10 Questions with Kent Steffes – August 2017
1.) Having grown up in a volleyball hotbed like Pacific Palisades, what was your first exposure to the sport? Which players did you look up to as a kid?
A: My first exposure to the sport was when some friends in the Palisades organized a volleyball team to compete in the Junior Olympics. I think I was around twelve. At the time, I was involved in just about every sport one could possibly be into. Somewhere around High School I had settled on Basketball and Volleyball as my favorites. Summers during High School my friends and I would play at the beach and on weekends enter tournaments. I ended up marching up the old CBVA ladder winning a AA, then a AAA and entered my first Open at Manhattan in 1987. We all subscribed to the old Volleyball Monthly that came in the large newspaper format. Karch, Sinjin, Randy and the Hov were the players I followed the most. In 1984 I got tickets to the Gold Medal match between the US and Brazil and that was a real treat but following the National Team back then was much harder than it is today.
2.) As a senior at Pacific Palisades High School you went undefeated, won the State (CIF) title, and were the #1 recruited player in the nation before attending Stanford on a volleyball scholarship. Your once promising collegiate career never really got off the ground. What happened?
A: Well, I won my first Open in 1989 and had been playing on the tour for two years. At the time (unlike in previous years) the NCAA determined that you couldn’t play indoor collegiate and outdoor pro volleyball at the same time so I had to choose and the beach it was. I liked the less structured atmosphere, the beach scene and the travel. I did start my Freshman year at Stanford and played a little professionally in France, but the highlight of my indoor career was Team Cup at the Forum. I believe the rest of the guys would say the same.
3.) By the time you were 19 years old you were already pegged for greatness on the beach by many of the established players on the AVP, including the likes of Sinjin Smith. What can you tell us about your rookie AVP season?
A: Were it so simple. I think if you track down an old copy of VB Mag, an article I think titled “Young Guns”, discussed the next generation of young guys supposed to take down Sinjin, Karch, et. al., you’ll find me in a small footnote at the bottom. Perhaps Sinjin had an eye for talent, or at least wanted to keep tabs on possible threats to his dominance at the time.
My rookie season I started playing with Owen McKibbin. Our first tournament was in South Padre Island. Back then the majority of our tour spots were affiliated with famous spring break locations and South Padre was no exception. We started off winning our first game (undefeated at the time) before getting trounced by Sinjin and Randy. For our next game the winner would get to advance to Sunday but they scheduled us on center court right before the bikini contest was supposed to start. The crowd swelled to something like ten times what it would normally be. The game went long something like 21-19 (we lost) but after every side out the crowd would boo because they wanted to see the babes. Eventually they started throwing things at us to get us to mess up (which was good training for playing in Brazil). After we lost we joined with the crowd, watched the contest and hit the party scene which was massive. It was just such a bizarre thing for a 19-year-old to experience. Eventually Owen and I played a bunch of tournaments including an epic two weeks in Italy along with Pono Maa and Jim Menges of all people. Great stories perhaps for another time but Owen decided to take on the whole town of Jesi in an arm wrestling/drinking contest and then in Rome we hopped a few fences and were partying in the middle of the Roman Forum until the police chased us out. We ended up on the hill where Caesar had his palace. It went downhill from there. Again, just a different experience than most of my friends. I eventually moved on from Owen and moved up the ladder playing with better partners and gaining more experience.
4.) In 1989 you earned your first AVP win at the Orange County (Seal Beach) Open with the late Jon Stevenson. Tell us about your first win and what it like playing with Jon Stevenson?
A: Jon Stevenson was a work out phenom. Something rare at the time. He stood 5’10” but could side out all day long. The sport has evolved but one thing the short court has done has definitely ended the days of the short guy. It was really surreal winning an event, something I had dreamed about for a long time. We played Hanson and Hanseth in the finals and I remember Jay telling me after I won to enjoy it because not very many people won opens in those days. Jay was one the sports greats.
I won my last tournament with Mike Whitmarsh. My first partner I won with and my last are both dead. Quite tragic and sad.
5.) Early in your career you played with the one and only Tim Hovland. What was it like playing with such a legend of the sport? Please share a good Hov story?!!
A: There truly is only one Hov in the world and playing with Tim was really special. He taught me how to compete on the tour and why I shouldn’t eat pancakes before a game (a long story). He was such a nice person, one of the nicest people you could ever meet. He always wanted to entertain people and give them a good show along with the volleyball. Whether in the bar at the player party or ripping his shirt off during a game, he just wanted everyone around him to have a good time. But standing there on the court with him, just before the whistle blew, he would look at me at say just the right thing and it was like me and the Hov against the world and nothing was going to stop us.
