Q&A: Tokyo Hopefuls In Volleyball Explain The Differences And Similarities In Their Sport
by Lisa Costantini
Brooke Sweat (R) and Summer Ross (L) celebrate winning a match at the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour Qinzhou Open on Oct. 15, 2017 in Qinzhou, China.
With the summer Olympic & Paralympic Games just around the corner, volleyball courts are going to be in full swing. But despite that, many people still confuse the sports that are played on them. So we went to the pros to better understand the differences (and similarities) between indoor volleyball, beach volleyball and sitting volleyball.
We asked national team members Monique Burkland Matthews (sitting volleyball), Jeff Jendryk (indoor volleyball) and Brooke Sweat (beach volleyball) to answer the same questions about their sport, ultimately revealing the biggest similarities and differences.
Burkland Matthews, 31, is a two-time Paralympian and two-time medalist who lost her left leg after an accident at work in 2008. When she joined the sitting team — a sport that was added to the Paralympic program in 1980, but didn’t include women until 2004 — she was coming from basketball and softball, and had never played volleyball before. The women’s team is ranked number one in the world and will go to Tokyo as the defending gold medalist after having qualified at the 2018 world championships.
Jendryk, 25, made his debut with the U.S. men’s team during the 2017 FIVB World League, winning bronze the following year. He hopes to make his first Olympic team as a middle blocker in indoor, a sport that has been on the Olympic program consistently for men and women since 1964.
Sweat, 35, started out playing indoor volleyball but hopes to qualify for her second Games in beach this summer, which has been on the Olympic program since 1996.
The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will take place this summer from July 24-Aug. 9, with the Paralympic Games happening two weeks later from Aug. 24-Sept. 5.
What do you think is the hardest thing about your sport?
Burkland Matthews: The hardest thing about sitting volleyball is actually the movement because you have to use your arms and your legs to move. You can’t just run to get the ball.
Jendryk: The hardest thing about indoor volleyball is the amount of fast-paced movement we have to go through. Indoor volleyball is a great sport, but a lot of these plays are happening in less than four seconds. So the amount of moving parts that happen on the court is a lot and very fast.
Sweat: For beach volleyball, we have to find that perfect partnership, where you have to connect in a lot of ways. The dynamic of the team is just two people, and we don’t have substitutes. So if one person is playing badly, we can’t sub them out and put someone else in. So I think only having two people is way harder than having six.
What is the hardest move in your sport?
Burkland Matthews: For me, moving to my right side is harder because my leg actually gets in the way. In sitting volleyball, the answer is going to be different for each player [depending on their impairment].
Jendryk: I think the hardest move in indoor volleyball is just being able to move — quickly — in all directions. Because the ball is coming at you, I think, a lot quicker than a beach volleyball player has to deal with. So you have to have a quick reaction time.
Sweat: The one thing that was hard when I came from indoor to beach was moving around and jumping in the sand. And the shots are a little slower with indoor because there are six people on the court. With beach volleyball there’s usually one player blocking the net and one on defense, so that opens up almost the entire court for one defender to defend.
What is the most common injury in your sport?
Burkland Matthews: Our wrists probably, because we use them as our ankles [with our hands as our feet].
Jendryk: We have a lot of injuries through our legs, knees, even our shoulders. I think volleyball is a sport that has the most jumping. So that’s why we have a weight coach and really try to work on strengthening our lower body and really practice landing. So when we’re jumping 200, 300 times a day, our body is used to that and can avoid injuries.
Sweat: I think shoulder injuries are the most common one.
What is one thing people don’t know about your sport?
Burkland Matthews: That we’re not in wheelchairs and we actually sit on the ground to play.
Jendryk: I think one thing that people don’t know is just how much fun you can have playing indoor volleyball. People are going to stereotype thinking it’s not an aggressive sport, but once you get on the volleyball court, you can show your athleticism.
Sweat: There’s a lot more to it than just going down to the beach and hitting the ball around, and hanging out in the sand. In reality we’re in the sand practicing 2-3 hours, grab some food, go straight to the gym, workout, then we have physical therapy or psychology sessions. So it turns into a full day when you add everything up.
How do you explain your sport to other people?
Burkland Matthews: Honestly, I pull up YouTube and I’ll show them our gold medal match from Rio. Because you can explain it, but until you actually see it and how we move, you don’t really get a grasp of it.
Jendryk: You have to explain it a little bit — just the amount of players that are on indoor versus beach. But I think after that they understand how it goes.
Sweat: Usually you don’t have to explain it, but sometimes you’ll just have to tell them it’s two on two. It’s not like the normal indoor volleyball that they see.
Do you work in addition to competing in your sport?
Burkland Matthews: Right now I do DoorDash because it’s really hard to find a job that will let you leave for like two weeks at a time. And since we practice 8-11 every day, it’s really hard to find a job.
Jendryk: No, I play volleyball 24/7.
Sweat: I do not work.
Have you tried or interacted much with the other volleyball sports?
Burkland Matthews: We did have some of the men’s standing players sit down and play with us, and it was fun to watch them. They want to stand up and hit the ball — or they jump up, which is called a butt lift in our sport [and is an illegal move]. They said their butts hurt after they had been sitting for a while, and it was harder than they thought it would be.
Jendryk: I have not tried sitting, but I would love to. With sitting volleyball I think you have to have perfect contact and be able to place the ball where you want to place it. And as a middle blocker I struggle with that, so it could help me.
Sweat: I loved indoor when I used to play it. It’s more of a power game, whereas beach is more of a finesse game. For beach you have to build up your sand legs — and it takes time. You can also lose them if you don’t play in the sand for a bit. And I’ve never played sitting volleyball.