May 30, 2023

SANDCAST Mailbag! Deep dive into the mental side of volleyball, life

HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — This week’s episode of SANDCAST was as much a celebratory podcast as it was our semi-monthly mailbag.

Why pop the champagne on a mostly random Wednesday in April?

In a single week, Tri Bourne won AVP New Orleans with Chaim Schalk, their first as a team; Savvy Simo matched a career-best fifth in New Orleans with Toni Rodriguez; and I took a seventh with Avery Drost in a last-second partnership, jetted home, went to the hospital, and, two days later, was holding my son, Austin.

Travis Mewhirter
Travis and Austin, born April 18

Two days after that, we popped some champagne — a gift from Kim Muno, Zana Muno’s amazing and thoughtful mother — and chatted on a podcast. Even though the episode runs for more than an hour and a half, we didn’t get to as many questions as we would have liked; much of it is just us catching up on New Orleans, the arrival of the kiddo, and Savvy talking through a strange bout of panic attacks she’s been experiencing even while on the court. It was an unexpected deep dive into the mental side of beach volleyball, sports, and life, and a valuable one, I think, given how organically it appeared, although we were asked a number of questions on the topic of mental routines, breathing, and mindfulness in beach volleyball.

Bourne and I walked Simo and the listeners through our own routines that keep us as calm as we appear to be on the court, and both of us have a similar anchor: breath. Everything is centered on breathing, and an emptying of the mind. Bourne’s mind is so empty, in fact, that during a match at a Challenge in Itapema, he grew confused. The first set seemed to be going on and on and on. How was it not over?

And then he looked at the score — a rare occasion for Bourne — and realized the first set was, in fact, over, that he and Schalk had even won, and were up 5-2 in the second set.

What a lovely surprise.

I’ve never emptied my mind quite like Bourne, nor would I want to. I value the strategy and thinking side of a match too much to do so, choosing the right times to run the play I’ve been setting up for 30 or so points. That’s actually one of the main reasons he chose to partner with Schalk, who is known for an active mind both on and off the court — a solid strategist and also a travel wiz and numbers cruncher who finds the best deals. But a lifetime of golf has taught me that an empty mind is a good mind directly before performing a task such as passing or serving or swinging or setting. You breathe, allow thousands upon thousands of practice reps take over, perhaps offer one positive thought, and then go.

While many of our questions were on the mental side of sport, a good portion were not.

Travis Mewhirter
Travis Mewhirter going through his same pre-serve routine/Rick Atwood photo.

Why are so many USA men’s teams skipping international events?

In a word, points.

The Beach Pro Tour entry point ranking system is still a little skewed from the fall events in the Maldives, Dubai, Cape Town, Uberlandia and Torquay. They were lighter tournaments, and a number of teams who might not otherwise make deep runs in Elite 16s did just that, raking in huge quantities of points. The result has been some strange seedings here and there. Teams who do the math know that after the Uberlandia Elite 16 this upcoming weekend and the Ostrava Elite 16 at the end of May, most of the fall points should be washed out, and the seeding will show some semblance of normalcy. So a number of American teams — primarily Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner, and Miles Partain and Andy Benesh — are waiting, which is fine, because there are so many events still to go before the World Championships in October.

If you’re following the Olympic race, the race within the race you must keep an eye on is the fight to qualify for the World Championships, where the points are massive. Teams qualify by using their best six finishes of the 2023 season. There are still five Elite 16s and three Challenges prior to World Champs, so teams have some time to add high finishes.

Trevor Crabb-Theo Brunner-La Paz Challenge
Trevor Crabb and Theo Brunner celebrate a point at the La Paz Challenge/Volleyball World photo

If a fan can only go to one AVP in California, which one?

Like all questions, that depends on context, so I’ll offer a few answers. If this is your first year coming to an AVP, or your last, and you’ve never before been to an AVP, this is an easy question: The Manhattan Beach Open. There is no other event that comes close. However, if you’re able to come to California once a year, my vote would be to save the Manhattan Beach Open and instead hit Huntington Beach, which is one of the most popular stops on Tour that has been revived and promoted to a Pro Series this year.

Huntington is, in my mind, such an underrated beach. The Pier provides an excellent natural viewing area, the crowds are as good as any, including Manhattan, and Main Street has a glut of fun bars and restaurants you can hit after a day of watching volley, or just in between matches.

Huntington has lost some of its allure over the years. When I first moved to California, in September of 2015, it was almost equal to the South Bay in its talent. There was Casey Patterson and Jake Gibb, Ty Loomis and Ty Tramblie, Ryan Doherty, Ed Ratledge in his prime, Adam Cabbage and John Moran, Mike Brunsting and Chase Frishman, an up-and-coming Troy Field, and a host of others I’m sure I’m forgetting. Since, most of the talent has either retired or moved, making Huntington something of a ghost town, but the tradition and nostalgia is still there, and it’s the stop I’m most looking forward to this season.

See you in Huntington Beach May 19-21.

