On The Beach: the coach's tale
18th August 2017
For the next instalment in our On The Beach series, our attention switches to the man behind England's #1 men's beach volleyball team, coach Kirk Pitman.
Check this out for a sporting pedigree. His great-great-grandfather played rugby league for New Zealand, his grandfather was a top Dutch goalkeeper and his dad was a judo player. With all that in the blood, Kirk Pitman was never going to do anything other than play sport.
He’d always assumed it would be rugby league. However, while still at high school, a few too many concussions forced Kirk to give the sport up. Rugby league’s loss was beach volleyball’s gain as the young Kirk threw himself into his new sport.
By 2000, the man who is now the senior England men’s beach volleyball coach, was playing on the Asian Tour. Two years later, he was an Asian champion. Other Tour successes followed but he narrowly missed out on Olympic qualification in 2008. When he missed out again in 2012, he decided it was time to retire.
Although he never planned to become a coach, he quickly did so, initially working with his now wife Zara Dampney and her playing partner Lucy Boulton as they attempted to qualify for Rio 2016.
He’s now responsible for creating a men’s beach squad good enough to see a pair qualify for the Olympics in either 2020 or 2024. The leading hopes in his current batch are Chris Gregory and Jake Sheaf.
Asked to describe Chris and Jake – and with tongue firmly in cheek – Kirk suggests that, “One is big and one is smart! But in all seriousness, they’re a good pair. On their day, they can beat anyone in the world. Chris isn’t just big; he’s also ‘long’, meaning he’s got an incredible wingspan, which makes him so imposing at the net. Behind him, in defence, Jake is just so smart with his movements.”
Long before the 2020 Olympics become a consideration, there’s the small matter of next year’s Commonwealth Games to contend with. Qualification isn’t yet assured but Chris and Jake are well set to secure their seats on the plane to Australia’s Gold Coast - and Kirk has seen enough signs in their recent performances to suggest they’ll go well.
“In their recent NEVZA tournament win in Denmark, they lost their opening match and yet still went all the way through the losers’ bracket, winning seven on the spin to take the title. That’s exactly what they did when they won the Gothenburg competition last year as well. Losing your opening match is never ideal but no competition was ever won in the first round. The big plus point for me was that they stayed calm, despite the defeat, and showed real mental resilience to turn it around.”
“For me, that’s great to see. Mental skills can be such a game-changer in beach volleyball. Great physicality is pretty much taken for granted at the highest level, making it even more important to find an advantage on the mental side of the game.”
Adapting as a coach
Kirk’s coaching journey over the past five years hasn’t focused solely on the beach format. He’s coached indoors too, leading Wessex to victory in last year’s U18 Cup and Grand Prix competitions. When asked about the main differences between coaching indoor and out, he cites man management as a big consideration.
“When you coach indoors, there’s so much more man management to contend with. Having said that, while there are more players to consider, if there’s something you don’t quite handle right, errors can be less damaging. Get it wrong with one or both of your beach players and a whole team is sent off-track very quickly. There’s far less margin for error as a beach coach when it comes to how you manage your players.”
“Any indoor coach moving to the beach will need to bear that in mind. I think they’ll also find the lack of game day involvement frustrating because they’ll probably be used to being a much more engaged participant. On the flip side, you can get to work with your players for far longer. Beach volleyball is less physically damaging than its indoor counterpart, especially on the knees, which is why far more top players continue well into their thirties.”
Returning to the prospect of the Commonwealth Games, Kirk knows that the Canadians and Australians will be the class acts in the field. Chris and Jake will be well prepared though, with a month’s training in Los Angeles set to complement a competition schedule packed full of NEVZA and World Tour events.
The fact that Kirk can now be with the players more often, courtesy of Sport England funding which the pair received earlier this year, is a huge bonus. “It was so exciting to secure that funding,” he said. “It was a deserved reward for the 6-7 years of continuous effort that the guys had put in up until that point. Yes, it’s great that we can now afford to spend more time working together as a group but it’s also encouraging to know that their efforts are being recognised and supported further afield. We’ll go to the Games in good shape.”