Editor's Note: The following article was written for our new summer issue of Volleyball Source Magazine by three-time Olympian and Canadian volleyball legend Mark Heese. Mark is a regular contributor to the magazine and currently in the application process to replace Everett on The Volleyball Source Podcast.
Here are some proven tips for volleyball coaches (and parents) who are venturing outdoors to coach on the beach.
I turned 40 a few years back, and BAM!, I instantly became more opinionated and critical of things. Maybe now I feel more in tune with what I believe, and feel like I’m qualified to speak about certain subjects in the beach volleyball world. Or maybe I’m just getting old and grumpy!
Either way, I just have to share my latest thoughts about beach coaching in this country. But instead of being critical, I will position this in as “non-grumpy” a fashion as possible. I am still holding on to a long-standing reputation of being a nice guy, so best not to spoil that!
So I have put together 10 “gentle” reminders and “kind” suggestions about coaching on the beach. And since there seems to be so many parent coaches on the sidelines at beach tournaments these days, parents can take some mental notes as well.
1) Respect the Roots of the Game
Let’s remember that the roots of this game, even at the highest level, had nothing to do with coaches, administrations or parents. The athletes were absolutely in charge of everything and this is what made it more fun, more satisfying and more attractive (for many)! The beach has always been a looser, more laid-back environment, totally free for athletes to approach it as they wished.
So, as coaches, especially ones that are making that transition from indoor to beach, let’s take a moment to consider where this game started, (which was a bunch of indoor players looking for a break from the coach-led environment of indoor), before we step on the sand with our potentially highly structured programming or our dominating coaching styles.
2) Preserve What is Unique to Beach
There is NO COACHING during the match (only at younger age groups in Canada). This is one of the most precious characteristics of beach volleyball - the fact that athletes must manage themselves through the pressures of a match and essentially learn to coach themselves. This means beach volleyball naturally promotes independence, emotional management and personal responsibility. It forces athletes to deal with truths, become students of the game and dig down to develop a strong personal belief system.
These are all such crucial elements that athletes must develop if they have Olympic or professional aspirations (and even if they don’t, are still wonderful characteristics to possess for any future profession). Therefore, beach coaches must tread lightly and do everything we can to protect that experience for the athlete.
3) What is Your Beach Coaching Style and Philosophy
It is important to attempt to define that before you start interacting with beach athletes. It is a precious environment, one that isn’t a natural one for coaches in general, so it may be wise to take some time to consider the appropriate tweaks to your indoor style and philosophy before you step on the sand. Then, commit to revisit this question often to determine exactly how your approach to coaching beach will be different than indoor.
4) Do Not Take Ownership of Beach Teams or Beach Athletes
Too often coaches are heard referring to athletes as “their” athletes, or “my” team. Unlike indoor, the athletes can ask you to leave anytime. It is their team, or metaphorically speaking, their “ship”. They are the captains and you are a guest aboard their ship.
You are their coach, yes, but they are not your athletes. This may seem like semantics, but remember we are looking to empower beach athletes and allow them to control their own destinies, so using language that takes power or control away should be reconsidered.
5) Ask Questions
This is one of the best methods to help beach athletes discover things on their own, which should improve overall impact. As tempting as it is to blurt out your opinion or what you believe to be right, be patient that the truth will show itself, especially if you can steer the learning opportunity in the right direction by asking a thought-provoking question. This may be the best way to approach a quick discussion between drills that you are conducting, or between games during a match (if you are a sideline coach at the younger age divisions).
6) Establish Training Environments, Where the Athletes Want to Go
Whether you are responsible for some group training, a beach clinic/camp, or are designing a practice for a team that asked you to coach them, do your best to help athletes feel empowered and supported in that environment. Foster an open atmosphere where athletes can voice opinions, demonstrate their confidence often, face challenges and discover learning opportunities naturally.
An environment in which the athlete feels dominated, controlled or disempowered will quickly turn into a failed program because the athletes simply will not want to be part of that environment. I’m not sure if there is any other sport where this makes sense, but it is especially true in beach volleyball, where athletes need to feel powerful and lead themselves. Power-hungry coaches (even if they do know everything!) absolutely do not belong.
7) Put Athletes in the Spotlight
Coaches do not get medals at beach tournaments (or even at the Olympics), so this should remind us that we are best to stay in the background. It seems to me that the best beach coaches are the ones that have high impact without leaving much of an imprint, even in the eyes of the athletes they are coaching. It is a role for the unsung hero! Here are some ways we can demonstrate this concept as beach coaches…
During a practice
- ask for feedback before practice so there can be athlete contributions to the content,
- less is more when it comes to talking during practice,
- don’t have “too much” structure to the practice,
- allow athletes to provide tweaks to your drills or even design their own drill.
During a tournament
- stay somewhat behind the scenes especially after a big win or podium celebration - no photo bombing or rushing the court!,
- understand that tournament time is for the athletes to lead themselves and be independent, so don’t impose yourself into conversations, warm-ups or celebrations unless the athletes are requesting it or are expecting it,
- do not require overly structured game-day routines, but rather have the athletes take the lead in the design of tournament or game-day commitments.
8) Don't Make Decisions for the Athletes
This would be taking away the very thing, decision making, that helps athletes feel in control and develop confidence. It’s an incredibly important skill for beach athletes, especially in the older age groups and at elite levels. They should decide who they play with, where they play, what the game plan is, what their goals are, what they wear, what they do at practice, when they communicate with their partner, etc., etc.
As coaches, we can facilitate and support and offer advice, but as tempting as it is to take control and start making decisions, we need to be patient and leave it with the athletes. If your advice is needed or valued, they will ask you for it.
9) Do Not Get Involved with Partnership Decisions
Dealing with partnership relationships and the drama involved with the forming of teams and breaking up of teams is an important experience for young beach athletes. These experiences help athletes learn how to respect one another and deal with others in a mature manner. Mistakes will be made, but lessons will be learned, especially if they are responsible for them.
Great life lessons can present themselves through this process. Believe me, the athletes know who they want to play with, so the best teams eventually get created in a very natural fashion. Coaches do not need to get involved. If an athlete asks, by all means give them your thoughts, but try not to affect the natural order of things.
10) Keep it Simple
Beach is a much simpler game than indoor and often the injection of an inexperienced beach coach does more to complicate things rather than to simplify. There may be some simple positional and strategic things that can be introduced and reinforced, but try to avoid getting overly technical, especially at the younger ages. The techniques are quite similar to indoor, so you would be unwise to start breaking everything down again. Besides, players likely just finished eight months of indoor training, which is a more controlled environment for technical details.
Young athletes, especially ones that are new to the beach, will already have their minds full of dealing with the elements (sun, sand, heat, wind, rain, etc.), and will have no fun listening to you bark technical instructions into their ears the whole time.
11) Enjoy Yourself!
This is the beach. Smile a little. Lighten up. Have some fun. As professional as you feel you should be, you have to understand your environment and adapt a little, even if you have a fairly intense personality or consider yourself to be very serious. Nobody wants to hang out with a grump down at the beach.
One of the most important skills to develop in the athletes is a sense of appreciation for the game, environment, partner, etc. They need to smile and enjoy where they are, too. So let’s demonstrate that ourselves by showing and expressing our appreciation for the athletes who are giving us the opportunity to coach at the best venue in the world...the beach!
Heese needs no introduction; he’s a three-time Olympian and co-founder of Child Heese Beach Volleyball (www.childheese.com)