One of John Wooden’s most famous quotes — which was actually lifted from a book given to him by his father — is “make each day your masterpiece.”
It’s an inspiring line, and one emblematic of the coach’s emphasis on habit and consistency. But what if that quote — poetic as it may be — is actually too demanding? What if a daily pursuit of a “masterpiece” is more enervating than it is energizing?
Take, for instance, the Washington volleyball team’s approach to its craft.
Upon arriving on campus in 2015, Huskies coach Keegan Cook instilled in his players the “good after good” mentality. He borrowed the philosophy from former U.S. men’s volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, who is now coaching the Minnesota women’s volleyball team.
The main principle of “good after good” is that regularly functioning at a high level — whether it be hitting the weights, studying film, performing drills or competing in matches — will eventually produce a product that is top level. In other words, striving for quality at-bats is a more effective long-term strategy than seeking nothing but homers.
“To me, there’s nothing more powerful in the world than compound interest. Those little things add up,” said Cook, whose Huskies will play their first Final Four match since 2013 on Thursday when they meet Kentucky in Omaha, Nebraska. “If you can just make good plays for a long period of time, then great moments will happen, or things will kind of snowball into something great.”
This is a concept more conducive to volleyball than it is to other sports. A football game can be broken open with a few big plays. Same with a soccer match or hockey game. But in volleyball, even the most spectacular of sequences nets a team nothing more than a point.
Besides, the Huskies don’t typically win by overpowering foes like Serena Williams and her scorching serves. They do it with poise, patience and perseverance.
You know those basketball teams that intimidate opponents with a string of thunderous, pregame dunks? The Huskies are definitely not their equivalent.
“I think a lot of people are looking at our team and not understanding who we are, and that’s OK,” Cook said. “One thing we always talk about is that we want teams to kind of walk away from a match going, ‘What just happened?’ “
Cook stressed that he didn’t want that quote to come off as arrogant or disrespectful. Talk to the guy for 10 minutes, and you’ll see he is as humble as he is thoughtful.
But it isn’t just opponents asking themselves, “What just happened?” when it comes to this team — it’s the whole college volleyball universe.
This wasn’t supposed to be the Huskies squad that ended an eight-year Final Four drought. Not after graduating first-team All-American Kara Bajema, the outside hitter who averaged a whopping 4.63 kills per set in 2019. Lowly Arizona State (6-14 in the Pac-12) seemed to confirm prevailing doubts when it swept the Huskies in their first match of the season.
But then came the regroup. Then came the renewed focus on the team’s guiding tenets. Then came the embracing of a mindset that has spawned 20 wins in the Dawgs’ past 22 matches along with a Pac-12 title and a Final Four appearance. Simply put: Good after good took the Huskies from bad to great.
“I remember it (the ASU loss) well. It didn’t feel good. It was kind of just a huge moment of just reflecting,” UW junior outside hitter Claire Hoffman said. “We didn’t stick to our principles and our values, and it was pretty obvious. I think every person felt it, we had a lot of discussions about it, and we decided we need to change this.”
Three months later, the sixth-seeded Huskies — who produced two first-team All-Americans in outside hitter Samantha Dreschel and setter Ella May Powell — are two wins from a national championship after repeatedly defying the improbable. They rallied from an 11-5 deficit to beat Louisville 15-13 in the fifth set in the Sweet 16, then came back from a two-sets-to-none deficit to beat Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight.
Now they face second-seeded Kentucky in the NCAA semifinal, and win or lose it’s been a great seas …
Sorry, what’s that, Claire?
“The Final Four wasn’t the goal. It’s never been the goal,” Hoffman said. “We’re fired up, and we’re excited, but no one in our program thinks that this is the end.”