No Attitudes Allowed: Lizzy Fowler keeps beach volleyball fun, without the edge

Lizzy Fowler at the volleyball courts at Main Beach
Lizzy Fowler at the volleyball courts at Main Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lizzy Fowler‘s classes have attracted veterans and newcomers alike, with players forging bonds that extend off the court. And the No. 1 rule for her popular monthly tournaments at Santa Cruz’s Main Beach? Go hard, have fun doing it.

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Q&A with Santa Cruz beach volleyball legend Lizzy Fowler

These aren’t the usual sounds of competitive beach volleyball.

You’ll hear the familiar “I go,” “it’s over,” and “out, out, out” — but immediately followed by a peppering of apologies and shouts of “no worries” among players. This is the No Attitudes Allowed tournament, known more simply around the beach as No Attitudes.

Lizzy Fowler is in the middle of it.

She runs the No Attitudes tournament once a month from April to November on Santa Cruz’s Main Beach, next to the Beach Boardwalk. Roughly 60 people participate, in divisions grouped by age, skill level, gender and occasionally team number, though generally, a tournament features only two-person teams. Some formats provide a winsome spin on the normal partnering format, such as Fall Folly, where players split up and play against their partner every other game, and Century, where teams must have a combined age of more than 100.

Fowler, a 30-year volleyball veteran, instructor and tournament host, wants to win just like everyone else. But, like the No Attitudes tournament she runs, she values challenging herself and having fun most of all. “I’m out here to have fun and hang with my friends,” she said. “If I can win some games, great, but I really want to see how much I can improve.”

At a recent Tuesday adults evening class, it’s clear that her dozen students are thoroughly enjoying themselves as well. Fowler demonstrates drills and deconstructed plays, such as passing from your knees, bending into unusual positions to get the ball, and stopping and starting at different ends of the court. Out of context, these movements might look peculiar, but her students enthusiastically give them a go as she encourages them to clap for their peers.

Though I’m a beach volleyball player myself, I never took Fowler’s class. But out of the 50-plus people I play with regularly, about a dozen have been Fowler’s students. Fowler herself says she always sees her students around the beach when she comes to play. And outside of her classes, plenty of long-term beach players have tried their hand in one of the No Attitudes tournaments.

About a week before every tournament, those playing pickup on the beach are bound to hear the question, “Are you playing in the next No Attitudes?”

Beloved by many in the Santa Cruz beach volleyball community and beyond, No Attitudes is a low-stakes setting in which to experience a competitive environment. “All the teams cheer each other on and hang out between games,” one player told me, explaining her affinity for it.

That wider competitive environment has grown for beach volleyball as a sport. While way below the funding of big-time sports, beach volleyball overall has grown in popularity in recent years. The Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP), which runs the largest beach volleyball tour in the country, has doubled its number of sponsors over the past decade, and total prize money has followed suit, rising to $2 million this season. In 2017, NBC broadcast the sport for the first time, legitimizing its position as a popular American pastime.

As its name implies, No Attitudes is friendlier than professional beach volleyball — and its rules promote that friendliness. Teams can’t pick on an opponent’s weaker player or surprise their opponents by hitting the ball over too early. It’s designed for non-rated players, or players who aren’t competing on a state or national level. In other words, the tournament simulates a competitive environment, but emphasizes technique and encourages players to have fun. The No. 1 rule for the tournament? Go hard, have fun doing it.

Before Fowler’s recent Tuesday class, six of Main Beach’s 18 courts are in use, with some people training and others playing games. The beach is nowhere near full, but that’s not unusual. It’s 4:30 p.m., usually the sleepier period between when the afternoon regulars head out and the evening players file in after work. And as we talk, a steady stream of people ambles down the stairs. Several of them approach Fowler to offer a hello or ask when her class starts.

Fowler wears a bright-yellow shirt, so she’s hard to miss. But even without the bright colors, she is generally known to everyone.

In my three-plus years of playing beach volleyball in Santa Cruz, I had never met Fowler before. Because she has such an official presence on the beach, I had expected her to be a no-nonsense person. Instead, she projects a Zen-like, easygoing manner, often replying to my questions with a laugh or a smile.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lizzy Fowler at the volleyball courts at Main Beach
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Why No Attitudes?

Lizzy Fowler: Phil Kaplan started it. He used to teach the Parks and Rec classes. He was a coach at Cabrillo [College] and at UCSC. And he started a volleyball business doing volleyball classes. And then Mark Hull, who used to run the CBVA (California Beach Volleyball Association) — this is the story that I’ve heard [laughs] — had a tournament. He had booked a lot of the courts, and he wasn’t going to have that much of a turnout that day. So he asked Phil if he wanted to run a tournament on half of the courts that were not for the rated players, for [Phil’s] students, essentially. And he said, “I’ll have the attitudes down here. And you can have the no attitudes down there!” And that’s how it started.

Lookout: So how did you become involved?

