For the Love of Volleyball: A Roundabout Road to the AVP
Whether you’ve always loved volleyball or came to this awesome sport later in life, you don’t have to be from California to succeed. Professional players eventually head to California, sure, because that’s where you’ll find the top action. But not all of us start out on the West Coast beaches. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. What’s important is the environment you choose to live in and the people you surround yourself with.
If you’re like me, you didn’t find volleyball early on in life. I grew up playing every sport I could and while I still enjoy them all, beach volleyball has completely hooked me for the last 10 years.
As far as sports go, it seems that volleyball is an abnormally addicting nature. More than 200 nations are members of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB). That’s more than any other sport in the world. Today, there are more than 46 million Americans who play volleyball. Worldwide, there are over 800 million people who play volleyball at least once a week.
This Sporting Life
My journey to the AVP began in Queens, New York. You won’t find a lot of beach players from Queens. Before making my way to California full-time, volleyball took me on a journey that included New York, Delaware, Virginia, Sweden, India, Norway and Croatia. It wasn’t for lack of a compass that I didn’t head straight for sunny California to go pro.
Opportunities often involved detours that helped prepare me for my professional athletic career. With eyes and mind open wide, everyone comes across opportunities for adventure.
The secret to enjoying the adventure to the fullest is to keep challenging yourself. Never settle. Never be complacent. With volleyball, the more you train, the better you get. The better you get, the more you love to play. The more you love to play, the more games you are going to win.
Volleyball players tend to be a restless breed of athletes. Whenever you hit a plateau with your skills, it’s time to leap into the next great unknown. There’s always another challenge.
I played every sport I could growing up. By high school, I was limited to football and baseball, but really liked hanging out with the guys on the volleyball team. Baseball was my comfort zone. Volleyball was an unknown.
To challenge yourself, choose the unknown.
College Athletics & Discovering Yourself
The University of Delaware invited me as a walk-on for the football team. Although I had other offers to schools where I would get immediate playing time, I wanted to be surrounded by elite athletes. My thought was it would take maybe two years to become a starter, playing tight end. Then it became obvious that the upperclassmen were just miserable, coming into the locker room, like people walking the Green Mile. I mean, college football is a job. I loved the full-time work, but in observing some of the other guys it just didn’t seem like football would be my future.
There were some guys playing volleyball in open gym. They said, “Hey you should try out for the club team.”
We got to play in a tournament that spring, then on to the nationals, which meant I would have to miss 3 football practices. My football coach basically said, “Choose.” So I went with volleyball. The turning point was playing at the nationals, where there were thousands of people cheering. Everyone was so fired up. It was thrilling.
That was a gut-check moment. Right then the decision was made: full-time volleyball from now on.
To get where you want to be in life, you’ve got to keep challenging yourself. Get out of your comfort zone. That’s where happiness exists.
I started getting fired up again, trying to create a D-1 mindset in a club program, which was well-received by 3-4 of the guys but the rest did not want to make that commitment. Lesson learned? Go to a place with more motivated athletes.
Time to get moving again.
You need a coach who will challenge your abilities. You also need patience. Determination.
My applications, videotapes and letters were met with no response. Finally, with barely a month to go before it was time to go back to school in Delaware, the coach at George Mason University, Fred Chao, called and offered a tryout.
So down to Northern Virginia I went and worked my ass off. And they gave me a shot.
During the winter decision session, the coach said, “We can’t cut you so I think we’re going to have you on the roster for the spring season.” Faint praise, perhaps, but I took it.
Around the World with a Volleyball
Right out of college all I wanted to do was go pro and play overseas. A coach in Sweden put out the word he needed an outside hitter. He knew my skills based on recommendations and some video footage, and he wanted a player from a similar background. So it was indoor volleyball during the winter, beach volleyball during the summer. I played pro indoor seasons in Sweden, Norway and Croatia. During the summers, I’d keep my skills up by playing beach in Long Beach, New York with some stints in Southern California.
After my first pro indoor season, a shoulder injury sidelined me toward the end of summer. Yeah, injuries happen. Don’t get discouraged when it happens to you. Make a plan to keep busy while your body heals.
So I started a sports performance training program in Brooklyn and built it up to 150 athletes in 9 months while getting my body ready for the next season. When it came time to play again, I had to move on that and started casting around for the next opportunity.
