Q&A with Huskies volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin
Jim McLaughlin began the 2005 Washington volleyball season with 17 players and one goal: Win a national championship. He and his third-seeded...
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Jim McLaughlin began the 2005 Washington volleyball season with 17 players and one goal: Win a national championship. He and his third-seeded team are two wins away from that goal as Thursday they meet 15th-seeded Tennessee in a national semifinal match of the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio.
McLaughlin, the 2004 national coach of the year, has been named the Pac-10 coach of the year in 2002, 2004 and 2005. A disciple of former USA and Brigham Young coach Carl McGown, was hired to coach volleyball at UW in 2001 by athletic director Barbara Hedges, who had originally hired him to coach the USC men's team in 1990.
McLaughlin, 45, took a UW program that had not won 10 matches in a season since 1996 and swiftly transformed it into a national power. So what's this guy's magic? As the most successful volleyball season in school history was winding down, we spoke at length with this easygoing native of Malibu, Calif., about coaching, commitment and life.
Q: How do you feel about the players on this team?
A: "They're the real deal. I love this team. It's fun to go to practice. I want to see us win a championship. I want to see us go get the trophy and bring it home. It would mean a lot to these kids. I think they deserve the payoff, but they have to go get it. They know when to turn it on and when to turn it off. They know how to make an unbelievable commitment. I swear I would not have said this earlier in my career, but more than a Pac-10 championship, a Final Four, All-Americans, all that stuff, what I appreciate more than anything is their commitment. This is really important to them. And the weird thing is, down the road volleyball will not be important to them. They'll do things that are far more important — as moms, employees, citizens. But they'll never forget the lessons learned. They're going to be telling their kids the same lessons. And those kids will be involved with sports and be part of a team and learn how to deal with people. I think there's hundreds and hundreds and thousands of lessons that we can learn from being on a team."
Q: Do you need a particular type of player, a specific mental outlook, to have success in your system?
A: "No. I want some stuff like quickness, the ability to hit the ball hard. But I want a kid who cares about it, who will compete like crazy, who wants to be great. They're not really sure how to do that yet, but they tell themselves, 'I'll do this, I'll make a commitment.' They're not going to just test the waters — they're going to jump in. We as coaches tell them all the time: It is so hard to do what we do. There's nothing easy about becoming a great player. Nothing. Otherwise, everybody would be great. There's a commitment here. Most people won't be associated with the discomfort that you have to experience to get to be the best. The commitment is hard. It's hard every day. But it's great every day, if it's done right. You ask these kids. They work hard, and it's tough, but they love it. They love coming to practice. They love putting on purple and representing this school. But I think if you ask them, it's never easy. Sometimes the better you get the harder it becomes. It's like we're climbing Mount Rainier, and we're getting better and better, but the air is getting thin when we're getting near the top, our legs are getting tired, the expectations are greater. It's harder at the top. But that's what we aspire to do — to be the best. One team is standing at the end. I don't think people understand how hard that is to accomplish."
Q: It seems as though you enjoy teaching larger "life lessons" through coaching.
A: "That's the great thing about it — you can teach a kid how to commit to something, how to approach it day-to-day. How you become mindful of the process. You don't just mistake activity for achievement, but you do things that will allow you to make progress. It's what [former UCLA basketball coach John] Wooden used to say: 'Just because you're doing something, it doesn't mean you're achieving something.' You've got to be connected with your heart and your mind and your body."
Q: How do you change a team, a program accustomed to losing, into a winner?
A: "When I came here, I said it was OK to say 'We're not that good right now. Here's what we need to do to be good some day.' Then I asked the players: 'Do we want to make this commitment?' Then it was adopting this routine and this approach, day to day, one day at a time. I'd circle one day on the calendar. All I ever asked them is do the best they can, but do it physically and intellectually. Gradually then the team learned: 'Wow. He's putting it all on the table.' I'd tell them, here's what we're going to do, and then there were very subtle variations to that. People think the novelty, the stimulus for learning, is in the change. The novelty is in the mindful repetition, the subtle variations of familiar themes. That's where the mindfulness is — that's where the improvement lies. That's where a player is stimulated, because they're improving. So we said, the improvement issue is the fundamental issue here. Can we just keep getting better? I've never talked about winning. I said, if we operate and improve to this level, we have a chance to win a national title. Wouldn't that be nice? We're at a university where I think we could do that because we're awesome academically, we're in a great conference, we're in a beautiful part of the country, we're on this unbelievable lake, we eat in this boathouse overlooking this lake, we've got this big-time law school, this unbelievable med school, in this beautiful city. We have history, we have tradition. I just thought, we can get it going here."
