Jeremiah Larsen is the head coach at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. It’s a program that for the last several years has struggled mightily, never winning more than six matches in a season for as long as people seem to be able to remember. This year however, they are off to the best start in program history, going 9-0 in their pre-season matches. Miah talks about coming into a program that from the outside had a lot of negativity attached to it, and the challenges of turning around a struggling program both in terms of their volleyball and their culture. He shares some great insights that are applicable to all teams, regardless of their stature – I hope you enjoy this show!
Chris McGown: Welcome to the Volleyball Life podcast from Gold Medal Squared. I’m Chris McGown and today joining on the program is Jeremiah Larsen. Miah is the head coach Weber State University. He’s been around the west a little bit, but he went into a program that hadn’t won more than six matches in an entire season for quite some time. They’ve started out this year at 9-0 in their pre-season matches. They’re heading into the conference this weekend, but he’s done a remarkable job just in his second year, turning the program around to some degree. So we talked him about knowing the mine-field that he’s walking into, and understanding just what it took to kind of get things turned around and headed in a good direction, what his priorities were, what some of the discussions were and some of the hard things that you have to go through as a coach when you’re in that kind of environment. Looking forward to having you join us and hope you enjoy the show.
Okay. We’re on the Volleyball Life podcast with Gold Medal Squared and our guest today is Miah Larsen. Miah is the head coach at Weber State University in his second season. Right Miah?
Jeremiah Larsen: Right.
Chris McGown:You’re having a great start to this season. I saw the best start in maybe program history and it’s got to be kind of a nice change after what was a little bit of a hammer down, a little beat down during last season right?
Jeremiah Larsen: Right. Yeah, we were 6-22 last season and we’re now at 9-0.
Chris McGown: Hey, if you lost every match the rest of the way out, you’re still ahead of things, yeah.
Jeremiah Larsen: We’re still three games better.
Chris McGown: Yeah, nice. Tell me a little bit about you and volleyball. You grew up in Salt Lake City, south end of Salt Lake City. Tell me about volleyball, because it’s not very common that volleyball players come out of Salt Lake City and even less coming… I mean, perhaps that you’d move on to a coaching career and all that. So tell me a little bit about Salt Lake, and Volleyball, and how you got going.
Jeremiah Larsen: I grew up in West Valley City, just southwest of Salt Lake. My dad taught me volleyball when I was about six or seven, he started teaching me how to play and I kind of fell in love with it. I played in a lot of older men’s leagues when I was 12 and 13 because there wasn’t high school volleyball in the state of Utah, of course. Then I got to be fortunate enough to play on a club team with Cory Solomon at Twin Peaks. Then had a wonderful opportunity to play, of course for Carl McGown at the BYU, and Hugh McCutcheon and Troy Tanner, these fantastic coaches and kind of gave me the foundation of life. Not just life, but volleyball in general. Now I’m coaching and so… I don’t know why I got into it, but I just love the ability to be around volleyball and more importantly, love the ability to be around these women and have an influence on their lives. So I got into coaching and jumped around quite a bit, coached out at Missouri State University, Southeast Missouri State. Then four years at Utah State and this is my second season now as head coach at Weber and it’s been the most trying time, I think, in my career, but at the same time extremely rewarding.
Chris McGown: Yes, so you guys you took over a program that had not had a lot of success and to some degree had kind of run itself into the ground. Tell me just your thought process. You knew that coming in when you got hired. What were your expectations, what were your thoughts, what were the priorities, what’d you find when you got there and how did you deal with it? I’m really curious about, “Hey I’m heading into this disaster zone basically and I’m heading in willingly. I’m happy to go do it.” Just tell me a little bit about that.
Jeremiah Larsen: I mean, I was at Utah State, and I was starting to think about trying to be a head coach somewhere, and going through the interview process, and when Weber State opened up I thought, “Hey, if I get an interview, it’s a short trip and it’s easy, and I don’t know if I really want it because the misconceptions about Weber State, about the administration, and the support and who they are was all negative.” I felt fortunate enough to get an interview here and I got to meet my athletic director and my senior women’s administrator and they kind of confirmed to me that all those misconceptions were false, that the administration really valued volleyball. They didn’t just care about basketball, which is kind of a big sport here and football; but they care about all their sports and most likely they were just really upset that volleyball was not successful. They felt that they had enough volleyball players in the state of Utah that they could, because most of them were going Idaho State. They were kind of upset. I felt that from them and it kind of charged me up. I’m like, “Okay, I have support from my administration.” I got interested mostly because I knew that I was going to get the support needed to be successful from them and that they were going to support me the best way they could.
Chris McGown: As a coach you can’t overstate the value of that, right. Of having an administration that supports you and all that entails, because there’re so many times when they have the ability to say no or the ability to kind of shape your agenda in ways that you don’t want to, if they want. It can be by whim, it can be by design, but if you don’t have an administration that’s willing to support you and what that means, supporting you, it’s really tough. So that’s a big deal.
