By Casey Flynn (Corpus Christi, Texas)

It happened on a beautiful sunny day at the end of May eight years ago. It was during that period when school is out for the summer, but club season was still going on with maybe a tournament or two left. We had our evening practice scheduled as usual but we took our 13s team out to the beach for some fun in the sun and a very casual, very informal intro to beach volleyball. These girls all loved the beach anyway, spending most of their summer out here with their friends, so it wasn’t too difficult to get them onboard with what was to be a “team-bonding” outing. It was a blast. They played some volleyball, swam in the waves, ate some burgers and caught some rays.

And did I mention they played some volleyball? They played surprisingly well, actually, laughing and smiling the whole time. Not that they weren’t good players to begin with, just that all too often indoor players will struggle with the beach game because of the sand, sun and wind. They did have their comical moments but overall they were most impressive. From a coaching standpoint they were doing so many of the small things really well, especially talking to their teammates each contact of the ball. We made them play 4-on-4 with no substitutions so each girl was required to contribute to her team in all aspects of the game: serving, passing, setting, hitting and digging. But it was the amount of hustle they showed and how they communicated so well that we never anticipated. They were all so focused on achieving success for their respective teams, smiling and laughing the whole time. They all “worked” so hard at enjoying themselves that day.

We left the beach late that afternoon mildly burnt, fairly dehydrated and utterly exhausted from such an amazing outing. No one really wanted to head to practice later, and even though the actual words were never spoken, it was clearly on everyone’s mind.

Thank goodness they did make it, because that’s when it became clear to us what really happened that day. These 13s owned that gym that night!

Our club would overlap practice times to allow older teams to work with younger teams for the obvious benefit but also to promote club unity. That night there was no denying which age group was walking the walk. Their speed and hustle was unmatched and their communication the entire night was to be envied. The girls themselves talked about how their ball control required no active thought, as if it was second nature to “pass here” or “dig there.” They felt faster on the court and that the game was moving slower around them that night, not to mention the added 12 inches they all claimed to their verticals. It was the equivalent of the belief every child under 10 years old has that new shoes will definitely make you run faster.

Their excellence in execution of whatever they did made anyone else’s mistake or weakness glaringly evident and almost embarrassing since they were the youngest team in the gym. As practice went along, it solidified our long-held hypothesis that there was true benefit indoors beyond just the conditioning to playing beach. Here was the proof. The “accidental” proof at that, since we went out that afternoon for a fun beach day, the thought of actual training never crossing our minds. And it was just this one afternoon, not a series of clinics or numerous private lessons that produced such noticeable results.

But what would those scenarios produce? What could they produce? Our minds were swimming with all the possibilities. Was this just a fluke, a one-time deal? Surely to lend credibility to such a random occurrence wouldn’t be wise. But we couldn’t help it. Every time something went right, or something good happened, or especially if something good was done for the first time by a player that had struggled in that area before, our minds were awash with ways to somehow make this a regular part of our training.

On paper the benefits appeared pretty clear:

  • Conditioning occurs by participation because the conditions make the players work twice as hard. The sand inhibits movement and jumping, the wind hinders ball control and the sun and heat fatigue the body at an accelerated rate.
  • The format in doubles with no substitutions forces all-around skill development – taller girls now pass and dig, shorter girls now hit and block and everyone serves and sets. Talking between teammates now becomes a must.
  • Fewer teammates encourage players to become more self-reliant. Without substitutions, players must learn how to deal with making mistakes and develop ways to bounce back from errors without leaving the court.
  • Players also become more focused as the beach game is more “deliberate” with each contact than the indoor, where “automatic” is more the norm (i.e. on the beach a player may pass and hit on the left side in serve receive but may have to dig and then hit on the right side in transition). This is especially true in doubles, where the contacts alternate between just two players – a player that digs a ball on the back line should not be “automatically” set 2-3 feet off the net, which would make for a 24 foot approach.
  • Players become better at the skill of “reading.” Defensively they have to be able to recognize the type of attack (hard-driven roll, or cut shot) and defend it properly. Offensively they must make smart attacks to consistently get the ball down against two defenders.

The real challenge is getting players to venture out of their comfort zone and come outdoors and reap the benefits. Players that are “naturals” indoors are especially prone to quick frustration on the beach as the drastic difference between the two disciplines can become the great equalizer. Presenting the beach game as an alternative to summer camps and other clinics for improvement does warrant serious consideration since it is undoubtedly easier on the body of the athletes and something of a “concentrated dose” of volleyball. Their joints get a break from the pounding of the indoor game and the number of touches the get while playing will nearly double, allowing the game to teach itself. And again, this is in all skill areas, not just the ones they may be relegated to indoors.