AVP Huntington Sunday 2019-stadium
View from the top of the TV tower at Huntington Beach/Ed Chan,

How would you guide a young guy trying to make it to the AVP nowadays? What tournaments to play? Where to go? 

The first step is always to move to the environment that is most conducive to playing as much high level beach volleyball as possible. This leaves you with, in my opinion, two options: The St. Petersburg area of Florida or Southern California. If you’re newer to the game, I’d recommend Florida over California since there’s tournaments you can play literally every weekend all over the state, whereas the CBVA circuit in California is a bit more hit and miss. It’s also a tad easier to get into training groups in Florida than California, at least at the start. But the advice, once you move — and I do believe it’s all but mandatory to move to one state or the other if you do want to become an AVP level player — is the same: Play as many open level tournaments as you can. They provide the highest quantity and quality of reps, and you’ll learn skills you simply can’t during practices.

Also, don’t hesitate to jump into AVP qualifiers. If you lose, you lose. Everyone has, and everyone will. Put yourself in the environment you aspire to be in. Meet the players. See their routines. Watch their games in person. And when you’re not in person, watch everything you can on YouTube or Volleyball TV. Those mental reps will pay dividends you might not expect, sometimes immediately, sometimes years down the road.

In short, my answer can be summed up in three words: Move. Play. Watch.


What do you think of Taylor Sander’s progress as a blocker? Do you think he’d have more success as a full-time defender or switch blocking?

Transitioning from indoor to beach is a bit of a double-edged sword for blockers. Offensively, you’re going from hitting against two, sometimes three, blockers, to just one, which makes matters remarkably easy. Mike Lambert explained that as his reasoning for why he was named AVP Offensive Player of the Year during his 2002 rookie season. Sander would be able to use that same line of reasoning during his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2022. But as a blocker, you go from having one, sometimes two, teammates to help you block, and suddenly you have to make much more dynamic and creative moves rather than simply taking space.

Given that he’s only played beach at the professional level for a year, I’d say his progress is fantastic. He had 91 blocks in 88 sets on the AVP in 2022, a year in which he and Taylor Crabb won the Phoenix Gold Series Championships. That isn’t a great number by any means; the world class standard blockers aspire to is 1.75 blocks per set. But when you adjust for the fact that Sander manufactured 75 points via aces, and is currently making quite a case as the best server on the Beach Pro Tour — he led the Itapema Challenge in aces — then his blocking becomes less of a concern.

A blocker’s job also isn’t solely to block balls; it’s to manufacture defensive points, be it by blocking, serving tough, or funneling attacks to his defender. Taylor Crabb led the AVP in digs by nearly 100 — 100! — in 2022. So when looking at Sander’s blocking holistically, to include service pressure and digs from his partner, he’s one of the best in the United States. Sure, anyone could block for Taylor Crabb and he’d still be close to leading the AVP in digs, but there is something to be said about Crabb’s substantial edge.

Would Sander be an excellent split-blocker? No question. As a world-class outside hitter accustomed to the pace and power of indoor, he’d be able to dig hard driven balls without much practice. Splitting also allows him to get after his serve more, which is why we see him split with Crabb maybe 15 or 20 percent of the time, depending on the situation. So yes, he’d be successful, but as a blocker, he’s able to partner with the best pure defender in America, whereas if he became a defender or split-blocker, his partner selection wouldn’t be quite as good.

I’d say he’s best where he is currently, as a blocker on what is likely the best defensive team in the country.

Hagen Smith-Jake Dietrich-Taylor Sander
Taylor Sander blocks Jake Dietrich/Jim Wolf photo

I am trying to be a beach volleyball content creator, so far I just post highlights of AVP matches along with edits. However my plan is to transition into my own content of traveling to tournaments and training for beach volleyball. I take inspiration from the McKibbin Bros vlogs and others. What are some ways to make content that people will enjoy?

The general rule of thumb the most successful content creators in the sport have followed is that they scratched their own itch. I wanted to read a beach volleyball book, found there were none, and decided to write my own (now I’ve written three).

Tri Bourne wanted there to be a beach volleyball podcast. Seeing there were none, he called me and we started our own.

When Riley and Maddison McKibbin were transitioning from indoors to the beach, they sought beach volleyball tutorials on YouTube. They didn’t like what they found, and created their own. Their YouTube Channel has since become a winding case of scratching their own itches — vlogs, feature pieces on athletes, tutorials, highlights, whatever they feel they want to do or would want to watch, they create that thing.

Mark Bucknam wanted to watch a docu-series on beach volleyball. Since nobody had bothered to make one, he did it himself, launching AVP Uncovered.

Others are now either scratching their own itches or following in the footsteps of those who have been successful. Instagram is now full of beach players doing tutorials; new podcasts are starting; beach camps are being held all over the country.

This is a long-winded way of saying that there is no “best way” to make content people will enjoy. But if there is content you’d like to see, and there’s nobody else doing it, chances are, someone else also wants to see that content. For the last two Olympic quads, I’ve wanted an easy way to follow the Olympic race, so I started a Road to Paris series on SANDCAST and created an Olympic rankings tracker at

Find your itch and scratch it.