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SANDCAST: “Raise Your Game” with high-performance coach Alan Stein

Alan Stein didn’t elaborate on what, exactly, he expected to see the first time he observed a Kobe Bryant workout. Perhaps it was the circus fadeaways Bryant deployed with such a deadly efficiency, or the high-flying dunks that earned him hours upon hours on SportsCenter. Maybe it was tricky ball-handling or lobbing in half-courters, a la Steph Curry.

In the end, whatever it was that Stein expected was anything but what he saw that morning.

“I remember being blown away at the simplicity of the stuff he was doing,” Stein said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “I was expecting him to be doing stuff with a lot of flash, a lot of sizzle, a lot of sexiness, and instead he was doing the most basic and fundamental moves. Later that day, I asked him why he was the best player in the world and he’s doing such basic drills, he said something that changed my life forever: ‘The best never get bored with the basics.’

“In that moment, that shifted my perspective. In that moment, I realized that just because something is basic doesn’t mean that it’s easy. People often use those words interchangeably as if they’re synonyms but they’re not. Basic and easy do not mean the same thing. What it takes to be a world class beach volleyball player is basic in premise.

“Obviously you can attest to the fact that it is not easy to do what you do. It is not an easy game to master, it is not easy to live the lives you live, and to have the discipline to train the way you train. There’s nothing easy about it, but it’s still incredibly basic, what you’re supposed to do. For me, that differentiator and that separator really guides me in everything I do.”

He’s right, Stein. Take a stroll up and down the Hermosa Beach Strand, and note what you find. There’s Chaim Schalk, hammering away at the sharp angle dart that nobody in the world hits better — and few in the world can dig, even when they know it’s coming. There’s Tri Bourne, blocking with Jose Loiola, sealing low seam hits, like the one from Casey Patterson in August that proved to be the deciding point in the Manhattan Beach Open. There’s Terese Cannon, passing, passing, passing.

They’re all there, honing the basics — the same basics that help AA players break pool in a CBVA or professionals win Manhattan Opens or secure Olympic berths.

“The unseen hours in any area of life determine how good we’re going to be,” Stein said. “It’s cumulative, too: Every single rep that you get, every time you head out to the sand or into the gym or anything, you’re just adding another brick onto your wall. And as long as you’re meticulous about laying as many bricks as perfectly as you can, you’re amassing this very strong, sturdy wall.”

It doesn’t matter much that, as Stein readily admitted, he doesn’t know a whole lot about beach volleyball. He knows it’s a wonderful game to watch, and that his good friend, Adam Roberts, with whom Stein played basketball at Elon University in the mid-90s, has made a hell of a life out of it. And he knows that the path to mastery, to improving at beach volleyball, is no different than Kobe’s path in basketball, Jay Zs in music, Warren Buffets in finance.

It’s this material that has long fascinated Stein, who has been a high-performance coach since graduating from Elon: How do the best in each respective industry climb the ladder? How does one get to the top and, perhaps just as important, how do they stay there?

Such is the topic of his book, Raise Your Game, which he published in January of 2019 and features a forward by Jay Bilas as well as a blurb from Kevin Durant: What does it take to achieve greatness?

The answer, of course, cannot be boiled down to a single hour on a podcast, or a feature in this magazine, or even a single book. But the blueprint can. And while basketball, which was Stein’s first love and remains his primary passion, is a vastly different game than beach volleyball, that blueprint is mostly the same.

It’s a blueprint he designed upon observing some of the all-time greats: Bryant, Durant, Curry, Kyle Korver, LeBron James, Quinn Cook, Markelle Fultz, Steve Nash, Anthony Davis.

The list goes on.

“I got to work with guys after they got to the top of that mountain, so I got to see both vantage points: What does it take to get there? And what does it take to stay there?” Stein said. “I learned so many lessons and strategies and principles that I use to guide my own life now and that I also use to share with folks to help them improve in anything. The principles of high performance have such high utility that it doesn’t change.”

So no, it doesn’t matter that Stein’s experience in beach volleyball is limited to watching a few of Roberts’ tournaments, including this year’s recent Myrtle Beach Open. Because watching Bryant practice is hardly any different in concept than watching Bourne or Schalk or April Ross, Jake Gibb or Taylor Crabb: They never have, and never will, get bored with the basics.

“The unseen hours in the game of basketball are when the lights aren’t on, the cameras aren’t rolling, and the cheerleaders aren’t dancing. It’s just you, in a gym, by yourself,” Stein said. “And it’s what you do during the unseen hours that will determine how good you are when the lights come on and the cheerleaders do start dancing.”

Just sub in a few beach volleyball terms and the formula remains the same for how to, you could say, Raise Your Game.