Kent & Travis Landscape

My guests today are gold medal beach volleyball champion Kent Steffes and beach volleyball player and author Travis Mewhirter. I don’t care if you have an interest in beach volleyball, if you want to know what a winner’s mindset is, then this is a conversation for you. Kent’s unique approach to reaching goals, be it sport or business, is worth your time. His deep philosophical approach to executing a strategy is an example of a 1% person of the 1%. He readily admits there is a cost for winning and shares how he navigated that or re-framed it during his career. Kent and Travis’s new book KINGS OF SUMMER, a history of men’s beach volleyball, is out now. I just wish I knew Kent better 35 years ago to learn just the three things all the great volleyball players do. What did Kent do after he won the gold at 27? Headed to Stanford business school and did a complete pivot at 30. If you want to listen to someone who approaches things in a way most of us don’t, tune in. Enjoy

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Key Topics:

Cultivating a Winner’s Mindset & The Cost of Great Achievement | with Olympic Gold Medalist Kent Steffes & Author Travis Mewhirter

“Probably the biggest common denominator I’ve noticed is this hyper-focus, this ability to meld mind and body together. With good athletes who are able to win occasionally, they’ll find those moments and get into that flow state but they can’t sustain it. Whereas you see the great champions, Tiger, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Kent, and Steph, they’re able to have this level of hyper-focus. It’s not just in Manhattan Beach Opens or the Olympic Games, it’s Monday morning practice, it’s Tuesday at 5:00 AM we have to go to the track or weight room or wherever you’re going. They just have this.”

“Sports are specifically designed to put you into an area where you are threatened and where there is fear. You might choke and you might fail. That’s what they’re designed to do. If you look at combat sports, the sports are specifically created to hurt you and damage you, and collision sports as well. Sports such as distance running or other sports are meant to physically exhaust you. It’s meant to push you past your pain tolerances. When you start to look at these things, you can wonder why people don’t necessarily adopt the winning mindset. It’s not easy, it hurts, it’s painful, and it’s damaging. You need to reframe your experience.”

“Sometimes you have to cry uncontrollably but then you pick yourself up and you go back home and you say, “What do I need to do to get better? I need to get stronger, faster, and I need to watch more tape.” Finally, after doing all that, I was able to crack the nut. We were the ones who took down Sinjin and Randy from the top spot. You got to knock the number one players off and that’s what we did and it’s not easy.”

Welcome to the show. My guest is Olympic gold medalist and beach volleyball player, Kent Steffes, and beach volleyball player, author, and podcast host, Travis Mewhirter. This was a special conversation for me because I love talking about sports. Of course, I love talking about beach volleyball. It’s bigger than that.

Regardless of whether you’re interested or not in beach volleyball or even sports, it’s getting a small inside look at the brain of someone like Kent Steffes who is the 1% of the 1%. This is an intelligent person who happened to be big, athletic, and interested enough in directing some of that energy toward sports. Two and a half years after he wins the gold medal, he changes and goes to Stanford Business and puts his teeth into something else. It’s also a look at what’s the cost of winning.

I did play volleyball and Travis is playing volleyball. We’re sitting at the same table as Kent. Travis and I probably got there. We were athletic and instinctive enough. It was fun for us. Sitting with Kent, it’s almost like speaking a different language. First of all, I’m sure he liked playing volleyball but he was there to win. He shares openly that there is a cost for that. That’s an important conversation to have.

We all spend a lot of time doing things that great things come from it but there’s always a cost. Whether it’s you who wants to participate or maybe have a kid who’s in sport, it’s an important conversation to have. Regardless if you’re interested in beach volleyball or sports, it’s a look at that mindset of, “I’m doing this to win,” and also how strategic and almost mathematical they are. Kent says that all great volleyball players do three things. I’m sure if you ask the top of every person in every sport, they can tell you their three things in their sport. Every athlete who is successful does these 3 or 4 things. It’s hard.

The thing for me is there’s a lot of life after sport and there are a lot of other things besides winning. If that even means in your business life and accruing whether it’s titles, money, or power, what is the price for that? Looking at what feels better and who wants to pay that price. I wouldn’t say Kent was there to be social at the beach. He was there to practice and get something done. This was a treat for me. 25 years after sharing a beach with him, I get to get a look behind. He and Travis have a new book out called Kings of Summer and you can order it online. I hope you enjoy.

Kent and Travis, thank you for coming to my house. Travis, I’ve seen you in about a year. How long has it been now?

It’s probably the winter. We came up and worked out.

Was this book done when I saw you or were you and Kent still working on it?

In the process. The book wasn’t done until now.

Your editor must have been excited. It’s not available till August 2022 and yet it’s sold out in Australia. I’ll establish it at the top. How did the two of you meet?

That’s a winding and fun story. Kent, in my mind, is one of the most dominant athletes in the history of the sport.

I don’t know why you would say that.

He’s won a lot of tournaments. I wanted to get in touch with him as a journalist for a long time but Kent gets set up for interviews all the time. His rule of thumb, which I didn’t know, was that I will be the last interview. I kept trying to interview him for this book I was working on.

Do you mean you get to talk to all the athletes first and if you’re doing a project, I have to be the last person you speak to?

Right, because no one ever finishes these projects. It’ll either be documentaries, books, or whatever.

The 1990s beach volleyball scene was something special. It hit a peak during those times that we haven’t seen since, either internationally or in the United States. It was a time when the sport was rocketing onto the scene and becoming into the Olympics. There’s a lot of natural interest in that time period, especially now, nostalgia with the ‘90s. I get hit up about 5 to 10 times a year by people who are like, “I want to do a book. I want to do a documentary. I want to do a Netflix series.” When I was younger, I’d take the meeting.

You’d bite the hook.

[bctt tweet=”Sports is specifically designed to put you into an area where you are threatened, where there is fear.”]

I was young and didn’t know anything. Later on, I would talk to them. I’d go, “I’ll be your last interview. Go around and do anything.” Some people got fairly far, a quarter of the way, a half of the way, but they usually just flail out. I realized that when I said to the people that I’ll be the last interview, I sounded lame so I stopped responding.

Would you stop responding?

I could figure they get around to me.

Kent’s body of work in the first-ever Olympics and beach volleyball has its place in history. Did you want to interview him as somebody who’s writing or did you want to talk to him as a player?

Both. That’s the beauty of what I get to do. When I write about volleyball, I’m also stealing people’s best direction. That’s why I love doing the podcast with Tri because we get to talk to all these phenomenal athletes and I’m sitting here taking notes. Nobody was ever worried about me being any good when we started the podcast because I was terrible. It was a little bit of both.

When you have someone who’s won as much as Kent has, there’s so much you can learn. Why it’s been a blast working with him on this project is digging into the mindset of someone who won almost 50% of the tournaments he played, which is an obscene percentage. It was a lot of both. I wanted to pick the mind of someone who wants so much. No one had ever been able to track him down for an interview.

You like that challenge.


You’re hard to get. That’s good.


It’s a good quality.

He got there and I said, “I’ll be your last interview.” He sent the book. He completed the book and did the thing. I said, “I’m ready now.” We had him and Delaney, his wife, over. We invited Sinjin and Patty. They came over to my house for dinner. We had a great time.

It was awesome.

I had written some stuff and we can maybe talk about that online during the pandemic.

I read it, some of it.

He called me up and said, “Can I use some of the stuff you wrote?” I’m like, “Of course. It doesn’t matter to me.” After the dinner, for some reason, he then contacts me and goes, “Do you want to co-write this book?” That last interview went well.

I’m curious as somebody who can be inside and an observer. We’ll get into it. I do appreciate how the book went from chapter to chapter back in the past, the history of it, and then back into the game itself in the ‘96 Olympics. What traits do you see commonly in all the champions or what people call champions?

I have since broadened my definition of a champion. There’s winning and then there’s this other level of a champion who’s trying to do that in all the facets of their life. In athletics, what traits have you observed that everyone has that are unique? After doing this book and probably getting to know Kent more, I do think Kent has a few things that are different than some other people that have won that much.

Probably the biggest common denominator I’ve noticed is this hyper-focus, this ability to meld mind and body together. With good athletes who are able to win occasionally, they’ll find those moments and get into that flow state but they can’t sustain it. Whereas you see the great champions like Tiger, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Kent, and Steph, they’re able to have this level of hyper-focus.

