Feb. 13, 2015
Jim McLaughlin, the new University of Notre Dame volleyball coach, stood near the net during a recent practice, poised to loft a volleyball during a spiking drill.
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Slow, faster, faster,” McLaughlin intoned as each player ran through the drill.
Irish players took three lateral moves, followed by two steps toward the net. Then, in a burst of speed, they accelerated to soar and hammered vicious spikes that blasted into the wood of the Irish practice court.
Near the practice court there were three whiteboards. On them are quotes written in green:
“Comfort is the No. 1 enemy of success.”
“Excellence is achieved by the mastery of fundamentals,” Vince Lombardi.
There are questions for critical thinking written in blue:
“Are you forming an identity?”
“Will you be ready for the moment?”
A timetable for the practice is written in black.
Statistics, critical evidence to support key points that will be covered in practice, are written in red.
In viewing a pointillist painting, like those created by Georges Seurat, standing close allows one to see a dazzling array of dots in a brilliant splash of colors from across the palette.
But, like a pointillist painting, standing farther away allows the viewer to see the big picture that the dots come together to form.
In the case of McLaughlin’s whiteboards, the big picture that the quotes, questions, evidence and drills form for the Irish is a map to climb to elite status in the NCAA.
McLaughlin, hired as the Irish head coach in January, is the only coach to win NCAA championships in both women’s volleyball (at Washington in 2005) and men’s volleyball (at USC in 1990). He led Washington to four trips to the Final Four.
Along his journey to the NCAA mountaintop, the whiteboards have been learning beacons to enlighten his players, helping them master key volleyball techniques through cognitive, associative and autonomous learning. He helps the players develop mindful awareness.
“Most people are influenced by tradition, even in the NFL,” McLaughlin said about the learning journey that athletes must undertake in order to have a chance at hoisting a trophy. “We tend to do what we’ve always done. I didn’t want to go that route. I wanted to find out the laws of learning relative to sports.”
What McLaughlin discovered as he explored the art of teaching is that making his thinking visible enabled him to connect better with his players’ learning styles.
“The whiteboard is an information center,” McLaughlin continued. “You hear, you forget. You see, you remember. You do it, you understand it. All it does is allow you to visually see things, and it makes you more mindful–and mindfulness allows change.”
McLaughlin provides evidence for the techniques he teaches, and he explains the essence of why.
“You need to know why this is the best way to do it, and why you will benefit,” McLaughlin said. “You have to know the whys in life.”
McLaughlin’s skills as a teacher are at the forefront of his championship resume.
“When you’re learning movement patterns and you’re learning eye-work, we learn faster by seeing and doing,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a central representation that we learn from best. Words mean very little to beginners and even to experts. The issue as a teacher, if you’re really teaching, is about transfer. How much transfer do your activities have from day to day to game day. What’s the pace of learning? How can we increase that?
“The players are the magic. We can write the routines and the activities, we can set the conditions, we can measure the progress, but they have to do the work.”
Washington’s Krista Vansant, a two-time national player of the year for McLaughlin, said the magic happens in convergence with McLaughlin’s teaching.
“He’s definitely a numbers guy,” Vansant said. “When you have a lot of stuff on the whiteboard, you have a good visual of the standards he wants you to meet. He uses a lot of evidence and data to support what he’s teaching you. If you see that your hitting stats are improving, and you’re using his techniques, then you want to keep improving. You’re going to keep listening to what he has to say and keep putting it to use.
“It might be a little hard at first, but as long as the players buy in and take in what he’s saying, they’ll come along faster than most would think.”
Irish junior middle blocker Katie Higgins said the Irish are eager to embrace McLaughlin’s teaching techniques.
“At first, it’s overwhelming,” Higgins said of the volumes of volleyball learning the Irish are doing. “You see these three whiteboards, and they’re completely filled with different things, different thoughts, different rules, different motions. At first, it’s very overwhelming, but then, when you look at it, it’s all detailed and very laid out. We know exactly what to expect. If we have any questions on any of the motions, we can look at the board. He has it step by step. He’s putting everything in his mind on the board. We know exactly what he’s thinking.
