Volleyball Sets Its Footing in the Sand This Fall

Hope volleyball players serve and dig during practice. Listen to the Orange and Blue Podcast and download it for your phone: Head coach Becky Schmidt talks about her team's conversations regarding social injustice, how a cut from the women's basketball team led her to become a volleyball All-American at Hope and her path into coaching. 

By Alan Babbitt

Rose Thompson and the Hope College volleyball team are digging in this fall, challenging themselves in a new, outdoor environment.

They're still sweating but now with a little sand between their toes.

The Flying Dutch, an NCAA Division III regional finalist last season, have opened fall workouts by using two beach volleyball courts at the City of Holland's Matt Urban Park. 

With DeVos Fieldhouse closed at the moment for all fitness-related activities per State of Michigan executive orders, head coach Becky Schmidt served up a creative training offering for a team eager to play together despite competition postponed until the spring.

"The most fun part of practice so far has been being back with the team — hands down," said Thompson, a senior outside hitter from Coopersville, Michigan (Unity Christian HS). "It has been so long since we've been able to be together, that I had almost forgotten just how much I love my teammates, and what a privilege it is to be around them every day. It still is definitely a bummer that we can't all be together at the same time with COVID-19 regulations, but I am super thankful for the opportunities that we do have to play the sport we love together, even if in a very different environment than what we're used to."

Photos, at right, by Sports Information Director Alan Babbitt

Three days a week, Schmidt and her coaching staff lead split-session workouts at Matt Urban Park. There are four different practice sessions featuring groups of eight student-athletes at a time. They work on serving, digging, passing and hitting through drills designed to follow safety and preventive protocols and guidelines from the Ottawa County Department of Public Health, the State of Michigan and the NCAA.

Beach volleyball is not the same game they love to play inside DeVos Fieldhouse. It has been a transition, but a worthwhile one said senior setter Adair Cutler of Lansing, Michigan (East Lansing).

"With only two people on the court at a time, we all have to play every position, so our middles are digging, our setters are passing, and our liberos are swinging," Cutler said. "It's been awesome seeing everyone take on new roles and the versatility that we will gain from playing beach volleyball will pay off when we get back indoors. We're all learning something new together. We're playing a new game with new rules in a new environment, but with our same team. Figuring out something new and having each other as our only constants right now are really helping our team bond together."

Thompson is optimistic, too, that playing in the sand will benefit her and her Hope teammates down the road.

"It's much harder to move in the sand, both laterally and vertically. Adjusting to the spacing is also different; the pace of the game has to be slower for it to even work," Thompson said. "I do really think, however, that practicing in the sand will help us so much with our ball control. Once we get out on the gym floor, we will hopefully be jumping so much higher than we otherwise would have."

Schmidt has utilized resources from the American Volleyball Coaches Association in designing beach volleyball drills for her team, even though she once played the sport herself on the Midwest Professional Volleyball Association Tour. 

Newer on the college scene, beach volleyball became the NCAA's 90th sanctioned national championship in 2016. 

"Beach volleyball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the NCAA. The AVCA has really embraced coaching education for beach coaches and professionalizing the beach coach profession," Schmidt said. "I've never gone to those clinics at our convention because I'm always at the indoor (clinics). But thankfully the AVCA puts a lot of those things online. I'm able to go back and read about some of the drills, recommendations, tactics and strategies."

First-year assistant coach Kyleigh Block assisted in preparations for this fall's training by reviewing AVP professional games.

"She used a stopwatch to be able to see how long two players would be within six feet of each other in order to actually see (if) we can follow the social distance guidelines and play beach volleyball the way it's meant to be played," Schmidt said. "We were able to find out your really only within six feet of your partner for a total of 10 seconds every set and your within six feet of the person on the other side of the net if they're blocking and hitting, for only a minute and a half. 

"We're doing our research. We try to use our critical thinking skills and our understanding of motor learning and motor development to be able to hold practices, drills and environments that are going to be conducive to learning."

Schmidt is proud of how Thompson and her teammates have responded to the postponement of competition in the fall season and their new fall training regimen.

They have not sweated all the changes one bit. They enthusiastically have jumped into the sand and dug what's on the beach court each day.

"They are learning how to embrace challenges, how to be flexible adapters, how to become mentally tough and how to become incredible teammates," Schmidt said. "That's exciting and disappointing at the same time that we're not going to have the same opportunity to demonstrate that growth in the way that we typically do. And you know what? That's going to have to be OK. Just because we're not competing for a championship doesn't mean we're still not trying to become the best volleyball players, teammates and women that we can be."

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