It’s not just in Manhattan Beach Opens or the Olympic Games, it’s Monday morning practice, it’s Tuesday at 5:00 AM we have to go to the track or weight room or wherever you’re going. They just have this intense level of focus. It was enlightening talking to Kent when he was talking about the winning mindset and I thought, “I don’t think I have that as an athlete.” I do have that as a writer where I can lose track of time for 5 or 6 hours at a time and I can come out and it’s 4:00 PM. That’s what all the great champions in athletics that I’ve noticed have.

Kent, expand on this mindset when you talk about that.

When you study or look at famous athletes, coaches, or even from my own experience. It not only took my own experience but since then, I’ve read a bunch of stuff. I’ve read a bunch of psychological stuff. I’ve read a bunch of autobiographies. You see these common patterns that emerge. What it comes down to is a mindset. Let’s call it the winning mindset.

The first thing you would notice when you talk about champion athletes is their goal is to win. That might be obvious but it’s not. You’ll get a lot of pushback from people if you simply say the goal of sport is to win. My goal in volleyball was to win every game and tournament. The goal of Michael Jordan is to win the basketball game. The goal of a champion golfer is to win major tournaments. Even when I wrote that back when I was writing these pieces on Facebook, people were like, “That’s not true. It should be about this. It shouldn’t be about that.”

These are people who didn’t play sports. Of course, you hope you get these other things. We’ll talk about these skillsets that propel you through the rest of your life. It is interesting because it is still a unique athlete even within the best of the best that it’s like, “I have one single goal and it’s to win.” That’s still a special group within the group.

What you find when you look at athletes is not everybody who plays sports wants to win. Not everyone is interested in that. You find people that play sports because they like to play sports. It’s fun. It’s something good you can do. You can make money at it. The minimum league salary in the NBA is $1 million.

If you think every single player there wants to win the NBA championship, there’s news for you, it’s not true. Not only have I experienced that in my life but I’ve also played with players who don’t want to win. It’s Cleveland, they don’t care. I’ve played with players who’ve taken bribes to lose. I’ve taken players who are at the end of their careers and are like, “I got nothing else to do so I might as well hang on.”

I’ve read stories about the New York Yankees of the ‘90s with the Joe Torre years and the Derek Jeter years where the players were trying to milk the end of their careers for large dollars. I’ve heard professional baseball player pitchers who look at their schedule, see a great team they’re going to play and say they’re hurt because they don’t want to ruin their stats.

Caption 1

Travis Mewhirter – I like seeing the stories of people who worked so hard for what they got, instead of asking someone else to hand it down.

It’s funny. You won a ton. It’s hard to have that mindset. It takes a lot of energy. It’s exhausting to be like that. I’m curious, would you have played and won a gold medal and done all that, if early on, you weren’t winning already? You had other things. You’re bright. You’ve made a whole other career certainly much sooner than you needed to. If you weren’t winning early, do you think you would have stayed or you would have been like, “I’m out because I’m not winning.”

This is where it gets interesting. This is where the winning mindset and talking about winning and the psychology of it, I find fascinating. The problem isn’t so much like, “Adopt the winning mindset. Go out there and say, ‘I’m going to win.’” The problem is that when you lose, it’s psychologically damaging to you. It damages you on a physiological level. We have studies on that. When people compete against each other, the winner feels better and gets high. The loser has damage. As human beings, we have to reframe that experience. We have to think of another way to approach it so that we don’t incur that damage and have it affect us.

Let’s say you and Travis are playing together, you’re a team. He stated clearly that you’re already something. You play and, for some weird reason, you lose. Do you think it hurts you and damages you more than Travis because you do say, “I’m here to win.”

We know it does. The problem is that sports are specifically designed to do that. Sports are specifically designed to put you into an area where you are threatened and where there is fear. You might choke and you might fail. That’s what they’re designed to do. If you look at combat sports, the sports are specifically created to hurt you and damage you, and collision sports as well.

Sports such as distance running or other sports are meant to physically exhaust you. It’s meant to push you past your pain tolerances. When you start to look at these things, you can wonder why people don’t necessarily adopt the winning mindset. It’s not easy, it hurts, it’s painful, and it’s damaging. You need to reframe your experience.

One of the things we talked about in our book is an experience I had when I was a kid. I was sitting around State Beach. I grew up here in Pacific Palisades, south of where we are in Malibu, a little bit north of Santa Monica. The beach I played at was right there and the pros would play there. Sinjin would play there. Randy Stoklos would play there. I was a kid in high school. We used to sit at the side of the court and watch them because we were fascinated. We wanted to be pro beach volleyball players too and here are the stars of the sport.

One day, Sinjin, who always wanted to play an extra game, the sun is setting, it’s a beautiful summer day, 8:00 PM, and no one would play with him but John Hanley. He looks at me and my high school friend and says, “Do you kids want to play?” It’s like, “Do you want to play basketball against Michael Jordan? Do you want to hit golf balls with Tiger Woods?” You’re like, “Of course, I want to play.” We get out there and we are so fired up. We are so excited.

You’re not scared?

They beat us 15 – 2 and we won the game. We got two points.

How did you get two points off them?

I can’t even remember.

You served Hanley. I’m kidding. He’s so sweet.

That’s what I’m talking about in terms of a winning mindset and how to reframe your experience in order to move forward. When he first started the tour, I was 19 years old. You’re not going to win the tournament. Let me tell you one thing, I had something interesting. I would never forget this. There wasn’t a tournament I played in, even when I was a kid, I didn’t think I would win. I didn’t think I could beat all the top players in a row. I said to myself, “If this happens and that happens…” When a top player loses and that bracket opens up, you’ll never know.

I went into that with that mindset knowing that the probability is low with the expectation that I was always going to win and knowing that it’s going to take time to go up the ladder. First of all, when you enter a sport like beach volleyball, you can’t win because you don’t have points. You don’t have the right ranking. Winning for you could be to continually march up the rankings. Winning could be continuing to get a better partner. That then ameliorates the damage that can occur and can build up from the constant competition.

It’s an interesting point. I had a coach here who coaches a kid from the Celtics. They lost but if you look at how much better they did overall, within a disappointing loss, they still have to have the conversation of, “Look at how much we’ve improved.” It’s a beautiful thing. You talk about your dad in Kings of Summer where he was interested in physics and running. Are you born with this mentality? Was there also something in your environment that helped you get to this place?

The technical answer is we don’t know. It’s been studied hard and wide. Certainly, there’s a genetic component to certain sports. If you’re 5’6”, your odds of being in the NBA are low. If you’re 5’6”, you can find a sport in which you can excel.

I mean the attitude. I don’t even mean picking a sport.

That is completely learnable, easily and simply. It’s a switch you turn on and off.

It makes me think about it because I thought a lot about the sport and what it is for different people and what it means. For me, it was a way out. It was a way to have a better life. It was a way to go to college and then continue and be part of something. I always say that Kerri Walsh had the mentality like you, which is, “I expect to win. I’m here to win. If I don’t win, it’s my fault.” It’s the way it is. It’s different types of experiences. You’re active still. When you hear this, do you think, “Maybe I’m not cut out for this in a certain way.”

Sometimes, when he was talking about reframing and what winning looks like for different people. I’ve only been playing beach volleyball for over six years.

You’re late.

When I go and play against Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner or Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb and I go to three sets with them, I’m holding my own. In my mind, that is a win in and of itself. It’s like the Celtics, where they didn’t win but they vastly improved from where they were a year ago. What’s fun for me is that because I’m still so new as a player and I’m still making these pretty big strides, I still have so much to learn. It is that reframing of what winning looks like to you as an individual.

Kent was at such an elite level at such a young age. You read the book. They won 15 – 6 in the High School Championship. He was the best player. We were going to prom right after. He’s known that he was going to be good at the sport for a long time. For me, it’s still such a novel concept. It’s a little bit different.

Laird and I talk about this a lot. He goes to State Beach. There are things that are more intuitive when you’re younger and it gets baked into you as an athlete versus learning a little older where you’re analyzing things. Misty May is another great example of growing up very young. There are certain things that you do because, of course, that’s what you do. That’s part of what the game is and the rhythm of the game that you already know versus coming in late to a game and having to be like, “They’re taking the line. I should see. I’ll try to hit a cutty over here because I see them on their right foot.”

You’re like, “I know what’s happening.” There are so many other nuances. What I’m curious about is if you can recall a time when you were competing at a very high level where you had a loss that you didn’t expect. What type of reframing did you do so that it didn’t kick your ass? It didn’t punish you because you had to. You’re at a big tournament or what have you.

