Beach volleyball: More than just a glamour sport

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Unfortunately when some people think of the sport of beach volleyball, they fail to think about the sport at all. Which is a huge injustice to the athleticism and skill level of the game.

It is easy to assume why the beach volleyball tickets at the Olympics are the first to sell out. However an article recently written for the respected Inside the Games website logically points to the rise of beach volleyball being in its inherently perfect storm of sun, music, action, athleticism and easy to understand rules. Beach Volleyball’s partnership with Red Bull and its voracious appetite for social media put it one step ahead of most Olympic sports in creating an incredibly interactive and all-consuming experience for the fan.

While other sports have now introduced ploys like music and cheerleaders to liven up the spectacle, no other sport does it in such an authentic and effortless way as beach volleyball. Many of the usual fans would probably have spent a summer at festivals and parties and while sport-for-education and sport-for-wider-development are catchphrases in Olympism, beach volleyball unashamedly parties on as sport-for-entertainment. Pure and simple.
Whatever the initial reason for watching beach volleyball may have been, any spectator is soon glued to the action itself, which is usually gripping and quickly becomes the clear source of attraction despite everything else going on.

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While the basic skill set is the same as the indoor version (which is fast becoming the poor cousin) this is where the similarity ends.  With only two people covering the same amount of sand as six on the indoor playing area, a lot of time is spent diving across the sand to spatula up the ball before it hits the ground. And with only two players it means every second ball is yours, so if you’ve just received a face full of sand spatula-ing a serve, you have to get back on your feet with incredible speed yet with enough control, to hit the third ball with finesse and hopefully down a winner.

The agility and skill level needed on the beach means that often the players are shorter than their indoor counterparts.  As you would also imagine is obvious, a high level of fitness is essential; to run with any speed over sand, jump high in it, dive in it and get back up again to jump in it again, is one of the reasons beach players end up rather lean. And in a stadium surrounded by grandstands that shut out the breeze it has been known to get up to 40 degrees on centre court which soon drains any reserves.

In fact the need for fitness, agility, finesse and speed (all in sand remember) is almost more important than how hard you hit the ball – a ball spiked with nothing but speed is usually all too easy to defend. Strategy plays a big part in the beach game – finding holes in the opposing team’s defence, using their known weaknesses against them, continually serving on the player that shanks it and using the wind, sun and lighter ball to create hard to read or to see serves and shots can win the game. So not very polite really.

Two schools of thought in beach volleyball prevail; the Brazilian one in which players spend hour after hour running drills and skills to perfection, and the American one, where from a young age you just show up at the beach and play and make it up as you go along, accumulating thousands of hours of practice and game-reading ability. One country is considered the mecca of beach volleyball, the other, the place it was invented. At the London Olympic Games the winners of the women’s beach volleyball gold and silver medals were the Americans, the bronze medallists, Brazil and the men’s silver medallists, Brazil.

One of the most uncomplicated things about beach volleyball however, is that anyone can play. The sand means it doesn’t hurt to dive to spatula that ball, not having to hit hard but wisely can appeal to the less skilled but canny, and although the top level of the game has only two players, at the social level anywhere up to six players is often allowed. And due to skill and finesse mostly over-riding power, at the social level an entire team of women can very often beat an entire team of men. Beach volleyball is also ageless; even at the last Olympic Games the average age was a hardy 29.2 years old with the oldest being 40 plus.

In Waikato, one of the most scenic, convenient and friendly places to play is at the Karapiro Sand Courts, (www.beachvolleyball.co.nz ) sited just above the NZ Rowing High Performance centre, with a commanding view of the lake and a comfy embankment for post-play picnics.  Social leagues are held there each summer, as is the New Zealand National Beach Tour each January (at which the soon to be men’s Olympic champions from Germany played in 2012).

It would be a hard road finding a more enjoyable, non-contact, forgiving surface, just collide with the ball to get it over the net kind of sport, than beach volleyball.

Considering the in-built athleticism, the Brazilian/US rivalry and the need for speed, the duels on Copacabana beach at the Rio Olympics this year should undeniably cement the sport’s reputation as one of the most physically demanding, athletic, skilful, and yes, entertaining, sports to be had.

To see one of most insanely long professional beach volleyball rallies ever, check out this clip

Alison Storey is a personal trainer who has represented New Zealand in three different sports (beach volleyball, rowing and rhythmic gymnastics). She has been awarded New Zealand Personal Trainer of the Year twice and runs Storey Sport, a mobile personal and sports training business which provides a range of services that optimise the fitness and wellbeing of its clients. www.storeysport.co.nz

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