On the Beach: the future, plus 5 to follow
10th August 2017
For part 4 of our On The Beach series, we're back with England's #1 men's team, Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf, as they give their views on the state of beach volleyball and its future prospects.
All the indications are that beach volleyball in the UK is in good health. New, dedicated beach volleyball clubs are appearing while some of the more established clubs are seeing hundreds of people trying the sport for the first time. Independent tournament organisers have come together to be part of the Volleyball England Beach Tour. The students have come to the party too, with the first BUCS beach competition taking place earlier this summer.
Yet much still needs to be done at the very top level of the sport if England is to really compete on the world stage. At least, that’s the view of Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf, who have been ploughing a lonely furrow as England’s #1 men’s beach pair on the senior Tour for the past few years.
“I think that what’s happening at the grass roots level of the sport is hugely encouraging,” suggests Jake. “So many new people coming into the sport, using facilities which sprung up thanks to the legacy effect of 2012; that’s great to see. There’s a club structure emerging in beach volleyball now, offering a really good product to the novice players. However, further along the talent pathway, I still worry about what’s on offer for the better players. What incentives are we creating for them to keep progressing? That’s where we, the beach volleyball community, now need to focus our efforts.”
The five to follow
When asked for five players to keep an eye on, Chris and Jake have no trouble rattling off a list of their potential successors. “The Bello twins, Issa Batrane, Harry Jones and Rob Poole,” says Chris. “However, to add another name in the mix, there’s also Ryan Poole. I don’t know that much about him but he’s one of the most natural talents you’ll see. If he applies himself, he could be really handy.”
“The Bellos (Javier and Joaquin) are technically very gifted,” adds Jake. “You can tell that they’ve been trained and coached well. We haven’t trained with them but we did see them play at a recent NEVZA event [in Denmark]. They beat one of the top seeds but, frankly, I wasn’t surprised.”
“As for the others, Issa is so athletic,” says Chris. “Such a hard worker and so committed. I think he’s now playing some of his best ever volleyball. He played the CEV U-22s with Rob recently – and you can see how Rob’s time in the US college system has benefited him. It’s affected his beach game in a really positive way. Plus, he’s a huge blocker – and we need more of them.”
“And then there’s Harry; another natural talent but someone who’s a real hard worker. His commitment on and off the court can never be doubted. Such intensity! It’s like he’s in 7th gear, 100% of the time!”
The million dollar question is how far these emerging talents can go once they’ve outgrown the junior competitions which they’re currently able to compete in. Chris and Jake are the first to admit that they benefited immensely from coming into an established structure at Bath University in the pre-London 2012 years which saw them training alongside the more senior players. The competitive opportunities which were available to them provided a tangible incentive to keep progressing. The next generation are not going to be so fortunate.
“I’m always asking these guys, ‘how badly do you want this?’” says Jake. “What are they prepared to give up? Because the current reality is that they’ll have to put their lives on hold for 6-8 years if they hope to be competitive players on the European or World Tours. They’re going to have to take risks. They’ll have to invest time and money – and then go looking for more money. Our sport is not in a position to simply give them what they need. They’ll have to go and get it; which will be a test of their motivation.”
“I’m always happy to offer these players advice - on the playing front but also regarding the behind-the-scenes stuff. However, I also really want to work with the powers-that-be to create a decent structure for these guys, similar to what we enjoyed. That should provide them with further motivation, much more than any number of stories about what Chris and I are up to ever can.”
Looking abroad for inspiration
With both players believing that standards on the UK Tour have declined in recent years, they’re keen to look abroad for inspiration on how to improve the product.
“I like what Germany and Switzerland did about 15 years ago,” suggests Chris. “They both created a really strong, marketable product, able to attract the best overseas players. They’ve driven standards up so any home-grown player can step seamlessly from the national events to the World Tour. For an English player, it’s a huge step up from home events to NEVZA, let alone to the World Tour.”
“Given complete freedom to do whatever I wanted, I’d try to replicate the Swiss events; eight team tournaments on a single court in a busy city centre, with a couple of high quality overseas teams invited along.”
“I’d like to investigate how far we could go with the idea of creating a formal national squad, with all the athletes in one place, playing and training together,” adds Jake. “We’d have to acknowledge work or study commitments but could feasibly create a programme around that, allowing people to become, say, 60-70% full-time athletes but engendering a real sense of competition within the group. If you can lay on a programme like that, you’re then able to challenge the athletes to prove how committed they are to do what’s required to be an international player.”
Collaborating more with existing beach volleyball operators, forging stronger University links, attracting foreign players, creating an England Beach Team, establishing a brand, thinking more creatively; Chris and Jake aren’t short of ideas on how they’d like to help take the sport forwards. But they’re also realistic enough to know that independent sources of finance will have to be found to make these ambitions a reality.
“We’ve got the foundation product,” summarises Chris, “but now we need the performance product. It’s all well and good sending our talented youngsters to the under-age competitions but what happens next for them? It’s no good any of us sitting back and hoping or expecting that someone else will sort this though. We all need to come together and collaborate if we are to create this product. Thankfully, the discussions about what to do are now taking place. The right people are talking but we need to get moving with this because without the right structure and support, the next generation of players coming up behind us will simply drift away from the sport.”