As to stories… there are way too many, from singing Louie in Clearwater, to yanking off your pocket if you wore a shirt with pockets on it. But one of my favorites occurred in Italy when he and I were playing in the World Cup. We had finished playing for the day and had begun an impromptu party on the beach. After many Fresca’s we realizing we had to clean up for the night time festivities and so we went to the tournament shuttle stop. We were waiting for the van to take us back to the hotel and the driver was futzing around and Hov was getting irritated so we all jumped in the van and Tim took the wheel and started driving. It was like Mr. Toad’s wild ride through the town, we even went the wrong way down a few one way streets. How we didn’t wreck the thing is still a mystery. We get to the hotel and Hov just drives it up the front stairs, through the open portico and parks the thing in the lobby. We all pile out and the staff having finally figured out what happened to their van just look at us in amazement, like who are these people. When you were with the Hov you were either winning volleyball games or bent over laughing having the time of your life.
6.) From an early onset, you were extremely focused and took the sport very seriously in terms of your training, preparation, and even businesswise, etc. What were some of the things you did that were keys to your success at such a young age?
A: Compared to some of my competitors that is not saying much but it is true that I partied less and worked out more than the average 1980’s player. Too be honest I was not drunk on Friday and Saturday night and that stood me out in the crowd (it apparently still draws attention today!). As I mentioned, when I first started playing we were predominately the Spring Break promotion for Miller Brewing Company and there was always a huge party on Saturday night with lots of drinking and lots of girls. I would show up, have a few beers and then go home for the night. I was usually the first to leave. By the end of my career not only was there no Saturday Night Party (Miler even complained that the players wouldn’t show up) but the players were more organic with more modern work out philosophies. There was just too much competition, money and prestige on the tour to screw around at that point. I was glad that I straddled the two generations.
Keys to my success-
First– would be 10,000 hours, Outliers sort of stuff. I played a lot of volleyball. And when I say I played a lot I PLAYED A LOT. With and against all types of partners, in the heat, in the wind, in the dark on bad beaches and good beaches. It gives you experience.
Second– I was always trying to improve not just play. You can play all day but if you are not striving to get better you won’t (Note: this is a bit controversial see Carol Dweck’s research on the topic). If every year you improve only 10% at one thing and then work on a couple of small improvements like say just improving 2% on five things, you will get 20% better per year. And it adds up over time. Works in life as well as in volleyball.
Third– I recognized early that to be professional you have to act professionally and that means getting professional advice. There is a lot of advice out there and most of it sucks. It’s usually worse than worthless and can be quite counterproductive. Getting good advice is as hard as winning volleyball tournaments. Someone sent me a video with some beach volleyball game tips and I thought “that is the complete wrong approach” but the guy sounded good and so there you have it. I have stood listening to volleyball coaches give the exact wrong advice to players, advice that is counterproductive to their future success in the sports. And don’t get me started on youth coaches (I have coached my children a lot). Most kids are handicapped before they even start because of bad coaching. Good Advice Example- I was lucky to have run into Bob Alejo (a training guru) at UCLA who was able to shape a perfectly tailored workout regimen that took my passion for playing and honed it into a powerful strong machine. Again, just playing isn’t enough if you aren’t working on getting stronger, faster, etc. There were many others that helped me professionally (such as Track Legend John Smith) but Bob is just such a clear example. Before him I was having trouble finishing tournaments with Karch because I had to jump serve, run to the net to block and I usually received all the serves. After working with him there was never a problem. And it wasn’t some masochistic ritual or Bataan Death March routine. It was just doing the right things in the right way.
Fourth– I watched a lot of tape of the other players. I watched A LOT. Would chart their tendencies and stuff. Sport is about repetitive motion training so all athletes have tells that give away what they are going to do. Whether or not you can stop them is another story but they all signal what they are going to do before they do it because that is how they train. Sinjin would pitter patter his feet before he hit line, Karch always cut from the left in transition from off the net, Randy had an imperceptible hitch in his swing that threw off most guys block timing and most players almost always look at the spot they are trying to serve. Stuff like that. Doesn’t matter the sport. When victories are measured in one or two points, any advantage helps.
Fifth– Competitiveness. I have discovered that I am a rare individual that believes that competitiveness can be trained just like jumping, serving, blocking, etc. If you practice competitiveness you will improve just as if you lift weights you will get stronger. Most practices are filled with dull drills that lack anything resembling what an athlete will face in competition. In the heat of a competitive match, say the Olympics when you are down badly and your dream of a gold medal seems lost, do you get nervous or do you relish the challenge because you have practiced it over and over again? Unless you are working something highly specific, every practice and every drill should be predominately about competition, with a winner and a loser. I have read many biographies of great coaches in many different sports and they all have competition at the root of their practices (Phil Jackson, John Wooden, Pete Carroll, Anson Dorrance just to name a few. Also every practice from legendary coach Al Scates was dominated by competitions, he has the most NCAA championships of any college coach. It is not an accident).
Sixth– Focus on the Mental. As the old saying goes sports is 90% mental, 50% physical and 25% all the other stuff (I disagree with the “old saying” as it vastly understates the mental aspect of sport). This is a complicated area. Read “The Inner Game of Tennis” or “Golf is not a Game of Perfect” to get an idea.
