When the AVP Austin qualifier starts at 8 a.m. Thursday, 132 men will hit the sand with the same goal: Make the main draw. When the sun goes down on Thursday, just eight will have succeeded.
Chris Fleming is one of those hopefuls.
Fleming, a web-developer consultant who lives in San Diego, estimates that he spent about $8,000 last year to compete on the tour. Being self-employed allows him the flexibility to play, train, and travel.
“I’ve had to turn down a bunch of 9-5 jobs to make this work,” he said.
Fleming, 30, is a wiry 6-foot defender with excellent hops. You may not be familiar with
Fleming, even if you follow the tour. He’s never made the main draw, and is seeded 14th with partner Anthony Unger. But his story is typical of many of the qualifier athletes, who have spent countless hours and thousands of dollars each year to pursue their beach-volleyball dreams.
Unger, 30, who also lives in San Diego, is another 6-footer, so they will play “small ball.”
Last year Fleming competed in all six qualifiers and finished 21st, 25th, 29th, 41st and twice finished 45th. Two weeks ago at AVP Huntington, Fleming and Unger defeated a solid team in Robert deAurora and John Schwengel 18-21, 21-11, 15-13, but were eliminated by 16th-seeded Paul Araiza and Matt Motter 21-11, 21-15.
It didn’t help that Fleming had the flu earlier that week.
“I felt OK that day but they (Araiza and Motter) are a great team,” Fleming said, “and it’s very difficult to beat them if you’re not 100 percent.”
Fleming’s volleyball career began in high school, where he played for East Providence High School in Rhode Island. He went to San Diego State, where he started to play beach volleyball in 2010 and left the indoors game behind.
His goal for 2017 is to qualify for the main draw. Both he and Unger are hoping for enough points that they can each attract bigger blockers as teammates. Toward that end, they made it to the last round in Chicago last year and hope to break through this year.
Fleming chose to train with Rudy Thomas to prepare for the 2017 season. Thomas, himself an avid beach player, is currently the director of programming and education for Fitwall and writes the exercise programs for seven Fitwall studios. He has a master’s degree in physiology from Boise State, and has worked with the volleyball teams at Stanford, Ohio State, South Florida, University of Iowa, and UC San Diego.
Thomas’ fitness philosophy is movement based.
“I want all of my athletes to be great movers, and very aware of their bodies, in terms of their spatial and kinesthetic awareness. I like them to be strong, have good footwork, from the core to the cuff, inside out,” Thomas said.
“Once they’re stable, we can add strength and power on top of that. It’s really a movement-based philosophy. We’ll use a multi-faceted approach. We’ll use dumbbells, we’ll use TRX, we’ll crawl on the ground, we’ll do different primal patterns, we’ll throw medicine balls, we’ll jump over hurdles, I match the movement modalities to the athlete. It’s an individualistic approach based on what the athlete does well and what he doesn’t do well.
Thomas believes that volleyball players must first establish core strength.
“Volleyball is an overhead sport dominated by the arm and the shoulder, but all of it stems from the trunk. It’s stability, them being able to resist forces, so they can create motion. We teach athletes to resist the external forces first. Once they’re stable in resisting those, then they can create that movement very efficiently and impactfully without leaking energy. The shoulder is one of the big engine points, along with the hips. Everything in between, the trunk, is like a transmission.
“Chris was already a springy athlete, a very elastic kind of guy, so we’re mindful of building stability through the shoulder. We did a lot of ground based work, a lot of crawls, to strengthen and protect the shoulder.”
The key now is adding strength, Thomas said.
“If he can keep his body weight the same and add strength, you’ll be able to apply more force to the ground. Like every volleyball player, he wanted to be faster and jump higher,” Thomas said. “For that we did higher power movements, like Olympic lifts, medicine-ball throws, speed mechanics and footwork, working on the most efficient way to change directions in order to apply that specifically to volleyball performance.
After the 2016 season, Thomas established a three-phase plan for Fleming, detailed below, starting with rebuilding movement patterns.
Accordingly, Fleming’s hard work with Thomas throughout the off-season paid significant dividends. Incredibly, his standing vertical jump increased from 26 inches to 32 inches. Similarly, his broad jump went from 8-foot-9 to 9’6” and his upper-body strength increased as well, from 24 pushups to 35, and 11 pull-ups to 15. His Olympic-lift capabilities saw steady improvement, as his hang-clean numbers went from 145 pounds to 185 and front squat from 165 to 205.
“In the offseason, we were training with Rudy three days a week and practicing three or four days a week,” Fleming said. “Now we’re training with Rudy twice a week and practicing five to six days a week.
“We’ll start with a dynamic warm-up then we’ll go through footwork and speed drills and then we’ll go into the gym and do strength training and maybe some nerve system-type stuff. We’ll typically split up the days, one day we’ll do speed work and the other we’ll work on strength.
“I gained a few inches of standing vertical during the offseason, which really helps us. With our lack of size, we need to jump as high as we can.”
All of which gives him a lot of optimism as he heads to Texas. Their tentative first-round opponents, Evan Darr and Wilfredo Villar, are seeded 51st.
“We’re seeded 14th,” he said, glad to be healthy, as well. “I’m looking forward to Austin and I feel much better.
“I’m looking forward to it.”
Here is a synopsis from trainer Rudy Thomas of Fleming’s offseason training:
“The first month of the off-season is tissue remodeling. That would be basic, general movements, what you would call a dynamic warm-up, relearning quality movement, because they’ve been doing the same movements for the six months of the season. We’re trying to reestablish balance and symmetry to their bodies, trying to get their bodies to do other things than just volleyball-specific movements, building an aerobic base.
“The next phase, which is two to two and a half months long, is building strength. That’s where we’re building bigger, multi-joint movements, where we’re starting to move some weight, and do a combination of bilateral and unilateral weight, like lunging, squatting, or presses. We’re actually doing a lot of rowing and pulling work because we’re trying to restore some of that posture and some of that balance because volleyball is a sport that’s played in front of you, and a lot of guys tend to roll forward at the shoulders and in the back. It’s just the nature of the game. We’re also trying to introduce Olympic lifts and higher velocity exercises, as well as speed and acceleration work and plyometric work. This is all done with the idea of increasing efficiency, whether that’s jumping, sprinting, or even conditioning.
“The third pre-season phase is where everything is very reactive, high power, high velocity, a lot of medicine ball throws, a lot of Olympic lifts, a lot of jumping. Things that start to mimic the energy systems of the sport. Quick twitch, elastic, fast bounces off the floor, strength training starts to take a back seat. A lot of sprinting, changes of direction, and plyometrics.
As training progresses, Thomas keeps an eye on the metrics.
“The things I really like to see: their short sprint times, their 20 or 40 yard times, they like to see the vertical jump go up, I really like to see broad jump. Horizontal power, the ability to jump out for distance, that’s a big one. There’s nobody that got more powerful that the broad jump didn’t display that. That’s a direct look at what’s happening on the inside of your body.”