[bctt tweet=”Sports aren’t physical. It’s this mindset. It’s trying to break someone psychologically.”]

It was the 1991 World Championships in Rio de Janeiro and I was playing with Tim Hovland against the number one team in the world, Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos, and we were winning. It was 2 out of 3 and we were winning the first game and last. We were winning the second game and lost. It was devastating. It was devastating because I had never played harder in my life. I had never played better in my life and I didn’t win. I thought to myself, “If I played the best I can play and can’t win, what’s the deal? What’s the point?” My reframing was to cry uncontrollably on the side.

I like that though.

Of course, I was very sad.

What about Hovland?

He was fine. He had been there a long time. He had won World Championships, won Manhattan Beaches, and he had won the big tournaments. He was called The Big Game Hunter for a reason.

He’s scary. That’s what I mean. It’s important for people to hear that because behind so much of all of your success, it’s that ability to go, “Okay.” Sometimes we think, “A guy like that will be like, ‘I’m younger than everybody. I’ll have my time.’” Sometimes you just have to cry.

Sometimes you have to cry uncontrollably but then you pick yourself up and you go back home and you say, “What do I need to do to get better? I need to get stronger, faster, and I need to watch more tape.” Finally, after doing all that, I was able to crack the nut. We were the ones who took down Sinjin and Randy from the top spot. You got to knock the number one players off and that’s what we did and it’s not easy.

Especially with Sideout Volleyball, Sinjin had this attitude and you could feel it, “I will stand out here longer than everybody.” It’s an interesting thing when volleyball would be guys and you could see them and they go, “I don’t even care anymore. I want to get out of here.” Guys like Sinjin would be like, “I’ll stand out here all day long.” You think, “Oh my god, that is torture.”

That was one of the biggest differentiators between the elites from that old school era between the great players and the good players and that winning mindset. You could see it with Hovland. He said the funniest quote, “You might beat us once. You’re not going to beat us twice because we worked harder than you and we knew it. We could stay out there all day long.” That was the differentiator.

The good players were stoked to get the fifth place and then you’d have Hovland, Sinjin, Dodd, Randy, Kent, and Karch and they could stay out there all day long. Not only could they, but they wanted to. They wanted the longer games because they knew the longer it went out, the more the other team would wilt. You can see that they outworked people.

In the book, at the Olympics, you will not ace Karch. He will not be aced.

That was his mindset. He said that it was a skill to get the ball off the floor. That court was huge back then. It was enormous. Sometimes on 16th Street in Hermosa, they leave the courts on the big court. We’ll mess around, 2 on2 on the big court. I look at it and I’m like, “I don’t know how they ever passed the ball.” Especially because they were bombing jumpsters. You have Karch laying out getting a knuckle on it. It’s a perfect pass. You can see them bear down and grit up. When you guys were down in the Olympics, 12 – 8, that was a serious problem.

For people reading who don’t know, through time and before television and other reasons, they implemented changes in volleyball to speed up play. People like points. They’re like, “What happened? It went back and forth and nobody got a point.” We switched to rally scoring and it became more of a big man’s game by shortening the court. You have to hit the ball. There were some things in this type of volleyball.

It is interesting how you go through all the old sports. Hockey, for example, it’s like, “We played without helmets.” It’s true, there is sometimes grittiness. I will say that I started in that part of the game. In men’s and women’s volleyball, there were certain players who had grittiness. Even before your time, Kent, no block. You can’t penetrate over the net.

That world cracks me up.

You have guys like Gary Hooper who’s like, “Hit it as hard as you want. My job is to take it.” It’s interesting how these little things come into play where it was part of the game, baked in. Kent, playing with Karch, Karch often felt robotic. You had a little bit of that. I can say from looking from the outside, you had aloofness. You didn’t fully know what you were experiencing. Certainly, Karch, if he ever made an error, you thought, “He won’t make that.” There won’t be two errors in a row. There are certain athletes you watch. What are the things that you took away and learned from playing with Karch Kiraly?

One of the best things about playing with Karch was the mindset that he had. He wanted to win. If you want to win, it’s great to be playing with people that want to win too. That’s the start. He was obviously a hard worker. He was very intense. He also knew well the technical aspects of the game. He knew the angles to hit, the place to put it, and how to block. There are only three things you need to be the number one player in beach volleyball. No matter how many volleyball games you watch, nobody ever does it but the good ones.

Is that funny? Forever truth?

I even told Travis, “I don’t do that.” Many argue with me on the third one. When you start getting down, you have to put a tent pole somewhere and get to the basics of any sport anywhere. Let’s take a look at an NBA game. At the end of the game with time running down and your team is down to one, who’s taking the shot? Michael Jordan is taking the shot. Steph Curry is taking the shot. I know it, you know it, and the other team knows it but somehow, he’s able to make the shot.

He’s able to get above everybody, get away, get free, get the ball with five guys chasing him, and make the shot. How does he do that? It’s because he’s doing something that everyone else in the entire building isn’t doing. When you play with someone like Karch, you realize that. There are three things that most people do not do in professional volleyball, except for Todd Rogers. The Volley Vikings do them and they win.

Is he going to tell us what they are or is it a secret?

He likes to dangle there for a while.

I’m like, “What is the secret to the universe?”

Caption 2

Kent Steffes – Your kids are a reflection of you. You could guide them, direct them, and encourage them but to get into that mindset to push yourself, you might not want that for your child.

It’s not a secret. The first thing is when you hit the ball, you have to see the ball, the blocker, and the defensive player. If you don’t see that, you’re guessing. If you’re guessing, you’re not going to get the point. If you can see the blocker and the defensive player, you just hit it where they aren’t. The court was huge in our day. It was 25% larger than it is now. You hit it where they’re not. If they’re here, you hit it over here. It’s a simple game. The only way you can do that is if you can see. Most people are looking up when they’re hitting the ball because they have problems in the sand. You work back from all these things.

It’s getting your feet to the ball and putting yourself in position so that you can see all those three things.

Feet to the ball. How do you jump out of the sand? You want to forward jump. Most people think they have to upward jump. You begin to start working back but you got to start somewhere. When I look, I go, “Are you looking at the sky? Are you looking at the block?” He’s like, “Mostly at the sky.”

What if you have a giant block? I’m curious. Let’s say it’s Whitmarsh. I’m trying to think of a big guy you’d have to play against. Who would be a pain-in-the-butt block that you had to deal with?

Mike Whitmarsh. He was by far the best blocker because he was athletic and tall.

He was meant to be a basketball player. Let’s face it. I don’t know what was he doing on the beach. Let’s it’s not a perfect pass and not a perfect set but it’s all within range. It’s all workable like how you do but now you’ve got to deal with a very big block. Maybe you have one shot that’s more comfortable statistically for you than another. At that moment, do you adapt? Do you adjust? What do you do? Do you go, “I’m going to do this shot that’s more comfortable for me. I’m going to challenge the block even though he’s pushing me. He’s pushing me not to hit it where they’re not.” How do you manage that at that moment?

You’re in trouble.


The point is that you need to do that less and you need to do it correctly more. That’s how you get it done. Sinjin is doing the same thing I’m doing. He’s seeing the court and everything and he’s hitting right. Who’s going to make the mistake? Who’s going to make the bad pass? Who’s going to not focus? Who’s going to not be all in? It’s a long game, a 1.5-hour game. You’re going to drift.

You’re going to think about it. You’re going to get tired. You’re going to get thirsty. 100 things happen to you. The next thing you know, you’re footside opposition and now you can’t see and now you’re in trouble. We had shots. We had go-to. We had things we tried to do to ameliorate that situation but you are dead. You don’t win.

This goes across all sports. You’re tired. It’s long. You have worthy opponents. What are your tricks? How do you recenter and get back to that baseline? Were you doing this as a young athlete or is this stuff that you learned?

First of all, they trained it into us. They beat it into us and we’re still shaking from it. You can’t coach kids like that anymore. You wake up shaking. They used to yell at us. They used to call us bad names. They used to say, “You suck. What are you doing? Get out of there.” That’s in front of your family, your friends, and your girlfriend. You’re hanging your head.

