If the goal is to win, to be a champion, to be great, how much effort does it take? How much preparation? How much repetition? More than you might expect, Washington volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin figures.
“Humans are geared to be very complacent in life, to cruise, to go easy,” McLaughlin said in his Alaska Airlines Arena office. It is 11:09 p.m., a few hours after the Huskies had swept Alabama State on Dec. 6 in their NCAA tournament opener.
“Human nature doesn’t win championships.”
McLaughlin, named Pac-12 coach of the year for the fourth time in 13 seasons at UW, might be the Bill Belichick of volleyball, a not-so-mad scientist who has sought to understand his game at a granular or even subatomic level.
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A former high-school quarterback who grew up in Malibu, Calif., and concedes he occasionally cut classes to surf, McLaughlin now preaches unwavering commitment to the task of being great. This leads him to take deep dives into research papers that reference volleyball logistic regression analysis. He has likely watched more film than Francis Ford Coppola.
“I think he watches film 24/7,” said UW junior Krista Vansant, the Pac-12 player of the year. “I don’t think he sleeps, to be honest.”
Sleep would be scarce this night, when he granted a reporter a glimpse at his between-match preparation.
9:01 p.m., Dec. 6: After the victory. McLaughlin addresses his players, then the media 10 minutes later.
9:29 p.m.: He already has players in the film room watching the next opponent, Louisiana State. McLaughlin scribbles notes on a white board and replays one sequence of plays, pointing out one player’s subtle deficiency in serve-receive. “We want to serve 7,” he says.
10:02 p.m.: Film session ends. McLaughlin and staff ascend a narrow stairway to their modest office space. All soon focus their attention on computer screens alive with game film.
10:06 p.m.: McLaughlin clicks his mouse in regular intervals, analyzing hundreds of plays. He diagrams lines and arcs, like football X’s and O’s for “tendency sheets,” core elements of a scouting report distributed to players the next day.
10:24 p.m.: McLaughlin hollers to first-year assistant Keegan Cook, “Do you see 24 hits almost all angle?” That’s a clue that can help UW’s front line establish blocks a split-second faster. “I see it,” Cook replies.
11:04 p.m.: Kevin Leach and Tom Murphy have been unpaid assistants for several years. What’s the lure? “To be in the company of excellence,” Leach said.
11:37 p.m.: McLaughlin leaves the office.
11:58 p.m.: Arrives home. Talks to his wife, Margaret, while powering down a chicken tostada.
12:17 a.m., Dec. 7: Watches more game film on home computer.
1:39 a.m.: Chats more with Margaret.
2:04 a.m.: Goes to bed. Does such dedication to a team put stress on a marriage and family?
“For sure,” said Margaret, a former assistant coach for women’s soccer at USC and Notre Dame, “and that’s not a bad thing. We know that’s who he is, and we know that’s why he wins and his teams are good, because he has prepared and invested so much time.”
The couple has three children: Megan, 15; Molly, 13; and Marit, 7. “They’re so involved in his job,” Margaret said. “They have 15 big sisters every year. So many people they know in school look up to the players, and Megan and Molly think, ‘They’re just my buddies.’ It’s been like that for 13 years. They miss him, but it’s afforded them opportunities. They understand.”
6:30 a.m.: McLaughlin rises, makes coffee, walks out to retrieve his newspaper and is greeted by neighbor John Seren, who routinely volunteers coaching advice. McLaughlin smiles and heads inside.
7:15 a.m.: Arrives at UW. “I don’t need a watch,” said Cook. “I just have to see what Jim is doing and I could tell you what time of day it is. He holds himself to standards like no one I’ve seen before.”
9:15 a.m.: Breaks for a 45-minute run.
Noon: Film session with players and review of the scouting report. McLaughlin queries players as new plays and formations appear on the screen.
12:30 p.m.: Meeting over. Coaches study more film.
2:45 p.m.: Pregame practice. McLaughlin walks through a handful of points he made during film session.
3:40 p.m.: McLaughlin and crew head upstairs for final film study before a final talk to the team and warm-ups at 5:50. Why prepare so intensely?
“He talks about winning being so fragile,” said Margaret, “so you have to be completely prepared so you’re never surprised. And you don’t change your preparation just because it’s a big game or a losing opponent. That’s something that sticks with me about his approach. He’d rather be overprepared.”
In years past he boosted Sanja Tomasevic’s hitting percentage a few hundredths by nudging her six inches closer to the 10-foot line during one rotation.
McLaughlin cited one of his favorite quotes, from author Bruce Barton: “Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.”
McLaughlin: “Everything is important, and the meaning of that comes now, at the end of the year. To be great, you’ve got to do all these little things, take care of all the little details.
“These statistics are real. I chart everything, do little graphs, I’m just … nuts.”
McLaughlin laughed. “It’s a little compulsive.”
Do little things matter? Washington dropped its first set to LSU but served more aggressively and won the next three and advanced. Saturday the Huskies fell behind USC 2-0 and rallied to win in five sets.
“The whole foundation of our program is improvement,” he said. “You’ve got to push your players, and they want to be pushed. They don’t want to be normal. These girls are amazing in their commitment level. We’ll just stay in our process, and we can collapse later.”