Jess Grimson is an accomplished Beach Volleyballer. She and Vicky Palmer were the first ever English Beach Volleyball pair to qualify for the Commonwealth Games at the recent 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. In the Athlete Archive, we did into her beginnings as a youth athlete to draw out some great lessons for coaches and athletes …
What was your sporting journey growing up and how were you introduced to the sport you chose?
I have been very involved with sport for a long as I can remember. From the age of 6/7 I was introduced into playing football, my dad and brother would also be having a knock around so I would join in. I became quite good quite quickly and through to the age of 16 I played for Sussex and Brighton. At school I was very sporty and played every single sport I could get my hands on. I think I was in year 8 when my school PE teacher asked me to go to a volleyball session. I had never heard of volleyball and was quite intrigued, so went along! I hated it, going from a sport where you use your feet to a sport where you use your hands was a hard thing for me to get my head around. At 16 I got selected for the England Junior squad and had to decide between Volleyball and Football. I felt like I had peaked early in football so decided to try Volleyball. I always played Beach for fun and then at 17 got selected from a junior World Championships and the rest is history!
Was there an ‘ignition moment’ for you? For example, a moment where you thought, “Wow, this is what I want to do”?
Yeah definitely, I think it was probably my first junior World Champs. We hadn’t trained so much, as there wasn’t really a programme but during the tournament we played against all these countries that were amazing and we got destroyed! That sparked a fire that made me want to get better and put myself in a position to compete with these teams.
How did you balance academic ambitions with sporting ambition?
When deciding where to study, the GB Beach programme was based at the University of Bath. So my first choice was Bath and luckily I got in. At Uni there were programmes such as TASS (Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme) that were designed for athletes in Education. Within TASS we had access to Physio, S+C, psychology and mentors that were available to help you with time management etc. I have always been organised and detail driven, so I was quite good at self motivating and keeping things in order but it wasn’t easy.
What have been the highlights of your sporting career?
I think that every athlete will always remember the firsts. The first selection, the first domestic title, international win but for me the Commonwealth Games was the pinnacle. We worked extremely hard throughout the qualification year and found out in Oct 2017, in a hotel room in China that we had qualified in the top 4 of the World rankings for CWG and it was overwhelming. To then be out in Australia in the village with some of the best athletes in the world, walking out into a stadium with 5,000 people and my friends and family in the crowd, was one of the best feelings in the world.
What have been the biggest challenges in your carer and how have you overcome them?
As every athlete has experienced, there are always barriers that test you and its how you react that is important. I have had personal things happen in my life that have shaped the way I am and my drive to succeed. Ones that I can document are experiences with coaching and being told that I am too short and won’t make it on the international stage. I am also very injury prone and I have had everything you can think of. Back in 2014, I had shoulder surgery which took me out for about a year of full competition. The biggest injury was a sprain back in 2017 which was the middle of our CWG qualification period and we were in China and I suffered a grade 2 ankle sprain. For a second I was heart broken and thought that is it, its over. But then I remembered who I am and I strapped up my foot and carried on playing. Despite not being able to weight bear and walk, I played 7 tournaments in 8 weeks with a brace. This, considering my job (sports therapist) was a terrible idea and I caused some nerve damage and issues resulting in an cortisone injection. But we qualified and it all paled into the background.
In your experience, what attributes (technical/physical/mental etc.) does an athlete need to succeed at the highest level?
Personally, I think that the difference between those who make it and those who don’t is mindset. You could have the most athletic athlete but if they are not willing to work hard and persevere, they will not make it. Sports vary but if you are focused, motivated, work hard and are willing to learn, you will go far! I have worked with a number of Sports psychs over the years and being open to it and appreciating its value has made all the difference.
Were there any influential relationships you had with coaches throughout your development and how have these relationships impacted you?
I honestly couldn’t say that one has impacted me more than an other. I mean the coach that told me I wouldn’t make it and I was too short, helped motivate me to prove them wrong. For me, learning from other players has probably had the biggest impact. Being around some of the best players in the world, watching how they warm up, train, what they eat, drink, how they respond to their partner, coach and how they play, has taught me a lot. I think being in a sport where you have no on court coach, you have to be able to problem solve yourself and not rely too much on a coach. Obviously they are a huge part of it off court and tactics etc, but on court its just you and your partner. The misconception with Beach Volleyball is that its entirely a team sport, as much as you are a pair and you need each other massively, if you are focusing on your job and doing it well, you are doing what your partner needs.
What advice would you give a young athlete based on your experiences?. For example, What to do/What to avoid?
From experience of being a young athlete and having worked in a sports academy, the biggest thing is education! The reason that I needed shoulder surgery at 22 was because I wasn’t strong enough (base strength) and poor technique. If I had been doing shoulder / rotator cuff strengthening from a younger age I would not have needed surgery. Understanding your body and functionally what you need to be doing to avoid injuries, enables your performance to improve and have a long career. This is not something that in certain environments is pushed, but I think is key. Giving younger athletes the tools they need. That and work ethic. If you want it enough and are willing to work hard, you will achieve what you set out to do.
What advice would you give to the coaches of young athletes, based on your experience?
Referring to my answer above I think education is huge. Giving your athletes the tools and knowledge they need to succeed. Obviously approaches will vary but you have to understand your athletes and that will help you get the best out of them.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as an athlete?
I can’t remember the guy that said it to us in a workshop, but he was talking about this ‘ugly zone’ and basically be comfortable in the ugly zone. So this can transfer from competition to training. Being an athlete is amazing and rewarding but its hard. Whether you are up at 6am doing a cardio session, or 14-11 down in a third set of an important match. Being comfortable in those situations and understanding that you have to be there to learn. If you take the easy route and are not willing to push yourself you will never be more than average.
What’s next for you (eg. competition/career change)?
We have had a crazy year so we are currently having a little time off the sand which will be the first time in six years! We want to play for another year or so and qualify for a World champs or Euro champs, see how far we can get with Olympic Qualification and then reevaluate!
Where can people find out more about you? (eg. Site, social media links)
Thanks to Jess for her time and all the best wishes for the future! To stay up to date with out latest posts, like us on Facebook!
Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.