2018-08-29 14:08:00 CEST
The unseen heroes of the beach
From mental coaches massaging confidence to physiotherapists easing the strain on their limbs, beach volleyball teams are more than the two players seen on the sand. The team behind the team play just as an important role when it comes to going for gold on the world stage.
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When Anders Mol, Christian Sørum, Ágatha Bednarczuk and Duda Lisboa Santos climbed triumphantly to the top of the podium inside Hamburg’s Red Bull Beach Arena to receive the biggest winners’ check in beach volleyball history they did not do so alone.
At a first glance, that might have looked the case. It always is with beach volleyball teams. At the center of it all, there are always just two players, no more, no less. Come, rain or shine, on a side court or a packed center court, there’s always just two teammates doing all they can to keep that ball afloat.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that it takes more than just teamwork of two when it comes to making it to the top in the 21st century world of professional beach volleyball.
Behind most of the world’s greatest tandems are loyal, dedicated and passionate individuals who without the stars would never be able to reach the pinnacle of their performance. The preparation goes beyond early mornings setting up drills, or the late nights in front of the laptop of trawling through hours of video footage of service analysis, seeking that decisive edge over the opposition.
They act as a soundboard for strategy.
But these unseen heroes’ work isn’t tied to tactics or tired bodies and minds.
They also help the stars navigate their way through the time-consuming mind maze of organizing low-cost air travel from tournament to tournament, or to promote their skills to potential sponsors.
More importantly, they are there to share in celebration the successes, and sometimes they’re that shoulder to cry on.
There is always a team behind a team. You just don’t always see them.
Going the extra mile
Brazilian superstar Duda celebrated her 20th birthday during the A1 Major Vienna presented by Swatch in early August. She’s achieved more in her burgeoning career already than some veterans who have been slugging it out on the sand for decades.
She’s the future of beach volleyball but the future is now. Together with 2016 Olympic silver medalist, Ágatha, Duda can call on the assistance of seven members of staff; including three coaches, a physiologist, a psychologist, a physiotherapist and an endocrinologist – that’s someone specifically responsible for managing diseases that effect a players’ glands and hormones. How’s that for attention to detail?
Combining each individuals’ skill-set has, Duda believes, made her the player she is today – even at her precocious age.
“Their work is absolutely vital for us,” she explains. Prior to teaming up with Ágatha, Duda was just helped by her mother, her friend Lucas – who is part of the current team – and one physio.
“It’s important not only because of how much we get to improve in each training session, but also because they are always with us, in the good and bad moments,” she continues.
“Their roles go well beyond putting us in shape or setting up a good strategy, they support us in our daily routine and we really appreciate all they do for us.
“Working with all these professionals made me mature a lot and has helped me to improve faster. I love everything I have now.”
The formula proved its worth with gold and a prize of 150,000 USD Dollars in Hamburg. It also ensured Duda wrote herself into the history books by becoming the youngest ever World Tour Finals champion.
Keeping it in the family
Family values helped push Duda’s upwards trajectory towards stardom, and for two new kids on the beach volleyball block, a family-orientated team has paid huge dividends.
The 2018 summer season almost single-handedly belonged to Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sørum, who served, spiked, digged and dived into breaking new records. Their triumph in Hamburg was their fourth big tournament win on the spin, following victories in Gstaad, Vienna and at the European Championships in the Netherlands.
Yet, as has previously been documented, the secret to their success is a family team like no other. The Beachvolley Vikings team isn’t just made up of 21-year-old Anders and Christian, 22. The team are coached by Anders’ father Kåre and his uncle, Jetmund Bernsten. A second team, consisting of Anders’ brother Hendrik and cousin Mathias, son of Jetmund, complete the quartet of talented beach players in the Vikings’ make-up.
Not only that, keeping an eagle eye everything, are the two mothers of both sets of families, Merita Mol and Annette Bernsten, the organizers-in-chief.
It gives Anders, Christian, Hendrik and Mathias a backroom staff to call upon that possess years of experience between them. Volleyball is running through their veins. Now it’s well and truly in the genes.
“Our family is our team,” says Anders, who was named 2017 year’s Rookie of the Year by the FIVB before going on to enjoy a season of unbridled success in 2018. “This is why we are so passionate when we do well. Our coach interrupted an interview in Gstaad because he was so happy. There’s a lot of emotion.
“When we do well it’s not the only people behind that, Mathias and Hendrik are big parts of that and they are happy when we do well, and vice-versa. I think this group is really important and it’s also one reason why we are playing so well.
“There are good and bad things about being in a team made-up of family and friends but being completely honest with each other is one of the good things. We always want to improve and help one another out with nobody else getting in the way.
“This means we push each other every day in the fitness room, supporting each other when we have bad days and giving feedback as to how we can do better.”
