2018-06-13 09:00:00 CEST

The rise of the Ginger Ninja

In just four years as a coach, former Kiwi player Jason Lochhead has already made his way to the top

Lochhead celebrates Nick Lucena's and Phil Dalhausser's victory at the Fort Lauderdale Major (Photocredit: FIVB)Lochhead celebrates Nick Lucena's and Phil Dalhausser's victory at the Fort Lauderdale Major (Photocredit: FIVB)

Jason Lochhead has been a familiar face on the beach volleyball World Tour for a while. Arguably the most prominent player of New Zealand’s history in the sport, having represented the country in 116 international tournaments from 2004 to 2012, the ‘Ginger Ninja’ was a tenacious and charismatic defender, who used his passion to become a giant inside the courts despite of his 1.77m height.

Since 2014, however, his contributions to the sport have been made in a different way as the 34-year-old former player turned into a rising coach on the Tour. Over the last four years, some of his accomplishments were including Vanuatu in to the beach volleyball map, taking Canada’s Ben Saxton and Chaim Schalk to the Olympics and, most recently, making the games of USA’s Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena even more polished.

“My mom was actually the one who always told me I’d be a good coach, as moms always do,” Lochhead laughed. “I was taking some time off after I had retired from the World Tour in 2012 when the first opportunity to coach a team came, in 2014. It was something that was on my mind, but I really didn’t plan on it. The invitation made me think about it and I figured it could be really fun.”

The New Zealander retired from the World Tour in 2012 and started coaching a little over a year later (Photocredit: FIVB)The New Zealander retired from the World Tour in 2012 and started coaching a little over a year later (Photocredit: FIVB)

It has been fun, the New Zealander tells us, but Lochhead’s first coaching experience was a real challenge, especially for a debuting coach, and it came from where he expected it the least. Jason took over a women’s team of Vanuatu, a country with a population of just 270,000 people and with very limited tradition in beach volleyball, which ranked 60th in the world at the time.

And their goals were ambitious – they wanted to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics. The team ended up just missing the cut by the narrowest of margins, finishing 17th in the Olympic rankings when the top 16 qualified. However, the three seasons the New Zealander worked with Miller Pata and Linline Matauatu, who amassed eight top-ten finishes in the World Tour in the period, definitely elevated Jason into a top-level and well-respected coach.

“I knew the girls from the Tour, but when I flew there for the first time I was nervous since I had never worked with a team full-time,” Lochhead recalls. “When I got there and people welcomed me I realized it would be very fun. The girls were great, they were really easy to coach and they were open to new things and always willing to work hard. It was a great experience to me, with amazing results all the way.”

Amazing result for #vanuatu girls. They played some #great games. Now they have the taste for the top 4. #fortaleza #roadtorio #fivb #vanuatubeachvolleyball @millerpata

53 Likes, 5 Comments - Jason Lochhead (@lochheadjason) on Instagram: "Amazing result for #vanuatu girls. They played some #great games. Now they have the taste for the..."

If one big challenge for his first coaching experience wasn’t enough, Lochhead decided to take another one when Canada’s Ben Saxton and Chaim Schalk, who had been his opponents during his playing career, invited him to be their coach in the summer of 2014.

Now the Ginger Ninja not only was working under the pressure of qualifying two teams to the Olympics, which he ultimately accomplished with the Canadians, who finished ninth in Rio, but he also had to manage his time and his travels extremely well, as one of his teams was based in Oceania and the other in North America.

“It wasn’t that bad actually,” Lochhead told us. “I’d go to Vanuatu at times and sometimes the girls would come to Los Angeles, where I worked with the guys. Both teams where very helpful on making time for training in a way that I could accommodate them.

“It was a little harder during tournaments, as sometimes I’d have to warm up one team and rush to another court to warm up the other and to look at all the video myself, but it was never really a problem.”

#rio2016 has been such a great time and great experience. Heading home in couple of days. Trying to soak up the last couple of days. Thanks to @chaimer and @bensaxton13 picking me to be apart of their team. Awesome journey, and great time watching the best volleyball in the world. Wish #Vanuatu could of been here as well. @millerpata and Linn deserved to be here. #teamcanada #rio #beachvolleyball

113 Likes, 9 Comments - Jason Lochhead (@lochheadjason) on Instagram: "#rio2016 has been such a great time and great experience. Heading home in couple of days. Trying to..."

A few months after his first Olympic experience with Saxton and Schalk, in March 2017, Lochhead’s phone rang with another unexpected call. It was Lucena inviting him to coach him and Dalhausser. What would normally be a no-brainer to most coaches - to coach one of the world's leading beach teams - became a really hard decision for the New Zealander.

“It was crazy, I had never thought about it and I was a little shocked when Nick reached out,” admits Jason. “I struggled to sleep that night. I’m good friends with Ben and Chaim and we were building nicely, but here was one of the best teams in the world, if not the best, calling. I reached out to my dad, we had a long chat about it and I decided to take it. It was too good of an opportunity to pass.”

Once the job was his, Lochhead had another intriguing question to answer – what would a young coach be able to add to such a dominant team?

“That’s a question I had to think about when they approached me,” Lochhead acknowledged. “As we started working together, I noticed some little details that could be improved and one big thing we talk about is getting one percent better every time. There’s always room to improve and when I hear from the guys that they are getting better, it shows we’re in the right direction.”

Since Lochhead's arrival, Phil and Nick have registered some important triumphs, including the 2017 Gstaad Major, the 2017 World Tour Finals and the 2018 Fort Lauderdale Major.

Back to back in Hamburg thanks to this team we got!!!! @swatchmajorseries @roxvolleyball

1,391 Likes, 36 Comments - Nick Lucena (@njlucena) on Instagram: "Back to back in Hamburg thanks to this team we got!!!! @swatchmajorseries @roxvolleyball"

With so many different experiences in such a short period of time, the Kiwi developed his coaching philosophy pretty naturally. And it’s certainly one that fits his professional trajectory.

“One thing I really try hard to do is looking at each person and each team differently,” Lochhead adds. “We can’t all play the same game because everyone is so different. So I try to see how I can help them to be the best they can be and how we can put these two people together so they can help each other.”

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