When I announced in the office that I was having lunch with Alex to interview him, the girls looked at me with envy – and perhaps you can guess why:
Everyone secretly seems to fancy him, he is just that kind of guy: charismatic, friendly, well spoken – and very tall, which is why he is my new guest on the blog. With an impressive volleyball career behind his back, he has lots to tell my readers. The University of Essex team coached by him recently won a national title – find out about it here.
Hi Alex, lovely to see you outside the office for a change! How tall are you actually?
I am 2’8″ (203 cm). My sister is 6 foot, she used to be a model, travelled to South Africa on modelling contracts. My brother is just under 6 foot and is completely normal. My dad’s about 6’3” and my mum is about 5’1″ on a good day. Both sets of grandparents were tall (5’10”, which for their generation was tall). My dad’s sister is tall, my mum’s brother is tall – so it runs in my genes. No one is my height (the tallest is my dad), but everyone is 6 foot and over, so me and my mum are the two extremes in my family.
I am curious to hear about your volleyball career, what can you tell me about it?
I started playing volleyball when I was 11 years old, when I went into Year 7 of secondary school. I was really badly coordinated. I was 6′ when I left primary school. I actually started because the guy at the end of my road was really enthusiastic about it and asked me to come to after school club. I played for 3 years and was rubbish, really, really poor. I was growing about 2″ per year at that point, so when I got to Year 10, that’s when everything finally clicked. I was 14-15 years old and in the space of 3 months I went from just playing in the school team to playing local league, national league – division 3, England under 17s division (Central region), then at the end of that year I was asked to train with the England under 19s as well. The year after that I was recruited by the reigning national league champions and won my first senior cap for England.
So over a period of 18 months I went from nowhere to winning my first cap for my country.
I was part of the Senior National Team for 10 years until GB started for the Olympics in London. I was made captain of the squad in the run up, unfortunately I injured my knee and had to have surgery. I had to have an operation called micro fracture where they drill lots of little holes in the end of your bones to stimulate bone and the cartilage growth. It worked to the extent that I could play once a week, but when we were part of GB, we were training 2 or 3 times a day, 6 days a week, I would have lasted a year or two and would then have to have the operation again. So I decided to retire from playing professionally.
Playing In Europe
I spent 3 years playing professionally. I spent a year in Sweden, then I moved to Vienna, Austria, after that I moved to Holland for a year. I had different experiences of in all three of them. In Sweden lifestyle was amazing, the people were amazing, I would quite happily have moved back there. The volleyball wasn’t brilliant but it was OK. When I moved to Austria the setup of the club was the other end of the spectrum – very poorly run, very badly organised, but the volleyball was better, though not enough to make up for the off the court issues. In Holland the club was better, the volleyball was better, life was generally good. I had an offer to play in Germany but turned it down to go to Sweden because the coach was very different from everything I’d experienced before, very Eastern European: 4-hour sessions, you were only allowed to drink water when the coach said so kind of thing. I thought that was not for me, so I went for the Swedish route. I had an offer to play in Belgium as well but that was towards the end when I needed to stop playing.
Professional Volleyball Career
I won 67 caps for England. I think I was the 121st athlete to play for England. I also played for Great Britain, I only got 10 caps for GB because we played a lot of friendly games, what we call scrimmage matches. In Tunisia for example we played them 5-6 times but only 1 of those games counted as an official game, we had the hall for 2 hours and we’d played for the whole 2 hours, there was no score sheet, there was no national anthem, it was just behind closed doors and friendly. Basically both teams would maximise the match experience. In total, we’re probably talking 200 appearances between England and Great Britain with capped and friendly games.
Travelling With The Team
Volleyball has taken me all over Europe. I think it’s only a handful of countries I’ve not been to in Europe: Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia twice; I don’t know anyone else who’s been to Saudi Arabia, so that’s quite an unique situation to be in. It’s taken me to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco. In Egypt we got taken into the pyramids, in Greece we got taken into the Olympic stadium after everyone else had to leave, so there’s always been perks of travelling with the national team. The most interesting place was probably Belarus. It felt like we’d gone back in time by about 100 years. The accommodation we stayed in was an old tower block and it looked like my great grandmother’s living room and it hadn’t been touched in 15 years, including an inch of dust. The TV with its push buttons was great as well as the bare electrical wiring next to the bathtub. We received cow’s tongues for breakfast and it was recommended that we don’t eat any meat or vegetables, no milk, no dairy products because of Chernobyl (the radiation fallout). We lived on imported yogurt and cornflakes for a week. We couldn’t drink any of the water either. This was 2003-4 maybe. On the last night we went out for some food and a drink on and took about £30 each, which we found out was their average weekly wage. Needless to say this attracted some unwanted attention! And we’d only gone out for a couple of drinks. Interesting place, that’s for sure.
