The Road to Rio: Josh Binstock

Josh Binstock.

With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio quickly approaching, the competition is heating up on the men’s side. And one of those players who is in hot pursuit for an Olympic slot is Canada's Josh Binstock. Already a veteran of the London 2012 Games, Binstock is looking to secure another Olympic berth. And along with partner Sam Schachter they have a pretty good shot. The duo are Canada’s current national champions.

Together they’ve stood on the podium at three FIVB World Tour events, including a gold medal at the 2014 Argentina Open and a subsequent silver at the Qatar Open.

But Binstock’s volleyball career spans much longer than that. While considered by some a late bloomer (he didn’t start playing volleyball until 15 years old), he’s clearly made up for any lost time. A former member of the national junior indoor team, Binstock began competing on the beach circuit during his off-season from the University of Toronto.

How did you start playing volleyball?

I was actually relatively late to get started. Growing up I played hockey and baseball, but at some point I realized that neither sport was going to was going to take me anywhere. In grade 10 I tried volleyball for the first time. For me, volleyball felt really similar to the throwing motion in baseball, but it was something new and I really liked it.

I was the last guy to make the team, but I kept on. After I went to volleyball camp between my sophomore and junior year that’s when I fell in love with the sport. I was way behind developmentally compared to my peers, but I decided to study the sport and learn everything I could. I started as a setter, then was moved to middle.

But I kept playing. My first big break came when I made the provincial team, after that I was the last guy to make the Canadian Junior National team (and the only person from my province). From there, it just took off.

What was it about that sport that "clicked" for you?

When I started playing indoor, volleyball just felt like something new.  It was still a team sport, so you still had the camaraderie of teammates, but it also had this other layer of strategy and timing. Different than hockey (but similar to baseball), volleyball wasn't an overtly physical sport… meaning you couldn't physically body check anyone or crash into the boards.  But it taught me very quickly how to keep a poker face and also get under the opponent's skin with just words.  With the beach game, I instantly fell in love with the intelligence and speed of the game. It's as much a game of IQ and strategy as anything else because the biggest and strongest players don’t always win…. On the beach it's about adapting - to the weather, the wind, the sand - while being an overall athlete. Playing on the beach players need to be able to do everything great or you won’t be able to succeed. I really love the overall test of athleticism combined with intelligence.

What’s your typical in-season training schedule (i.e. training, cardio, strength, plyos, etc)?  

During the season the heavy weights are decreased, as it's more about maintaining.  For example, after finishing a big tournament I’ll do some heavy weights for a few days, but then taper off as the start of the next tournament approaches.  I have a shoulder routine, as well as a bunch of other exercises for my core, rotator cuff and gluts - all of which are meant to keep the muscles conditioned.

How does that differ in the off-season?

In the offseason, my training is way more loaded with heavy weight and increased volume. During the offseason, I usually am incredibly sore during that training period because those types of workouts take priority and are extremely strenuous.

What skill(s) has come most naturally? And what areas do you want to improve in?

Defense, and I don’t know why. It's been that way in all the sports I’ve played. In baseball, I was the catcher… in hockey, I was a defenseman… and in volleyball, blocking and digging were naturally the best parts of my game. I’ve always really had to work at my offensive game. So serving with power is something I’d really like to improve on, as well as a few other tweaks on my technical game. When I started playing, not only was I late to the game (literally), but also there wasn't a structured training program for the beach volleyball athletes. So If I wanted to win, I just had to figure out a way. I’ve always been great with strategy and the intangibles of the game, but some of my mechanics could probably use some honing.

This is your 12th season playing on the beach; do you notice any differences in your style of play vs. some of the newer guys on the FIVB?

I’ve noticed there are more teams doing a quicker, high tempo offense now. I’ve always preferred to play that way, but you now see it across the board now. In terms of style, I think it relates more to the country than the age of the players. Take for example the Brazilians; they all play the bump, high-set offense. The Americans do the high set too. It's not too complex, but it's more powerful and dynamic; whereas, the Spanish or other European teams play a quicker up-tempo offense.

London 2012 vs. Rio 2016… How has the sport evolved?

A huge difference is way more teams are looking for the quick attack and will hit it over after only two touches as compared to 2012, when most all teams would take all three touches.

