Partners are one of the most fascinating aspects of beach volleyball. They can make or break your season, leaving you elated or deflated. It’s a marriage of two people’s athleticism, goals, schedules, potential, and personalities. And aligning those are just the beginning; then you have to win together—which makes the perfect partner all the more elusive.
You may stay with someone for years; other times it’s only for one tournament. And knowing when to stay or go can be agonizing—you fault yourself for staying too long or leaving too soon. You inevitably play your former partner during the first tournament after you break up (you better win that match, or more agony awaits in the defeat).
People break up and get back together only to break up again. We all constantly have our ears to the ground, following the grapevine, waiting for partners to break up so we can swoop in on one of them. The rumor mill is endlessly churning.
“She’s playing with who in Manhattan?”
“Wait, he dropped with him to play with that guy? Are you serious? Can’t wait to see how that plays out.”
“Oh my gosh, they broke up?! Ok, I’m texting her now. Maybe she’ll want to play with me.”
It’s harder to keep up with the AVP partner status than the Iowa caucuses. But the switches make sense. They’re a necessary evil.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece on partner bonding. To help me out, I asked a few athletes to share funny stories between them and their partners. Chase Frishman veered from the norm and sent me something I liked so much that I wanted to give him a larger platform to ruminate.
Chase and I have been friends for years. During the 2016 AVP season, our partners were dating (Mike Brunsting and Nicole Bateham, who now have the most precious baby boy; I can’t handle the cuteness). The four of us would travel to all the AVPs together. In rental cars, hotel lobbies, and backyard patios across the country, Chase and I would often find ourselves in long, probing conversations. We’d get deep and spiritual without it being forced or pretentious. Even after the four of us all broke up, Chase has remained one of my favorite people on tour.
So I wasn’t surprised when he took “partner bonding” to mean “the deep bond between partners.” He leaned away from a silly story and into the intricacies of partnership. Chase presented some thought-provoking comments that intrigued me—and I hope you, too.
Volleyball partnerships are a lot like marriages. Divorce rates are rising, and so are partner swaps. In an ever-changing volleyball landscape, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see extended partnerships. Coming from a guy who has seen both sides of the coin, I’m keen to share some of my experiences.
I started my professional beach career in 2016 with Mike Brunsting, one of my college teammates at UCSD. With nothing to lose and everything a first, sparks flew; the ride was fun. We capitalized on our chemistry and had a year and a half of success on the AVP Tour. We announced ourselves as two promising up-and-comers.
But we came to an impasse. In a sport that’s increasingly hard to advance in, how do you know when it’s time to pull the chute on a partnership in hopes of a correlating rise? To have the awkward, “It’s not me, it’s you…” conversation.
We tend to choose an easy escape over hashing things out and developing trust with one another. Who knows what type of success Mike and I could have had if we kept the ball rolling. I hit the eject button, so now we’ll never know. And that’s alright. It’s part of the learning process.
But can we go one layer deeper in ourselves to communicate who we are and what we stand for so our partnership feels more solid? If we forge more depth in our team connection, will results follow? There is no right answer here; it’s a case-to-case basis. Partnerships are tricky. You won’t play with someone you 100% align or agree with. No two people are the same, so we have to find common ground.
So here I stand, two feet planted on the sand next to Avery Drost—Mr. Captain America—slunky, hunky father of two. After catching a little bit of the partner swap fever after I left Mike, I’ve settled down. Are Avery and I the same people? No. By no means. He’s a man with a family and a plan. I’m best known for buying a $15.99 firesale fuzzy sweater on Instagram. Differences abound. But, we’ve stuck by each other, and I can see the growth in our wounds of battle.
We’ve done it together, and that’s special. We’ve hit the same mini-wall I experienced with Mike, but I have a new outlook. It’s not “turn around and ask for new directions,” or “bailout and look to buy a plane ticket.” It’s seeing the obstacles with new eyes. We’re so close to breaking through to the next level. It hasn’t always felt easy, but Avery and I have probed our way to a team identity that I now believe to be a strength.
It starts with open communication. How do WE do this? What helps ME feel comfortable? How can I serve YOU? In that middle ground is where we find our touching stone, something we can connect on. A theme that upon looking each other in the eyes, your respect becomes stronger and linked to a higher source.
Some situations come easier than others, but when you find that connection, I believe you can never lose. Because with this mindset, you are always building with the lessons of learning. Together. Last year, we lost six of nine three-set matches; four of them were by only two points. So close, so far, so part of this game.
The grass may seem greener elsewhere, and it may very well be. But if you don’t apply yourself in your present situation and find ways to commit to your partnership, you’ll never reach a depth where measurable growth awaits. A freshly planted tree is more likely to be affected by the conditions of its environment. And so the winds of change will blow, and those not anchored will drift to the next one in hopes of feeling that stability. The stability that is only earned by digging a deep enough hole.
To spend more time together, to experience more battles side by side, to know each other better—it’s an earnest connection that forges strong roots. I have been guilty throughout my career of avoiding this depth, by keeping one foot cracked in the door to a possible partner switch. Fear of commitment? Probably. Yet, I’m aware that this lack of presence has kept me lacking.
So now I ask: Can we appreciate the positive qualities of our partners? Can we have the clarity of mind to see each other’s weaknesses and fortify them? Can we be vulnerable enough to expose these parts of ourselves that have been difficult for us, and trust our partners to embrace those parts of us?
Ok, I agree—it’s a little bit of a dramatic implication of something that is still objectively a job for many people. There are obvious cases in which “sticking it out” is stupid. But I encourage you, us, to water these partnerships on and off the court. There is a parallel, whether we like it or not.
Last week, Avery and I left the beach together as the rest of our practice group scattered into their daily duties. We were on our way to our post-practice meeting at the Lazy Acres Market. Yes I know, stereotypical. For those not familiar, think Whole Foods but more aesthetically pleasing. We fit in. Granted, I’m not wearing shoes, but that’s another story in and of itself.
Avery is probably a little embarrassed by my homeless look, but he accepts me for the loon that I am. We meet here because Avery loves the hot food bar. I know this about him, because we have traveled thousands of miles together. Over land and sea, from the spicy beaches of Cuba, to the outback of Australia, to the malls of Minnesota, memories abound. To connect to those moments when it all clicked for us is a special opportunity to share. And as we sit at the mahogany tables of this fine establishment, these memories on the court fortify us as well as help solidify our identity.
Our intention is to set goals for the year and get on the same page. Today, at this table with our assorted healthy food items, we find a middle ground. Because of all our experiences, good and bad, we made a breakthrough today. Who are we? We’ve always shared a bond of being the underdog—to grit, grind, and kick sand around until the final point. It’s an endearing quality of our team, and one I cherish. But it’s also limiting. So by the end of this white collar lunch discussing our blue collar mentality, it finally hit us. Who we are. We are a blend. Moving towards season, we intend to balance our fighter’s attitude with a swagger-like calm-fidence (yes I made that word up). We have proven we can play with anybody. But believing wholeheartedly in our team—that is the key ingredient to break through. So, will this renewed confidence, this depth of partnership, give us the edge we’re seeking? Only time will tell.
At one point, we will have to dig through the tough stuff if we hope to evolve. When the time comes, we’ll grab our shovels, dig deep, and rest in the peace of knowing that we’ve given it everything we have.