Kids playing volleyball on North Avenue Beach in Chicago/Larry Hamel photo

You are a volleyball parent and your indoor player has decided – or you have made the decision – that the beach game might be a fun and productive option.

(Cue the Robot from “Lost in Space” waving his arms wildly and crying, “Warning! Warning!)

Yes, playing sand doubles has obvious conditioning and skills-acceleration benefits, but naive parents should be forewarned that getting their kids involved in sanctioned competitive events isn’t quite as simple as showing up at the gym on time for game days.

While junior players’ clubs handle the bulk of the heavy lifting for their indoor teams, parents themselves most frequently bear the burden of responsibility for identifying suitable tournaments, registering their youngsters for them, paying for them in advance, then keeping fingers crossed that the kids’ age group actually fills, and that the weather cooperates enough that they won’t be sitting outside in the rain all day.

But wait, there’s more: When playing indoors, coaches determine the lineup. On the sand, finding a doubles partner falls to the kids and/or the parents. That partner might change from event to event. And both athletes need to be registered with the appropriate sanctioning body.

So, parents, be prepared to carve out even more time and effort on your volleyball player’s logistics than you do during the indoor season.

What seems to be the single-most intimidating factor to the new “beach” parent?

Competitions are sanctioned by six main bodies: USA Volleyball, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the AVP (through its AVP America program), Beach Volleyball National Events (BVNE), Beach Volleyball Clubs of America (BVCA) and p1440 (a venture co-founded by three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh-Jennings).

The 2022 winners at the USA Volleyball Beach National Championship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Furthermore, each of these groups requires paid membership (meaning potential multiple membership numbers to track), charges entry fees for each tournament, compiles their own points standings and holds separate national championships.

Why are so many groups out there competing for developing players, you might ask? Simple. All aspire to make money off a sport with a growing talent base fueled on the girls’ side by the carrot on the end of the stick of a college scholarship to play beach volleyball, which adds new programs every year.

Beach volleyball is the NCAA’s fastest-expanding sport since it received full sanction for the 2016 season. Every dual in the NCAA Championships is aired on linear TV by one of the ESPN channels. The last AVP professional tournament in Huntington Beach, California, saw 10 of the 12 players who advanced to the quarterfinals hail from collegiate-beach backgrounds, and the other two were from Canada. Odds are strong that all four of our women’s Olympians in the 2024 Games in Paris will have competed in NCAA beach volleyball, which is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport for men.

That maze of sanctioning bodies prompts the invariable question: Which one is the best? Answer: The one that works the best for you. The group that might offer the most options in California, for example, might not in Florida or in the Midwest.

Here is where the processes of due diligence and individual decision-making come into play. If a paid club employee is not making those calls, you have to. A logical place to start your research might be the Volleyball Life website ( It has a search engine that can, for example, provide a comprehensive list of junior tournaments within 100 miles of your ZIP code simply by filling in a few fields in a dialogue box and hitting the “Search” button.

Keep in mind that tournaments in your area are not necessarily “put on” by any of the national sanctioning bodies listed, but rather by the venues at which they are held or by tournament directors who likely rent space on public beaches. Frequently, the quality of these events depend on the acumen of the tournament director and the event’s staff.

Going in blind, how do you know whether the event you sign your kid up for (and for which you pay in advance, after ponying up a membership fee) is any good? You don’t, but a bit of due diligence might help. As you are sitting around the next indoor junior tournament, biding time while your youngster’s team has reffing duties, you might want to ask other parents if their kids have played in beach tournaments. Those who have might be more than happy to share their experiences with you, particularly if it’s a horror story. Use that information to help make a better-informed decision.

But, in truth, finding out what works for you and your aspiring beach player likely will involve a process of trial and error. Yes, your first experience might not be so hot. If it isn’t, try another sanctioning group and a different venue. No need to stick with a lemon when many options exist.

Now that you have been bombarded with the potholes, here’s the good news for parents: Once you have gained a few meaningful repetitions in the process, steering clear of them might not be all that difficult.

“The freedom of beach tournaments”

Brian Mack lives in Chicago and has first-hand experience with junior-beach volleyball competitions on the boys and girls sides.

