Becoming height neutral

The website Beachvolleyballspace covered the recent FIVB Gstaad Major with an article celebrating the winners, the currently top ranked Canadian team of Paredes and Pavan claiming the gold. The article title (Canadian women dominate Gstaad Major – Japan challenges top teams) makes special mention of the fifth place Japanese team of Murakami and Ishii. Why? Was it a remarkable breakthrough performance?

The whole latter half was spent mentioning how much shorter the team was relative to their opponents. That’s it. Beach volleyball culture venerates height so much that it’s often the first and only statistic mentioned for players. No mention that Murakami is a 7 year veteran of the FIVB circuit – it’s newsworthy because they were supposed to lose.

Height discrimination is so pervasive that coaches will refuse to consider athletes just for being too short. I’ve spoken with talented young women who have already given up the dream of playing beach volleyball for college because they’ve been told time and again that their genetics will simply not give them a chance. Players constantly pine about being taller, and taller players, regardless of experience, are always groomed. A metric this damning should be backed by extensive studies or data – yet every discussion I’ve had with coaches either point to anecdotal experience, or cherrypicked material. Saying that the best athletes in the world are always taller is flawed logic – they are the product of this pervasive bias, so of course the selection for taller players is evident. What’s more telling is that despite this, players of all sizes break through: Bruno Schmidt, Shelda Bede, Holly McPeak, Annie Martin. If the thesis is that height is always a beach volleyball advantage, these counterexamples are sufficient to discredit it.

The cultural baggage of height superiority is entrained from a young age, and repeated incessantly – thus, how height becomes an advantage stems from a psychological one. Taller players are simply given more opportunities to play, to explore, to make mistakes. Pay attention without bias next time, and see the language difference between how coaches treat taller and shorter players, and how they treat each other. A shorter team hands to the taller team an immediate advantage by simply expecting themselves to be at a disadvantage. The way out of this is to begin young, and to start instilling in them the confidence of height neutrality. Even among older athletes, we can unlock a richer vein of talent from our pool of players by simply opening our eyes beyond how tall they stand or how high they jump. The game is deeper and wider than the height of its tallest players.

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