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