I know you are single, but it will be difficult to have a family when you are travelling around?
It is going to be difficult to have a family even now. We start training between 7:30-9am and our last session ends at 10pm, it is a long old day. But my girlfriend understands, as she works in London. She leaves the house at 7am and comes home at 7pm. We know that for 20-25 weeks it is like that, and for the rest of the year I am the one doing all the cooking and the cleaning.
Volleyball Coaching Career
I started coaching when I was at university. I started coaching because I injured my knee. I ended up coaching the university team for 4 years. When I was playing in Europe, I coached everywhere I went as well, so that kept me out of mischief. When I came back, I retired from playing and there was a coaching job at a local school, so I started coaching full-time. I’ve been involved with the national team at every level, I coached the England under 17s as an assistant for the South region, then I was promoted to Head Coach. Then I was Assistant Coach of the England under 17s full national team. More recently, 2 years ago I was asked to be the Head Coach of the Senior National Team for men and women for the summer, myself and another coach ran both squads between us. That was an experience, I learnt a lot from the athletes as well as the staff. We travelled to Holland with the men’s squad to play 3 friendlies against at club team. So I have coached literally from primary school to senior national zone.
I decided I needed to do something else with my life, so I started working in a finance company. Unfortunately, that company ceased trading very abruptly, so I was looking for another job and I knew that the University of Essex were investigating a volleyball programme and I ended up applying for it, and got interviewed. Two of us got interviewed, the other one was a friend and I was lucky enough to get the job. That was 3 1/2 years ago. And here I am today.
Being a BBC Commentator and a Team Manager for Team GB
I’ve done some commentary work before as well. I got asked to be an in-stadium commentator at the London 2012 Olympics; there were three sessions a day and each session contained two games. We presented to the crowd pre-game, between each game in a session and then between each set; me and another colleague would stand up and talk about what we’ve seen and what we thought was really good and what things to look out for. My friends kept tagging pictures of me on the jumbo screen above the court. I got approached by the BBC to go and commentate with Jonathan Legard. He is a commentator I knew of beforehand, he’s a really nice guy, very helpful as well, so John and I were commentating for the BBC for the last two weeks of the Olympics. Following this I was asked to work for Eurosport. My first commentating job on my own was the Women’s Champions League game of the week. That was in Istanbul, Turkey, so I flew out to commentate on one game and made a short holiday of it at the same time which was nice. Since then I have covered some Cup Finals for Volleyball England and I teamed up again with John for the London Legacy Games at Copper Box which consisted of the top two English teams and two top European teams.
Straight after the Olympics, I was asked if I could be the Team Manager for the GB team in the European Championships. It was nice because 6 or 7 of the guys were still in the squad from when I was Captain, so the group all started and finished together (that was the last GB team, as all funding got cut the week before we went). It was an honour to be part of the whole process.
I’ve also run a beach volleyball tournament in Clacton-on-Sea. Last year there was 102 competitors; 6th year it has been running. It’s getting bigger and bigger every year. Obviously there are a lot of tall people in the sport but not everyone is tall. My tournament is more of a social tournament rather than high performance.
Wow, you are one busy man!
Yes… But it’s a bit too much sometimes.
But it is good to have a career that you are passionate about!
True, true. Who knows where it will take me. In the States if I was doing the same job as here, I would have had numerous staff below me and probably another zero at the end of my pay packet… but if I was doing it for the money, I wouldn’t be here.
What Volleyball Has Taught Him
So volleyball has taken me all over the world, given me a hoist of different experiences, opened my eyes to different sights and sounds of the world.
Other than the perks, what has volleyball given you in terms of skills, character, etc?
It’s given me some bad knees, that’s for sure! Sports has taught me a lot of things: having a relentless pursuit (just carrying on, get on with it, focus on the process not the goal). A lot of people give up. I don’t know who it is who quoted it but when you are ready to quit, you are 40% of the way. For most people who run a marathon, when they get to the 15-mile marker, that’s when they want to quit. Actually once they get past that mark, suddenly you are on the home stretch and actually everyone carries on; very few people drop out in that last section.
The quote was from Jess Itzler and a Navy SEAL who lived with him for a month:
So just carrying on with the task and finding out that you will get there eventually, that resilience – that’s certainly a very important skill in life and helps people at the top to get to the top. Also I think it’s broadened my horizons: how many other people have travelled to all those different countries and seen what the rest of the world is like? Going around Bucharest in 1999 was not a pleasant experience; going around Minsk in 2004-5 wasn’t a pleasant experience, it makes you value what you’ve got and what you can achieve. I’d love to go back now and see how those places have changed and equally important, how my perception of those places has changed.