Brian’s eldest son, Lucas, the No. 2-ranked boys indoor player in Illinois as a senior at St. Ignatius High School, qualified for and played in AVP America national beach championships three times, in 2020 in Atlantic City, in 2021 in Fort Lauderdale, and in 2022 in Redondo Beach, California (finishing fifth in the 18-and-under division in that event).

JJ Haaf, left, watches as Olivia Mack passes/Larry Hamel photo

A younger daughter, Olivia, will be a freshman at St. Ignatius in the fall. She has teamed with middle-school classmates to win multiple local tournaments, including the 12-and-under division in the AVP America Midwest Championships in 2021, and earned a bid to and competed in the 2022 AVP America nationals in Hermosa Beach, California, finishing in the upper half of the 14-and-under draw.

Mack found that the opportunity to tailor a schedule for his kids turned out to be a positive, not a negative.

“As a volleyball parent, I enjoyed the freedom of beach tournaments,” he said. “We could choose where to compete and at what level. My son or daughter could elect to ‘play up.’ Olivia as a 12U player competed at 14U when she could. The same with Lucas. Of course, both would see the same teams from time to time.  But that would happen on court as well.”

Brian avoided most of the crowded landscape of sanctioning bodies by sticking with one group, which seemingly would be a prudent path for most parents.

“In the Chicago area, we could go to the western suburbs (usually in Lisle) or the northern suburbs like Woodstock, or even Wisconsin or northwest Indiana for tourneys,” he said. “It was a one-day commitment with no need to secure a hotel room. Just a long day at the beach or the lake.

“Registering was picked up pretty easily. AVP America was our preferred service. It seemed to offer the most regional tournaments near us. And usually the competition was strong.”

Brian offered some tips on surviving long summer days outdoors and a word of warning about parents’ conduct.

“Bring plenty of sunscreen, a hat, water, snacks, and a chair with a hood. It gets warm out there, even in the northern climates,” he said. “The rules about parent coaching from the sideline are faithfully followed-for the most part. So other than offering encouragement during timeouts, parents need to understand their role as cheerleader. No ‘coaching.’ ”

Ryan and Amber O’Donnell reside in Northern California, east of Sacramento. The weather in the winter months is not particularly conducive to beach volleyball and no indoor sand facilities were nearby. Nonetheless, their daughters persevered and flourished. Their oldest, Ali, plays for Alabama-Birmingham’s beach program, and their youngest, Kennedy, a rising senior at Oak Ridge High School in El Dorado Hills, has verbally committed to play beach for Long Beach State.

The O’Donnells said that among the issues they initially faced in an indoor-centric locale was “finding a ‘beach-only’ club that emphasizes year-round play, let alone one that lays out a suggested schedule of practices or tournaments.”

Both daughters gained their “love of volleyball on indoor courts,” Ryan said. “Finding a club to join, figuring out a schedule, determining outfits, etc., all of that was laid out pretty plain and simple.

“One of the biggest challenges” when the O’Donnells strived to get the lay of the land for junior beach, “was trying to understand the different sanctioning organizations, finding all the tournaments and juggling the requirements from signing up to qualifying for multiple nationals,” Ryan recalled. “There are not very many tournaments locally and we would have to travel to SoCal or Santa Cruz for sanctioned competitions.”

The O’Donnells also mistakenly believed that “you had to find a single partner to practice and play with for the season.” Once that misconception was cleared up, Ryan said, “one of the great aspects of beach is getting to play with multiple people and not being tied down to a partner/team you don’t mesh with.”

As the O’Donnell girls’ careers gained traction on the sand, Ryan found that there was, “Nothing like trial and error and learning along the way.”

He concluded with this advice: “Like most things, doing nothing is the worst thing you can do.”

Focus on “training, playing partners, and scheduling”

Living in the cradle of American beach volleyball, Southern California, David Van Winkle shared insight gained from helping to guide the stellar junior careers of his highly decorated daughters, Abby — who was a freshman on UCLA’s 2019 NCAA-title team — and Tessa.