When you’re at practice at State Beach and it’s you and Karch and maybe you have somebody who has an outside set of eyes, you have to generate all of this information between the two of you mostly as far as like, “How are we correcting? How are we loading?” At that moment, even though beach volleyball those two players, I always felt like doubles had a sense of first you were singular athletes and then you were coming together. What skills did you develop to get yourself like, “This is going to be a long one. I’m working today.” Is it a well inside of you that comes from practice and doing all the right things a million times when you start to feel a little anxious or scared, “I might not “win.” Where do you go to get that baseline?

The first thing you realize is if you look into this as those things you said, fear, anxiety, and even being tired, they’re false. They don’t exist. They’re not real. The moment that you realize that, you can begin to start working on the issue. I don’t know how we want to go with this. If you look at yourself in terms of parts as opposed to a whole, that’s the way I cracked it. It made a lot more sense to me.

We look at our brains, it’s got a whole bunch of different parts. We have our emotions and it has a whole other bunch of different parts. If you think you’re a singular person, “I am Kent. I exist.” Behind the eyes, in the brain somewhere, you’re going to make a mistake because there are other parts of you, some are working with you and some are working against you.

Take anxiety for a while. What is anxiety? It already exists with us. It exists with everybody. Everybody has anxiety. Why do some people able to manage it better than others? Anxiety is your body’s motivational tool. It’s to kick you in the butt to get you to do something. The question when you get anxiety is, what is your body telling you it wants you to do?

If you think you can control that, it’s probably as stubborn as you are. It’s going to have its way with you if you don’t have a conversation with it. It sounds strange when you say that but that’s the way I came about. That’s what worked for me. Something is going on with me. I’m tired. What’s going on? Why are you doing this? It’s because I know that I’m not tired. Fatigue is an emotion. It’s a way of your body trying to stop you to bring you back from a point in which it’s trying to protect you.

That’s uncomfortable. Whatever you’re experiencing is uncomfortable and you’re trying to use some biological trigger to be like, “I’ll get myself out of this. I’m tired. I’m fatigued.”

You’re in a 100-degree environment in Brazil, sweaty, people are throwing things at you, and you’ve been working out for an hour and a half. Your body is telling you, “You got to get out of here because you’re going to die. If this keeps up, you’re dead.” It makes sense.

Your body is smart.

It’s like, “Kent, we’re going to die if this continues.” I said, “I know.” I’ll give you a great example. This is not out of the elite. This is for every day and everybody can relate to it. I was in a yoga class over five years ago.

Do you go to yoga class?

I love yoga. I’ve been doing it my whole life. I’ve been coming to Manduka for a while. I’ve consulted with them. It was beautiful. I was 49 in this yoga class. It was a Hot 8 Yoga class. Everybody knows that. The room is 107 degrees. You walk in, you sweat, and your heart’s pounding. You’re not even doing anything very active, you’re just doing poses.

About 2/3 of the way through, you have to do a camel pose. For those who don’t know, you’re in an L shape sitting on your knees. Your shins are flat. Your legs are flat. You lean back and you grab your ankles. Every time I started lean back, I started to get dizzy, I started to feel nauseous, I was going to throw up, and I was going to pass out so I came out of it.

The next time I did that, I went back and did it again. The same thing, nauseous and sick. I felt terrible. It was hot. It was miserable. I hate Hot 8 Yoga. The next time, I said to myself, “Kent, I don’t care if I pass out. I don’t care if I die. I’m going to do the camel pose.” When we talk about the winning mindset, that is what we talk about. Do not do this at home.

“I don’t care if I’m dying in this damn yoga class.”

The next class, I went out in the corner in the back and I made sure no on was near me because I’m about to pass out and I’m going to fall on somebody and I don’t want to break some little yoga person in that. I go back and I start going back in the camel pose. I said, “That’s it. I’m done. Have a nice life.” I started to go back and I’m nauseous.

I’m just about to pass out and a light switch comes on and it completely disappears. I’m not nauseous. I don’t feel like passing out. I feel perfectly at ease, perfectly awesome, and perfectly energized. My body was trying to get me to stop doing something. I still could do it. I had reserves. There was a place you could go to. That couldn’t be a better example of what I’m talking about. I don’t recommend this because you might push yourself. We are professional athletes.

[bctt tweet=”If you want to win, you want to be playing with people who want to win, too.”]

If you want to be a winner, okay.

I have the scars to prove it too. A lot of people think athletics is natural. We push ourselves hard. We push ourselves in ways that aren’t necessarily healthy and aren’t necessarily good. When Travis was talking about how he defines winning, that’s fine. He’s a writer and he’s a player. I’m sure you have a good life and you have a good wife. That’s winning to me.

We’re asking you because you’ve taken this path and also because you have a lot of thoughtful ideas around it. If we’re asking you, we’re not saying, “It’s better or worse.” A few people have done it your way, have been at that sharp end of the stick, and also are that thoughtful about it. We can see a lot of winners and sometimes they’re not even connected to certain things they were either doing. Michael Jordan and Tiger, part of it is ruthlessness, part of it is identity, and part of it is like, “That’s what you do.” It’s a mishmash. You put an interesting spin on things. Travis, where did you get the idea for Kings of Summer, the book?

Originally, I started working on a book when I moved to California in 2016 because I had just started playing beach volleyball. When I start something new, as a reader, I try to buy every book I can find on it but there was nothing on beach volleyball. I figured I would write the book that I wanted to read. I started working on this book but I tried to bite off way more than I could chew in that instance.

I started writing from the first tournament in ‘76 up until the present day. I cobbled together enough information and sent it to this editor, Command+Z Editing, Ann Maynard, and she saved it. She’s like, “This is too much. This is two books. You have enough for the second half.” It ended up becoming my book, We Were Kings, on modern players.

I sat on all this information. I knew that I was going to do something with it at some point but there were still a lot of holes that needed to be filled. It started naturally getting filled on its own. We had Sinjin come on the podcast. We had Randy Stoklos come on the podcast. Dodd came on and all these guys. I looked at it and said, “They answered five chapters of questions that I had, which left Kent as the one big thing.”

During COVID, it was great for this book because I had the time to sit down and tackle this book. I started going back, talking to Tim Hovland and all the guys I need to ask follow-up questions with. I ended up sending it to Kent after a couple of requests and so we ended up putting it together. In a way. it’s been in the works since 2016. Now we revisit it over two years ago. I was like, “This could still be something.” Now here we are and it is something.

It’s a big undertaking. You’re trying to get it as right as you can and honor the history. Everyone has their opinions and things like that. I appreciate it. It is a colorful story. I also appreciate when you get to learn about something during its expansive time where its roots came in. I’m curious about both of your points of view because I always wonder about this. Beach volleyball was bigger in a certain way when Kent played than it is right now.

Without a doubt.

When I played and entered, I’ve always been practical. I understood how small the platform was. I wasn’t relying on my family to provide for me. I train. I lose money playing beach volleyball and I spend 90% of my time doing it. I called it the smoke and mirrors show that  I was doing on the side to pay my bills. Blog, talk, TV, and take pictures, I make 100% of my income from that and lose money playing volleyball. God forbid, you want to take your team for dinner. It’s like, “There it goes.”

I also love the sport in a save-your-life way, what it gave me, the people, and the discipline. I always looked at it and thought, “How can we help the sport grow?” For example, as dumb as it sounds, athletes need to take their glasses off. People need to see them so that they can connect with you. When I cheer for you, you don’t look like another person with your shades on.

The problem is sometimes it felt like too much of a party environment, which was great for that moment like in the Olympics. Somehow people didn’t understand how hard it was what people were doing and how serious of an athlete that they were seeing and the amount of training and also what was on the line. That was the other thing.

In tennis, intuitively you understand. Roland-Garros, Wimbledon, these things. Manhattan Beach has a vibe of that because it says Open at the end of it. Besides the Olympics, how do we have something that feels like something’s on the line here? Instead, it’s super tan fit people dive around in the sand, girls and bikinis, guys and board shorts.

How do we get it where people understand this is a serious thing? Is it because enough people don’t do it so they don’t know how hard it is? I don’t know. Now, we see girls and it’s in college. I’m curious about your points of view. It’s never going to be a ball-and-stick sport. It’s a lifestyle sport. It’s like surfing, skateboarding, and snowboarding. It is what it is. I always knew that but I always thought there was a lane for it.

I’ve thought so much about that question. Writing this book with Kent and talking to all these guys, I have this theory now that beach volleyball, when it was at its height in the ‘90s, in a way, it’s bigger now because more people are playing it globally.

