“You are the Magic”

That is something my friend and mentor for over 40 years once told me; add that Carl McGown also often said “There is no magic,” and you will start to have an idea of his mind and his work. Each coach brings his or her own magic to the court but there is only hard work and the science – such that he wrote one book titled “The Science of Volleyball.”  One of his favorite photos brought magically to his heavily used computer was this one on Facts, not Opinions” at the Kirkaldy Testing Museum.

I started working with Carl over 40 years ago, sharing research and thoughts on bringing motor learning science into a sport where so many were simply (and most likely incorrectly) teaching the way they were taught.

>I played against Carl’s teams in 1975, when the Cougars included starters Dave and Darryl Richards.  Along with Dave’s wife Lori Doerr, we coached several summers of camps at Graceland College (now University) in Lamoni, Iowa. Matt McShane (now associate head coach at Cal) and the late Mike English (head coach at Wyoming) were also coaching with me there. Carl’s focus on motor learning changed the way we taught kids in those intense five days of 3-a-day trainings.

Remember, too, that children learn best by imitation; that is, by watching and doing, rather than by long, involved, technical explanations. A discussion of horizontal momentum, optimum jumping angles, force conversion and so on could as well be given in a foreign language for all the good it will do most spikers. The majority of instructors talk too much. Show them what to do. Even the simplest jump is made up of many components, and it is usually a mistake to try to emphasize all of these at one time. A beginner cannot mentally concentrate upon timing, the footwork, the jump, the arm-swing, ball placement, the contact, and the recovery simultaneously. Therefore, after the child has been given a general introduction to spiking, it is best to concentrate on only one component at a time. For example, have the child do a complete spike, but concentrate only on the footwork at the end of the approach."  (E-mail me at john.kessel at usav.org to get a copy of the article – especially if you want your kid to love any sport – like fly-fishing.  I will miss fishing around the world with Carl too, something special about that escape on the water.)

A missed attempt at qualifying the men for the 1976 Olympics catalyzed Carl’s passion to elevate volleyball in America. I brought Wyoming Hall of Fame coach Mike English, who had been badly hurt in an auto accident while enroute to the AVCA Convention, to one of Carl’s CanyonVB clinics in Castle Rock, the precursor to Gold Medal Squared clinics.  Carl wove his experiences of learning with Mike into that special day, and the picture I took of the two of them remains as my most powerful image of Mike, who passed away just a couple of years later. Over the decades I was lucky enough to speak at these clinics with Carl, and this past summer my son started working GM2 summer camps as well. The ripple effect of McGown is vast.

In 1988 Bill Neville brought us together again for the first CAP Cadre group training, where Carl pulled no punches in telling the group about the latest scientific research in learning, and how many of our ideas, drills and even books were out of date. “Training is specific” was one of the statements that stood out then, along with along with the 1973 Nixon and Locke study that said “In the 30 whole-part studies reviewed, not one favored teaching methods that used the part or progressive part methods of instruction. In the majority of studies, some variation of the whole method was associated with superior learning.” Later that year I finished writing the first edition of the USAV IMPACT manual, which included a core chapter on motor learning, with major contributions by Carl.

I am equally thankful for the way he and his wonderful wife Susan impacted the raising of my kids. As a single dad, my kids were very often taken along to clinics, and two stand out. The first was in Cairo, Egypt for the African Volleyball Confederation, with Doug Beal, Bill Neville and Rob Browning. There the challenges of simultaneous translation into Arabic and French made for some great sessions in both the classroom and gym, but the message on learning remained constant. My daughter McKenzie was the only female in our entourage, and as she always has, made me proud. The second was a special two weeks with both Susan and Carl for Giobbe’s Anderlini’s Scuola di Palavollo in Cecina and Sestola. From the beach game to the mountains in Italy, both my kids and I got to impact some of the best coaches and kids in Italy, while having three meals a day with the McGowns and the coaching staff – and the interactions were magical.

Carl guided my son Cody’s volleyball development in many special ways, and the one that taught me the most happened in Santo Domingo, when we would share a room during the annual NORCECA Technical and Coaches Commission meetings.  I was explaining how frustrating it was to have a late-blooming son, that (rightfully) wasn’t getting noticed by recruiters.  I could not afford UCLA, Cal or UCSD with the out-of-state tuition at 55K, while Cody waited to grow. I grew 5 inches in college as did other family members so the 6’1” Cody who was not even shaving yet, was simply being overlooked. Carl listened patiently, then in his classic blunt/direct way said, “Sit him out a year.”  I had never considered that; in my mind, he was graduating and needed to go to college.  The rest is history in my family, as we did just that – learning later this is called a “Gap Year,” Cody grew to 6’6” in that year, and got a likely letter to Princeton (after also visiting and loving the BYU campus) where he went on to be a multi-year All American and set school records. It was a lot of tears last week when I Facetimed him to tell him of Carl’s passing and this memory of Carl using Cody to demonstrate blocking at the Anderlini camps in Italy is a favorite. Bonus points for those who know the Italian coach watching in the red shorts…

One of the topics we pondered long and hard is summed up with a classic quote, “Why don’t more coaches believe that their athletes can learn to play by playing?”  Another was that

It is the athlete’s responsibility to become great; it is the coach’s responsibility to create the right environment. This right environment included statistical analysis, something Carl studied and shared for decades, plus the principles of motor learning – with phrases like whole over part, random over blocked, specificity over generality, and many others have been shared in countless clinics around the world. I was fortunate to work with him and Dr Steve Bain who collaborated with Carl on keeping him abreast of the neurobiology of skill training (the title of a great paper by Dr Bain) and together they wrote a powerful paper called “The Superiority of Whole vs. Part Training,” in which over 60 scientific articles were included in the appendix.  You can email me for a copy if not read, but this section excerpted gives you an idea of the study.

Carl was a prolific writer and studier. I looked at my Carl e-mail folder this week and was not surprised to see over 1,000 just in the last five years. You will see my work impacted by him as we move forward. The change in feedback from internal to and external focus was one place, as Dr. Steve Bain and I see changes there which the research shows can be more effective. An article on opinions vs. facts he happily sent me sums up much of what we agreed on – No It’s not your opinion, you are just wrong.

Maybe the thing I will smile about the most is how Carl impacted those he worked with the most. So often his players and coaches came to unconsciously mimic his body language and speaking patterns. In group meetings, if Carl moved his body into a certain position, others would follow suit. It was fascinating to me to watch. Of course, his talented and amazing son Chris – who thankfully has taken over the Gold Medal Squared program – speaks and moves like him, but there are dozens of other top coaches who do the same. It was Carl’s unique manner of speech – especially his cadence, that caused you listen and wait for more wisdom and insights. You can hear some of it in this USA Volleyball webinar he and I did together on Motor Learning.

My son did his senior history thesis on the history of volleyball from 1895-1947, when the FIVB was formed. Carl taught us both once again – you can see in this pic an article from the James Coleman Memorial Library found in the center of USA Volleyball’s national office, Carl’s face being part of that learning process too.

I am proud that the Volleyball Coaches and Trainers closed Facebook page, now numbering nearly 14,000 members around the world, has honored Carl with the memorial banner in this picture. If you are a coach reading this far, and are not a member of VCT on Facebook, come join us, because in Carl’s honor, using technology to grow the game together is a good thing. After all, we all need to say what we mean, mean what we say, and not be mean when we say it. Passionate yes, as Carl always was, but never mean. Just ask question after question to guide the discovery of every coach learning from you, and you are the magic too. Feel free to share your thoughts about Carl below, I am sure we all would love to read about his impact from all in this world volleyball family.