California Dreamin’: Beach Volleyball on the AVP
When you’re really serious and passionate about volleyball, you want to go where the best congregate. Unless you’re going up against stronger players, you cannot reach peak performance. Actually, I’m not convinced we ever reach peak performance; you can always push further.
After a few more professional seasons, I decided to stop playing indoor. It seemed like the most opportunity would be found in beach volleyball so that became my full-time obsession. It was time to make the move to Hermosa Beach, California. It’s the mecca of beach volleyball. It’s the home of the U.S. national team training center. It’s just where you have to be if you want to be the best in beach volleyball.
Here’s the rub: you practically have to beg people for court time. They don’t know how you play, or if you can play at all, and they don’t always want to make room for someone new. You have to put yourself out there. Give ‘em the full force of your personality. Eventually, I got into crews and started getting some invites.
You know you can play. But others don’t know you. It can take some persuasion to be allowed on their courts.
You can be courageous socially, but breaking into the beach volleyball scene can be a nightmare for someone who’s not super confident. That’s partly why I developed VolleyCamp Hermosa and BetterAtBeach.com—because I went through all of that hassle.
You can spend days standing courtside waiting for someone to let you play. Or find a great coach. Or locate and jump into a program where you can really excel.
I wanted to take all of those pain points out of the way. So now there’s a camp that provides a place to live with other volleyball players at your level who have the same passions. And you have an actual coach. When you love a sport this much, you want other people to know about it and have an opportunity to discover for themselves that they really can become great players. You’ve got to take a chance on the unknown, dive in and chase the challenge.
Complacency is not an option. “Good enough” is not enough.
Prior to making that big move, while playing summer tournaments consistently in the northeast, I got to know the top players on the East Coast. I soon realized that this small group of guys were competing in the finals of every single tournament.
In the semi-finals we’d finally meet another quality team after smashing guys all day long, but by then you’re near the end of the tournament and it’s getting dark. Finally, when you get to play a quality game of volleyball, the tournament director says we’re just going to play one set to 21. Of course, it’s usually best 2 out of 3. So we’re wasting 8 hours of the day waiting for one good final game.
We all became friends because we’d meet in the finals. That last summer on the east coast, feeling frustrated, I sent a message to these guys: “What are we trying to do?”
Before long, we had an idea.
We were dominating our respective leagues. One guy was in D.C., another in Virginia, there was a player in Maryland, a couple of guys in New Jersey and New York. I said that if we’re going to compete on the pro tour, we can’t play these regional tournaments anymore. It’s a waste of time. I suggested that all eight of us schedule a day every week and travel to a meeting point and battle all day on the court. Really train hard. So we were actually getting better that way.
You become a stronger player if you are never satisfied. You want to find the best players in the world and go up against them.
The East Coast Mafia: On a Mission
That summer “The ECM” – the East Coast Mafia – was born. It was more valuable for us to spend two days a week practicing together than playing in these little regional tournaments to win a couple hundred bucks. Sure, it was fun to win our regional events, but I knew that if we didn’t turn our biggest competitors into our training partners, we wouldn’t have had any more success.
During these get-togethers, we started competing better. We did reps and drills, learning how to fix things and develop skills rather than be obsessed with just playing. That made the difference.
It wasn’t enough for us to play regional tournaments and win them. We had to find the best players around, and so we had to practice against each other. Steadily, our skills improved.
If you fix one piece of one skill, that’s not just one thing you’ve solved. That single fix represents thousands of scoring points for the rest of your career.
Let’s Play Some Volleyball
Now I’ve been on the tour 10-ish seasons. Still haven’t found that edge where I can sit on top of the Main Draw. But I’m pushing and hoping this is my year.
Moving to California was an essential decision to make sure I could face the best beach volleyball players every day. The payoff has culminated in a long tenure on the AVP, a continental championship, a qualification to the Pan American Games and many FIVB World Tour Main Draws.
The next challenge is to get some more Sundays on the AVP and medals on the World Tour.
It’s always a drive to push yourself, to go up against somebody’s who’s better. Take the chance. Don’t ever get complacent or settle for anything. When you do that, you’ve effectively stopped. Don’t stop. That’s the encouragement I want to share with all players who love this sport.
Mark Burik is an AVP Player, founder of VolleyCamp Hermosa which runs training camps and classes in Hermosa Beach California year-round and Better at Beach which is on a mission to make 1 million people better at beach volleyball through online courses, videos and training tools. You can find him on Instagram @markburik