More countries but prize money and opportunity were bigger.

Financially, it’s a disaster now. You attended beach volleyball matches, it was a vote for what you stood for. You weren’t doing the corporate thing. You weren’t doing the 9:00 to 5:00. It was a proxy for what you stood for and what your values were. Now it’s this tweener where it’s trying to be a professional sport. You can’t button up beach volleyball. It’s lost its way. You look at all the major sports. We can play Kent’s favorite game, Sports Roulette.

Basketball had this identity. When Magic and the Showtime Lakers came around, basketball was so cool. If you went to the Forum, you were somebody. You were seeing Magic Johnson and the Lakers at the Forum. It meshed with hip-hop culture. That was its identity. That was its lane. You look at all the major sports and you have this identity to them. Beach volleyball was wandering lost.

Also, a lot of people play basketball. Florida, California, and some of these coastal places, people play. We couldn’t figure out how to communicate it in a way where it felt important but it still kept the fun part of it. It has to be a blend of both. Otherwise, why are you watching?

In terms of people playing volleyball, in general, between indoors and the beach, it’s the number one most played sport for women in the United States.

It has been for a long time.

The beach is huge. When you go around the country now, at the grassroots level, the beach is exploding. The NCAA adopting it as a championship sport is a huge reason for that. My wife, Delaney, and I talk about it all the time that it’s almost growing at the grassroots level faster than for its own good. Now you have a lot of unqualified people who are in coaching positions because they need so many coaches. Michael Gervais described the mental health awareness boom that we’re seeing. He saw the swell coming.

Kent must love the mental health conversation. Kent must be like, “It’s not even real.”

Caption 3

Kent Steffes – Sometimes you just have to cry uncontrollably, but then you pick yourself up and you go back home and say, “What do I need to do to get better, to get stronger, and to get faster?”

It’s a switch.

I want to get to that. There’s a combo.

I only got one. That’s 2 or 3 things.

I am well aware. We’re going to get back to it.

I see this swell coming of this new generation of young beach volleyball players. You can go to Cincinnati and there are six complexes within an hour of beach facilities that are packed. How do we get that to come to the professional level is a question that we haven’t found an answer to since about ‘96.

The problem is when you are going to be an athlete, a coach needs to be tough on you for something to happen. You have to have some leader taking the group in a direction. If coaches no longer can say, “That’s not good enough,” you have to do it again. That’s an interesting dynamic. How can you get pushed to the limit of your abilities without having somebody behind you or in front of you going, “Here’s the bar. Let’s figure out a strategy on how to get there. Do it again.” I’m fascinated by how athletes are like, “I don’t like it. I’m uncomfortable when you talk to me like that.” Can you imagine Kent as a coach? You’d be amazing. To be honest, you would be gone.

I coach little girls softball. They love me. I’m not like this with them.

He probably medicates before he goes. When you’re talking, I’m like, “Kent would be an insane coach.” Your experience, your understanding, and the way you look at it are so unique. It would be incredible. I’m sure it’s partially what Karch is giving to the USA women’s team. I’m sure girls are like, “I never looked at it like that.” When he talks and I know when you interviewed him, you’re like, “I’ve never thought about it like that.”

Every time I talk to him, he says something and I’m like, “I should I should have known that.”

You’re like, “I’m not even on the same quarter. What’s going on?” Let’s go back. The answer is that we don’t know the answer. There are three of us. We’ve all been involved indirectly, in very different ways in the sport. I also thought that it couldn’t always be a point-for-point game. That I needed to know more like the Olympics did. Those pre-produced packages on athletes.

Get me invested in the athlete, let me know their story, then show me points for points because enough people don’t know or care about beach volleyball to do a full game, point for point. Tell me something about like, “They come from a village and they live with their grandmother. Great. Now I’m in. I want that guy to win or her to win or whatever.”

I felt like we needed to tell the athlete stories a little bit more because unlike basketball or baseball, that’s like statistics, rebounds, and their numbers, I felt like the players, especially women, whether we like it or not, we kind of want to know about her. I thought the sport could have maybe done a better job telling the story of who is playing.

I remember watching the Tokyo Olympics and Try was playing. Tri has one of the most remarkable stories I’ve ever seen from an athlete where he had to sit out two years for an autoimmune disease. Never knew if he was going to be able to play beach volleyball again, or even workout the same. He comes back and qualifies for Tokyo.

Him and Trevor, because of a country quota, weird technicality, didn’t make it in. He gets subbed in to play for Taylor Crabb, who tested positive for COVID, leads the Olympics in hitting percentage, and no one knew. No one outside the beach volleyball community had any idea what Tri had been through to get there. I think you’re right that we latch on to these stories and we cling to him. There wasn’t a whole lot of that and that’s why I love doing the podcast because we get to do it on a very small scale to tell these stories. If it is a little bit bigger, and we know it would be, we would get more people following.

I think what you’re getting at here, and this is sort of globally sports and sports marketing, is its complexity, narrative, and communication. Certain sports are complex. Football is very complex sport. Basketball is a very complex sport. The javelin throw is not a very complex sport. More complex sports have more general interest.

What you call narrative, these stories that you’re talking about. There’re a lot more stories in certain sports than there are in others. If you have a sport which is dominated by a few teams, how many stories are you going to tell about them? You can’t keep telling the same story over and over. So you told the Tri story, what are we doing for the next podcast?

Whereas in football, you have 30 quarterbacks, 30 wide defensive players, and things like that. The point is, the sport is what the sport is. You got to take it for what it is and try to maximize whatever you can at it. It is only going to be this big and let’s not fool ourselves. One of the geniuses of the Olympics is they take some of these sort of marginal low complexity sports, elevate them to the highest thing in the world and billions of people watch them once every four years.

Then again, how often do you need to assemble the top shot putters in the world to see who’s the best? If you look at it just from a business perspective, that’s what I see. What I see are a lot of people who think, “With sports roulette, we should be this or we should be that.” You’re just not going to, but you can maximize what you have and do your best in there. It was fine for me. We were only doing maybe $8.5 million to $10 million total. That’s fine for a sport. It was good for a lot of us. It’s not going to be $100 million, never.

I always say, everything that you do, especially when it comes to business, pretend nobody cares or likes it and that’s a good place to start from. We get so fired up emotionally like, “This is amazing.” It’s like, “It is and nobody cares.” If we approach it that way then we have a chance to tell the story.  Let’s go back to the other two things that have to happen.

The first one is you really need to see where you’re hitting the ball. That helps. It’s like seeing where you’re driving. The second one is, you have to be in the right position on the court. Pretty much everybody’s out of position. They’re always running here when the ball is going this way. They’re running that way and they’re too far out. Todd Rogers is really good. If anyone wants to study, you should study him. He’s always in the right position on the court and he’s a gold medalist. He was one of the top players, the Volley Vikings are in the right position all the time. When you see people that don’t do well, they’re all over the place.

That is a very straightforward, makes a lot of sense comment, that is very hard to do. When you say you have to be in the right position, that means you need to understand everything that’s going on. To get yourself in the right position. Do you think or believe that all the great players, not only are they in the right position, but they have the instinct about where the right position is?

We’re going to start peeling off the onion. First, we need to be in the right place. That’s paramount. Here’s the situation with volleyball, especially when we played it. If they can see you, you’re not going to get the point. The mentality was, you’re waiting for them to make a mistake. You’re not trying to actually dig a ball or block a ball. That’s wrong. You’re trying to wait for them to make the mistake, then you block, then you dig. That’s the first thing. You’re in the right place, where if they make a mistake, you’ll make the play.

[bctt tweet=”That’s the beauty of what I get to do. When I write about volleyball, I’m also stealing people’s best direction.”]

That’s why those guys would sit out there all day long, because they’re like, “I’m not going to make a mistake. I’m going to hit it all over the place.” When you start thinking like that, you begin to start anticipating what your opponent is going to do. Like Michael Jordan does long steps before he pulls up for the jumper, Sinjin Smith pitter patter his feet before he hit line.

You begin to start anticipating where they’re going, being in the position to be in the place where they make the mistake. If somebody’s going to stand up and hit a ball at me, I’m not going to dig it. Ever. Okay, I did. Wow. Exciting. It makes the highlight film but that’s not how you win games. You don’t win the sport that way. You play the sport, the way the sport’s been designed to play.