The Van Winkle sisters, who were key components of UCLA’s Pac-12 championship and NCAA runner-up squad in 2023. Both sisters have also played on the AVP Tour.

Their father emphasized the importance of beach-specific training for those athletes serious about playing on the sand while noting the advantages of having many of the sport’s legends available in SoCal to pass on that knowledge.

From left, Tessa Van Winkle, sister Abby, and future UCLA teammates Lindsey Sparks and Peri Brennan

“The competitive beach-volleyball landscape is just that, competitive,” David said. “It’s probably the fastest growing youth sport over the past five-plus years – tournaments fill up fast – and continues to evolve in many ways that are great for the future of the sport. If you find yourself new to the sport and are trying to navigate this unfamiliar landscape, reach out to current and past coaches, other players’ parents, and friends connected to the sport to gather information. Focus your questions in three areas:  training, playing partners, and scheduling.”

Van Winkle referenced the inherent difficulty of beach volleyball, opining, “Take pro athletes from any sport such as basketball, softball or soccer, and have them play against two well-trained 14-year-old (beach kids and those) pro athletes will quickly be humbled, if they can even last 21 points.”

Van Winkle extolled the virtues of early training and urged parents to seek out opportunities to have their kids learn from those who have excelled at the highest level.

“Beach volleyball is a rare sport in that the greats, the legends of the past, have stayed involved and continue to coach, train, and develop the players that are looking to grow their games today,” David said. “Two great examples in SoCal are Wave Beach in Del Mar with Matt Olson and Mike Placek and Elite Beach in the South Bay with Holly McPeak and crew.”

He also recommended that parents find a coach who runs clinics and lessons, noting that, “My daughters got to work and train with Jeff Alzina, yes, ‘the’ Jeff Alzina, Jake Gibb, Dane Selznick, and Jose Loiola, to name a few.”

Furthermore, he said, college camps are “a great way to learn how the college teams practice and train, what their expectations are, how they coach, and {meeting other juniors who might) be interested in the college level …  ‘other players’ who maybe can be future playing partners with you.”

The bromide, “Patience is a virtue,” certainly applies to beach doubles, which might be played with a volleyball, but is little like indoor 6s.

“Start out playing in your age group,” Van Winkle said. “You will most likely get beat up for a while, but hang in there, you will learn and grow from the losses and then the wins will start happening. When you start consistently winning in your age group, play up an age group to learn and grow from a faster-paced and more dynamic game.

“Do not fall into the trap of trying to play with one partner for the entire tournament season” David warned. “Play with multiple partners and maybe save the big tournaments for the playing partners you play best with. You will settle in with players and player parents that have a similar approach and common goals. It will become somewhat intuitive after a year in the sport. Play as much beach volleyball as you can. It truly is the fastest way to learn, develop, and grow your game.”

Van Winkle advised against planning out a beach schedule too far in advance, a common mistake made by newcomers. Mapping out tournaments you plan to play during “the first month or two of the season (is fine), but don’t make it a race to space. We all know the parent who will try and lock up the entire season by January 5th. Don’t be that parent. You are going to want flexibility and options both ways for” your player and potential partners.

Lastly, Van Winkle said that players should “not take it personally when your first choice for a tournament has already committed to someone else or just says no. Not everybody will be able to have ‘a Sarah Sponcil’ playing alongside as their defender in the BVCA Championships this summer.”

Getting informed about beach volleyball

Next, we sought insight from the other side of the spectrum. Kyle McCall is a founding member of All In Volleyball, a club in the Chicago suburbs that holds and promotes beach tournaments.

“Helping educate parents with how junior beach works is the step that is missing, and that is why (the landscape) is difficult to navigate,” McCall said. “There is a ton of information out there but becoming an expert on the beach takes a little reading/watching videos/resourcing each other and I’m not even talking about playing.”

McCall noted that while indoor clubs once were heavily involved in registering players for tournaments, but now it is “more common (for clubs) to work with a beach program and offer a coupon code for their respective teams so that the whole process is owned by the families/players.”

He added that All In “works with as a landing place for registration, schedules, and results. VBL provides points and profiles for all of the major governing bodies. On our site (under the VBL umbrella), you can find all our events that we host for the season.