Jeremiah Larsen: It was a huge deal because, I mean, my women’s administrator, she’s an ex-volleyball player and she coached a little bit, Utah State. When I laid out this plan… in our interview I laid out a plan and a vision of what it was going to take to get Weber where they needed to be and it wasn’t a pleasant plan. It was like, “Look we’re not good and I think these are the reasons why we haven’t been good.” I’ve never been in the gym, but I have an idea. It wasn’t going to be a fun process I think, for some of these girls and yet they were still supportive of… I don’t know… with the understanding that it was going to make them better as people and as volleyball players and so yeah it was huge to have the support. Like I don’t think too many coaches have that at all.
Chris McGown: You guys you got in there and what were some of the big areas where you identified here’s where we’re radically deficient? What was part of your plan?
Jeremiah Larsen: Well, for sure–
Chris McGown: In college volleyball obviously, a lot of it is how can we attract athletes to the program, but that entails so many things. Good athletes follow good programs and winners follow winning. Part of it is just we’re not going to get good athletes until we can prove ourselves to some degree, huh.
Jeremiah Larsen: Right. I knew some of the players in the gym already. I knew that there were some athletes in the gym. I just knew that they… The thing that I think I understood was they just weren’t good at volleyball. They couldn’t pass, they couldn’t set, they couldn’t hit, they couldn’t serve. I mean, it was just they did it at an inconsistent level. I knew we had some athletes. I didn’t understand how bad it really was until I first got in the gym and saw our technique and our systems that they were playing around with. It was just their fundamentals were poor. That was kind of an alarming thing for me and I knew that we had some good kids that could jump and move, but just that they couldn’t play volleyball. The other thing that I was surprised by was just how broken they were. I knew the previous coaching staff wasn’t overly negative, but losing takes its toll on kids. When you average only six wins a season for the last five years in your entire career, like you know that… I mean, it takes a toll on their confidence and the way they value themselves, the way they view who they are. We had to kind of roll up our sleeves and not just say, “Okay, this is how we play volleyball,” but also, “This is how we approach life, and how we approach failure and how we approach success if we ever get it,” kind of stuff. We had to kind of rebuild each and every one of them not just on a volleyball aspect, but as a person on a personal aspect also.
Chris McGown: What were some of the things you did that you liked? How did you go about basically rebuilding their psyches? Obviously, we’re going to start with the fundamentals when we get into the gym, and we’re going to clean up mechanics and that sort of thing, but that other piece, it’s really interesting to me. How did you… just the psychology of it?
Jeremiah Larsen: The first thing that I did, I think is I brought them all in and had individual interviews with them and just talked with them about what’s happened in the past, how they viewed themselves as volleyball players, where they wanted to be, to see if they even had the motivation to continue to play. If they really aren’t motivated to go through hard things, then I knew they weren’t going to be successful, because I was going to throw a lot of hard things at them. After I kind of got a feel for each one of them and where they were in terms of whether… their dedication, I guess, to our program, we kind of laid out a plan. I laid out a vision to them about what it was going to take to get their confidence at a high level. One of them was the thing that we consistently taught was hard work was going to bring about consistency. That consistency was going to bring about confidence and that confidence was going to bring about success. If you weren’t willing to put in the hard work in the gym, in the classroom and in the weight room, then none of that was going to happen. The thing that they didn’t understand was that my definition of hard work was different than their definition of hard work was. They thought that they were working hard because it was the hardest they’ve ever worked, but I said, “No, we have to work harder and we have to expect more, not just working hard physically, but working hard mentally,” that we were playing with passion and purpose with every rep and just kind of laying out a standard for them based on principles. Once they finally grasped what the true standard was, it was when we started actually kind of taking off, which took a long time, a really long time.
Chris McGown: Yeah and what were the best results you had in showing what hard work looked like? Was it just you driving that expectation along the way? Were you just saying, “Hey, that isn’t, this isn’t good enough, you know, we need XYZ?” Are you pointing to specific behaviors? What were some of the good things you did to, I don’t know, illustrate hard work?
Jeremiah Larsen: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the one thing we did really well what redefine was hard work was. So much of volleyball for them was based upon performance and we changed it to “based upon effort” and being held accountable based upon mental and physical effort. We didn’t care anymore about whether or not that kill went in and we didn’t care whether or not if it was a perfect pass. We then now cared if their arms were held the right way or if they kept the ball in front of them with a good four-step approach, or if they managed the swing instead of taking a dumb swing and hitting it out of bound by 50 feet. A lot of these things we started talking about, more about the process and about was that a quality rep, instead of “Hey, that was a good pass.” We limited that out of, I think, vernacular for better terms. Or we weren’t talking about performance ever. It was all about effort.
Chris McGown: That’s so hard, because as a coach a lot of your positive feedback is results-oriented. If somebody makes a good pass, that’s your feedback. You say, “Hey, nice pass.” You don’t talk so much about the mechanics very often, and I think that can be confusing and conflicting messages to the kids where, “Hey, we’re not going to talk about this,” but when you do make a nice pass, that’s my feedback, “Nice pass.” It wasn’t, “Hey, you know I really liked the way that, you know, you were holding your hands right there. That was a good job.” I think too few times also as a coach that we’re willing to say, “Yeah, that ball went into the bleachers, but that was a great move, you know. You had everything together, you made a good angle, and freaking volleyball is hard, and sometimes the ball goes into the bleachers.” So having the consistency to manage or to talk about process takes a pretty high level of discipline I think, as a coach.