And finally perhaps Seventh– you have to have a purpose to whatever you are doing, call it a love of the game or a passion for your profession. Something that’s makes it all seems worthwhile and noble and worth the effort. An effort that raises you above yourself. I really enjoyed being a professional beach volleyball player, I wanted to be a professional athlete when I was a kid. I thought it was the greatest thing anyone could do with their life. I enjoyed competing and playing in tournaments, I enjoyed entertaining the fans. A lot of people go to work so they can make a living but in their free time they took the time to watch us and that was meaningful to us. There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about my experiences on the court during my career. It was a life well lived and I hope others can find that passion in their field of endeavor.
I’m sure there is more but this is a good start.
7.) Kiraly & Steffes. Together you formed the most dominant men’s team of all time, winning countless opens together as well as an Olympic Gold medal in 1996. What do your recall about that special run you two had together? What made you such an incredibly dominant team?
A: It was an amazing time! I think if I remember correctly we won like 63 of 75 tournaments during one stretch. We just dominated our competition. One of my best memories other than the wins and the wins in a row was that during one tournament we gave up only 11 points in the whole tournament! And one of the games we won only 15-9! Karch was such an incredible player and an incredible competitor and that was before he got into a match or a game was on the line. Then it was like a whole new player emerged. For any Ben 10 Fans out there it was like Karch became Ultimate Karch at those times. And the best part about it was that everyone was so intimidated by Karch that I got to see all the action, especially in the beginning of our partnership. I saw virtually every serve and most of the plays. It was like every game was mine to win or lose and I had such confidence in Karch that it really freed me up to let it rip. With success came an increase in confidence to the point where I was like ok, the game is tight so they are clearly going to serve me so it’s time to step it up. All the while I could be sure that Karch would be there to make an incredible play or spark an amazing rally. He wasn’t going to just sit there and watch me have all the fun.
Another anecdote that touches on what I said above about the mental aspects of the game. In volleyball you really try to play the percentages (as you do in all sports) and work hard to manage your risk at all times, Karch especially. For example, Karch tended to serve more conservatively and he was a master at playing the percentages. But during Cuervo tournaments we found ourselves in a situation where we were guaranteed to be in the finals but had another game to play (which of course never happens in tournament play). In other words the game did not matter to the outcome of the tournament for us. Many teams in that circumstance would play easy trying to conserve energy and some would strategically lose if they thought that would benefit them in the playoffs. We were just not like that. What we did instead was to tell ourselves that we were going to serve as hard as we possibly could, really go for the serves. We figured this would improve our serving and get us fired up for the finals. Virtually every time we would crush the other team usually serving ace after ace (again the outcome didn’t matter so in a weird twist your freer and actually play better). We would never serve as well as we would in those games. In the finals, we would revert to our normal (but still strong) serving game. But it was nothing like the go for it all serving. The mental game is quite a mystery.
8.) All told, you accumulated 110 Open wins over your illustrious career. If you had to list the 3 most special ones, what would they be and why?
A: Obviously, the Olympics comes first. It is just such a huge event played on a massive scale. Nothing we could have imagined back in the day when I first started playing. Second would be my first Manhattan Beach Open win. That was the tournament everyone wanted to win before the Olympics became a factor. In High School my friends and I would ride our bikes down to Manhattan to watch the tournament. Those were the years that Hov and Dodd were dominating. Watching the Hov range around the court like a Lion was cool to see, eventually playing with him was a dream come true. Third would be tough, so many great tournaments, I loved winning in Santa Cruz, such a great beach, or winning Cuervo’s with their $100,000 prize money (a whole lot of money back then), Brazil with the crazy crowds, even the various Winter indoor events we played. It was just such a fun lifestyle at the time.
9.) In 1998 you sued the AVP, including the board of directors; one of which was none other than your former partner – Karch Kiraly; for breach of contract, not paying prize money, etc… Once and for all, let’s hear your side of the story to set the record straight?
A: That’s an old story without any new news. I was owed money and wasn’t paid. The rest is just details. I can only add two observations. First, I saw that Kerri Walsh Jennings is suing the AVP for… surprise… not paying her. Seems things never change. And second, since entering the business world I have unfortunately experienced what every business person does and been involved in various lawsuits. If I were to go back and give my younger self advice I would say you should have sued earlier and been more aggressive… and you should have taken a baseball bat to the head of some of those people. But I was young so what did I know?
10.) What are you up to these days? Family? Occupation? Hobbies?
A: I still live in West LA close to where I grew up. I have two wonderful children Katharine who is 13 and Conrad who is 11. I went to business school after volleyball so have been involved in various business ventures but I still travel a lot, hang out with my kids and generally just try to enjoy life.
Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on the various questions and please let your readers know to send me any follow ups they might have.