‘Turn up, stand tall, try hard’ - Q&A with Sam Dunbavin
17th June 2020
Sam Dunbavin, 24, of Croyde, shares his experience of representing England on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. The 189cm-tall split blocker is currently partnered with Haydn Lawson.
How did you get into beach volleyball?
I got into volleyball when I was 11 years old. I had just started secondary school and there was a grass competition called the Devon Youth Games. I trialled for the school’s volleyball team, made it in, and then got sucked into the local club: The Academy of Beach Sports.
Prior to that I had done a couple of volleyball sessions in PE at school and enjoyed the team element of the game. The teacher ran a fast-paced, interactive session with lots of challenges; exactly what I like to do now when I'm coaching kids.
From then I played beach volleyball in the summer and indoors in the winter. It was once I got to Cambridge University to study German and Spanish that I decided to concentrate more on beach volleyball.
Were there any key individuals who helped you fall in love with the sport?
I would have to say my two first coaches: Denise Austin and Ruth Lovell. Denise has been playing volleyball for ages, competed for England and was a real inspiration. She's dedicated her life to the game, and having her as my coach growing up was amazing – I definitely absorbed some of her passion.
Ruth embodies what is great about grassroots sport across the country. She was a coach at the local college and coached us youngsters at weekends because she just loved it. Sports rely on people like Ruth giving their time out of the goodness of their hearts and their love of the game. It was a real education of how welcoming sport and sports clubs can be.
Can you recall your England debut?
It was in 2016, in Oslo, at a NEVZA competition – a little later than I wanted it to be… I had the chance to go to a NEVZA tournament in May 2016, in Denmark but it clashed with a German history exam. I appealed to the university to allow me to take the exam either earlier or later, but they didn’t budge – that was even after I took it up with the Vice-Chancellor. I was gutted.
However, another chance came along in September that year and I asked Mark Garcia-Kidd to come to the event with me. I didn’t know Mark that well at that point, but he agreed and has since become one of my best mates. Mark had already played a few international tournaments by then and having him and his experience by my side was amazing.
We had been training as part of a squad trialling for the University World Games. I asked around saying that I wanted to play, and Mark said yes, he'd be happy to go! Since then I've played with lots of different people, and learned from playing with every single one of them. At the moment, I'm playing with fellow Devonian, and someone I grew up training with: Haydn Lawson.
On my England debut Mark and I played a young Norwegian team in our first game. I remember there were lots of good games taking place elsewhere and that we were on court number three with one person watching. I didn’t care; I absolutely loved it and surprised myself with how well we were able to compete.
I realised that my expectations for myself had been pretty low. We just lost that game and I came off court really frustrated, but desperate for another chance to play. It was a real rush. I think that was the moment I realised what I wanted to do, and I have been chasing that dream ever since.
Thinking about your playing style, what do you bring to the game?
My playing style is not the most attractive – I don’t jump the highest, I don’t swing the hardest and I’m not the fastest. That doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to improve those things, but it does mean that I’ve had to learn to compete differently.
I’m really analytical and I work hard on learning the tactical side of the game. I’m also super competitive and I’m constantly trying to work out what we need to do to win the next point.
…and what do you look for in the people you play with?
I look for two key things, the first being openness. Losing hurts and loses often trigger some really difficult questions which are important to go through. I feel that it’s important that both people in a partnership can talk about what they feel too.
The second thing is commitment. I spend most of my money, and a lot of my time, on beach volleyball. I do not get paid to play and flying everywhere to represent England takes up most of my time and about 70-80% of what I earn. I want to play with someone who is going to take competing just as seriously as I do.
What has been your proudest moment representing England?
I don’t have one specific moment. Every time I get to pull on a vest with the magical ENG on the back I’m so proud to be out there playing for my country. It’s something that I dreamed about when I was younger, going through the age-group ranks and being madly into sport. To get to be out there doing it is fantastic, but I want to do more, I want to start winning competitions for England.
Of all of the locations you’ve represented England as a beach athlete, which has been your favourite and why?
Each of my appearances has been amazing, but I would say the trip to Canada to play last year was amazing. It was my first time at a 3-star tournament and the jump in level was noticeable. It was also great getting to see a different place, and taking a trip into the Rockies afterwards was special.
What are you most likely to be doing if you are not playing volleyball?
If I’m not playing volleyball, I’m probably cooking (it’s what I do to relax), tutoring online, or outdoors having a walk.
There are obviously ups and downs in sport, what keeps you motivated?
What keeps me going through all the rigamarole of competing is the dream of competing at a major games. The more I play, the more I realise I want to go to the next level. Every time I go up a level, I see the players at that next level and want to be able to compete against them – that’s what keeps me going. I’m not at competitions to make up the numbers. The day that desire goes is the day I will stop.
Do you have a volleyball role model?
Not really. I grew up watching cricket and rugby. The England rugby team of 2003 and the Ashes team of 2005 are the two that really inspired me and got me into sport when I was younger. If I can inspire a few kids in the same way once I’m done, I’ll be happy.
What are your sporting ambitions?
I want to compete at 5-star tournaments on the FIVB World Tour and I really want to play for England or Great Britain at a major games, such as the Commonwealths or Olympics. That’s all still a while off, and there’s a lot of work to do to get there, but I’m going to give it all that I’ve got.
What piece of advice would you give to younger players?
Don’t let anyone tell you no, and don’t let politics get in your way. I was never selected to play for England when I was a junior, but I think that only made me hungrier to play as a senior.
I had a fantastic strength and conditioning coach named James Marshall whose motto for success was “Turn up, stand tall, try hard.” Those are all things that I can control, and that’s what I do. Control the things that you can and don’t be distracted by the stuff you can’t, and you will keep improving every day.