IOWA CITY, Ia. — Bond Shymansky eases into his chair in the media room. Volleyball practice starts soon, so he only has a few minutes. Iowa’s third-year head coach cradled a book with him into the room. A white paperback book. The title "Burn Your Goals" hogs most of the cover.
This isn’t pleasure reading for Shymansky. It’s a coaching tool, and it’s likely a catalyst for Iowa volleyball’s best season since 1994.
The Hawkeyes are 14-4 so far this year, with a win last Friday against then-No. 17 Purdue. This kind of start is nearly unfathomable for a team that’s made a home at the bottom of the Big Ten for the past couple decades.
Much of the roster remains the same as last year. Three of the four top hitters returned this year, along with starting defensive specialist Annika Olsen and starting setter Loxley Keala.
Obviously, this book and its “True Mental Toughness” mantra didn’t add any talent to the roster. But it is one of the main differences between this season and last. Shymansky and his white paperback helped spur a crucial change the program’s culture, four-year starter Lauren Brobst said.
“When (Shymansky) came in, we weren’t very close as a team,” she said. “We were perceived as one of those teams that didn’t really care about losing and we were just kind of here to be here, to be in the program.
“It’s really great to be here in (my) final season seeing those changes being made.”
Shymansky discovered "Burn Your Goals" at the end of last fall, when, in his second year coaching Iowa, the Hawkeyes had yet another losing season: 12-21 overall, 2-18 in the Big Ten.
He said the book “solidified, but also articulated” the philosophy he tried to employ while he was head coach at Marquette from 2009 to 2013. He invited one of the co-authors, Joshua Medcalf, to speak to the team last spring. Then, throughout spring practice, Shymansky handed his players excerpts to read and discuss in groups.
It might sound crazy to say words on a page ignited Iowa's resurgent season. But the concept of inspiring athletes through literature isn’t novel.
Phil Jackson gave a young Kobe Bryant Sun Tzu’s "The Art of War" in the 1999 NBA season, seven years after he gave Michael Jordan Toni Morrison’s "Song of Solomon." Jackson would pair players with books every season, hoping their themes would resonate with and inspire each man in a specific way.
It’s no different now in Iowa City.
“Winning is always fun, winning is great,” Keala said. “But I think it’s become more than that. This team is so close right now, and that hasn’t happened with this program in a long time.”
This team is also having a lot of fun right now, and so is a fan base delightfully startled by the Hawkeyes’ newfound success.
Iowa’s bench — or "Bench Press," as it's now called — created chants and cheers for every little aspect of a volleyball match, and the giant video board at Carver-Hawkeye Arena shows fans tutorials for all the cheers before home matches.
Now, whenever a Hawkeye serves an ace, the bench and crowd jointly pull imaginary arrows from behind their backs and shoot them. Whenever Hawaii native Keala scores a point, the bench and crowd join in a hula dance as "Hawaii Five O"music plays.
Just last week, Iowa volleyball reached 1,000 season-ticket holders for the first time in program history.
“My freshman year I don’t think we had very many fans coming to support us,” Brobst said. “And now with people just promoting, we’re just promoting Iowa more, we’re getting these bigger wins and people want to come out and see the changes made.”
The Hawkeyes play No. 19 Ohio State and Maryland this weekend. They’re 4-2 in the Big Ten so far — already twice as many conference wins as last season.
Bain covers preps, recruiting and Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.