UNC sand volleyball is a student-run club sport consisting of 18 members ranging from freshmen to seniors. They have practices weekly and compete in two tournaments per year against teams along the East Coast. This UNC subculture interests me because of mutual friends that I share with team members. Club sports often serve not only as athletic groups, but also as social groups which host events for members. Going into my research I wanted to learn more about these social aspects, as well as the benefits of being a part of a small student-led team on a large campus. Ultimately my research sought to answer the question: What are the positive psychological benefits of playing for UNC’s club sand volleyball team?
At UNC, the co-ed sand volleyball team is led by seniors and has tryouts twice a year in order to consistently gain new members (UNC-CH Beach Volleyball Club). Club sports such as sand volleyball are a healthy way for students to get involved and stay active on college campuses. In a study in the Journal of Sport Behavior, researchers determined when comparing active with less active freshman students at a large university, the active group had better physical and mental health (Downs and Ashton, 2011). An article from The New York Times corroborates this idea through their analysis on growth of club sports on college campuses. Journalist B. Pennington highlights that club sports benefit college athletes by allowing them to take ownership of their teams through student-based leadership, and allowing young adults to enjoy sports without the “pageantry” of regular college sports (Pennington, 2008).
Observational Data and Analysis:
To gather data, I observed two practices and interviewed a player. My first observation was February 19 at the sand courts near the Dean Dome. I introduced myself to the players and explained why I was observing so that everyone understood my motives and was comfortable with me being there. That first day I was able to see which seniors were “in charge” of practice and observe their dynamic with the team. I took note that the players arrived in cars together, and one player explained to me that they established carpools so the freshmen don’t have to walk to practice, further evidence that inclusivity is an important aspect of the club. The team talked about their tournament the following weekend. The players were driving down together and staying in an Airbnb. A senior named LeAnn divided up everyone into pairs for scrimmages. She talked in an informal way, showing that she is friends with the players. I observed from a distance as the team warmed up with running and stretches, and then split up among the courts into their assigned pairs. For the rest of practice I took note of the group dynamic. A senior played the communal team playlist from a speaker, and there was constant cheering and encouragement among players. The energy level was high for the entire practice. There was no required attire, evidence that the club is casual and unique.
My next interaction was more conversational. I conducted an interview outside Ehringhaus with freshman player Liz Morgan on March 1 before her 2:30 practice. We met outside Ehringhaus to talk about her experience on the team. After some introductory questions, I asked Liz to describe the best part of sand volleyball. Without hesitation, she answered that it was the people: “ I was really surprised that a club sport could have such a social aspect. We hang out all the time, even outside of practice.” She then went in-depth describing the added comfort she gets from being on a student-led team. In particular, she feels like her voice is heard by other players, more so than when she had an adult coach in high school. Liz also said that playing this sport has been a great stress reliever. At Carolina, the schoolwork can get very difficult, but she has built a lot of emotional connections with her teammates, and she knows she can rely on them. While talking to Liz, it was obvious that social bonds are the biggest benefit she has received from being on the team, helping her to establish a community which she can interact with on and off the court.
My last observation of the club was at their practice on March 2 at Woolen Gym. This practice was different because they were playing inside, rather than at the sand courts. The atmosphere was more relaxed than the previous practice because they didn’t have an approaching tournament. When I arrived the players were very nice to me, and many of them even greeted me. They began practice by warming up with the same running and stretching. Once again they had on their team playlist, and the players were chatting amongst themselves. After stretching, LeAnn announced that they would be playing traditional indoor volleyball in teams of six. This switched up the dynamic compared to the last practice. Still, everyone seemed enthusiastic about this change. I asked a player why practice was indoors, and he told me that they like to “switch it up” because many of the players only participated in indoor volleyball before trying out for sand. After that I made an effort to observe who seemed more comfortable playing indoors. It became obvious that a few people were struggling, but the more experienced players kindly critiqued those that needed help. Overall, it seemed like the freshmen were in their element, and they had a new energy as they played indoors. This change in venue made it apparent that comfort is something the club values when training new players.
After observing the team, it was evident that players benefit through improved mental wellbeing. Members establish social connections and feel a sense of leadership in this student-run club. Although this study is not fully representative of all club sports, it is likely that some of my findings are applicable to other teams. Promoting these benefits could increase popularity of club sports nationwide. Ultimately, my research supports my initial assumptions because players benefitted from being a part of a small community on a large campus. This research could be the precedent for conducting more studies on the psychological wellbeing of college athletes, and could be conducted on a larger scale with other universities and sports.
Downs, A., & Ashton, J. (2011). Vigorous physical activity, sports participation, and athletic
identity: Implications for mental and physical health in college students. Journal of Sport Behavior, 34(3), 228-249. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/882368803?accountid=14244
Pennington, B. (2008, December 2). Rise of College Club Teams Creates a Whole New Level of
Success. Retrieved February 24, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/02/sports/02club.html
UNC-CH Beach Volleyball Club. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2020, from