Sand Volleyball will Offer Opportunities to Collegiates

Nov. 02, 2009, 7:35 p.m. (ET)

In April 2009, the NCAA voted to make sand volleyball an "emerging sport for women" for Division I schools. On Friday, Jan. 15, it will vote on whether or not to override its decision after some school administrators expressed concerns. Ali Wood Lamberson, USA Volleyball's Director of Beach Programs, posted this blog on the topic in November.

By: Ali Wood Lamberson

As you’ve no doubt heard, the NCAA is considering whether or not to add beach volleyball (they will call it “sand” volleyball, so as not to alienate landlocked institutions) as an emerging sport for women. Of course, coaches have many questions and concerns when considering how this new sport might impact their programs: Who should be a “sand” athlete? What does it take to succeed on the beach? How will this affect my indoor team?

To project how the sport of sand volleyball might impact the NCAA, one must first consider the key differences between the sand and indoor games. First are the obvious differences: number of players on the court, court surface, court dimensions, and the elements. Sand athletes must be able to execute all skills from either side of the court, rather than a set of specialized skills and positions, and be relied upon to contact the ball several times in each rally. Unlike indoor, there is little specialization on the sand.

Other key differences arise from the amount of court space covered and the trajectory of the ball in first and second contacts, requiring a more upright body position, which in turn requires very strong legs and core and the ability to control balls outside of one’s reach. Spacing and targets are different and first- and second-contacted balls are passed, dug and set to a location based on the position of one’s partner, rather than to a predetermined target. Thus the sand athlete needs to have the ability to make quick decisions in each situation. 

With only two athletes per side, a greater portion of the game is played out of system in scramble plays. Unlike the indoor game where defensive strategy is collective and predetermined, on the sand defensive strategy is internal and spontaneous. Dealing with the elements physically, strategically and emotionally is a new skill for indoor athletes. Sand volleyball is physically demanding, and many athletes making the transition do not have the endurance to maintain proper execution of skills.

The final key difference is that of the role of the coach. In the international game (FIVB, etc.) there is no coaching at all during matches, similar to tennis. On the AVP tour and at some youth events, coaching is allowed but only during timeouts and between sets. Whether the NCAA adopts either of these systems or creates something unique, the random nature of the game indicates that the coach may have a less active role in the sand competition.

Sand volleyball, when trained appropriately, will help indoor athletes improve basic ball control, fitness level, decision making and shot selection, etc. The increased number of contacts and range of skills executed in sand volleyball makes it an excellent off-season cross-training tool. This is especially true at the developmental stages when skills and timing are not yet finely tuned to either discipline. However, as an athlete’s game becomes more specialized, the differences in timing, tempo, footwork, body position, court position, ball trajectory, and strategy make it unrealistic for most elite athletes to succeed in both disciplines simultaneously. The notion that the majority of elite collegiate athletes can transition smoothly and quickly from one discipline to the other is false. 

Coaches who are considering sand volleyball as a means to train their entire indoor team will soon learn that the differences in timing, especially on attacking and blocking, tempo, ball location, and footwork make sand a poor choice for training specific skills sets, most notably those of setters and middle blockers. 

When considering professional potential, it is not until an athlete makes a commitment to focus on their sand career that they finish in the top five consistently, as it is very difficult for an athlete to specialize simultaneously in both disciplines. If this were not the case, athletes would move freely between the indoor national team and the pro beach tour. The 2008 indoor Olympians Reid Priddy, Sean Rooney, and Logan Tom all played on the AVP tour after the 2004 Olympics. It took Priddy and Rooney four and three years respectively to have their first top five finish on the sand. As for Tom, she was unable to finish higher than 13th in seven starts her first year until she got the opportunity to play with AVP standout Holly McPeak. Even with the veteran McPeak and a top seed, they finished in the top 5 in only 41% of their 12 events together. Not a great season for the best indoor scorer at the 2008 Olympics.

Does this mean that Priddy, Rooney, and Tom are not ideal sand volleyball athletes? Absolutely not!! The point is that sand volleyball requires a unique set of skills and a different understanding of the game that takes time to develop. Unlike the indoor player who becomes very specialized, sand athletes must be expert at every skill, as they will be called upon to serve as a primary passer, setter, attacker, defender, and, in many cases, blocker every game. There is nowhere to hide on the sand, as any weak skill will be capitalized upon by the opponent. The more effective hitters will need to focus on setting, as the stronger hitter is rarely served. The more effective blockers will need to learn to pull off the net and play defense, digging balls that are hit around them while they are in motion, as the opponent will start setting off the net and forcing the pull. Smaller players must learn to pass and terminate consistently. The sand athlete has a high level of game intelligence, as she must create solutions on her own.