Fowler: Phil, seven or eight years ago, asked me if I would take over the No Attitudes and take over teaching his classes. He said he was looking for someone that had teaching skills, because I was a teacher. I coached volleyball to little kids; I hadn’t coached adults before. And I took Phil’s classes off and on for years. And he said that in one of the last classes I took, he thought I was really patient with the very beginners. I don’t know exactly what he was talking about [laughs]. But like when he asked me to take it over, I had already stepped away from teaching. I was doing a little summer camp business and after-school business. There had been some people that approached him and asked him about taking over, but he said he was looking for a teacher.

Lookout: Did you have experience with tournaments?

Fowler: I had some volleyball tournament experience with my friends years ago. I would organize small tournaments, women’s tournaments. So we would use like two or three courts. And I would do those on Veterans Day, Memorial Day, all the holidays, for years with my friends, and there would be like 20 of us. And then people started asking me to take over certain tournaments, like there was a fours Fall Folly tournament; back in the day, there was a Century tournament. And so people started asking me if I would take over those tournaments. And I would play in those and manage them at the same time. They used to be down at Seabright Beach.

Lookout: What have you done differently with the tournaments or would you do differently?

Fowler: I would not have called it No Attitudes. [laughs] I wouldn’t have put “no” in the title, but I haven’t come up with anything else. Even if I came up with the perfect name, I don’t think I would put it out there. I just feel like there’s something about having it continue, and seeing Phil’s legacy continue is something really special.

Lizzy Fowler at the volleyball courts at Main Beach
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: Are you from Santa Cruz?

Fowler: No, I came to Santa Cruz to go to UCSC [in 1978]. I moved away a couple times, short stints here and there, but my heart was always in Santa Cruz — just having the mountains and the ocean. And then the community here. There’s something about Santa Cruz that’s such a draw for me as far as the community. Now the volleyball community is a real draw, a real pull for me [laughs]. Every time I go away for long periods of time, I miss my community.

Lookout: How did you start playing volleyball?

Fowler: That was one of those things that I wanted to do. You know, I had taken some classes at UCSC when I was a student. When I went to [primary] school in California, they had started girls sports programs. In Orange County, any girl could sign up for after-school sports, and you could be on the team. There would be a couple hundred of us that would go to another school to compete on teams and that was the sport that I always liked the most. That’s even though I did a lot of different sports and was a tomboy, but I never pursued it till I was in my 30s, and then I signed up for every class there was. Phil Kaplan was teaching at Capitola and he was teaching here and he was teaching indoors, and I just signed up for everything. I was hooked.

Lookout: Volleyball is so popular now. What reasons do you see adults most wanting to take classes?

Fowler: A lot of people who take my classes are people who played in high school or college. And they didn’t play beach [volleyball], so they want to know the rules, and get their sea legs. And they want to meet people. And then the other part are people who’ve never played. Some people are sporty, athletic. Maybe they were basketball or soccer players. And then some people who’ve never really done any team sports. But they seem to find the community something to gravitate towards.

Lookout: I know some players just starting out have a hard time integrating into more experienced groups in the community. What do you recommend for beginners?

Fowler: Take a class. That seems to be the only way. People down here will say, “You need to go take Liz’s class.” And then you meet people through the class. Most of these sports, [experienced players] have a level of expectation, the minimum level that they will accept to be part of their group.

Lizzy Fowler at the volleyball courts at Main Beach
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What has stuck with you since you started teaching and hosting the tournament?

Fowler: It’s an inspirational thing to me to watch my students bond with each other and develop relationships. Not only playing volleyball, but doing other things — inviting each other over, going on vacations together. It’s been a wonderful experience. And I never would have imagined … I was one of those uncoordinated players, and I would never have thought that Phil would have chosen me to take over.

Lookout: What is your philosophy on playing, in general and with the tournaments? Are you competitive?

Fowler: I’m not so competitive. My thing is that volleyball is just a game. I guess I didn’t really realize till a few years ago how important winning was to some of the players in No Attitudes. There’s some competitiveness to winning tournaments, and some people don’t play if they don’t think they can win. But I’m out here to have fun and hang with my friends. If I can win some games, great, but I really want to see how much I can improve and provide some sort of contentedness, I guess, for my life. And hopefully I’m not losing all the time! [laughs].

But I think some of my friends have always thought that I was more competitive than I am. To me, I was just a bundle of nerves. I wanted to do my best for them [laughs]. To me it’s just trying to do your best every time — whatever your best is that day.

Lookout: What is the future of the No Attitudes?

Fowler: When I pass this on, I would love to have the last tournament have a division with my friends and my students. Who knows if that will work and what shape I’ll be in then — and if I’ll have found someone I’m comfortable passing it on to. I miss that I’m not playing in some of the tournaments, but I haven’t found someone yet I’m comfortable with taking over No Attitudes for me.

If you want to play in a No Attitudes tournament, email Lizzy Fowler at lizzyfowler@aol.com with the names of your team members. The cost is $60 for a two-person team and $100 for a four-person team, to be paid in cash at the tournament or through PayPal ahead of time.