Can you emotionally, because you are also playing this in a very systematic odds kind of way, are you able to, like in tennis if some guy just hits a smoking serve and the other guy’s like, “Great job.” Are you able to be like, “There’s nothing you can do?”

No, it’s horrible.

I can’t tell.

You get anxiety, you get fear, you get scared. It’s how you manage them that matters. Not that we don’t get them. Athletes feel the same thing everybody else does. The difference is we manage them differently. We process them differently. We get back on track differently. We emotionally swap. For feeling down we’re like, “I’m feeling down, I got to swap into some positive energy and I got to ramp that up because I need it now. I can be sad later on.” That’s the only difference between other people. When we lose focus, which we do constantly, we recognize it earlier, we get back on track quicker. That’s the difference.

You talk about in the book, in Kings of Summer, shift. This would seem like the right time to talk about that.

In the case of the book, there’s two strategies when it comes to playing a sport. If I’m competing against you, and I know you’re really good at something, or really bad at something. You’re strong here and you’re weak here. A lot of times you want to go after the weakness. If you’re a tennis player, a lot of tennis players have weak backhands, they have strong forehand and people say, “Go to the weakness.”

That’s a good strategy and you could win but a better strategy is you go after their strength. You say, “You’re good at that. I’m going to beat you at what’s your best at.” That’s how you psychologically start breaking them down because sports isn’t physical. It’s this mindset. It’s trying to break someone psychologically. That’s how you do it. You say, “You’re a great hitter. You’re the best hitter on the team. We’re going to serve you, because we’re going to beat you.” Like, “I’m not going to serve the weak hitter, I’m going to serve the best hitter.”

“You’re a good defense player? I’m going to hit at you.” “You’re a good blocker? I’m going to hit at you because I’m going to beat you that way.” The reason we need to shift in the Olympics, was because Sinjin had been pimping Karch the whole game, and it was getting him pissed off. He’s just going crazy. He’s like, “When Karch gets mad, the veins start popping out and starts pounding himself in the head. He literally takes his face and get some stuff in the forehead.” Have you ever seen that? It’s tremendous. Don’t try that at home.

Karch was like, “I’m going to show you, I’m the best player. I’m going to come right at you.” Carl thinks he can block out Sinjin, and finally I had to settle it down and go, “We’re losing. We’re losing bad, and we’re going to lose. We’re down.” The strategy is not working. It’s a great strategy. If it worked, we would have psychologically defeated them as well, hoorah, but we’re there to win, get the 15 points. We had to shift. We had to change strategy. We had to say, “This is not working.”

That can be difficult for athletes sometimes. We need to go start playing to their weaknesses now. The moment we did that shift and started moving away from the strength based to the weakness base, you go after the guy. The moment we made that shift, you can see it in the game if you watch the video, Karch stops getting blocked by Carl. He kept trying to pound it through Carl’s hands and Carl kept bouncing it off the ground for points. Not a good strategy, we need to shift Karch.

Was that hard for you to suggest that in that moment? How do you, and you’re 27 at the time, go to Karch Kiraly?

You’re using some sort of psychological tactics. I’m having to move over to the left a little bit to kind of squeeze him, but not say anything, because if you said anything he’d be just, you know. Athletes can be tough.

I know that’s why I have to know because he scares me just standing here like, “Let’s have tea.”

You’re squeezing and squeezing and you’re going, “That’s not working.” You’re sort of like not looking at him.

Are you moving him around on the set? Are you starting like, “If I push them out over here a little bit.” Are you doing any of that?

There are some techniques you use if you learn like the eye is attracted to movement. When your opponent’s serving, if you do something like this, they’ll serve it to you. We had to get him from serving Karch and over to serving me because he’s trying to pound. At that point, I was not trying to hit a ball through a wall and Karch was. Finally, as I kept pushing him over to the side a little more, he kind of got it that he needs to sort of make a change. And he did, because he’s a champion and he can shift and he shifted before and he’s won gold medals. He really wanted to beat them because they were mean to him. They said meany things against him just like the kids in the school yard, “He said it first.”

You stayed out of that. I always felt like you had this beautiful art of somehow, you were Karch’s partner, it felt like it 100% but somehow you were on your own little island. It didn’t feel like you really had a beef with anyone. I want to commend you, because I was like, “That’s fascinating,” your whole way that you navigated that. What’s the third thing?

Everyone’s blocked timing’s off. They don’t realize they have to go late. They go too early. It’s tragic. Right Travis? How was your blocking?

Are you early?

Kent doesn’t like it.

And he scrapes the ground. I don’t know what he’s doing.

I’m not big. The game has gotten a little bit bigger so I got to be sneaky. Players don’t use their peripherals to see the big blocks. When you mentioned actually, when Kent was playing against Whitmarsh, I’m actually way more comfortable playing bigger blockers, because they’re so easy to see. They’re huge. What a lot of blockers will do, even though apparently, it’s biomechanically wrong, they’ll get so low to the ground until they’re completely out of sight. When Kent was saying, “You have to see the block, you have to see the defense and the ball.” Well, the block if he’s that far down in the ground, and the ball is that far up, you can’t see them both and Tri Bourne is an expert at that.

What would you do in that moment? Would you just hit it faster? Would you go get it faster? If your blocker’s deciding to go all the way down? Because there is an opportunity then.

Go early. You kill that guy.

He told me to go late.

He isn’t impressed.

The philosophy is you’re not trying to block the ball. You’re trying to block the mistake. Your timing is based on what the person is going to do. If they don’t make a mistake, you lose. That’s the problem. That’s why even though I’m the winningest player ever, I haven’t won more than half. It’s not easy.

That’s a control thing, too. Staying committed to the strategy, even in the moment of the impulse. You’re saying, “No, this is what I’m doing.”

By the way, what was my advice to you? Get a big part of the box.

Kent & Travis Caption 4

Travis Mewhirter – The biggest common denominator is hyperfocus. This ability to meld the mind and body together is where the good athletes who are able to win find those moments and get into that flow state.

I’m the defense guy. You think I’m a bad block.

There you go. He says, “I’m too short to block. Let a bigger guy block the ball.”

There’s a lot of blockers and defenders.

I think there’s more blockers than defenders. I could be wrong. I’d love to ask, how do you feel about this new indoor kind of swing blocking. I feel like that’s so unusual. Have you seen that? They’re doing the whole indoors like this later swing blocking and I feel like low and fast seems more effective, but what do I know, I’m not in the game anymore. I wouldn’t know the game.

My father-in-law hates the swing blocking.

I was just curious.

He coached with Alice Gates at UCLA and he thinks swing blocking is just the worst thing he’s ever seen. Actually, a couple of my friends have broken their hands swing blocking and accidentally hitting their teammates.

Can you explain to people reading. Let’s say old school would be that you’d travel with your hands sort of by your chest shoulder and try to move quickly especially in indoor, closing a block, and then just penetrate and take the area that you commit. Swing blocking, you actually bring your arms and swing them around.

You do something like almost a corkscrew motion where you twist your body and then you get extra hangtime from it. It’s actually funny. One of the most iconic blocks of all time was the 2000 Olympic gold medal match. Eric Fonoimoana swing blocks and jets the Brazilian player.

Because that’s all he had to do. That’s all he could do at that moment.

I think a lot of people point to that as evidence that swing blocking works, but you’re corkscrewing yourself around, jumping up, and fading into the block. Which now you’re just moving everywhere. In my mind, you’re becoming a huge target for the hitter to hit because your hands are everywhere. Your body’s going one way. I like the old school moving laterally, pressing straight over. It’s a much more stronger block.

We’ll see if it sticks around. I’m curious. Kent, let’s talk about how, literally a huge drop the mic, “Thank you for my gold medal and that was awesome. I’m awesome. I win, I’m healthy, I’m strong. I’m young.” The sport is expanding and you’re like, “Thanks.” Did you know you were going to do that?

No, because we didn’t know that the sport was going to go bankrupt, that it was going to go into the wilderness, but that was obviously the point when I left that there wasn’t really any tour that’s going to happen. You talked about a little bit earlier about what volleyball is now versus what it was. It can be what it was like that. We talked about a little bit about that. To me, it’s a little bit what the players want. If the players want something, they should go out and try to achieve that. If they don’t, then who else is going to do it? There’s this sort of sense right now, in my opinion, that the beach volleyball players’ like, “Who’s going to pay us to play?” “Who’s going to put on tournaments for us?”