“Our events are affiliated with AVP and p1440, earning points and bids, respectively,” McCall added. “However, VBL allows you to search for events in different parts of the country to find events you may want to attend, so it really shares well and is super easy, clean, and responsive. Picking events and levels of play could be important to a player. As players play more, they will learn what level they think they want to play by their results. Open/AAA are the higher-level divisions.”

McCall also emphasized that parents should have realistic expectations regarding what playing volleyball outdoors vs. indoors entails.

“You can assume to arrive on the beach at the start time (but then) almost inevitably something changes,” Kyle said. “A team doesn’t show or they entered the wrong division or something. It’s important for players and families to have an open mindset and be ready for these things. If you are on a time schedule, a beach event is the last place you want to be. But, once things get going, it’s normally pretty smooth.”

Beach volleyball questions and answers

Shifting gears, some other typical questions that might be asked by new beach parents include:

Q: Can my kid “play up”?
A: As we heard from Brian Mack and David Van Winkle, that answer almost certainly is yes.

Q: Can you “play down”?
A: That almost certainly would be a “no,” although it is not unheard of for tournament directors on the fly to consolidate multiple age groups into one for pragmatic reasons.

Q: What are the age requirements?
A: That depends on the sanctioning group, so pick the one that best fits your situation. A typical starting age for beach competitions seems to be 12-and-under.

Q: Can my kid play in any tournament?
A: Yes and no. Most of the regional tournaments are open to all comers, but national championships might require bids earned through results in affiliated regional events.

Q: Do I need to buy memberships for my daughter or son in all of the sanctioning groups? 

A: Only if you are a glutton for punishment. Is it feasible that over the course of a few months, your player would be able to play in six national championships, even if bids were earned to all?

Particularly for high-school players, this question seems to be a high priority.
Q: Which tournaments provide the best opportunity to be seen by college coaches and thus recruited?
A: That depends. Players who compete in USA Volleyball events and try out for the National Team Development Program will be seen by those decision-makers. A spot in the NTDP is a surefire path to a scholarship. Beyond that, attending camps hosted by schools with beach-volleyball programs might well open the same doors as playing in national championships, although colleges obviously scout those competitions.

The NTDP was launched in 2021 and, according to USA Volleyball’s website, has resulted in far more visibility for our young volleyball athletes.

“Across boys and girls indoor and beach volleyball, our National Scouting Network comprises more than 100 top collegiate coaches, current and former national team coaches and athletes, and other experts who are close to the game,” chief of sport Dr. Peter Vint said on the site. “The results of this collaborative approach have provided a tenfold increase in the number of athletes who are seen and can be recommended for our NTDP Training Series.”

If you believe your youngster might be better suited for the sand and not the hardwood, the sooner a toe is stuck in the sand, the better. The rule of thumb I have noted from coaching on the beach and indoors is that beach skills transition more easily to the hardcourt than most indoor skills translate to the sand. Particularly if your kid plays on an indoor club that pigeonholes players into positions at an early age, it’s a safe bet that a significant percentage of them have not focused on the aspect of the game that is most vital to sustained success in beach doubles: Serve receive.

How important, precisely, is early beach training and competition?

Long Beach State Coach Mike Campbell noted in our interview this spring that the players who competed at No. 1 his team’s appearance in the NCAA Championships earlier this month, Malia Gementara and Taylor Hagenah, both freshmen, made commitments to the program before they were high-school sophomores.

“Taylor committed just as she entered freshman year and Malia committed in the middle of ninth grade,” Campbell said.

Or, as Van Winkle, he with the two daughters at UCLA, said, “the days of being a talented outsider hitter and grabbing your starting DS from your indoor club team and showing up at a beach volleyball tournament to show the ‘Beach Only Kids’ how good you are in their game have come and gone. 

“You are going to get smoked.”


  1. Playing beach is simply the best choice they will ever make in the world of volleyball, both for your child and for your parent happiness. It is not that hard to jump right in and play beach, and before you know it, you will be welcomed into the giant family known as the beach volleyball community, where everyone will help you on your journey.


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