Q: Statistical analysis is a key component of your coaching style. You measure everything, every drill in practice, every action in a game in order to enact change. Can you explain your fascination with numbers?
A: "I'm telling our kids that I want them to understand why we do the things we do, and why this is the best way to do it. It [analysis] just made an awful lot of sense, and once I started to apply it, the return was significant. We were getting better. I just think the best way is the most objective way. You want to be objective with people. I think we as coaches, and there are so many good coaches in this country, even the best ones have a limited ability to process complex information. Our eyes play tricks on us. You can't visually see some things. For example, the book 'Moneyball' by Billy Beane. What's the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter? One gets millions of dollars, the other gets hundreds of thousands. We think we can see this great player as soon as he walks in, but all that separates those two players is one hit every two weeks. You can't visually see that. It's the same thing in volleyball. We're emotional people, and we're attracted to certain things. We've got to keep our feet on the ground and be rational, understand what is actually occurring. You have to be objective. That's why I love numbers."
Q: With all the number-crunching going on, senior captain Sanja Tomasevic says she occasionally worries that the coaching staff is working too hard: "Sometimes I think those guys are doing waaaay too much. But I know there's something behind it. But Jim never rests from it. I don't know how Margaret, his wife, feels about it. We didn't have practice one day, so he calls me at home to tell me what's wrong with my blocking. Here he could be having a peaceful night at home with his kids, and he's watching film. So he's kind of geeky, yeah. But when you see how much he puts into it, it makes you put in as much you can yourself, to strive for a goal as hard as he does."
A: "Margaret knows me better than anyone. She really allows me to do what I want to do and what I'm capable of doing. She knows that I love coaching. She comes from athletics [she was an assistant coach at Notre Dame on an NCAA champion women's soccer team] so she understands the demands. I can tell you honestly we've gone through our times where she's said, 'Hey, no more film at home. When you're home, you're with us.' She's right. Otherwise, why have a family? I've matured a lot in that aspect, in balancing my life. The most important thing to me is my wife and two kids. I'm never going to jeopardize that. But their dad, and her husband, can be a good coach. And if it was any other profession, whether you're an attorney or a doctor, if you want to be great at it you've got to work hard. Otherwise, I'm just feeding lip service to my team. I'm a lucky person to be coaching this awesome sport and coaching these kids. You couldn't be in a better profession. I think it's the greatest profession in the world. But it's a hard, tough profession. I've got to work hard for them. I've got to get stuff in place to help them. I learned that from my parents: Work hard."
Q: You put so much effort into what most people regard as a "minor" sport. Do you ever think that you and society could be better served if a goal-driven person such as yourself would apply your energy and ingenuity to something like medicine or international law?
A: "I think athletics are so powerful in our country. Look how much influence it has. Everybody wants to be part of sports. I think it's one of the greatest social vehicles. Look at the Olympic Games, for example. It brings the whole world together. Politics doesn't do that. There's a common ground there. It's all fair. If you work hard, you have a chance to win. Different countries have proven that. It's the only real profession where you're working with these human conditions, these emotions. You're working with them intellectually, you're working with them physically, you're connected with them in all areas. You can learn so much. The thing that's so great about it is, it's about the kids. I've said it all the time: The kids are the magic, not the coaches. We can put together this culture, we can create this environment, we can set standards, we can create activities that have great transfer to the game or to life, we can measure their progress. But they have to put the uniform on and get it done. They've got to learn how to operate day-to-day. They've got to balance school, be good students, travel all over the place, they've got to meet guys, you know? They've got to do all these things. But it prepares them not only during these four years, but it really has an impact, if you do it right, to go 40 to 45 years with the lessons you can learn, the situations you're in, performing in front of a big crowd."
Q: You have your team figured out, your systems figured out, your opponents figured out. Do you have life figured out?
A. "I'm far from that. I don't even know where my paycheck goes. I don't know a lot of stuff. I love volleyball, and this job is all-encompassing. You've got to pay attention to a lot of things. You have to know everything, but there's too many everythings. Maybe it's the only thing I know. I think I'm a good dad. But I love coaching. I don't think I could do anything else."
Q: You really don't know where your paycheck goes?
A: "It's far better for us to have [wife, Margaret] doing it. Someday I'll get out of coaching and I'll have to do all of that. But she's much smarter than I am. It's better to have that stuff in her hands. She controls all the finances in our family. She's a wonderful mother. Our kids will be great kids because of her."