 

What are some of the unique advantages/disadvantages of training in Canada?

The biggest disadvantage is not being to play in realistic conditions. In Canada we have really great facilities with good sand and nets, but what we miss out on is having the elements to train in. There’s no wind, no sun, no heat. When you look up and see a ceiling instead of a sky, it changes your depth perception. Not having the wind as a factor changes the timing on your approach. Not having a change in temperature keeps your energy levels unrealistically constant. It's just not the same. On the flip side, everything we do is very controlled and structured. You can do very precise drills. The facility is close and we have a full staff tending to us for any issues that may come up during training.

In the switch from indoor to beach, what were some of the things that helped in the transition?

With indoor I played every possible position, so that was a great primer for the beach game. As middle, I got blocking reps. when I played right side and left side, I got passing reps from each side. So by the end of my indoor career I was a pretty versatile player and that greatly benefited my transition.

By nature I’m also a very analytical person and think of myself as a student of the game. I actually blew out my shoulder while playing indoor and needed to have surgery. At the time, the doctors told me that I wouldn't be able to hit the ball as hard as I used to and my playing days were likely over.  But I was able to keep playing because I adjusted my game to be more about accuracy and less about power.

I learned to shoot you the ball and because I knew the strategy of the mental game, I was able to keep the defenders guessing.

Who has been the most influential teammate or coach for you? Why?

There have been a number of influential people, but I would have to say that my high school club volleyball coach would take the top spot. He was the first person who really believed in my talent as a volleyball player. He helped me understand that I had what it takes. He instilled in me the belief that I could do it. And he would talk me up to other coaches and be my champion. Even to this day, he checks in with me and we talk.

How do you stay focused/motivated? How do you help your partner Sam Schachter stay focused/motivated?

A lot of motivation comes the fact that I’m never satisfied. Like the Olympics in 2012, it was my goal to make the team, but once I was there I wanted to do better.  Like I wanted to get a medal at a Grand Slam, but then I did, so the goal wasn't about getting a medal, but getting a medal every time. So I guess it's that constant sense of wanting more that keeps me focused.

As for Sam, it's crazy how talented he is both mentally and physically. At the moment, Ben Saxton is Canada’s most dominant player, but I think Sam is the strongest defender we have because of his overall athletic skills. He’s just a phenomenal athlete. And it's not just in volleyball. Take golf… he doesn’t even practice golf, but he’ll go out on a course and shoot under par. As his partner, it's my job to help him tap into his potential. I read this book called “The Rise of Superman”, which explores how extreme athletes break the limits of human performance, and in it there’s this concept of “flow” and how athletes can get in the zone. When Sam started playing he would sometimes panic if the other team got a run of points and struggled with getting himself out of the vortex, but by incorporating “flow” into our game plan he’s realized it's okay to feel a little uncomfortable or pressured when you’re playing but the key is to let go and allow instincts to take over. He’s a cerebral player as well, and even though we are 10 years apart, we think about the game the same way. So if I can keep his mind thinking about the right things then his natural potential as a player and our potential as a team is limitless.

Do you have any pre-match routines?

If it's a morning match I want to be up 3 hours before and eat my first meal 2.5 hours before. The earlier the better for me. I’ll take some time to visualize the game plan we developed the night before. Then it's off to the court to make sure we’re there 90 minutes before the scheduled start time.  One hour before the match we’ll start to ramp up the intensity and do some activation body stuff. We’ll then isolate certain skills like serving, transition setting, or siding-out for 7-minute increments. Before a match I’d rather be over warm and let my body temperature cool down instead of being under activated and needing to warm up.  

What’s the first thing you most look forward to after a long trip abroad?

It's really all about coming back and connecting with close friends and family. They give me the unconditional love and it's irrelevant for what happens on the road. You’re so results focused on the FIVB tour, it's nice to come back and feel the love - no matter if your last tournament finish was good or bad.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten so far?

Just to be resilient. I used to get upset when things went awry or when I failed, but then I realized it happens to everyone. So it's not about the failure, but it's more about how you deal with highs and lows and bounce back from it. In many ways, I learned to look at failures as blessings in disguise because they taught me how to be a better person or a better player. It's really a necessary process with temporary setbacks.