by Jeff Smith
The University of Nebraska women's volleyball team is the New England Patriots of NCAA volleyball right now. The Cornhuskers have reached the Division I Final Four the last four years and a total of 12 times in the last 24 years while winning four national titles.
My daughters and I got to see Nebraska up close and personal in 2017. We sat court side to watch the Huskers defeat Northwestern in straight sets in Evanston.
If I sound obsessed with Nebraska volleyball, it's because I'm fascinated with discovering the secret behind this incredible college program's success. To be the best possible players, teams and coaches, we must learn from the best. And Nebraska offers plenty of lessons to learn from. I’m going to focus on three surprisingly simple keys behind their dominance of women’s college volleyball, all of which are things that the athletes and coaches of Serve City can incorporate in our own development.
1. Simple is repeatable
Nebraska's head coach, John Cook, is an instructor and ardent supporter for Gold Medal Squared, a volleyball teaching organization famous for its "simple is repeatable" training philosophy. In a day and age when volleyball instruction can be far too complex for athletes to learn, GMS is renowned for its basic teaching approach.
Cook has applied the GMS instructional style to the training of his players at Nebraska. Watching his team play while situated less than 20 feet from the court, I was impressed by the solid but simple fundamentals used by his starters.
For example, Cook’s outside hitters relied primarily on a three-step approach for jump hitting at a time when most college coaches emphasize a four-step approach. It clearly didn’t hinder his hitters. Year in and year out, Nebraska boasts one of the strongest hitting attacks in the country.
2. All-around skills
Watching Northwestern and Nebraska warm up before their match, it quickly became apparent that the two teams had much different training philosophies. Northwestern’s players spent most of their warm-up time working on skills directly related to their positions; middle hitters hit and ran through blocking patterns, setters set and did a bit of digging, liberos and defensive specialists passed and dug balls, and outside hitters hit and passed.
Nebraska’s warm-ups were refreshingly different. All of the Huskers’ players spent about 15 minutes working on passing, setting, hitting and digging with a partner, then they each dug up hits from a coach for another 15 minutes, including the middle hitters and right-side hitters.
You could see the benefits of this approach in the match. At least three times one of Nebraska’s front-row hitters stepped up and set a ball out of system to another hitter. All three sets were clean, technically sound and didn’t get whistled by the official for a double contact violation. This emphasis on all-around skills has also enabled the Huskers to field one of the best passing teams in the nation year after year.
As a director and coach, I love Nebraska’s philosophy of training volleyball players, not just positions.
3. Sand volleyball training
A few years ago, Coach Cook felt that the program had hit a rut. They were still a winning program, but he thought they weren’t reaching their true potential as a team.
That’s when he made a key change in how the Huskers trained in the off-season. He began having his players spend much of their spring training season playing volleyball in the sand. He believed beach volleyball training would benefit his athletes in a few ways:
Improving their all-around skills — sand volleyball requires the ability to pass, serve, set, hit and defend/dig
Developing their quickness and explosiveness — playing in the sand strengthens the ankles, calves and thighs through excellent resistance training
Sharpening their volleyball IQ — sand volleyball improves players’ understanding of the game and their fast decision-making ability in a pinch
Giving the athletes a fresh and fun perspective on volleyball — playing sand volleyball is almost like playing a whole different sport, which puts a fresh spin on spring volleyball training
To be the best you can be, it’s great to learn from the best. And you won’t learn from anyone better in our sport than the University of Nebraska.
Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.