Can You Dig It

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In their introductory post on The Players’ Tribune, Gibb and Patterson introduce themselves — by introducing each other. Take it away, guys.

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About Casey
By Jake Gibb

Let me tell you something about Casey. He has probably the best court vision of any beach player in the world right now.

I’ll tell you something else: he’s the poorest loser I know. As close to a tantrum as you can think of, that’s Casey on the sand. I love the guy, but there’s a lot of truth to it. You always hear that certain athletes are poor losers because they want to win so badly. Jordan famously hated to lose. But the difference with Casey is that he actually has to remove himself from situations to cool off. That’s how competitive he is.

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I’ll give you an example: When we lose, I’ll walk back to our box, where we keep our gear and where we unwind after a match. By the time I walk there, Casey’s already gone rogue. He disappears. He’s picked up all his gear and I don’t even know where he goes. I’d love to paint you a picture of what he does but he is literally gone by the time I sit down. Meanwhile, I’m with our coach, going over game analysis, talking about what we could’ve done better, and we have yet to see Casey. To this day, I don’t know where he goes, but over time I’ve understood why. He gets so heated, he needs to just cool off and be by himself. I’ve even seen him stomp away from ping pong matches in a hotel lobby like he just lost the Olympic gold medal.

Beach volleyball is a two-man sport, which makes the strength of the partnership so important. The toughest thing about the game is letting your partner down. It’s not an individual sport, like singles tennis, where it’s all on you. In beach volleyball, it’s pretty clear when you’re making mistakes and your partner is carrying you.

So the hardest part for me is the responsibility to my teammate. For Casey and me, the fact that we’re friends and our families are close makes us better players. But it increases the pressure too. This is our profession and our livelihood. Our families are close. Our wives play volleyball together. Our kids go to preschool together. If I’m shanking balls and missing serves, both of our lives are affected — not only mine. At the same time, our communication on the court is probably better than any team out there.

Another thing about Casey: I didn’t really like him at first. Casey’s reputation preceded him. Before we were ever teammates, I knew who he was. He was this young cocky guy making noise at tournaments. He was a great indoor college player who was coming up through the ranks in beach. There was no doubt about his skill level, but he was also known for … how do you put it? Being loud. I mean loud in every sense of the word. Dancing between plays. Talking trash (he’s probably the best trash talker on the AVP Tour). Going right back at hecklers in the crowd. Flaunting that haircut, the yellow Mohawk. He’s a fan favorite, for sure, but if he’s playing against your team, he gets under your skin.

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At first I looked at this kid and I was like, What have you done yet? I only saw the trash-talking Mohawk guy. What I came to realize later, though, was that when you see Casey out there yelling and dancing — that’s just him. That’s authentic. That’s not a façade. It’s not for the fans. It’s not for the cameras. When we go out and play co-ed with our wives down in Huntington Beach, he’s doing the same exact thing (my apologies to anyone on nearby courts). Maybe it comes off as a little abrasive, but he’s being true to himself. I think that’s very honorable. It’s like he’s figured out a life secret: Let it out. Let people see your personality. He’s taught me a lot in that way. Come to a tournament and see for yourself: Casey brings the electricity.

Guys want to snap back at Casey, but it’s risky: they wouldn’t want to wake the sleeping giant.

As I said, Casey has probably the best court vision in the world. A lot of stuff is happening in the split second that the ball is hanging in the air. As you’re attacking, you have to see where the defender is, see where the block is, and evaluate the set. Then you have to make a decision about where to hit. Casey will nail soft shots that I wouldn’t dare try because I don’t see the court like he does. He’s got a cannon for an arm, but his vision separates him from other guys and allows him to vary his shots.

Then again, don’t assume he’ll dink it on you. Casey likes to go up to swing — and if he sees a guy pull off the net to try and dig him, in the middle of the swing he’ll say, “Don’t pull on me.” Then, bang. And it’s like, Hey, you made the mistake and I’m going to let you know about it. That’s takes another level of confidence because he’s trash-talking before he’s even put the ball away. Guys want to snap back at Casey, but it’s risky: they wouldn’t want to wake the sleeping giant. They know he plays better fired up.

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I’m 39, so I’m the old guy on the tour. I always call Casey “The Kid” because he keeps me feeling young, but he’s 35 — pretty old too. I use “old” in quotes because beach volleyball age is different from basketball or football age. You’ll see pros playing late into their 30s. For one thing, I think playing on the sand is therapeutic. You’re landing on a forgiving surface as opposed to a hard court, so your joints aren’t taking the same beating day in and day out.

But more than that, it takes a long time for the entire skill set to develop in beach volleyball. It’s a sport where you need the full array of skills. In indoor volleyball, you can specialize. You can be the world’s greatest middle hitter — you’ve got one specific trait and you make a living and do great at it. But in beach volleyball you can’t have any weaknesses in your game. You have to hit, set, pass, serve. Those skills take time to develop, so guys get better and better as they get older. I like to think that every time we knock out a younger team, we’re reversing the aging process a little bit.

Speaking of age, one thing I love about our sport is we don’t have somebody telling us, “It’s time to hang it up. I’m going to bring in this young kid that I think is better than you.” Well, on the sand, I’m making that decision. That young kid is gonna have to come beat me. They have to come show me that I’m done. If they start beating me and getting me down through the ranks, then I’ll retire. On the beach, we get the control, which is a really cool thing.

