The LAB: Where Beach Volleyball And Innovation Merge

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It began with a serendipitous run-in at the Kansas City airport. Mike Patton was flying back to Colorado from an AVCA convention. So, too, was John Kessel, one of the most experienced volleyball coaches in the world.

Patton was – and still is – a new coach at the time, so conventions like that one are an invaluable resource for the burgeoning coach. They are especially useful when he happens to be, as he called it, “stuck,” at the airport with one of the most brilliant minds in the game.

Kessel openly wondered why the Colorado region was so far behind the beach game in comparison to its counterparts. It wasn’t due to a lack of talent.  Nor a lack of resources, either, for Colorado has one that only Mother Nature can provide: altitude. He told Patton that “we should be able to utilize that we work at altitude and train at altitude all the time and that should be to our advantage,” Patton recalled from that conversation. And thus, everything traditional, in the sense of volleyball training, was thrown out the window.

Everything else was welcomed.

“I started to think outside the box,” Patton said. “Everything we’ve done from the beginning is outside of the normal box. If we think of it we just run with it.”

Oh, they’ve run with it, all right. With the held of co-founder and partner Alicia Roth, the result has been one of the most unique beach volleyball training centers in the country – “like an off-season training center in altitude,” Patton said of the facility he and his staff built, aptly called The LAB.

The LAB is no normal beach club. Players do not simply show up to the beach, practice for a few hours, run through drills, scrimmage, take a dip in the ocean and call it a day. At The LAB, they’ll do vision training, vertical training, drills, motor control – anything they can do to get the slightest advantage over those in the year-round beach volleyball states.

What’s funny is that, with the construction of The LAB, there’s nothing holding a player back from being a year-round beach volleyball player in Denver anymore. The LAB is open, sunshine or blizzard, and with the amount of windows in the building, you can literally be playing beach volleyball while watching feet of snow fall to the ground.

“Our expectations would be that we’d have a few players that would improve and we’d have some kids get scholarships and I think we’ve exceeded expectations on that level,” Patton said. “The kids that are training with us, some of them started playing beach last November and they’ve come a long ways. It’s become a truly viable option to be a fully beach player in Colorado and be out here instead of convention centers.”

And they’re not just indoor players who happen to be playing beach. The LAB’s athletes are competing at a high-level, to the point that every 16s team made the gold bracket at nationals earlier this month, which was exactly what Patton had been striving for. It was a far cry from the year before when, as Patton said, “we got beat up pretty good.”

As it can go, though, good was begat from bad, and without that rough opening year, there may not be a LAB at all.

“After last year, getting beat up, we figured there was just no possible way to compete without training year-round,” Patton said. “So we took a big leap, put 300 tons of sand inside a building with a pro net system, and we do a lot of motor learning stuff. We focused on trying to get any advantage we could since we don’t have the actual ocean here.”

But they have mountains. Altitude. A high-quality training center. Coaches like Kim Hildreth who come in multiple times per year to teach the players.

And, sometimes, a little bit of serendipity at a Kansas City airport.