In contrast to the 2008 All-Americans, elite sand athletes’ height is not as vital. Considering average and median heights, the 40 athletes selected as 2008 AVCA Division I All-Americans had an average height of 6’1¼” with a median height of 6’2”. Only 25% were under 6’ while 40% were over 6’2”. In contrast, the average height of the Top 40 FIVB and Top 20 AVP athletes is just over 5’11” with the median at 5’11” and 6’ respectively. Fifty-eight percent of the top FIVB athletes are under 6’ while 40% of top AVP athletes are. Only six of the 54 top beach volleyball athletes analyzed were over 6’2”, while 16 of the 40 All Americans in 2008 fell into this category.

More important than height for a sand athlete are very strong legs and core, an explosive jump, good foot speed, precise footwork and excellent ball control skills. The sand athlete is intrinsically motivated, a problem solver, and an effective communicator on the court and off. This may describe many of the athletes chosen as All-Americans, but there are likely an equal number of athletes playing NCAA volleyball that were not chosen as All-Americans, are not stars, and perhaps not even starters on their indoor team, that also possess these skills. It is interesting to note that 50% of the AVP Top 20 who played Division I NCAA indoor volleyball were never All-Americans.

When taking a closer look at who sand athletes are, it is interesting to note that 55% of the top 20 AVP athletes played outside hitter in college, and 45% of the girls (ages 14-25) that attended the 2009 USAV Beach High Performance tryouts listed their indoor position as outside hitter.  Of the girls that were selected to USAV’s Youth and Junior Beach National Team, there was one setter, two liberos, and the remainder – 17 athletes – were outside hitters. 

If sand volleyball becomes an emerging sport, it will behoove athletes to specialize early. Looking again at the Top 20 AVP athletes, it took an average of 3.25 years achieve their first 5th place finish in an open tournament. The theory among players on tour is that it takes three to five years to make the full transition from indoor to sand. When coupled with current sports science theory that it takes no fewer than 10,000 hours or 10 years to create an elite level athlete, then athletes should begin to specialize in one discipline by their sophomore year in high school if they are planning on playing collegiate sand volleyball.

With this theory, it is interesting to consider what the other top volleyball countries are doing and how it is affecting both their sand and indoor programs. Currently, the United States is the only country experiencing a modicum of international success at the youth and junior level in which our sand athletes still play indoor volleyball. Other top countries on the international scene, including Brazil, China, Germany, and the Netherlands, determine an athlete’s discipline no later than the age of 16, often earlier. China and Brazil, which along with the United States make up the top three countries in terms of success in both sand and indoor, have experienced no decrease in success in the indoor discipline since beach became an Olympic sport in 1996. In fact, China and Brazil women have won three Olympic medals a piece since beach was introduced. 

The key differences between the U.S. and the other top five sand volleyball countries is that the U.S. lacks the competitive opportunities that the South American, European, and Asian confederations offer their developing athletes. The lure of an indoor scholarship keeps U.S. athletes who are better suited to the sand game, in the indoor game, limiting their sand training to six weeks a year. Considering these factors, it is really a case of dumb luck that we can be successful in the sand discipline at all, and is a testament to the great training of NCAA institutions. However as the average age of international sand athletes decreases and the number of countries who are successful increases , it is clear that U.S. athletes need to get to the sand game sooner if we wish to remain an international powerhouse.

Finally, the assumption that the inclusion of sand to the NCAA will hurt the indoor game because all athletes will want to play sand is patently false. Many athletes will not be very good at sand and are ill-suited to the game. Only 18.6% of all 70 All Americans from 2001-2003, who are now in the prime age range for the sand game (26-30 years old), have played beach professionally (participated in more than one main draw on the AVP or FIVB tours.) This group represents only 30% of AVP's top 20 players. So it is clear that not all elite indoor athletes are eager to play sand. In addition, because the number of professional opportunities on the beach is significantly lower than in professional indoor volleyball, the threat to the indoor game is relatively low.

A collegiate sand team should be comprised of several outside hitters and aggressive yet possibly undersized ball-control athletes for whom there is at best a limited role on your indoor squad. Eventually, athletes will organically develop a specialization (sand or indoor), allowing two very different yet closely related disciplines to support each other.