“This works for a lot of different people. Some people are more visual. Some people like to see it written right in front of them, step by step, very analytical. Some people would rather he show us, which he does right after he explains it. His teaching style works for each player. We can look back at the whiteboard if we have any questions. It’s all written there. We also journal. We write down the passing keys or the spiking keys. We write everything down to remember it.”
McLaughlin’s national championship track record captures the attention of his players. The Huskies were in a similar situation to the Irish when McLaughlin took over at Washington. There he taught the Huskies how to become champions.
Higgins said the Irish have responded well to McLaughlin’s teaching.
“It’s going a lot quicker than I expected,” Higgins said. “It’s like learning a new language. He’s teaching us a new volleyball language. It’s nothing that any of us have seen broken down this way before. The thing is, we are all very eager to learn it. We’re learning very quickly. We’re studying extra. We’re paying extreme attention because we really want to learn this.
“A lot of times you come in, and when you leave, your mind is on something else. He wants us to take the time to write it down. He challenges us to remember everything that we learned from that practice. It’s also something for us to look back on the next morning. What did I learn yesterday? What do I need to work on tomorrow? There’s no question that’s going to make us better.”
McLaughlin is excited about the potential to attract top players to Notre Dame and help them elevate their game.
“At Notre Dame, you can get the top kid from anywhere,” McLaughlin said. “It’s Notre Dame. If we do it right, with the power of this place academically, we have to be considered. Then we have to do a good job and express to these kids how we can help them become what they want to become as people, as students, as players. The package here is a powerful package. If we do it right, it’s not just a four-year package, it’s a 40- or 50-year package.”
Notre Dame was one of the first places where McLaughlin started developing his craft as a teacher, and the University always has been near his heart. He was an assistant coach for former Notre Dame head coach Debbie Brown in 1996. McLaughlin’s wife, Margaret Jarc, graduated from Notre Dame in 1993 and was an assistant coach on the 1995 Notre Dame women’s soccer team that won a national championship.
“This was one of those places I always thought about, and I ended up marrying a girl from Notre Dame,” McLaughlin said. “I was hearing about it all the time. Everything was good about Notre Dame.”
When Brown’s tenure at Notre Dame ended in December, an opportunity arose.
“When I got home, after a good day, Margaret said, ‘Hey, it’s open.'” McLaughlin recalled of hearing the news that there was a volleyball opening at Notre Dame. “I looked at her, and said, ‘What’s open?’
“Again, she said, ‘It’s open.’ I’m thinking, do I have to go to the store?
“Then she said, ‘Notre Dame.’ Just the way she looked at me, I could tell this would be something for the family. After 30 years of coaching, 25 as a head coach ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬Â¦ your wife puts up with a lot. People don’t understand that. She’s the rock star at home. She does everything. We complement each other.”
McLaughlin left a great situation at Washington – the Huskies are projected to be a strong candidate to reach the NCAA Final Four again next season – but Notre Dame isn’t a place he could pass up.
“When you make a major decision, especially in coaching, you get connected with your heart and your mind. My heart was pulling me here. My mind was saying, ‘Hey we could be in the Final Four (at Washington) again next year.’ It was hard to leave Washington. It was almost like I wanted a weaker team to leave. When it was said and done, we’re going to do this. I’m going to be closer to Margaret’s family, and I get to Notre Dame. It’s Notre Dame. In time, I’ll be in this position again (going to the Final Four). We can build a winning program here.”
Vansant said she is certain Notre Dame will stand tall in NCAA volleyball with McLaughlin.
“It’s not like he’s never done this before,” Vansant said. “When he got to Washington he turned it around here. He’s such a genius of the game, and he has such a high IQ when it comes to volleyball. If people listen to him and buy in to what he’s saying, they’re going to improve each day. He’s definitely tough, but he knows what he’s talking about.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent