Beach volleyball is not just fun in the sun. Young players are being urged to get serious and reach out for Olympic stardom, writes Roddy Mackenzie
Scottish children are being urged to spend more time on the beach with a view to participating in the London Olympics in 2012.
Beach volleyball has been an Olympic sport since 1996 but only two British players have so far reached that level. Now the sands are shifting, with new funding secured from UK Sport in a bid to produce players who could compete at the Games.
With that in mind, Erik Milowski, the volleyball development officer for Edinburgh, wants to broaden the base of volleyball players in Scotland exposed to the beach game, and the launch of the Speedo Urban Beach Tour in the city last month was a perfect starting point.
Around 200 tonnes of sand were transported to Princes Street Gardens and Mr Milowski oversaw coaching sessions for Edinburgh and East Lothian boys and girls aged 11-18 on the exhibition beach court before the main tournament got underway.
"Local children do not get many opportunities to play on a real beach court or play with the stars of the sport, so this was a great opportunity," he says.
Participation in the sport is growing fast in Scotland, with a grand prix circuit set up in the past year. Players now see they have the opportunity to get something for the hours they put in.
Playing in the Olympics had looked an impossible dream but the new funding will allow a full-time beach volleyball coach for the British game to be appointed and money will be available for training and competitions. It will put the British game on a par with some European countries.
Audrey Cooper, a former pupil of Whitburn Academy, in Bathgate, West Lothian, showed that great things are possible when she raised her own funds to play in competitions with her English partner, Amanda Glover. They were able to compete at the Atlanta Olympic Games 10 years ago and finished a creditable ninth.
So far, the pair remain Britain's only representation in the sport at an Olympics, indoors or on the beach.
Beach volleyball has had its critics, with some claiming it should never have been given Olympic status, but there is no question about the athletic demands of the sport.
Last month's junior coaching sessions in Edinburgh focused on fun and enjoyment, while the participants - who had all played volleyball indoors before - developed their skills, Mr Milowski says.
"They did various drills and practices which help them move and get comfortable on the sand and they played lots of games, so they could put what they'd learnt into a real situation.
"It was a fantastic opportunity for them to get involved in a sport in which they do not get many chances to participate.
"With only one court, it was not possible to have too many children but we tried to involve as many as practicable, even those who were just coming along to watch."
Mr Milowski says Britain's ambitions to be represented in the six-a-side indoor game at the 2012 Olympics will be difficult to realise but there is a chance in the beach game. "It is easier to train two players to play beach volleyball than it is to train an indoor team to qualify," he says.
"In my opinion, beach volleyball is an individual sport as it only takes two talented individuals to succeed, albeit playing full-time. They can travel the world together to get the results, and the money invested in them is not as much as an indoor team.
"But having a gold-medal winning beach team does not have a big impact on the indoor game. It is good for focusing attention on volleyball as a whole, but it is only two players and does not have much of an impact on the physical fitness of people in that country."
The French-born coach is keen to strengthen the roots of the indoor game in the hope that it will bear fruit inside and on the beach. "Beach volleyball players all start indoors," he says.
"It requires a strong junior programme to create a successful indoor team, which is why we have to invest in that and work more with schoolchildren,"
"It is important to get into the schools. That is why I set up programmes for 11- to 13-year-olds in Aberdeenshire when I was development officer there and had competitions at under-14 and under-16 level. Although the players are not playing every week, they have matches at least once a month.
"By the time a player reaches 18-20, he or she should have been playing competitive volleyball for 10 years.
"That is what happens in most European countries, whereas here, in Scotland, players have not been playing competitive matches until the age of 14 or 15. It means they are 25 by the time they have reached the same number of years of competitive playing.
"The playing base is very narrow in the UK. Here we have 4,000-5,000 registered players, whereas the up-and-coming nations such as India and Iran have millions of players.
"It will be very difficult for us to get results in the indoor game for 2009, when the initial funding runs out. I think we should be looking at 2016 and 2020 and starting players now at a very young age.
"But we still have to take advantage of this opportunity, and the new funding can only make the game stronger."