For Husker Volleyball, China is the First Step in a Championship Journey
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It's premature to dream about John Cook's third trip to China with a Husker volleyball team following in the footsteps of his 2000 and 2006 teams. Those two teams, after all, both won national championships in the same year they visited Asia.
The 2010 Huskers have enough returning talent to be part of any preseason national championship conversation, and the seeds for growth undoubtedly are being planted on their 17-day trip to China that's designed to bond, unify and equip an experienced team to reach its December dream - the NCAA National Championship in Kansas City.
Cook will have to see how this team handles a challenging schedule this fall, but one thing already seems certain after the first two of four stops in China. Cook designed the May 18-June 4 trip to China to be the most compelling of all three, and it has been just that, thanks to some intricate planning and expanding the competitive tourist format with one goal in mind - to maximize the experience.
"We back-loaded the competition, so we'll play the three best teams in our last week in Beijing," Cook said, explaining why this trip will be so much more educational and inspirational than the ones taken four and 10 years ago.
Sure, the Huskers are looking forward to seeing Tiananmen Square, walking the Great Wall and visiting the Terracotta Warriors, but Shanghai might have offered the ultimate experience last weekend - a full-fledged visit to World Expo 2010, history's biggest world's fair that could draw 70 million visitors between May 1 and Oct. 1.
"Huge deal - an adventure like no other, really," Cook said before the trip. "The World Expo is even bigger than the Olympics. They've invested $50 billion in the Expo. The model we use on trips like these is to compete one day and be tourists the next, and this is the most incredible opportunity we've ever had in China because we get to see one of the world's biggest events in the midst of our own experience."
Cook, of course, insists his team goes beyond "see" and makes sure Husker players are more action-oriented, so they know, experience and understand what they see.
Preparation, Preparation, Preparation
"This trip is part of a one-credit class," Cook pointed out. "Every member of our team had to do a power point presentation on China before we left. They studied the culture, the history and the traditions of China. Even before seeing World Expo, they're well aware that urban footprint is the theme, giving them a better understanding of how the world is evolving into better cities with the idea of living better lives."
Leave it to Cook to do his homework before flying into a time zone 13 hours from the one he lives in.
Cook wanted to start in Shanghai, then visit Lincoln's two "sister cities" in China - Hangzhou and Xi'an. The Huskers travel to Beijing Wednesday and will spend the week there to play the last of 13 matches.
Cook reached out to a couple of key contacts within the university to help him design an itinerary that is already making this the most exciting and enriching trip to China yet.
"This trip isn't just some volleyball matches mixed in with some sightseeing," Cook said. "This trip brings in research, business, farming and student-exchange opportunities along with the competition and the volleyball."
Cook sees China as a treasure chest of history, tradition and experience - all important components of what he's tried to make the ultimate team-building experience.
Cook Reaches Out to Two Nebraska Professors
In his aggressive pursuit of Nebraska-based contacts, Cook found David Lou, the Ludwickson Professor in Nebraska's Mechanical Engineering Department. Lou has been in China, making sure everything was arranged correctly for the Huskers' current visit to Hangzhou, one of two Chinese "Paradise Cities".
"China is now the third largest economy in the world and will soon become the second behind the USA," said Lou, who chaired NU's Mechanical Engineering Department for 13 years before becoming director of UNL's Office of China Initiatives and director of its Confucius Institute.
"I didn't even know we had a Confucius Institute until I met David," Cook said.
The Institute was established by UNL and its partner university in Xi'an three years ago. The Chinese central government provides the funding to teach Chinese language and culture to NU students and to Nebraska citizens in Lincoln and Omaha.
Lou's office operates the joint university undergraduate programs in both sister cities. The office develops joint research programs and provides support to summer study abroad programs. Lou also laid the groundwork for the sister universities to host the Husker volleyball team, providing rooms and meals and arranging for sightseeing and shared down time.
"We enjoy hanging out with all the Chinese volleyball players, and we enjoy meeting Nebraska's foreign exchange students now living in China," Cook said.
Cook also has gained valuable insight from Mark Hoistad, the associate dean of Nebraska's College of Architecture. Hoistad will lead a group of 13 Nebraska students to China in September as part of the school's study abroad program. With his sixth trip to China, Hoistad agrees with Cook that visiting Asia now as opposed to 10 years ago is as different as night and day.
Experiencing Three Revolutions at Same Time
"The thing that's so fascinating for the Nebraska players is seeing China go through the industrial revolution, the information age and the communications revolution all at the same time," Hoistad said. "What we in America did in about 100 years, China is doing in just 20."
No wonder Nebraska's contingent of 20 players, staff and trip chronicler John Baylor can't help but marvel at what they're seeing.
"Change is happening so fast in China," Hoistad said, "that third-world conditions are just down the street from the most luxurious hotels and skyscrapers in the world."
There's nothing like seeing extreme poverty living right next door to prosperity so mind-boggling that it can trump Donald Trump. Hoistad said it's so indescribable, you have to see it to believe it.
Cook is glad that his team is seeing some of the glitter that the 2000 and 2006 teams didn't get to see, feel, touch or experience.
A few weeks ago, Cook asked Lindsay Peterson, his director of operations, what she considered the highlight of Nebraska's trip to China in 2000.
"Landing back in Lincoln," Peterson said immediately.
It's hard for Cook to dispute the boot camp mentality of that first international experience. "Ten years ago, China was a communist, third-world country, and we lived like they did when we were there," Cook said. "It was really a tough trip. We stayed in tough hotels, ate tough food and visited some tough places."
