About four years ago, John Hyden and his wife Robyn created a two-year plan. It included moving from their twenty-year home in Southern California to a new city and starting a beach volleyball academy. If you know anything about beach volleyball, you probably know who John Hyden is. He’s the oldest player to have won an AVP, a 47-year-old spectacle that’s been playing on tour for almost two decades and is just as good today as he always has been. I was really looking forward to my chat with him. Two of my great friends – AVP Producer Kelly Reed and AVP player Julianne Lackey – are close friends of his. So I’ve hung out with him a few times in groups; he’s always been congenial and funny, a man with an astronomically high volleyball IQ worth exploring.
John started his career playing indoor volleyball, as so many beach players do. Also like many others, Karch Kiraly inspired John to seek a professional career after his indoor days were over. John was a phenomenal Outside Hitter and competed for the USA in two Olympic Games. But unlike Karch, who grew up playing beach, John didn’t play until he was 28 years old. “[Karch] obviously did a lot better than I did,” John laughs. “But his was the kind of path I think I wanted to take from the get-go. Not a lot of guys have successfully transferred from indoor to the beach. I’m glad I’m one of those guys… at least I think I’m one of those guys.”
He is. John has 13 AVP titles and a handful of FIVB Medals, including Gold with former partner Tri Bourne in Germany. The pair had a fighting chance of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics until Tri was diagnosed with a life-changing autoimmune disease that took them out of the running. Last year, John and Theo Brunner almost became the first qualifying team to win an AVP Championship in the nail-biting Waikiki Final. His career has been steadily impressive, not just because it’s lasted so long, but also because he’s had success throughout. So when I had a player like Johnny Hyden on the phone, I felt inclined to pick his brain on the changes of the sport. He’s seen beach volleyball in many an era, and each has its pros and cons. Here are a few of the nuggets of knowledge I procured from John Hyden:
On the level of play: “There weren’t as many great teams,” he says of the 80s and 90s. “Once Karch got there, who else won tournaments? Somebody snuck in every seven or eight tournaments. You had one dominating team, and then you had two or three that would rotate to the finals. Nowadays, the parity is so much higher.”
On technique: “At an international level, there’s less skill. They let hand setting go, which I think sucks. You’re taking the purity of the game away.”
On big court: “I never played big court, but honestly, the tournaments that I’ve played big court are boring. The court is so huge. Imagine Phil in his prime on a big court; you would never be able to side out against that guy.”
On scoring: “I think rally scoring is great. You get to the point where you know how long games are going to be, and you’re not just bombing serves the entire time. There’s a lot more scheming to it.”
On the freeze: “It has its ups and downs and goes both ways. If you play long enough, you’ll win as many as you lose. But when you have a team that’s dominating the match and they deserve to win, and then you stop it and say – because this team is losing so bad, they get a chance to come back. So when you have a better team that is down, they have a better chance of coming back that they may not deserve.”
On how long he’ll play: “Well, are you asking my wife or me? Cuz she says after this year, I have to play another one. But only time will tell. Or at least, that’s how it’s been for the last seven years. I’m working on getting Hyden Beach going, but I still want to get another good year in. So we’ll have to evaluate at the end of this year.”
I hope he keeps playing, but I’m also thrilled about his beach club facility, Hyden Beach, in Nashville. He and Robyn have built six courts in the heart of Tennessee, complete with bathrooms, showers, and concessions. John started his Hyden Beach Academy club last year, training athletes in a friend’s backyard. They broke ground on their new facility in early 2020, and all six courts recently were completed. They’ve now launched their website where players can sign up in advance, browse packages, and pay online. John and his coaches run camps, practices, and tournaments (of course, when the world is ready for those).
The Hyden family picked Nashville because it felt right. They were looking all over the country to plant their roots. But after several visits to Music City, they settled into a new Tennessee home after the 2018 season. John’s plan was to play a few more years on the AVP and maybe try for another Olympics while he got Hyden Beach up and running. While most people would think that beach training in Nashville would present problems, this seasoned vet wasn’t worried about it. “Usually, I don’t start [playing] until six weeks before the first tournament. And everyone over the years has been like, ‘What the hell are you doing?'” he laughs. “In my whole career, as long as I’m doing what I need to do drill-wise, I can take care of business. I’ve been doing this so long, I know exactly when I need to get out, how to take care of my body, and what I need.”
This… this is why John Hyden is the oldest player to ever have won an AVP. He’s a master of his body, knowing exactly what he needs to maximize his effort on the court. It’s a lesson we all need to learn. Some of us never do, some wait too long, but the smart ones learn it early. “I’ve always been this way,” he says. “I’ve always taken my time off and done my stuff in the gym. I mean, I’m back in the gym the next day. It’s just different – it’s rehab, lengthening, strengthening. I’m not hitting the weights; it’s a whole different story. I take time off from volleyball, and that may be one of the reasons I’ve been able to play for so long.”
John knows moderating training and prioritizing rest and rehabilitation are key to longevity. “When I’m training, I do three days a week on the sand and three days in the gym,” he says. “That’s another thing that a lot of players don’t understand. Some are doing double days four or five times a week. I’ve always been three days.” Hyden’s philosophy normally dictates the schedule of his partnership, as well. Three days of quality, concentrated skill-building drills plus three days in the gym prepping their bodies for the grind of season. Then it’s about maximizing rest and rebuilding muscle in the offtime. “You have to get your stuff done in the gym. If it’s not as important (as practice), it’s more important.”
I tried to get the specifics of his gym routine. But even though John is an open book and would tell me anything, there isn’t a widely transferrable pattern. His lifts are fluid, depending solely on the condition of his body and his tournament schedule ahead. He’s had a trainer for 15 years, Mykel Jenkins, someone who knows John’s body like the back of his hand. Every workout is purposeful and productive.
When it comes to drills, he’s got that covered also. “There’s a good group of guys and a girl that I train with named Julianne Lackey. They 100% want to do drills and help me out. I kinda coach and train them, and at the same time, they’re helping me. So we’re able to run through whatever drills I want for that day, and then we’ll play a little at the end of each day to get some live stuff going. As long as I’m doing my stuff, I can get it done.”
I mentioned Julianne (Jules) Lackey before. She was one of my first friends in the South Bay before moving to Nashville and remains a dear friend of mine. She feels incredibly grateful for Hyden Beach and John’s mentorship. “Training with John has provided me with an expanded perspective to the game,” Jules tells me, “partially because he forces me to work on defense and partially because I am able to pick his brain about his approach to his craft. It is nothing but efficient and calculated. It’s been a joy getting to know Robyn, Sam, and Jack as well – John’s success is definitely a team effort. They have a great vision for what they want to bring to the Tennessee beach volleyball community, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they accomplish here.”
Mark Schuermann and I were visiting Jules over Halloween and went to the Hyden home for chili and spiked cider. We all sat around John’s dining room table and talked life and volley (is there a difference?) for two hours while costumed kids ran in and out of the house with candy-filled pumpkins. John and Robyn are undeniably charming. They’ve been together for 26 years and are very different people, but they work so well together and are best friends. I felt welcomed and relaxed in their home, a true testament to the people they are.
Which makes me all the more excited for Hyden Beach. John Hyden embodies the beach culture – hardworking and skillful, but also fun and community-conscious. Hyden Beach is on its way to being the oasis for Nashville-based volleyball lovers.