An Olympian’s Top 5 Beach Volleyball Tips
Between the scorching sun, unpredictable wind, and sand everywhere (everywhere), there’s no question that beach volleyball is a gritty sport. Yet there is something so fun, so quintessentially summer about knocking the ball around a sandy court on a warm day.
To help beach-goers deal with beach volleyball’s specific challenges, we asked Olympic medalist Sean Rooney to share some volleyball tips with us. Sean may have been on the US men’s indoor volleyball team that took home gold in the 2008 Beijing Games, but he also played in the premier beach league, the AVP, after college. Here’s what he had to say:
Use a secret language
In the most traditional beach volleyball games, there are two people per side, which means there’s a lot of court to cover. This makes communication between teammates crucial. In addition to verbal cues—such as shouting “mine!” or “seagull incoming!”—Sean recommends devising hand signals “to set up your offense or to communicate when you’re further apart.” Such nonverbal cues are important, he says, to prevent the other team from anticipating your plays.
Pro Tip: Devise hand signals to prevent the other team from anticipating your plays.
In many intramural leagues, however, six people play, setting up in more traditional indoor-volleyball positions despite being on the beach. But the players in the front row (usually the setter) can still give a secret hand signal to the server to tell them where to serve.
Work with the wind
Playing outdoors means adapting to the weather, a particularly challenging thing to do on a gusty day, when the wind pushes the ball in unpredictable ways. Chicagoland native Sean recalls the difficulties of playing on North Avenue Beach in one of the windiest cities in North America. “The wind comes across there at a pretty awkward angle, so you definitely see a different version of volleyball while you’re there.” He suggests the standby beach-volleyball technique of using a handful of sand to sense the direction of the wind before each serve and adjusting the strength of your hit accordingly.
You could also try bumping the ball as high as you can over the net. A really high ball caught in the wind is extremely hard to anticipate, making it potentially more dangerous than a hit on a windy day. Another variation of this is the skyball serve, best demonstrated by Italian beach player Adrian Carambula, who used his unconventional serve to flummox teams at the 2016 Rio Games.
Pick the right shades
The sun can also work against you during outdoor play, which is why a baseball hat or visor and sunglasses are a must. But be careful which pair of shades you pick. “I have a little scar between my eyes from wearing the wrong type of sunglasses when I was young and dumb,” Sean warns. “The designer ones are more inclined to leave a mark if you take one in the dome. Sports sunglasses are usually the way to go.”
The newest high-performance sunglasses from brands such as Oakley have special lenses that filter out certain colors and may enhance details and depth perception. Famed women’s beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh-Jennings said that the Oakley lenses enhanced white and blue colors, making it easier for her to see the ball and sky.
Use your toes as shovels
The reason beach volleyball players go barefoot has nothing to do with eliminating sandal tan lines and everything to do with mobility. Shoes and socks are bound to get filled with sand and weigh you down. “Basically, you’re using every one of your toes as a mini shovel,” Sean explains. “If you dig down and take small steps, that’s how you move laterally and stay quick on the beach.”
“Basically, you’re using every one of your toes as a mini shovel. “If you dig down and take small steps, that’s how you move laterally and stay quick on the beach.”
Professional volleyball player Sean Rooney
But don’t burn your feet
One of the more uncomfortable realities of beach is playing barefoot on hard-packed sand that’s been baking in the sun all day. During pro tournaments, organizers use hoses to keep the sand watered down, but on public beaches, you’ll have to improvise your own water source. If you’ve already emptied out the ice from your cooler, there’s still a trick you can use. “If you’re not in the middle of a play, you can shimmy down and bury your feet below the surface,” Sean says, “There’s a little shade there, and that definitely can help.”
Similarly, you can try kicking the sand around to bring the cooler sand underneath to the surface. Borrowing a sand pail from a nearby ragamuffin can help speed up the process. And if all else fails, Sean says there’s only one thing left to do: “keep moving.”