Sara Montagnolli recounts journey from elite athlete to mentor


Article Mon, Jul 8 2024
Author: Federico Ferraro

It has become apparent in the continued evolution and development of competitive sport that a truly holistic approach is required when working with athletes. To this extent, the role of mental coaches / mentors has gained importance across all sports. Beach Volleyball is no exception to this trend as former elite player Sara Montagnolli of Austria has revealed in an extensive chat as we continue to explore the challenges experienced by female coaches. 

Sara Montagnolli celebrating the success of Ronja and Dorina Klinger at a Queen & King of the Court event

Sara retired from competitive sport in 2012 and was a household name in international Beach Volleyball for many years, a top 10 player in the world together with partners Sabine Swoboda and Barbara Hansel. With Hansel, she won a EuroBeachVolley silver medal in 2011 in Kristiansand, Norway. Years later, she is working as a mentor for the two elite women’s teams included in the Beach Volleyball programme run by the Austria Volleyball Association. 

“As a female, I do rarely come across other coaches or simply female members of the staff such as physios, statisticians, etc. If I look at the top 50 teams in the world across both genders, I can only count two female coaches plus Saskia van Hintum who has recently returned to indoor Volleyball,” Sara says. “This is pretty much what you would find in other sports as well, unfortunately. However, I strongly believe in the importance and value of female members of any team’s coaching staff, since we naturally do have a different approach to things, a more holistic one, and the way we communicate with athletes is different from what our male colleagues usually do, without going by any stereotypes” she continues. “The role and participation of female coaches at the highest level in sport is certainly something which would need to be addressed and talked about more.” 

Sara portrayed during her competitive career - she was among the top 10 players in the world at that time

After spending some time in Australia following her retirement, Sara returned to Austria in 2021. This is when an opportunity emerged to follow a course / mentorship programme organised by the Austrian National Olympic Committee. With a degree in sports science and a deep interest in personal development she had cultivated and grown during the years spent ‘Down Under’, Sara quickly realised this was an opportunity to seize. “I work especially on the development of a good team chemistry, on stress management, taking lessons and inputs from my own time as a competitive athlete,” she says. “At the end of the day, it is all about effective communication, within the team and with the team as well. I work with a team of sisters [Dorina and Ronja Klinger] and the other girls [Katharina Schützenhöfer and Lena Plesiutschnig] are good friends off the court too. Therefore, I need to take this side into consideration as well. I tell the players to talk openly, to show their feelings, and most of all not to take things or any remarks personally, because this would cause further conflicts and be counterproductive,” she recounts. 

Montagnolli and the members of the Beach Volleyball Team Austria following their triumph at the Nations Cup event in Vilnius

Sara acknowledges that she feels at ease in playing the role of a mediator and problem solver, which is especially important in the very challenging and stressful environment of elite competitive sport. “The role of communication and mutual trust is highly important in a team. We shall not forget that athletes need to perform, especially under stress, and achieve results, since the lack of major achievements would have a negative impact on their interaction with sponsors, media coverage, etc. At the end of the day, a Beach Volleyball team shall be run like a company. Even though I act as a mentor, I still can discuss technical things as well. The head coach is very open to that – we have known each other for years and sometimes he advises the players to seek for my help since I have been in that type of situations myself, whereas he was never a professional athlete at an elite level,” Sara continues. “We do respect each other and do not interfere into each other’s work – we rather support each other and work as a team.” 

Sara has been working as a pundit / Beach Volleyball expert for public broadcaster ORF in her home country

Montagnolli acknowledges that female coaches still find it difficult to emerge. “I believe that we have already realised that any organic development would take years and if it was to happen, that would come at a very slow pace. For this reason, I think it would make sense for international organisations to run a programme whereby you support and empower female coaches, just as you have done with the referees or you do with athletes transitioning to their life post-competitive sport,” she says. 

This transition can be especially rough if you do not prepare for it ahead of time. “It is highly possible that an elite athlete will never achieve the same degree of success in any other areas of life, feel the same adrenaline, etc. However, it is highly important that you think carefully about how you can recreate yourself. I think that deep inside I always wanted to be a teacher, a coach – I worked as a personal trainer as well – but I have found it very rewarding to get involved in a mentorship programme and to work as a mentor to younger athletes. I think more work shall be done to raise awareness about the opportunities available out there and to empower women so that they can seize such opportunities and bring their unique set of skills to the table.” 

Fow now, Sara is enjoying the ride in her ‘second life’ in Beach Volleyball and hoping to inspire others to follow in her footsteps. 

As a mentor, Sara is always there to share both the highs and lows in the life of the teams she works with