Strong Faith Guides BYU Volleyball Coach on Journey to National Coach of the Year

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News associate editor

  • 15 January 2019

BYU head coach Heather Olmstead celebrates during a third-set timeout in the Cougars’ 3-0 victory over Texas in the 2018 NCAA Regional Finals in Provo, Utah, on December 8, 2018.

“I’ve always had a strong faith in what I’m doing and where I want to go.” —Heather Olmstead, BYU women’s volleyball coach

Life can get a bit frantic for a college volleyball coach during the playing season.

Time not spent training or traveling with the team is likely filled in film study, recruiting, and preparing for that next match. It can be tough to look beyond the next pressing item on the day’s to-do list.

But even amid the hustle and bustle of an unforgettable 2018 season, Brigham Young University women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead was clearly aware she was part of something special.

“I didn’t need any time to realize and understand what a magical season we were experiencing,” she told the Church News following the Cougars’ 2018 campaign that culminated with a trip to the NCAA Final Four. “We knew we had a special group and we had a strong belief in each other.”

The 31-win season was defined by a bevy of highlights—including an undefeated run of home games at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse, a West Coast Conference Championship, and a stretch of season where they were ranked as the top team in the country.

Olmstead was also honored for her leadership, being named the 2018 American Volleyball Coaches Association national coach of the year. Over the course of her four-year head coaching career, she has won 90 percent of her games.

But when asked about her successes, Olmstead naturally shifts from “I” to “we.”

“We are so happy for the experiences we have had together and the trials that we went through and overcame.”

A team can’t reach the Final Four of the NCAA Division 1 tournament without plenty of talent. And yes, the Cougars had plenty of star power—including outside hitter Roni Jones-Perry, freshman of the year Heather Gneighting, and elite setter Lyndie Haddock-Eppich.

BYU head coach Heather Olmstead directs BYU’s practice. The BYU women’s volleyball team held a press conference and an open practice on December 7, 2017, in Lexington, Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum. Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU.

But Olmstead said the squad also possessed plenty of intangibles that can make the difference in a tough five-set match against an equally talented team. She points to senior leadership and team determination.

“And the players did everything in their lives to allow them to play at a high level, including in their spiritual lives and academics.”

Coaching at BYU is perhaps different than coaching at any other university. First, the school expects to compete at a high level. That requires talent. But Cougar student-athletes are also required to live the Honor Code at the Church-owned school.

“It’s a unique opportunity to work at a school owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” she said. “The Honor Code provides us an opportunity to talk about what makes BYU great. We are able to focus on priorities in areas that become strengths.”

The recruiting pool is definitely smaller than at other schools, she added. “But we are looking for the best Latter-day Saint kids in the country, and we want to supplement them with the best nonmembers that want to be here.”

And for the right athletes, the school sells itself.

BYU head coach Heather Olmstead cheers on her team during an NCAA volleyball playoff game against UNLV in Provo on Saturday, December 3, 2016. BYU swept UNLV 3-0 to advance into the Sweet 16. Photo by Nick Wagner, Deseret News.

“We are able to get in the doors of nonmembers who want to be high performers in volleyball, academics, and life,” she said.

Volleyball has defined much of the coach’s life. The Olmsteads are a volleyball family. All seven of the siblings played in high school. Four played in college. Meanwhile, their father, Rick Olmstead, played at the Church-owned college in Hawaii and went on to coach in high school. One of his star players at Santa Barbara High School was American volleyball legend Karch Kiraly.

After playing at Utah State University, Heather Olmstead followed her brother Shawn into the collegiate coaching ranks. She was her brother’s assistant coach when the 2014 BYU women’s team made it to the national championship—and earned Shawn his own national coach-of-the-year award.

But Olmstead insists there’s no sibling rivalry.

“We find joy in each other’s success,” she said.

As a lifelong Latter-day Saint, Olmstead feels BYU is the perfect place to ply her trade. Her testimony and faith have guided her as a student-athlete and as a coach.

The school’s motto, “Enter to learn. Go forth to serve,” is a guiding principle she tries to instill in her athletes on the volleyball court and outside the lines.

“I’ve always had a strong faith in what I’m doing and where I want to go.”

BYU head coach Heather Olmstead talks to her team before the match. The no. 4 BYU women’s volleyball team defeated no. 5 Texas 3-0 in the regional final of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championships. Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU.

BYU head volleyball coach Heather Olmstead talks with her players during a timeout at the Hunstman Center in Salt Lake City on September 14, 2017. Photo by Adam Fondren, Deseret News.