Tight-knit family relationships are common at the beach. And when you’re married to your coach, a work-life balance can be tough to juggle. Or so you’d think…
“I understand if people can’t imagine working with their loved one or partner all of the time,” reflects Vienna Major champion and Hamburg Finals silver medalist Marketá Sluková, who met husband Simon Nausch at a training camp in 2009.
“Many couples run businesses together. We’re no different. I can see why people might think it’s weird being married to my coach. He has, after all, to tell me what to do. But I see it as a huge advantage. He’s always there and I’m sure that’s something players who leave their loved ones behind would also wish for.
“We could have chosen someone else to be our coach, but we chose Simon because he’s a team leader and someone has to have the final word. We have mental, physical and physiological coaches with us when the time allows but Simon is like a three-in-one, he coaches us and manages us, helping booking flights.
“Behind every athlete or team are a village of people who are doing the work that is not in the spotlight and this is the most important. In our team we talk a lot about everything, some things perhaps other teams would not discuss within their team. Sometimes it’s tricky, but we have trust within our team and this cooperation makes the success we have even sweeter.”
The Perfect 10
Of course, players don’t always need to rely on a massive crew behind-the-scenes. Take for instance, Fort Lauderdale Major champions – and fathers of two – Nick Lucena and Phil ‘The Thin Beast’ Dalhausser. It’s just those two and coach Jason Lochhead holding the fort. The American duo trust their coach so much that at a recent tournament on US soil, Lochhead played alongside Phil when an injured kept Nick sidelined.
But while Nick and Phil’s minimalist approach serves them well – reigning world champion Evandro Gonçalves de Oliveira Junior has 10 people alongside him – if you include his on-the-sand teammate Vitor Gonçalves Felipe.
“I knew that having more competent and committed people around would help me to progress faster,” admits the 210 cm-tall blocker, who won World Championship gold in Vienna in 2017. “I think the last two years show that. We’re all going in to the same direction and it’s like a puzzle, every piece is important and the work isn’t complete if one is missing, regardless of who it is. I honestly cannot see myself without any of them and all the support they give me every day.”
Like Ágatha and Duda, Evandro and Vitor Felipe are blessed with staff to help them in many different aspects of their game, including a strength coach and a nutritionist.
“I’m very pleased to have each of them working with us,” continues Evandro. “Each of these great professionals has its own role and the team doesn’t work if any of them are not there. This team was built last year and I’m very grateful for all their commitment to us. Sometimes we feel we don’t have the means to reward them as they deserve but that doesn’t change their dedication, they are really passionate about beach volleyball and about their work and that makes a big difference.”
There’s no I in team
The teams behind the team have to help in a variety of different ways. Mother-of-three and three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings also calls upon a group of dedicated “badasses” who inspire her, test her and, perhaps most importantly, pick her up when things aren’t going to plan.
“These people challenge us every day,” says the 40-year-old American beach legend. “The worst thing about winning is that you’re only up there on the podium with your partner, but the team you achieve it with isn’t.
“They make the wins better and make the losses more bearable, knowing you can fix the issues.
“There’s a lot of comfort there even during the most challenging of times.”
The fact that medals are only awarded to the players is a situation not lost on Swiss star Anouk Vergé-Dépré.
The 26-year-old blocker and teammate Joana Heidrich have won plenty of precious metal on the sand together, and Anouk says that’s all down to the part the duo’s support staff. From the first steps in training to the match itself, their backroom team help them every step of the way in their keeping them one step ahead of the competition.
“Athletes are always in the spotlight – but behind-the-scenes a lot of people work not ‘for’ us but with us because we are a team,” she explains. “There’s medical staff and coaches, who prepare all the physical preparation, plus we have the support of sponsors and management that co-ordinate everything so we are able to focus ourselves on the game, on one set, on one point.
“We talk with our coaches about the tactics, and we also do video analysis before the game; watching our opponents, how they move, their structure to the points they make when playing. There’s a lot of preparation before. But once the game starts it’s down to us to adapt or change tactics.”
Those hidden but vital helping hands also rallied Austria’s beach volleyball sons, Clemens Doppler and Alex Horst, to clinch a fairytale silver medal at last year’s World Championships in Vienna.
“You only see us two on court,” says Clemens, a pro beach volleyball player for 20 years. Clemens and Alex's coach, Robert Nowotny, a former Olympic athlete, was named 2017 Coach of the Year.
“Behind us there are five people. You don’t see them, but they are as important as we are. Our performance depends on their motivation and performance. The relationship we have with them is important. It’s a good match and, yes, we do have differences of opinion but when you have a relationship like this you can discuss it.”
As the race to reach the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo begins, beach volleyball has never than before been more about just four players going into battle on the sand.
So the next time you visit the Red Bull Beach Arena and applaud your two favorite players, remember that waiting for them behind the scenes are a team of people whose dedication, enthusiasm and hard work keep the beach elite’s mind, body and soul in tune for another crack at glory.
Together. Everyone. Achieves. More.