Rather than like if you had a law firm, you better go and get clients. Volleyball is not that big. Beach volleyball is not the big. It’s big enough for me. I loved it. I had a great time. There was a conscious effort. There were players that didn’t like the direction the sport was going and I helped to grow the sport, Sinjin helped to grow the sport, all those guys, because we wanted to. We wanted to play in bigger tournaments. We want to play for more prize money. We want to play on television. We wanted those things and we went out and got those. Then they decided that that’s not what they wanted and so it wasn’t that compelling to me. I mean the guy who took over the sport said, “We’re going to de-emphasize the winning of the sport and focus on…”

That just killed it for him. Kent’s like, “What?” The party part of the sport.

Like I said before, there are athletes that wished that. They didn’t like how serious it had become. They felt bad.

Why? Was it too scary? Too hard?

They literally would say like, “It’s too much pressure.” People feel these things. It was too much pressure. They liked it when it was fun. I go, “You weren’t making as much money.” “But we liked it.” You can’t judge people how they feel right? If that’s what they like, that’s what they liked.

Yeah, but it’s a professional sport.

But not everybody in the professional sport is there to win there.

I know. It’s just a fascinating thing. Were you heartbroken to leave?

I don’t think I was heartbroken. I had a long career at that time. Nobody thought back then you could play till you’re 40, 45. If I remember correctly, and I talked to Travis a lot about that about sort of the thinking of sport back in the day. Volleyball wasn’t even really a professional sport when I first started playing. Luckily my first year on tour there was a giant jump in the prize money. You never thought that was going to be your job. I was at school at the time even when I was the number one player so I was going to have a career. I was going to be a certified financial planner. Work on the financial markets and I like playing volleyball too, but then it took off and that became my job, my career.

You can financially plan your own money for a while.

Trust and wills, the whole thing. Insurance is really exciting. That came to an ending like, “I’ll just go on to do what I plan to do.” Look at tennis, like McEnroe, he retired at 26. Mats Wilaunder at 24. Guy’s retired. Now they don’t, why? There’s a lot of money in the sport. There’s a lot of money, a lot of opportunities so people stay. Whereas they didn’t know Pat Haden went to do private equity, Riordan, Lewis & Hayden, he was the quarterback of the Rams. He left to go to law school and was a Rhodes scholar too. Brady’s still around, still going at 43, that was unheard of back then.

[bctt tweet=”A lot of people think athletics is natural. We push ourselves in ways that aren’t necessarily healthy.”]

It makes sense. In Kings of Summer, for people, you’re revisiting the history and how we got here to the very first Olympics. You go back and forth chapter to chapter so I want to bring that up about the book. Obviously, you’re already a very analytical, thoughtful, intelligent person who happened to be good at beach volleyball. Was there anything you learned in sports that actually helped you in business?

First of all, learning to work with people, meet people, and be fearless at calling people and getting meetings.

“Hi, it’s Kent Steffes, a gold medalist. I was wondering if I could work with you.” That kind of call?


“I was fearless. It helped me.”

You learn to be fearless.

I’m teasing you.

I’m happy to call anybody. What happens? They’re going to reject you.

Are they? You got rejected?

I’ve been rejected, trust me. It happens. I’ve lost good volleyball matches too and tournaments. My hit rate is less than 50%. If you do better than that in business, you’re going to do fine. That’s a good thing to do. Also, what’s great about sports is how intertwined it all is. There’s us, the athletes, who are playing. There’s the entire production crew. There are the sponsors and there are their needs. There’s the television. There’s the PR. There’s a lot that goes on in a sport that most people don’t necessarily could see or even athletes don’t necessarily know what’s going on. That is fascinating. It helps out.

I was 19 putting together sponsorship deals with a contract and I couldn’t afford a lawyer so I had to do it myself. I’m like, “That doesn’t look right.” You then get screwed over in your first contract and you learn what not to do in the next contract. Asking for the sale. Here’s a perfect one. I had a sunglass sponsorship that was $40,000.

They came to me like, “We don’t like beach volleyball. We’re going to offer you $35,000.” My manager goes, “Let me ask this other company what they’ll do.” They’re like, “They’ll pay $100,000.” I’m like, “What? You’re kidding me. There’s no such thing.” Finally, it was $200,000 a year. If they were to offer me $40,000, I’m taking the deal and I would have missed out. Sometimes ask for the sale, ask for big numbers. I learned that too.

Are there traits that don’t transfer over? We talk about this winning mentality. In business, it becomes winning for everybody, and the pursuit of excellence. Are there any traits that you go, “I developed that strongly playing in sports and competing but I have to put that away in business.”

My lack of empathy. You got a goal. You’re pushing forward. Also, when you adopt the winning mindset and you have the confidence, which you must develop or turn on, it throws people off. It’s tough on people. They call you names. It’s toxic. Human beings are meant to work in social groups. As an athlete, you’re attempting to go away from the social group on a level that pushes people away from you. When you develop that too strongly, that is one of the things, for sure. Whereas in business, it’s more about groups, empathy, talking to people, and evaluating them. Do you think I valued my opponents when we beat them? Yeah. There are certain things that don’t translate well at all.

As a female who played sports, that was always one of the things that was harder. Your goal is to win. With women, you don’t want to almost hurt their feelings too badly. It’s some weird thing that you have to try to overcome and realize you’re not a bad person because you want to beat somebody. I always thought EY was an interesting example. She has brothers or something. Kerri doesn’t have it. Misty seemed like she was so cool in the clouds. It seemed like she didn’t even hardly notice who was on the other side.

I used to say that you could say to her, “This chick is 6’8”s and she wants to eat you for dinner.” She’d be like, “Awesome. What time is the match?” It didn’t impact her. With men, that comes easier. That’s why you guys can also be like, “FU. Let’s have a beer after.” We hold it for five years. One time, she said to me in a match, “Are you serious? That was ten years ago.”

I have a daughter.

I was going to ask you. You have a son and a daughter.

Yeah. Back to your point, I’ve coached her.

You must be a nightmare coach in the best way. I say that with so much respect.

I’ve written on this. I wrote about how to train your kid to be a professional athlete. This is what you do. Everyone else, that’s not what you do. I could coach this way. I could coach Rec ball, which I do. If you wanted me to coach your child to be a winner, I could do that too. It’s different things. To your point about girls and men, in soccer, little girls soccer, 8 and 10-year-olds, a girl kicks a ball and it hits a girl in the face. The whole game stops. Girls take a knee. The girl who kicks it is like, “Shhh.” It’s the funniest thing to watch. In boys, the same age, you kick a ball in a kid’s face, bleeding out of the nose, the guys are like, “He’s down. Send me the ball. They’re lying.”

Talk to me about that as a parent because you do have two children. I have three daughters. I live with a male but I’ve never had to be a parent to a male. I’d love to know if you did any different nuanced communication with your children in sports based on this.

Yeah. We talk about it. My son plays football and my daughter plays softball.

Nobody played volleyball.

They’re a little short. Conrad could probably play. Katharine gave interviews as well, “Everyone asks me why I don’t play volleyball and I say, ‘I’m 5’5”.’” She plays softball.

Travis knows this certainly better than I do. What you possess is very unique and complex. I’m interested if your kids didn’t naturally pop into the world with it. Was it important for them to have versions of this for themselves?

Yes. We worked with them in art. We worked with them on music. We worked with them in sports. Education is always always a thing. We want them to drift into an area that they find interesting. I’m like, “Come over here. This is fun. It’s sports.” Consciously, with my children, I want to make it fun. First of all, if you want them to enjoy themselves and continue on, you should make it fun for them. If you’re not making it fun for them, they’re not going to want it.

The most important thing about practice in our household was going to pizza afterward with the team. We get all the girls together and they get the pizza and the parents would come. We wanted to generate that feeling that it was a fun place. Your friends are there, it’s fun, and you like it. You’re not swinging correctly. Some other coach comes and gives you the wrong swinging technique.

I always think it’s hard if you reached the level that you did and you continue to do in your business because you pursue things in a certain way at a very high level. Let’s say Travis was your son.

He’d block correctly.

I’m going to ask you for an idea about this because I think about this a lot. I live with somebody who is very high level. It’s a whole other thing. There is a price for that and you said it earlier. My girls like tennis. I always tell my girls, “I’m not your coach. I’m your mom.” I’m trying to talk about the other stuff, the life stuff, or whatever. I didn’t coach them. I wasn’t a tennis player. There’s an interesting thing where I so much want to put my template on them. My youngest daughter gets straight A’s in school and I’m like, “That’s okay.” She’s 6’1” and I’m like, “If I had that body, I’d hit balls.” I have to let it be because I’m putting my stuff on her.