Last weekend in Seattle, we came in third. You can always try to spin the reasons you don’t win, but I think we needed the loss. We had gone quite a few matches and tournaments without losing. It was a little wake-up call. Sometimes we kind of roll through some of the early games of a tournament and we start feeling good about ourselves. The fact is, we can get beat by anybody. It’s important to remember to stay hungry.

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About Jake
By Casey Patterson

I was surprised to get a call from Jake. It was right after the 2012 Olympics and he said he was picking a new partner. He was established in the beach world, but I was still an up-and-coming player. How did I make the short list? There was an Olympic indoor gold medalist in Reid Priddy and there was Nick Lucena, another guy that’s really good, and then there was me, the most unpolished player of the bunch.

Three years — and 10 AVP titles — later we’ve turned out to be pretty successful partners. But in 2012, who would have thought? In a lot of ways we couldn’t have more opposite playing styles.

My style is very loud, passionate, in your face. I’d almost describe it as a South American soccer style. I want to show how much I really love volleyball and just let it explode out of me when I’m playing the game.

Jake is the picture of consistency and calm. He gets fiery, too, but he does it in a way that’s very professional.

I’m from California, Jake grew up in Utah.

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I played indoor college volleyball and pro overseas. Jake was more of a basketball guy growing up. He’s actually a late comer to beach volleyball.

I’m younger and I run a little hotter. Jake is more experienced and level-headed. He keeps me kind of grounded, but at the same time he lets me free to be myself.

My style is very loud, passionate, in your face. Jake is the picture of consistency and calm.

I’m a peaks and valley guy, where I go on streaks with my hitting (I’m getting better at that). Jake is steady — he rarely makes two mistakes in a row.

We play two different styles of volleyball, but I think that’s the special part of our partnership. He helps me be steady and consistent over time, and I help him stay fired up for big plays. I guess opposites make good beach volleyball partners.

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From Jake, I’ve learned about consistency. Volleyball is a sport that punishes mistakes. A lot of us, me included, have amazing games, followed by a terrible match. But with Jake, he never really has that terrible match. His lowest level of play is much higher than most anyone I’ve ever seen in the sport of beach volleyball. That’s why he has been so dominant for such a long time. At the age of 39, it’s awesome to see that he’s still going up. Maybe it’s hard to imagine for some people, but he’s actually gotten better in the last three years than he has been his whole career. You can’t really say that for most pro athletes.

I admire Jake’s work ethic. He plays like nothing is handed to you. I like to put it this way: There are people that go to the school for things, there are people who are naturally gifted, and then there are people who are both naturally gifted and exceptional learners. Jake is an example of the third type of person. It’s funny — if we played a different sport we’d be retired by now. We’d probably be coaching. It’s not a fluke that we’re still playing at a high level. It takes the work.

Take blocking. Jake is one of the best blockers in the world — and has been for the last 10 years. But he isn’t the tallest guy. And he wasn’t the best indoor blocker (he actually never played indoor at a high level). He’s naturally gifted, definitely, but he has utilized the genius of our coach Tyler Hildebrand to become the best. Together, they’ve broken blocking down to an art form. As a blocker, you have to be patient. You have to be able to read a hitter and adjust quickly as the play changes. Jake can reach in to an angle at the last second when other guys would just stay blocking the line.

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The blocks get cheers from the crowd, but something people don’t recognize as fans watching volleyball is Jake’s ability to fix broken plays. Let’s say I pass the ball and it’s 25 feet off the net (hopefully this doesn’t happen too often). Jake’s ability to run under the ball and set me on the net, so I can attack the ball with as much range as I need, is better than anyone in the world. Transition setting, out of system plays, everything. It’s almost like when things go badly, Jake is at his best.

I’ve always been kind of a wild energy player, fueled by passion and adrenaline. I’ve been learning to follow in Jake’s footsteps mentally. Jake has that old school, grind-it-out mentality. At our level, everyone is physical, everyone can hit the ball hard, everyone can jump high. But in pressure situations and when things aren’t going your way, are you able to grind for points and find a way to win? That mental consistency is very special about Jake.

We’ve had a long summer. A good summer, but long. These AVP tournaments are gnarly. We’ve been traveling non-stop and playing almost every weekend. Mentally, it takes a toll. But third place in an AVP, like we got in Seattle, is not a terrible thing. I think because we’ve been so successful in recent years — we had won 25 straight matches before Seattle — we’ve come to expect a lot out of ourselves. When we lose, it feels unfamiliar. Whoa, how did we not win this tournament? But winning even one tournament is a grind. So Seattle lights a fire under us again. We’re ready to put more coal on the fire and get it burning.

Gradually, my peaks and valleys are getting closer together, the longer I’ve been playing with Jake. I’m even learning to bump set better, which is a big deal because I always was used to setting with my hands from the indoor game. Most of all, it’s so rad to have a friendship like ours and to have families that are so close. Our wives even play beach volleyball together, which is awesome.

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If you were to try and create the coolest scenario for a beach partnership, I’m pretty sure we have it.

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