The Past, Present and Future of Volleyball, According to John Cook

In the first of a three-part series, the leg­endary Nebraska coach talks about the evo­lu­tion of the game, where it stands now and what’s com­ing next.

The Past, Present and Future of Volleyball, According to John Cook

In the first of a three-part series, the leg­endary Nebraska coach talks about the evo­lu­tion of the game, where it stands now and what’s com­ing next.

Few peo­ple know vol­ley­ball like John Cook. The Nebraska coach has racked up 531 vic­to­ries, four nation­al cham­pi­onships and 13 con­fer­ence titles in his 26 years as a head coach, and has twice been named the nation­al coach of the year. Since begin­ning his career as an assis­tant in 1983, Cook has pret­ty much seen it all.

Who could be bet­ter to dis­cuss the cur­rent game, how the sport has evolved and where it’s going next? In the first of this three-part series, Cook sat down with Hudl to chat about what coach­es can learn from his­to­ry to pre­pare for the future.

The Past

If he had a time machine and could advise the younger ver­sion of him­self, Cook’s first tip would be to coach with less anger and more pos­i­tiv­i­ty. Cook came from a foot­ball back­ground and brought that brava­do to the court, coach­ing with inten­si­ty and passion.

These aren’t bad traits, but Cook learned that vol­ley­ball play­ers don’t respond in the same way as their foot­ball coun­ter­parts. He now sees pos­i­tive rein­force­ment and encour­age­ment as far more effec­tive teach­ers than con­stant­ly try­ing to cor­rect play­ers. In fact, Cook said for every cor­rec­tive clip he shows in a video ses­sion, he’ll show five plays where play­ers did the right thing.

Football tends to be real­ly neg­a­tive and in your face,” Cook said. That worked 20 years ago, but it doesn’t work today. It took me awhile to fig­ure that out, but I did.”

Here are three more lessons Cook would teach his younger self:

  • Be more open to learn­ing. You don’t know it all.
  • Surround your­self with good peo­ple who enable you to be the best you can be.
  • Delegate to your assis­tants — and trust them to get the job done.

The Present

Nebraska has been one of the nation’s most con­sis­tent pro­grams since Cook took over in 2000, win­ning at least 23 match­es each sea­son and reach­ing the 30-vic­to­ry plateau 11 times.

Every coach desires to steer such a sta­ble ship, but find­ing that con­sis­ten­cy is elu­sive. Cook said the key is fig­ur­ing out what works for your team and stick­ing to it. Build the kind of cul­ture you want and don’t devi­ate from your goals.

It comes down to these sim­ple things: hard work, build­ing great rela­tion­ships, build­ing trust on a team, cre­at­ing a vision so that every­one is on the same page going for­ward,” Cook said. 

Cook also stressed the impor­tance of mak­ing Nebraska an invit­ing place play­ers want to be a part of. While there’s a great deal of hard work involved, Cook under­stands the need to keep­ing things light and fun.

Everything we do, we should real­ly enjoy it and look for­ward to com­ing to prac­tice every day and play­ing match­es,” he said. If you’re my play­er, at the end of the prac­tice that day I would ask you to eval­u­ate your­self, but I also eval­u­ate myself every­day and say So, okay, would you want to be coached by me tomor­row?” If I can’t say yes, then I didn’t do a good job. To say yes means that I pushed you but I pumped you up.”

The Future

The vol­ley­ball land­scape is shift­ing, and coach­es have to be pre­pared to adjust and move with it. The play­ers are get­ting big­ger, faster and stronger, a trend that’s only going to con­tin­ue. Cook remem­bers walk­ing into gyms a decade ago and being sur­prised to see more than one or two play­ers taller than 6-foot-2.

Those days are gone. 

Now you walk into a gym and I mean every­body is 6’2, 6’6, 6’5, 6’7 — every team has some­one who is that tall,” Cook said. The evo­lu­tion of the ath­lete has real­ly changed and has raised the lev­el of the game. It has become a dif­fer­ent game. It has become a pow­er game, more like the men, as opposed to more of a finesse defen­sive type of game.”

Another shift is how many oppor­tu­ni­ties there are for play­ers these days. More and more clubs pop up all the time, allow­ing more ath­letes to learn and devel­op. This has lead to more over­all tal­ent that’s spread across the country.

There are a lot of real­ly good teams and real­ly good play­ers,” Cook said. Maybe there are still just a few elite play­ers, but there are a lot of real­ly good play­ers. And we just won a nation­al cham­pi­onship with a lot of real­ly good play­ers, not elite players.”

Want to learn more about the future of vol­ley­ball and how the sport is chang­ing? Check out more vol­ley­ball con­tent here and learn how to set your club apart with our free eBook, cre­at­ed with The Art of Coaching Volleyball.

Also in this series:

John Cook: Why Video Matters in Volleyball

John Cook Explains How to Get on Recruiting Radars