Having discipline in life!… a lot of people just drift and float around, when actually if you have some structure, some dedication, you go a long way, and in sport you have to do that if you want to go somewhere. It gives you that delayed gratification, especially a lot of the Millennium group want instant gratification, this doesn’t happen in life, you have to put in all the hard work and the results come at the end. So it has taught me all these.
It taught me how to get on with different people and respect different points of views. I remember when we met with the Saudi Arabian team, we sat drinking tea with them. They were talking about their point of view on things, completely different to ours, but that’s completely normal for them, whilst ours is completely normal for us. People have the right to have their opinion. That’s fine, I might not agree with you, it doesn’t mean you have to cause an argument over it. I think that people respect you when you let them have their opinion, as opposed to fighting and going head to head with them, acknowledging that people are different. Sport has taught me a lot of things in life. Not to be so narrow minded, be open minded and enjoy the experience/differences.
Advantage Of Being Tall – People Remember The Extremes
What do you think is the advantage of being tall?
Oh, there is no advantage of being tall! None whatsoever! No, there is, just haven’t worked out what they are yet. Supposedly, tall men earn more – don’t know about that. You get noticed more, I’d say you get more opportunities. People feel it is OK just to come up to you and speak to you. That’s an ice breaker. I’ve always had a negative association about it actually. I hate it. My biggest hate about being tall is when you are on a night out people coming to you and saying: “You are massive”, and I am just like, “Go way”… or an aggressive version of this and I’ll point out something obvious about them, height, weight, appearance. They are like, what?? You are pointing out something that is obvious about me, I’m just pointing out something that’s obvious about you! They never see it like that. I have the same question pointed out to me a hundred times previous to that. I’m working hard to change this. As long as it’s not the opening line I’m ok with it.
I don’t want to be known just because I’m tall, I want to be known because of who I am.
The good thing is that there are a lot of ice breakers in the work place; you walk into a room and everyone remembers who you are, which does have its benefits. In fact this morning I called a coach in Austria who I’ve not spoken to or seen since 2004, and he instantly remembered me! People always remember the extremes, that’s one benefit.
On the negative side, you probably find it difficult to find clothes?
Yes and no. It’s a lot easier now than it was when I was at university. In the late 90’s – early 00’s it was horrendous! You’d walk into Burtons or Top Man and they might have one item that would fit you, like a top or a shirt. Attempting to find trousers was pointless. There were two shops that I used to go to: High and Mighty which was really expensive, and Jonathan Charles ‘Mr Big’ which is in Sheffield. I was the smallest size that they’d stocked. I used to buy my trousers and jeans from there. Nowadays it’s not too bad. Walktall – I get a lot of clothing and shoes from there; Big Clobber is a local shop I pop into every now and again. There are now places on the High Street that sell tall versions, Burtons for instance – I get tops in there. The other place I always, always buy from is Next, and I always buy in the sales – not necessarily trousers (some trousers; my inner leg is 36″), but shirts, t-shirts will fit. I get 2 or 3 with free delivery, XL and XXL. Sometimes they fit. If not, I just send them back for free. So it’s not so bad anymore.
For shoes, I always go to Freeport, Braintree. Today is a rarity, I’m wearing Adidas shoes. 99 Times out of 100 I ‘m wearing Asics, because the Asics store has a half decent selection of size 13 and 14, and I guarantee whenever I go to Freeport I will come out with a pair of shoes. As its Freeport they are always cheap as well, £30 maybe for last year’s model. I am definitely a man about functionality and comfort, as opposed to style.
When I was looking for your profile on LinkedIn, I funnily mistook you for a driving instructor from Essex with the same name – what a coincidence! What would be your recommendation for a car suitable for a tall person?
I bought my car five years ago. I have a (Ford) Mondeo Titanium X. When I bought it, I visited to all the car show rooms in Colchester, walked in and said to the salesman: “I want to sit in every single model of car you have!” “But what are you looking for?” “I just want to sit inside it to see if I can fit” They were like, no, tell us what you want: do you like an estate, or… I just want to fit!
Of all the cars I sat in, the best ones that I found were BMW (3 series) and the (VW) Golf and a Polo were really good. The Seat was not too bad either. The (Ford) Focus was the best overall. The (Vauxhall/Opel) Insignia was horrendous, the Skodas were awful. They were all super comfortable to sit in, but there is no room between where the gearbox is and the steering wheel. The Mondeo was amazing. In the Golf I didn’t actually have the seat all the way back; I had it a couple of notches forward but in most cars no one can sit behind me. I’ve got a little bit of an experience when it comes to buying cars! My dad has just got a Peugeot 3008, it’s not a MPV, more of a crossover – that’s really good for head room, really good. It’s got a full panoramic roof and the leg room is alright as well.
Find out more about Alex’s work at the University of Essex here.