U.S. Olympic champ serves up golden coaching advice

U.S. Olympic champ serves up golden coaching advice


By Greg Bach

Growing up Sean Rooney – U.S. Olympic volleyball gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Games and member of the 2012 Olympic team – played every sport imaginable into his mid-teens.

Except volleyball.

That’s right, he didn’t step onto the volleyball court until he was 15.

There was no specialization, camps or year-round travel teams monopolizing those early years.

Instead, he thoroughly enjoyed – and benefitted – from playing a variety of sports.

“I loved baseball, I played a lot of soccer, I played basketball, did swimming and golf – I tried a little bit of everything,” says Rooney, the assistant men’s volleyball coach at Pepperdine. “Volleyball was the last sport I tried. I was kind of finishing up with basketball and I decided to try volleyball, but I had seen thousands and thousands of hours of it because my sister played so I understood it before I even began to play it. And I think that helped to accelerate my interest in the sport.”


That multi-sport background, combined with his athletic gifts and work ethic, proved crucial in his development and eventually led him down the path to Olympic glory.

“I think that especially the key was playing a lot of different sports,” Rooney says. “Because there are so many different skills and so many different body parts you must learn how to coordinate. It’s good for your motor development to study different movements and learn how to do things not just one way and not just in one sport along the way. So I think that helped me to adapt to a different sport when I finally found one with volleyball that fit my body type.”

And what a fit the sport turned out to be for him.

Try these numbers on for size: He was a three-time All-American at Pepperdine, where he led them to the NCAA Championship his senior season; he was a two-time National Player of the Year; he was USA Volleyball’s Most Inspirational Player of the Year for 2014; and he served as captain of the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Those leadership qualities have enabled a smooth transition into the coaching ranks. We asked the Olympic champion and winner of countless tournaments around the world for his thoughts to help coaches and parents help their young volleyball players enjoy and progress in the sport. Check out what he had to say:


“You have to challenge kids to stay in the moment and help them understand that whatever happened yesterday is not going to help or hurt them today,” he says. “You just take one practice and one game at a time and give it all you have – that’s the core of what it is to be an athlete.”


“It’s important for them to compete in a fun way,” Rooney advises. “I don’t think it has to be real specific drills all the time. If you let them play a little bit they are going to learn how to play the sport. When they are having fun and competing they are figuring some things out on their own and as the coach you give them good feedback along the way.”


“I always felt I had coaches who did a good job of teaching us not just how to play the game, but why it was important to act a certain way that added to your character off the court as well,” Rooney remembers. “That’s something that always kind of stuck with me and as I made my choices for what teams to play on later on I always tried to go with those people who did things the right way.”


“Athletes are definitely happiest when they are improving,” Rooney says. “So if you can help them improve just a little bit, and they can understand it, you can kind of see a lightbulb go off, and just that one thing can make that connection and make them feel good.”

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