April Ross and Jennifer Kessy won silver in beach volleyball at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Both are heading to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, but this time Kessy will have the role as head coach for Ross and her new partner Alix Klineman. She uses math and statistical tools to help guide game strategy and make decisions that will give her team the best shot to win gold. “Changing the Games” is a 10-part video series produced in collaboration with Lyda Hill Philanthropies.
Changing the Games – The Hard Numbers of Beach Volleyball
ANNOUNCER: Ross puts it away. Kessy with a big hit. Ross. Yes!
KATHRYN TAPPEN reporting:
They were a dream team from the start, forging a partnership that would take them to win Olympic silver at the 2012 London Games.
APRIL ROSS (2-Time Olympic Medalist): We upset the number one team and ended up getting the silver medal so that was really special.
ANNOUNCER: April Ross and Jennifer Kessy!
JENNIFER KESSY (Olympic Silver Medalist and Coach): It is everything that you can imagine it is, you know. From a little girl growing up wanting to be a gymnast in the Olympics to then realizing your dream, in a different sport, but realizing your dream.
TAPPEN: Since then, Jennifer Kessy has reimagined her Olympic dream as the beach volleyball coach for April Ross and Alix Klineman.
ROSS: It's been great for me having Jen as a coach. Even when I played with her, she was a little bit of my coach.
KESSY: April kind of pulled me back in to beach volleyball. I was just always watching and giving her hints and giving her little things about who she should play with, who she shouldn't.
ROSS: She was always the one doing our scouting reports, and watching the most video, and using whatever data we could get our hands on. And that's what she still does, you know.
TAPPEN: As a coach, Kessy leads practices, trains April and Alix in drills, plans game strategy, and uses math and statistics.
ALEX KLEINMAN (USA Beach Volleyball): A lot of stats will go into our game plan and strategic planning of how we want to attack another team.
TAPPEN: Statistics and math in volleyball? Statistics is a form of mathematical analysis that looks at relationships between data. Data is a collection of information, like the number of blocks a player gets in a match. Kessy and her team gather and analyze statistics to guide strategy and make decisions about where April and Alix should put their energy during a match. She also makes predictions about how the other team will perform and respond, like whether Alex should hit to the left or right side of the court.
ROSS: One of her biggest strengths for sure is kind of scouting the other team, figuring out what their tendencies are and helping us prepare for the match.
TAPPEN: To help capture these statistics, the USA beach volleyball team uses cameras and computer coding systems.
KESSY: So there's cameras on the court. We have a video guy that's sitting at the end of the court, and he's coding it.
TAPPEN: Each block, each serve, each pass gets coded during the game. For example, when April serves and gets an "ace," when the other team is unable to pass it, a data point is entered. This information is uploaded into a computer system so athletes and coaches can see how their team and the other team performed each skill during the game.
KESSY: As soon as they're off the sand I'm getting that video. I'm watching it. And it's already broken down for me, and I can just go and do what I need to do.
TAPPEN: Kessy analyzes the video and data, and then identifies what statistics are most important to share with April and Alix, like where to serve a player so she can't return the ball.
KESSY: I'm not going to throw numbers necessarily at them. I'm going to say, “Hey, this player isn't as strong when we serve her here.” And if they then push it and go, “Well, I served her here last time,” I'm going to say, “Here's what the data says, it's 20%.” It's easier to understand sometimes when it's backed up, especially with my team, where they need some science behind it.
TAPPEN: Statistics have become increasingly important in beach volleyball, and coaches and athletes alike recognize their value.
ROSS: She's played for so long she deciphers what's most important. There's a ton of numbers out there. And it's I think just as important to figure out which ones apply to your own team. And to only use those.
KLINEMAN: We're able to kind of figure out what some of the strengths and weaknesses are. We feel like statistics can really, you know, help our game and our strategy.
KESSY: I would've never thought that I'd be using technology and math and statistics as much as I am. I for sure closed the door in my head to like, “That's never something I'm going to do. I'm not good at that.” You don't know if you're good at it yet. Be open to it, and maybe you're going to find out you get to be a beach volleyball coach someday and using all this cool technology or the one feeding me all this cool information behind the scenes. I couldn't be doing what I'm doing as well for the girls if I'm not using this information.
TAPPEN: As Kessy gears up to head back to the Olympics, this time as a coach, for the 2020 Tokyo Games, she's focused on using her experience and statistical tools to give April and Alix the best shot to win the gold.
ROSS: I picture this huge group of people, like, as our whole team, like, celebrating altogether.
KESSY: I think the Olympics is to be shared. It is everybody's medal. It is everybody's opportunity to be at the Olympics, watch you in the Olympics. That's what's so special about it.
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