As parents, sometimes you go, “Would I rather have somebody who’s the best of the best or somebody who’s emotionally pretty fluid.” Look at Travis. They have a level of joy and other things. It’s an interesting thing where I go, “I don’t know if my kid comes out and goes, ‘I want to be a winner. I want to be the best.’” I wouldn’t get in the way. I’d facilitate. If I have a kid that’s maybe a little more chill that way, part of me is like, “You might be happier in the long run.” Even I look at Laird and he’s good but he suffers for that level of pursuit.

Kent & Travis Book

What you’re asking is how hard you should push your children.

No. For you and your experience, and now that we’re talking about your kids, you’re handling the way you do it. You know the toll that it can take. That’s all I mean.

We have conversations that go along the lines of this, “You don’t know anything about this, dad. You’re a beach volleyball player.” Apparently, it doesn’t translate to any other sport.

Isn’t that hysterical?

Of course, I would have probably that said to my dad. Chip and block. Your kids are a reflection of you. As much as you want to push them, if you like that, they’ll be going to push too because they want to be put like that. With my kids, I don’t know if you can push them so much. You could guide them. You could direct them. You could encourage them. To get into that mindset, to push yourself, to go into a camel pose and think you’re going to die, you might not want that for your children. If they say okay, you’re going to be supportive.

Because you accomplished it, you don’t have to live it through them. That’s always an interesting thing. I’m curious. When you decided, “This game, I’m going to move on.” Did you have a period of time after that you were unmotivated and you’re sad? That’s a pretty intense structure. It’s an intense identity. It’s an intense revenue stream. You had all these things tied up in this and then you split. If you were navigating any of that, did you have a system in place or did you just dive into something new?

I went straight to business school, Stanford University. I met some of the smartest and most competent business professionals on the planet. The academic staff at Stanford University tops the world. They were phenomenal. We got to meet with incredible business leaders and business people. I loved it.

Was having something big that you could put your teeth into that protected you from having a dip?

A lot of what we talked about here in terms of mindset is called killer attitude because that’s what everyone likes. Some call it compartmentalization. You’re compartmentalizing who you are to this specific situation, which is sports. That wasn’t all that I was. I had other things in my life that I also liked. I wasn’t an Olympic gold medalist at reading but I like reading. I like financial markets. I like business. I like other things. When this part ended, I moved into other parts. You can call it well-rounded but I don’t know if I like that word because it assumes the other person isn’t. If you can find interest in your life, you will shift to that.

At the end of the day, all athletes retire. I retired from beach volleyball at 30. I retired from soccer at 10, baseball at 12, basketball at 18, and I’m still skiing. I haven’t retired from that yet. I’m still riding my bike. I haven’t retired from that yet. If you go into a sport even if you are going to be a champion, a gold medalist, or a professional, you’re going to need to find something to do for a big portion of your life and you better start working on that early. That would be my advice. I just moved into the next thing.

It’s good advice. Travis, what were you hoping people would get from this book besides the delight? It’s a colorful and fun story. What were you hoping for?

Especially in my generation of players, not many people know the history of the sport and how big it was but also why it was so big. This current generation of athletes Kent alluded to it is that they want someone else to get the money. We’re like, “We’re good beach volleyball players. Why aren’t we getting paid more?” Kent’s generation with Sinjin, Karch, and Dodd boycotted the world championships and said, “You guys aren’t doing it for us. We’re going to do it ourselves. No one’s doing that, not many anyway.

To see why the sport was so big when it was as big as it was is super important for us. I hope my generation reads it and sees how hard Sinjin Smith worked. He helped build the AVP from the ground up. He did so much work and no one understands that the players built the sport. It wasn’t the AVP and the CEOs and them doing it for them.

They had to go in against another whole organized group to say, “We have all the talent and we’re bringing it over here.” It’s that example of a beautiful perfect storm where you have a lot of talented and strong-minded athletes at that moment who may be at least had the opportunity at the right times to work together for the greater collective of the sport even though they were competitors. That is unique. Also, it’s a beautiful moment in the sport that all that came together.

All the stories are so cool. I love seeing Randy Stoklos. His dad wanted me to sweep the warehouse.


Rudy Stoklos wanted his son to sweep the warehouse. Randy said, “I’m pretty good at volleyball.” He goes to UCLA and says, “College isn’t for me.” He goes to the national team and he’s like, “Indoor isn’t for me either. I’m going to make it on the beach. No one’s ever done that before.” He’s one of the best players of all time.

Seeing stories like that, we latch on to the narratives. We’ve talked about that a fair amount here. There are so many fun narratives and cool narratives for people to latch on to. I grew up in a pretty old school house. You guys both love my dad. We were yelled at as kids and he was hard on us. I like seeing the stories of people who worked so hard for what they got instead of asking someone else to hand it down. You see that over and over again throughout that book.

With the book, congratulations. It’s hard to do a book. People don’t have any idea, it’s very hard. Kings of Summer. Is the best way to get it online? Can they preorder now, though?

They can go on Amazon.

If I could make a completely unsolicited suggestion, if you can help him write another book on all of these philosophies and concepts around pursuit, it’s important. It seems to come easy for you. The way you see it, it’s practical like, “Here it is.” It isn’t. It would be stuff that would transcend all sports or if someone was even thinking about business or things like that. Thank you for coming to my house. I appreciate it. Have I forgotten anything? Did you want to say anything before I close out the interview? Is there something else that felt important that you wanted to share?

Kent makes it sound simple and he knows that it’s not that easy but he worked so hard. He did it. He knows how hard it is for people to do it but it is simple. Volleyball is a simple game where you hit it whether or not. He knows the work that he put in to get as good as he was and to know, “This is where they are. I’m going to hit it there.” We have talked about continuing working together because I enjoyed it and I know Kent did as well. What you mentioned is probably on the way as well.

It would be good.

Volleyball is simple. I would disagree with him. You’re right, writing is hard but it’s simple for him. The most amazing thing is when I wrote things, it’s so hard. It takes me forever. My brain hurts. I have to lie down.

Why? Because you’re trying to get it exactly right and precise?

I don’t know. My point is I’ll send things to him and he’ll turn them around and send them right back to you, “How did you do that so fast?”

Do you know why? It’s because he’s not a good blocker yet.

He’s not a good blocker yet but he could write. It’s easy to write a book when you have a great writer like Travis. It’s easy for him. He even said one day, “That’s how we train. We’re trained to write fast. We have to pump out so many articles.”

Do you know what else? Probably Travis is in touch deeply with his emotions. If you can write from an emotional sense, a feeling of things, it makes it easier. When you’re very tactical, it’s harder. You guys make a good couple.

Thank you.

You can be a good team. Let him block. He’ll take it. Thanks, guys.

Thank you.

Thanks for having us, Gab.

Thank you so much for reading this episode. Stay tuned for a bonus episode where I go deeper into one of the topics that resonated with me. If you have any questions for my guests or even myself, please send them @GabbyReece on Instagram. If you feel inspired, please hit the follow button, leave a rating, and a comment. It not only helps me but it also helps the show grow and reach new readers.

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About Kent Steffes & Travis Mewhirter

Kent Steffes headshot

Kent Steffes started playing indoor volleyball at the age of 12 before transitioning to beach volleyball where he advanced to become one of the most decorated players of all time. Kent’s talent emerged when a group of parents in Pacific Palisades, California, started a club team. He played in many USA Volleyball Junior National Championship competitions, while also playing beach events during the summer. As the No. 1 recruit out of high school, Kent accepted a scholarship to Stanford University where he played his freshman year before making the decision to go professional. That decision resulted in travelling the world and producing one of the most successful careers on the beach.



Travis Mewhirter headshotBorn and raised a Marylander, Travis attended the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, graduating with a degree in journalism, taking up positions with The Washington Post and Yahoo! Sports. The cold and snow, however, drove Travis to Florida, where he began writing for the Northwest Florida Daily News, winning numerous awards and publishing his first book, The Last 18, before heading west, to California. In California, Travis have become a full-time freelancer, taking jobs with the Orange County Register, Yahoo! Sports’ Olympic staff,, DiG Magazine, Admission Masters while also founding his own site, and podcast: SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.