When Jaden Ravnsborg and Kamryn Farris started to play beach volleyball two years ago, they never imagined the leap their games would take by competing on sand.
But this dynamic duo from Kansaspreteens whove already left huge footprints in the beach volleyball communitysay digging in the sand has made them better athletes and catapulted their indoor play to new heights.
Just how high?
Earlier this year, these Midwestern girls reached the pinnacle of success in the highly competitive world of junior volleyball. Their 12s Black team at Dynasty Volleyball in Kansas City, Kansas, captured the 2015 USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championship title.
The feisty crossover playerswho took third in this year’s Junior Beach Tour Championships in Virginia Beachcredit their time in the sand for their achievements indoor.
Playing beach has made me an all-around better player, said Ravnsborg, 12, a setter and outside hitter. Moving in the sand is hard, but it helps me move better indoors.
Her partner agrees.
Im a libero and [playing beach] helps me read the ball better, Farris, 11, said. It also helps me with talking, and I get more touches on the ball.
Coaches, retired beach players, and club directors across the country arent surprised by the success of these young sand sensations.
We tell our indoor players if they want to do great indoors, the best thing they can do is come outdoors for the summer, said Chris Mahi, co-director of Club Iowa (CIA) in Cedar Falls.
Mahi and her husband, Kalani, are among the growing number of club directors nationwide whove added beach programs to improve their players skills and chances to compete at a higher level.
The growth we see in players who train in the sand is tremendous, said Mahi, who started CIA Beach Volleyball in 2013. The kids ball control is markedly better, their movement is better, and weve seen kids increase their verticals by four inches.
Perhaps the biggest area of improvement, she said, is in players mental games.
In beach, our involvement as coaches is in practice, Mahi said. We cant talk to the kids when they play.
Beach players must learn to communicate with each other and work out strategies on their own. That’s often a daunting task, especially when teams face tough opponents or lose several points in a row.
You and your partner have to learn to help each other in those situations, Mahi said. Beach players have to talk and figure out quickly what to do. You cant just hit the ball hard in sandit’s about placement. You have to see the court.
When players have been in these stressful situations in the sand and found ways to get through them, their mental games rise, she added. It’s fun to see that happen.
John Sample at Texas Advantage Volleyball (TAV) also encourages his players to train in the sand.
It helps with their foot speed and their verticals, said the club director from Carrollton, Texas. It makes them better athletes.
Sample started his beach program five years ago for anotherand just as salientreason. He recognized the sport’s potential to open doors for more girls to pay for college.
I work with the American Volleyball Coaches Association and was on the inside of the movement for colleges to start beach programs, he said. I saw this sport was growing and there were going to be some beach scholarships.
Sample wanted his players to have the training and opportunity to compete for those coveted funds.
We have two high school girls now whove committed to play beach in college, he said. TAV athletes Haley Hallgren and Tarin Mergener will play at USC and Tulane, respectively.
College coaches applaud the club directors whove added beach programs, saying their actions give young players the opportunity to become multi-dimensional athletes and more attractive recruits.
Any time you get to play more and learn more, it’s great, said Nina Matthies, head beach volleyball coach at Pepperdine University. The legendary sand player also coached the indoor women’s team at Pepperdine for 31 seasons.
Indoor volleyball has become so position specific, Matthies said. You may have a middle blocker who doesnt learn to serve. But kids who play on the sand learn every position. They become better volleyball players.
They also become smarter, savvier decision-makers on the court.
Beach players learn to quickly read offenses and defenses, Matthies said. They figure out what people can do and what they cant do.
All these benefits, though, arent the only catalysts fueling the nationwide boom in beach volleyball.
Interest and participation in the game has spiked since 2009 when the NCAA named beach volleyball an emerging sport for women.
According to USA Volleyball, the number of players competing in the junior beach volleyball tour more than tripled from 2009 to 2014, jumping from 2,224 to 6,956.
Those numbers have continued to soar since the NCAA approved beach volleyball as a championship Division I sport in October 2014. Three months later, Divisions II and III approved beach volleyball’s championship status, allowing the sport to leave its emerging-sport categorization behind.
Beach volleyball is now offered at some 50 colleges and universities and is the fastest-growing collegiate sport, according to the NCAA.
Every year [collegiate beach volleyball is] growing, said Matthies. More kids are on scholarships and are getting help to go to college. I think it’s just fantastic.
Matthies enthusiasm for collegiate beach volleyballand the opportunities for its playersdoesnt stop there.
Playing beach in college is going to prepare our athletes to go right into the professional ranks, she said. Theyll be way better prepared to get into that groove if they want to play pro. And well have a big pool of players ready to go into the Olympic program.
But what impact will this surge in beach volleyball have on the indoor version of the sport? Will it reduce the number of players interested in indoor volleyball? Or will players still compete in both sports?
I think you are going to see more players focusing on beach only in the future, said Chris Poole, head coach of Florida State University’s indoor women’s team. The indoor volleyball players were vital for getting the sport started on the collegiate level. However, you may see more players feeling that they can play at a higher level in beach because the sand neutralizes some of the advantages of the big, physical player.
The NCAA’s latest statistics support Poole’s theory. The organization’s numbers reveal that on average 60 percent of beach players compete only on the sand.
Coaches, however, say those figures dont foreshadow a huge exodus of players from indoor volleyball.
Yes, there are going to be kids who start deciding to play just sand, said TAV’s Sample. But there are still a ton of indoor players. Ive got 144 kids [from my club] playing in college this year. Four of those kids play just beach. That’s still a small percentage.
Club Iowa’s Chris Mahi predicts most junior and college players will continue to play both sports.
Indoor coaches may worry theyll lose players to beach, she said. And some schools, like Georgia State and USC, want their kids to just play beach. But for the most part, I think youre going to see crossover players for a while at the NCAA level.
What about the junior level?
Youll have some kids who make the decision to play one sport or the other, Mahi said. But I dont see that happening for another five to 10 years. Most of our top indoor players are tired at the end of season. But theyre fired up to go beach. By the end of beach, though, our kids are excited for their school seasons and are then ready to go back into club.
Remember those talented young players from Kansas? They havent decided if they want to focus only on beach or indoor volleyball in the future.
I want to play both in college, Farris said.
So does her partner. I like both, but I think I like beach better, Ravnsborg said. In college, Id be happy playing both.
For now, they just want to play as much volleyball as they can and see where the game takes them.
Dream of Playing Beach Volleyball in College?
Junior players who want to compete only in beach volleyball in college shouldn’t give up their indoor game.
Not now, and maybe not ever.
“I have seen more and more players specialize in beach, but I still see a lot of benefits from continuing to play indoor,” said Brooke Niles, new head beach volleyball coach at Florida State University. “Our crossover players at Florida State are used to playing in pressure situations that I think can translate very well to the beach game, and the players that play all summer on the beach circuit come back in better shape for the fall indoor season and usually develop a better sense of the game.”
Beach volleyball legend Nina Matthies agrees.
“I encourage [young players] to play both sports,” said Matthies, head beach volleyball coach at Pepperdine University. “Players need touches on the ball all the way around. I tell our kids at our camps to just play. Play and learn the game.”