Depending on your definition on what is and what is not a sport, there are two sports in the world in which there are two people on a team: doubles tennis, and beach volleyball. Now, to be clear, I am not taking a shot at the All-American Cornhole players, or the All-Star Darts team. If they’re sports to you, so be it, and in actuality, the point of this story remains the same: When playing a two-player sport such as beach volleyball or cornhole or tennis or darts, the answer to this question -- what separates a good volleyball player from a great volleyball player? -- is the same across all two-person sports.
It’s a simple math equation, really: You are 50 percent of the team, your partner is 50 percent of the team. With that considered, it doesn’t much matter if you’re playing up to 100 percent of your capability as a player. Even if you’re at your peak, the team is still only at 50 percent of its potential peak.
What separates a good volleyball player from a great one, then?
Your ability as a partner.
It doesn’t matter if you’re siding out 100 percent if your partner is getting all of the serves. It doesn’t matter if you’re the greatest defender in the world if your partner is getting tooled off the block. It doesn’t matter if you’re passing dimes if your partner isn’t confident enough to set well.
Half of your job, at least, when it comes to beach volleyball, is to be the best partner you can be. Which also means this: Half of your job, at least, when it comes to beach volleyball, is to help your partner help you.
Yes, I know you’re a great beach volleyball player. You swing well, set butter, block and defend with the best of them. But the reality of the matter is this: You’re going to get in ruts. It is as inevitable as the sun rising in the east tomorrow morning.
When you do, it’s best to be prepared. It’s best to have your partner prepared. You need to know yourself, and allow your partner into that internal calculus of what makes you the best beach volleyball player you can be.
“If I like steak, and I keep getting pissed off that they’re not cooking me steak – but I never told them I like steak, and I never told them I like it medium rare, they’re never going to make me happy,” AVP professional beach volleyball player Mark Burik said. “We need to know where we’re good, what triggers us and pisses us off, and how I should be talked to when I make a mistake.”
Your partner needs to know everything about you. Do you like to calm down before a match? Take five scoops of pre-workout and start bouncing off the walls? Do you like to talk trash, or do you want to keep the dialogue in-house? Do you like speaking to each other at all?
One of the strangest experiences of my playing career is when I played in the King of the Beach last fall. I was playing with Trevor Crabb, against Taylor Crabb and Avery Drost. I’ve never had my partner speak more to the other team than me, as Trevor did, and is known to do. It was odd, and I struggled a little with that concept. Rather than turning and telling me good shot after I put one down, Trevor would crack a joke at the other team for how easy it was.
Now, I'm a fan of trash talk. Love it. And I love that Trevor did it. I just needed a little love is all. It isn’t Trevor’s fault, of course. I never told him I’d rather him pump me up, keep my ego as inflated as a balloon animal. So he just did what he always does: He talked trash to the other team.
That is, quite obviously, not the only reason we lost. But it docked a few of my potential percentage points. Rather than operating at, say 95 percent of my potential as a player, I was at maybe an 88. Still a high level, but to beat Taylor Crabb, a B+ effort doesn't work. Only an A will do, and I didn't have it that day.
To make that jump from good to great, you not only need to know when you play your best, but just as important, your partner needs to know when you play your best.
“Think of your most dominant performance,” Burik said. “What was it? Were you drunk? Do you play best when you’re drunk? What was your posture like? What was your speech like? What was your breathing like?
“So you can anchor yourself back in that state and you can start to simulate that. You want to start that breathing before the match starts. You have to know how to help your partner help you. What words make you better? What actions make you better? You have to know your own triggers. Partners can silently kill us. The first thing is knowing yourself, then you can open up to your partner.”
Then you can truly know the difference between what separates a good volleyball player from a great volleyball player.
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