Observations in the Sand

This spring, we’ve added to our our women’s volleyball program at LMU the grueling task of sand volleyball. We’ve set our portable offices by the waters of Marina Del Rey. We’ve toiled amidst the horrific backdrop of sun sand and waves, yet we’ve carry on…

For all the differences in the beach and indoor games, the similarities and cross-overs have been several. There has, however, been one key difference in behavior.

We compete really hard during our sand practices.

This is not to say we don’t get after it on the hardwood. Our team takes it seriously, works mindfully, and plays hard. Sure, we have moments we could be better and the coaches have to bark a little, but the norm is at a good level. None of that is what I’m talking about. On the sand it’s different;

It’s personal.

When we compete for individual points, with the losers moving down and the winners moving up, their investment soars. They complain about calls (I tell them to stop), they talk CONSTANTLY to one another during the play (I definitely don’t tell them to stop). The one’s that don’t talk are reminded forcefully by their partners to communicate better (I cover a gleeful laugh and let that go). They challenge each others on their scores at the end of each round (For sure, I tell them to stop.) When I ask them before each water break what they’ve learned, several are ready to share their observations. As they wave off after missing a side-out, they often have a question as to how they can approach that play better next time.

This probably isn’t very shocking to many who have played beach volleyball, especially to those who played in the days of 5 courts going and losers sitting for hours, thinking of how they need to improve to hold court next time. There’s something about the beach, be it the individualized format, the “win or go home” structure, maybe the combination of both, that just breeds competitiveness.

I believe one of the great benefits of indoor over sand is the connection of being a true member of a team. The structure of the indoor game allows it to be seen a little easier you are a part of something much bigger than yourself. One of the challenges of the indoor game is there is more to hide behind. There’s five other people, there’s personal stats (who in a beach game is going to say “yeah I lost, but I got 20 kills and hit .400!”??), and there’s only one match no matter what. In the traditional beach bracket, you have to earn the right to go on. You’re always in the playoffs.

Generating this type of intensity indoors is of course possible, but maybe more difficult. There are many different methods being used in the indoor game to foster competition, but in my short tenure as a sand coach, none of them seem to have had the immediate and profound impact of two beach courts, a few volleyballs, and the instructions that winners move up and losers move down.

One of my personal goals over the next two months is to carefully observe how many of these behaviors play out, and to see if we can can improve upon our current structure to weave the best elements of both games into one coherent training plan. We’ll see it how it goes. Hopefully better than my bright reddish tan…

2 comments on Observations in the Sand

  1. Basem says:

    >Excellent article and much atiaecprped. My question is why Dr. Bain chose to only view the problem from the scope of motor learning. I believe that also considering the structural (and not just neurological/biomotor) adaptations involved in sport skill acquisition.To use the volleyball spike as an example, obviously the primary influences on an athlete’s ability to perform the skill are spatial awareness, timing, when and how much force to apply, etc., which fall under the guidelines described by Dr. Bain. However, I do believe that a significant determinant in an athlete’s spiking ability is how much force they can apply to the ball. Now, much of that is influenced by the same factors (firing muscles with proper timing will result in faster torso rotation, resulting in a faster armswing; contacting the ball at the proper point on the hand results in more force, etc.), however, an athlete’s physical structure also plays a large role in force production.To use an example, all things being an equal a 200lb man will hit a ball harder than a 90lb girl. Additionally, I’m sure many high school coaches have had a tennis player come out to try volleyball and find that they can overhand serve the first time they try, and with more power than other girls who have played volleyball for a year or two in middle school.The primary influence in causing structural adaptation such as muscle growth is simply the training volume applied over time.So, again using the example of a volleyball spike, it is obviously easier to apply a higher training volume using part and blocked training. I think it is difficult to argue that, after a year of practice, the athlete who hits 1,500 balls per week using part, blocked methods, will have stronger, more developed musculature in the shoulder girdle than an athlete who hits 300 balls per week using whole, random methods. I think it is also difficult to argue that the second athlete will show an increased mastery of the skills in game situations.My question now relates to the principles of diminishing returns. I’ll assume one can hit 5x as many balls in a part, block setting- not unreasonable I think. Obviously, there will be a huge difference in skill acquisition between somebody who hits 0 balls per week and 100 balls per week (using whole/random). There will be less of a difference between somebody who hits 100 and 200 and less still between 200 and 300 and so on and so forth. So my question then becomes, might there be some intersection of whole/random and part/block training such that skill acquisition is “sufficient” and training load is higher to elicit a stronger anatomical adaptation. Meaning, which athlete is likely to be the best:(1) 300 balls per week whole/random?(2) 250 whole/random and 250 part/blocked?(3) 200 whole/random and 500 part/blocked?(4) 100 and 1000?(5) 0 and 1500?Quite obviously it is not (5). And (1) is likely to be the “most skilled.” Yet this raises another fundamental question:Is the most skilled athlete necessarily the most effective?

  2. Tom says:

    Hi Basem,

    Thanks for your post. I’m assuming you meant to post this comment under Dr. Bain’s post and not mine? As for structural adaptation and advantages, Steve and Carl could answer that a lot better. My primary comment would be your assumption that all those blocked practice reps would create a more skilled player. I’d have to disagree. Since volleyball is a visual/motor game and blocked practice by definition takes away the visual, the transfer in such activities is significantly less. Reading the play is such a huge part of playing volleyball, much more than the strength of our shoulder, and the blocked activities do very little to increase our ability to read the play. As for the other statements and questions you were posing, I think I should leave those to the scientists. Thanks again for leaving such a thoughtful reply!

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