Sept. 4, 2015
The University of Notre Dame volleyball laboratory-rather, practice court-sits behind blue curtains in the north dome of the Joyce Center.
The Irish train regularly on a pair of courts laid out side by side on one of Notre Dame’s portable basketball floors. Situated around the courts are three large whiteboards chock full of equal parts statistical charts, strategy and motivation.
“Sometimes when I think of the awesome consequences that little things bring, I tend to believe that there are no little things.”
It may be volleyball jargon, and it all might easily be confused for chemical equations. But not to worry-that’s how new Irish volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin rolls. And, now that the 2015 regular season has started, the Irish players understand a little more every day what McLaughlin is all about.
Most every coach spends at least some time looking at statistics. McLaughlin likes analytics because they enable him to back up his decisions with facts. Put together a lineup or opt for a strategy based on feel? McLaughlin prefers numbers to point him in the right direction.
Says Mike Johnson, McLaughlin’s associate head coach, “We want to know, ‘If we get rid of this, we win more.’ We have to measure to develop standards and then we train to those standards. These are not feelings, these are things we measure. This is how we develop our tactics. If we say Suzy has a good serve-it’s not a feeling, it’s measured.”
It can be as simple as wins and losses. McLaughlin’s homework tells him if his team wins 50 percent of the points in a match it’ll be a .500 team. Win 52 percent of the points and expect a 20-10 season. Win 55 percent of points and an unbeaten season might well be the result. Think McLaughlin just made all that up? No way. He can prove it.
“How much energy are you willing to expend to become ACC champs? If you want to win the ACC act like it today.”
Wonder who the best server is on the Irish squad? McLaughlin doesn’t need to wonder. He and his staff chart everything there is to measure about serve success (including using a radar gun). They don’t need the eye test–they know for a fact who qualifies in that regard and so do their players.
Elsewhere on one of the whiteboards McLaughlin has listed his stages of learning: cognitive (“understand the task and what it demands”), associative (“focus on keys to program development, practicing with feedback”), autonomous (“perfection of skill”) and mindful (“awareness of movement and outcomes”). There’s another lengthy handwritten dissertation on hitting (the volleyball skill).
McLaughlin also understands having a new coach is never easy and that he may be throwing his charges some curveballs. So he offers some whiteboard advice to ease his players’ minds:
“New opinions are always suspected and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.” – John Locke
McLaughlin and his staff spend two and a half hours a day to “write” a practice, two and a half hours actually practicing, then another two and a half hours looking at video of that day’s training session.
“We have to make sure we’re teaching the right stuff. It’s about competing every day. We mix parts (players) in practice every day. By the end of the week we put a lineup together and it’s very objective,” he says.
It’s 2:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Johnson is busy updating one of the whiteboards with the day’s practice schedule.
McLaughlin, in khaki shorts and a blue heather Notre Dame volleyball T-shirt, sits at a table, watching video and making notes. There’s a whistle on a lanyard flipped behind his back, and he chews gum aggressively.
“Waterfalls” by TLC plays in the background through a portable speaker via an iPhone playlist.
The Irish volleyball players go through various pre-practice routines, some stretching, some hitting, some serving.
After a half-hour, the serious work begins and the players jog to stand in front of one of the whiteboards where McLaughlin will lead them through a review of action from the previous three-match weekend at Middle Tennessee State.
Says McLaughlin, “We’re going to look at the stuff we need to get better at. Right now we’ve got varying levels of commitment. Either we’re all in or we’re not. And only you know. At Notre Dame we can be great at what we want to do.
“I’m looking at little tiny things . . . That’s a heck of a play. Can we repeat that over and over? . . . Look at that move. We’ve got to have the presence to be in the right place at the right time. It’s habitual. It’s over and over with great regularity.
Manage your game. Use the correct tool. Are we smart enough or are we not smart enough? Are we good enough or are we not good enough?
“As the weekend went on we won more and more rallies because we played better volleyball. What makes you do that? You’ve got to share that stuff. We’ve got to work on this today. We’re gonna get this thing going,” says McLaughlin in closing.
From here on it’s all business, with McLaughlin and his staff often active participants in drills. The Irish also have two male practice players who assist.
During one segment the team plays six on six, with the whistle blowing any time there’s an “illegal play” (that’s anything the Irish have identified that doesn’t help them achieve success).
