v6, 4v4, 3v3, 2v2 and even 1v1 will refine and sharpen your daughter's or son's all-around skills and ability to make split-second decisions, the latter of which is a crucial skill in and of itself in volleyball. And, of course, playing the game will stoke your child's passion and appreciation for the sport.

2. Attend summer camps.

Participating in summer camps is an excellent option for a couple of reasons. It exposes your daughter and son to new coaches and different and fresh teaching methods than they have received during their club and school seasons. Camps also give your child new ideas on how to pass, set, hit, block, defend and execute other volleyball skills that they can then take home and work on when they play recreationally this summer.

3. Try something new.

After several months of club volleyball and possibly two or three months of school ball, your daughter or son may need a fresh take on the sport to maintain her interest and refresh her love for the game. A fresh spin may come in a few different forms:

  • Trying sand volleyball. Playing in the sand is a terrific complement to the indoor version of the sport. Sand volleyball is significantly different from indoor in terms of rules, skills employed and strategy and tactics, not to mention the venue. Taking part in sand can improve your son or daughter's all-around skills, quickness, leaping ability and the skill of reading your opponent across the net while providing a refreshing new angle on the sport they love. (If you're interested in sand volleyball training this summer, here is a subsidiary organization running sand volleyball classes in the western suburbs.)
  • Taking private lessons. Summer is a good opportunity for some athletes to train individually with a private coach, as they can hone in on specific skills they need to learn or sharpen and raise their level of play prior to the start of the upcoming school season.
  • Competing in sand and grass tournaments. Both outdoor versions of the sport are popular in the Chicago area.
  • Learning a new position. One of my former players at the club where I coached prior to joining Serve City decided to play beach volleyball one summer so she could expand her game. Due to her height and frame, she had been pegged by her club coaches as strictly a middle blocker, so she joined a sand program to work on her serve receive and defensive skills in an effort to grow into an outside hitter for her senior season of club. My older daughter did the same thing, hitting the sand to improve her passing skills the summer after eighth grade and transition into a libero in high school.

5. Pay it forward.

Has your daughter or son benefited from years of coaching, instruction and input through club and school teams? This spring and summer they can begin giving back to the game by volunteering their time. They could serve as a volunteer assistant with a YMCA or park district league or help out at local camps for elementary-school kids. Paying it forward will keep them involved in volleyball while teaching them the other side of the game and perhaps sparking a future interest in coaching.

Even if they don't take to coaching, teaching the game to younger children will help your child develop a greater understanding of the sport and improve their volleyball IQ for their next season as a volley athlete.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's volleyball region director.

The best way to improve your child's indoor game is ...

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.