It’s 8pm, a breezy July evening, and there’s something a bit magical about this gathering on the white sand of BeachMitte. Maybe it’s the novelty of playing sports with colleagues after work, or maybe it’s the bristling excitement of taking part in a tournament. Either way, with a full two hours of beach volleyball ahead of us the atmosphere is charged and spirits are high.
You may have heard of Urban Sports League before. For the last three years USC has organised football tournaments where local companies in four German cities come together to play against each other. This summer Urban Sports League has expanded their repertoire to launch the first ever Beach Volleyball League in Berlin.
Patrick Gruhn is USC’s in-house Beach Volleyball League organiser and a semi-professional player. Born and bred in Berlin, he was exposed to the sport from a young age since his dad used to work alongside Berlin’s first division. “Beach volleyball is like the little brother of indoor volleyball. It only got really big after the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta,” he says. Since then it’s become more and more popular in Germany; especially in Berlin where there’s several expansive professional beach volleyball courts.
Patrick started his career playing indoor volleyball but after a shoulder injury he was limited to playing on sand. But he soon realised he much prefers this version. “You’re only two players instead of six so you get to focus on all the techniques,” he says. In this way, Patrick was able to perfect his defence, offence, blocks, spikes and quickly became a holistic volleyball player. “And with beach volleyball you’re engaged with every single point that’s played. You need to give it everything. Plus it’s outside in nature and you can play in 4 degrees or 40 degrees – everything is possible.”
Patrick splits his time between managing the volleyball league at USC and training and going to matches. He also teaches beach volleyball – and today he’s here to do just that. The league is suitable for all levels, great news for me because I am not a very good volleyball player.
This evening there’s about 40 of us from a variety of companies including N26, Moovel, Foodspring and Vehiculum. Each Wednesday evening we have three courts from 8 – 10pm and three trainers with the first hour dedicated to training. “Split into three teams and we’ll start our practice,” Patrick says.
We split into pairs. “Bend your elbows behind your heads and really hurl the ball at each other,” our trainer Ben instructs. Then we catch the ball, push it directly up in the air in front of us and throw it back to our partner.
I’m a beginner so this hour of training before our match is invaluable. Ben takes us through serving, spiking and passing which means that I don’t feel so apprehensive about competing in the tournament. My serve isn’t quite right – I kind of drop the ball onto my fist and give it an alright thwack from below – but it does go over the net and that’s all that matters.
If there’s one thing I wish I was good at, it’s beach volleyball. I played for the first time last year in Munich and fell in love with it. And it wasn’t just because of the team spirit or being out in nature – it was because of the people. There’s a specific type of person who plays beach volleyball. They’re the type who would offer you their last chocolate brownie or give you a lift home even if it’s five miles out their way. In short: beach volleyball players are absolute legends.
After a particularly complex training exercise which Ben eventually abandons (I got confused and started spinning around in circles) it’s time to begin our hour of matches. Today Urban Sports Club are matched against N26 (we call them Deutsche Bank to get in their heads). We play five matches in teams of four, and as there’s six players in team USC today we rotate with each serve.
The game is fast-paced. N26 are strong opponents. One of their players, a large and heavily tattooed Italian man, is so committed to the game he seems to fling himself from one side of the court to the other, using all available body parts to keep the ball in the air. He scores one miraculous point with his elbow, a feat so impressive I can’t help but applaud.
But Tattooed Italian Man is no match for USC’s head of marketing Torsten Müller who dives with equal gusto, catching impossibly angled balls with his feet, arms, head. He scores one outrageously good point by jumping a full 3 feet in the air and absolutely nailing the ball with his downturned fist.
In the midst of all this I kind of cower in the corner. Because the problem with beach volleyball is it’s very easy for one person to ruin it for the entire team; just one misjudged hand and you easily mess up a point. This is particularly hard for me to handle as a perpetual people pleaser and it makes the game a sort of emotional rollercoaster. The misery of missing a ball that I should have hit is heavily contrasted moments later by setting up a point that wins the entire game. It means my mindset switches from despairing to euphoric minute by minute and by the time match two is over I’m emotionally drained and really quite shaky.
The teams switch sides at the end of each match and by game three a peculiar pattern comes to light. Whoever is on the court facing the road completely obliterates the other team. And then, minutes later in the next match, the team that just won loses miserably. Very strange indeed.
Team USC are at a disadvantage because we started on the cursed side which means, obviously, that N26 win the final match. Let’s not dwell on this. Clearly black magic was at work. Meanwhile Patrick is scouting all the courts, yelling advice and encouragement to the players.
After our heated, albeit cursed, game we all have a beer at BeachMitte’s bar. “It’s really nice to do something that makes people happy,” Patrick tells me. “It’s like inviting people to your house party that you’ve worked hard at it. You’ve prepared the drinks and cleaned everything up and made a dance floor – and everyone comes and has a good time. Maybe you’ve invited people from six different friend circles and you get to see how they mingle and merge together. It’s just very cool.”
If you’d like to come to Patrick’s house party AKA the USC Beach Volleyball League then sign up now for the second season of the summer.
And you can play beach volleyball as a USC member at tons of our partners across Germany. Take a look at our site to see what’s on in your area.