“What do you see at the net?” asks McLaughlin.
Staff members chart passing and serving percentages on the boards.
“You’re on the edge of your ability. You’ve got to be a little uncomfortable. We’ve got to earn everything we get, and we’ll cherish the return,” says the Irish head coach, offering equal parts X’s and O’s, motivation and his philosophy.
At the end of the training session, each Irish player one at a time shuffles from one end of the net to the other, leaping to block shots at each edge. McLaughlin times each player with his phone, shuffling right with them-with most of the team in the 22-second range.
At 5:20 p.m. the Irish are done. The coaches have several hours of video review ahead of them, and they’ll be back by at least seven the next morning for more.
It’s a completely different challenge for McLaughlin at Notre Dame. At his previous stop, the University of Washington, he would have been coming off 30-3 and 31-3 campaigns. At Notre Dame, the Irish are coming off successive 13-18 and 6-23 seasons. McLaughlin is unfazed-on the contrary, he appears to revel in the work.
“We’re getting things in place,” he says one recent morning. “The meaning to all this will come. They (the players) are hearing things, they see it on the whiteboard, they are doing things and eventually they’ll understand what it all means. Everybody learns and teams learn at different paces. Once they understand why we’re doing all these things, I think the learning curve starts to accelerate a little bit. We’re making progress. We have a long road and we’ve got to stay on the road.”
McLaughlin impresses as equal parts tactician and resident philosopher.
“We’re learning some really valuable lessons. We talk about level of commitment. You begin to find out how committed you are by the choices you make. As you start to get a little bit of a return, it becomes addictive because you want more.
“Mindfulness is the key. It’s about understanding your body and its movements and what you want it to do.”
For now, McLaughlin is engulfed in the process of making this Notre Dame program into the one he knows it can be. He tasted just enough of the Irish flavor as a Notre Dame assistant for one year back in 1995, and his wife Margaret (Jarc) is a former Irish soccer player who later became a Notre Dame assistant coach and helped the Irish to a national title in 1995.
“Coaching is hard when you are establishing some core values in a new program. Teaching is hard, but the principles are the same.
“I want Notre Dame to be a program that can be one of the best in the country every year. If you do this right and study success, you can have an impact on people for more than just their four years. I enjoy teaching and mentoring. Everybody figures it out and it impacts their lives–and that’s what I think is so much fun.
“We went through the same thing at Washington. The program was down and we were last in the Pac-10.
“There’s a newness here that revives you and stimulates you. It makes it even better here for me because I think I have the same core values as Notre Dame. Coming to work every day is a blast. It’ll be better when we win, but I’m happy I’m here.
“Our players are forming some routines, they are learning how they are going to improve. The whiteboard started as an information center, but it also involved getting them to think the right thoughts when it came to getting ready to practice.
“All we’re trying to do is get them to think the right thoughts-their thoughts are tools. The average person thinks 60,000 thoughts a day. Do they serve you well? When you are on the edge of your ability and you’re going places you’ve never been and hearing things you’ve never heard, your thoughts can go various ways and there can be a level of frustration. Most people go back to an easy road.
“We’re trying to learn the individual behavior patterns of the best players in the world. That’s the most important thing. If they think right, their bodies can move right. You can tell a championship team by watching them because you can tell what they are thinking. We need to get to the autonomous phase where those movements are automatic and don’t require deep thought. Right now it’s still hard for us.”
The Irish have barely scratched the surface of their season, so McLaughlin takes it all one step at a time.
“I’ve been deliberately honest with this group. Once they understand that, we make progress. They know I’m not blowing smoke. I hope they understand that this guy is telling us the truth, he’s telling us exactly where we’re at, where we’re gonna go and how we’re gonna get there. They are beginning to think the right thoughts.
“I challenge them every day, and yesterday was one of our best practices. I talk to them about commitment. Notre Dame isn’t a place where you do a little of this and a little of that. You’ve got to be all in.”
There are three long, hard and hopefully fruitful months of volleyball ahead for the Irish.
McLaughlin-whose teams won NCAA titles in women’s volleyball at Washington in 2005 and in men’s volleyball at USC in 1989-90-has a track record suggesting he will be equal to the task.
He thinks his players can be, too.
— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director