Toughness Helped Develop Trust, Confidence
That toughness, though, may have set the tone for Nebraska's national championship season in 2000 - Cook's first year as Nebraska's head coach. He said he liked the way that team used a tough trip to develop the trust and confidence needed to win a championship.
Nebraska's 2006 trip to China yielded similar results despite vastly improved lodging and dining.
This year's trip will include playing the toughest competition the Huskers have ever faced in China - competition that will test the Huskers' mettle and their perseverance.
"Our players are going to be touring and competing for almost two weeks without their cell phones, Google, Facebook and everything they're used to," Cook said. "I want to see how they respond when it's tough and they're tired, and I'm trying to be a great coach and help them evolve into a great team."
Fast, furious competition will supply important answers.
"China's national team is at the top of the volleyball pyramid," Cook said. "They are considered one of the top three women's volleyball teams in the world. The professional teams are the ones who feed the national team."
It's easy to put the pyramid in perspective. According to Cook, China's pro teams and national team train five to six hours a day, six times a week, 50 weeks a year.
In China, National Team Has Its Advantages
"If you make it to a pro team in China, you have incredible advantages in their society - cars, apartments, money and families that get taken care of," Cook said. "So there is tremendous incentive for them to train hard and compete tough every day."
On this trip, Nebraska will play six of China's top eight pro teams, and Cook knows the competition level will go up dramatically in Beijing, especially since the top teams will be highly motivated to play someone besides each other.
In effect, "This is going to be like the Husker football team going to Kansas City to scrimmage the Chiefs," Cook said. "It's not about winning and losing, though. It's about teaching and training. It's about experiencing new things every day, getting closer as a team, savoring the opportunity to play at a different speed and making sure you enjoy the journey."
It's also about seeing a new culture and learning from it and about knowing how teammates respond when they're physically drained and emotionally exhausted.
"This team knows what an incredible opportunity this is," Cook said. "The door has been opened for them to have interactions normal students wouldn't get and experiences normal tourists wouldn't have. It's going to be a very intimate experience hanging out with these players - in their dorms, on the court and whatever they decide to do at night."
Cook says there's a bond between volleyball players that's really special, and now the Huskers can share that bond with world-class players in another country at the same time they're developing a new bond among themselves.
Solving Language Barriers, Slowing Game Down
"To me," Cook said, "one of the highlights is watching the interactions between players despite the language barriers. It's an absolutely fascinating process to watch, and will help us get better and grow tighter as a team. Our players are going to compete against one of the highest skill levels of any professional league in the world."
That experience will help the Huskers "speed up" their game at the same time that Cook would like to see the game's fundamental nuances "slow down" more than ever, especially for his most experienced players.
Cook says a championship journey is about being inspired and inspiring others. It's about competing against some of the world's greatest volleyball players and hoping that the measuring stick is more like a boomerang, so everything positive bounces back for your benefit, individually and team-wise.
John Baylor, the Huskers' play-by-play announcer in volleyball, made the 2000 and 2006 trips to China with the team and "will do a great job keeping our friends, families and fans up-to-date on our daily experiences," Cook said. "He has a video camera and is blogging about the intimate moments so he can bring them to life on Huskers.com."
Baylor's blogs, videos and photos give our readers an inside look at a team that wants to use China as their springboard to national prominence this fall.
Baylor, whose real job is to prepare students for national tests that determine college scholarships, cleared his approach with Cook and honed his style for Huskers.com.
Championships Like Climbing the Great Wall
If you haven't been reading, watching or listening to Baylor's daily updates, you can cover lost ground here and still keep track of the Huskers on their championship journey.
"The idea," Cook said, "is to use all of these experiences and watch this team go to another level - maybe one they've never envisioned for themselves or their teammates."
If a coach can dream, you can, too.
Just remember one thing: This is only the first step in a long journey, and the Huskers learned an important lesson long ago.
National championships are like climbing the Great Wall.
You can only do it one step at a time.
Voices from Husker Nation
What a great opportunity John Cook and his staff have provided for these young women. Even if they don't win the national championship this year, the experience of this trip will serve them well for the 2010 season and will last them a lifetime. It is heartwarming to learn about the extra effort that the Nebraska coaching staff has invested in these student-athletes to enhance their education in addition to making them our US "ambassadors" to China. Mike Willits, UNL Class of '66, Midway, Utah
Reading this column helps me understand why Nebraska is almost always a contender to win a national championship in volleyball. I marvel just thinking about a Midwestern university competing on an even keel with the powerful West Coast schools, but the more I learn about (John) Cook's philosophy, the more I get the edge that his teams have. Under his leadership, I see Nebraska using world-class standards to achieve their measure of national prominence - a strategy that obviously works well within the culture of the program. Ri Edwards, Yuba City, California
I really like reading the reports from China. I think this will be a special season. Hopefully, Nebraska can bring home a fourth national championship to Lincoln this December. Keep up the great coverage. GO HUSKERS!!! Dave Torkelson, Council Bluffs, Iowa
What a cool thing to see a Division I head coach actually reaching out to the the faculty of the university he represents. Sounds like someone who works for an athletic director who did the same thing when he was a head coach. Lynn Taylor, Chicago, Illinois
I'm following John Baylor's daily reports on Huskers.com and find them a great help for the way new names are blending in with more familiar players. The overview of this special trip is interesting. John Cook inspires his players and us fans. He deserves kudos for taking someone with the team so we can keep up with them in China. Cindy Smith, Lincoln, Nebraska