Q: What gives you peace of mind?
A: "I'm at peace with being prepared. I'm going to do what we have to do to be prepared. I just think that's what I can control. You've got to want to be the best. There's nothing wrong with that. But you better prepare. There's peace of mind in that. That's what you can control."
Q: You often speak about goals, accomplishing great things despite the challenges involved. Are you a spiritual person?
A: "I go to church. It's the most important thing to me. That's the key. It always has been. I learned that from my parents. For some reason, that has always been the most important thing to me."
Q: Does that perspective influence your coaching?
A: "Maybe. I don't know if they [the players] know. I don't read quotes from the Bible. Never said a team prayer. I don't want to put that on anybody. It's my own personal thing. Everybody's relationship is different. To me it's critical, it's very important. I learned from my mom and dad. Do it the right way. If you do things the right way, things are going to work out. You can't explain that all the time, but you want to be prepared. It's hard to do what these kids are doing. The demands are significant. I think it's the same spiritually. It's hard to do things the right way all the time. But that's OK. There's greatness in that."
Q: What are your overall objectives in life?
A: "I want to be a good person. I want to be a great husband, a great dad, a great coach. In that order. It wasn't always that way. You can learn life lessons through athletics that are valuable not just for five years but for 45 years, or forever. Athletics had such a huge influence on my life. Otherwise, I'd still be surfing."
Q: With your ability to achieve success, do you wish you were coaching in a more prominent sport?
A: "It's perfect for me. Volleyball is never going to be like football or baseball. It just isn't. In Europe, it's a lot bigger than it is in the United States. I like it the way it is now. I wouldn't want to be ... I don't know ... what NBA coaches have to go through ... I don't know. I like being in the gym. I'm not a big fan of the press conference stuff. I'm not that comfortable with it. But I love teaching. A good coach who has their priorities straight can influence a young kid. I really believe that. Carl [McGown, a former USA coach and Brigham Young coach who profoundly influenced McLaughlin's teaching methods] is an honest guy who loved his players. That's more important than all the science stuff that he knew."
Q: Do you have any future Olympians on the UW roster?
A: "Christal Morrison [sophomore All-American outside hitter, from Puyallup High School], she doesn't know it yet, but that girl has all the talent to do it. Candace Lee [senior All-American libero], I'm biased because I'm her coach, but I've never coached a kid who has all the qualities that she has in the libero position. Talk about an ability to emotionally connect, intellectually connect, physically connect. She just does a lot of stuff right. She's just an unbelievable kid. So is Christal. I think Alesha Deesing [sophomore All-Pac-10 middle blocker], she doesn't know it yet, but she's physically gifted enough that if she develops the appropriate approach, she could put on a red, white and blue USA uniform. You never know about Courtney [Thompson, All-American junior setter, from Kentlake High School]. People said she couldn't play in the Pac-10. But she's the best setter in the country. It's not how big you are [Thompson is 5 feet 8], it's how great you are. It's how you run a team and how you are composed and how you do the right things the right way at the toughest times. Courtney could do some stuff."
Q: What do you foresee in your long-term future?
A: "I love coaching. Some day, maybe there will be a time I won't do it. I give everything I have to it, and I get tired. Some day down the road I'd like to coach in the Olympic Games. Whether I get that opportunity, who knows? You never know. But that's always been something that I thought, 'Wow, wouldn't that be unreal to coach in the Olympic Games?' I'll be honest with you — that's the Super Bowl, that's the NBA Finals, that's the highest level. And you're going against other countries. But it is different than college. In college, you're teaching young kids how to commit to being the best they can be. Most of the kids on the Olympic team have already had some degree of success, and they're so well committed. You're continuing their improvement, but you're putting together game plans and practices. They're so committed, and the talent pool is so ... I don't know, I think it's one percent of all the college players play in the Olympics? You get a chance to coach the best of the best."
Q: What makes the Olympic Games special?
A: "You know what's cool about the Olympics? Coaches don't get medals. It's all about the athletes. When the competition is over an the medals are presented, the coaches have to go stand on the sidelines. The focus is entirely on the athletes. That's how think it should be. That's how I would like it to be about this team. I'd much rather have you focus on the players. They're the ones making a commitment, putting forth the effort."
Q: What does a guy who grew up in Malibu surfing every day do during winter in the Pacific Northwest?
A: "I'm thinking about taking up snowboarding with Megan, my daughter. Christal is going to teach her."