Jeremiah Larsen: It was hard. I mean, there were days I came into my office and just wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, because it was a bad day performance-wise. We weren’t getting the numbers we were looking for. We were losing. We ran like a 12-game losing streak at the time, but we had to stay disciplined. Thank heavens I had wonderful assistant coaches that helped me with that, but I mean… Yeah, a lot of times “Hey, that was a bad pass, but I really liked your angle right there. I think that if you keep on doing that, you’re going to find the ball going in the right spot.” We said that a lot, a lot of times in our gym.
Chris McGown: Well, that’s cool. What’d you see at the end of last year? We won six, but there had to have been some kind of idea that you had some things going and that you might be able to put together the kind of start to this season.
Jeremiah Larsen: Yeah, at the end of the season it was interesting. We were preaching accountability with our kids. We have four principles in our program: accountability, respect, pride and service to others. They were doing the other three really well, but they were doing a really poor job of holding each other accountable and themselves. They were okay with losing essentially. They were always trying to find the silver lining when sometimes there’s no silver lining. We just didn’t work hard. Finally, they kind of grasped this idea of accountability. We played really well against Idaho State the last game of the season. The last two matches were like the best matches of the season. We asked… some kids graduated and then a couple other kids decided that it was too intense for them. The kids that stayed I knew for sure were dedicated. That was the big deal. Like I finally had nine or 10 kids that were really dedicated to the vision that we had for this program, then in the spring was wherein I realized, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to be pretty good, I think.” We started playing at a really nice level. Our errors were starting to go down because we were more worried about the process and everything was starting to kind of fall into place. We went and played in a couple spring tournaments and competed really well against BYU, and Utah and beat Utah State a bunch, a couple times in the spring. Which was a big thing for our kids to play and take… we actually took a set off BYU. I think we went 32-30 with them, which was a huge set in the spring. Our kids are starting to go, “Oh my gosh, this is starting to work.” We’re starting to compete at a really high level against really good volleyball teams in the spring. Then in the summer they just continued it, and got stayed in shape and continued to play. All season has just been fantastic. Our freshman came in and made impacts for us, and just added to what we’ve already built. We’re just kind of trying to just build onto that. Yeah, it’s been a wonderful process.
Chris McGown: I’m curious about the recruiting message. When I was at BYU it was pretty easy. It was like, “Look, we’re awesome and we’ve been awesome forever.” You’re going to be surrounded by phenomenal players in this great environment. With crazy crowds. At Weber State, I mean, you’re like the greatest salesman on earth here if kids are coming to Weber. It’s like, “Look, we’ve sucked for a long time, and we were lousy last year and here are all these things working against you.” What are the kind of things that you’re talking to kids about when you’re going out recruiting in terms of here’s why you want to come play at Weber?
Jeremiah Larsen: Some of the kids knew me from Utah State, which was kind of nice. They were either coached by me at a camp at Utah State and they kind of knew what type of coach I was. That was nice. The end of the day, someone told me when I was out in Missouri. She said, if you have a vision and you can sell that vision, and kids can buy into that, then they’ll want to come play for you. I just try to paint the most realistic picture that we haven’t been good, but how awesome would it be to be part of something special and go somewhere and do something that no one else has ever done. I think there’s value to that for those kids. They wanted to go to a place where they’ve sucked for a while, they either a chip on their shoulder and know that they could make that program their own. They could be the four bearers of something special. They believed in what I was kind of selling, that we’re a good volleyball coaching staff. We’re going to work our tail off for you. We’re going to love you and care for you and we’re going to make you the best volleyball player and the best person you can be here. Oh yeah, and you get to play volleyball and you’re going to do something that no one has ever done here at Weber State. So they bought into that and I got six very good volleyball players that are just really quality people that aren’t afraid of hard work and are willing to kind of do whatever is necessary to make this great. I think I got a little lucky. I think recruiting is a lot of luck, especially when you’re at Weber.
Chris McGown: Yeah. Well, there’s always a little bit of that. I just think about some of the players that kind of fell into our laps and I’m just thinking, this is just shear dumb blind luck, but we’ll for sure take it. We’ll for sure take it here, yeah.
Jeremiah Larsen: I’m happy to take it.
Chris McGown: Yeah, exactly.
Jeremiah Larsen: Then the kids, they just impacted us in every way possible, those freshmen; but the upper class men really kind of set the way of this is the new standard of what Weber State is. They have some pride in what they’re doing. Which is now they can hold their heads up a little bit and say, “Yeah, I do play at Weber,” instead of being like, “I play at Weber” with their heads down and a little shaky.
Chris McGown: Yeah. Well, I want to jump back to that accountability piece. For you guys, I hear it’s a dirty word in some circles. Accountability, we don’t like talking about accountability. It just doesn’t make sense. What are some of the behaviors, I guess, that you guys… how are you defining it and when you watch a player that’s accountable, what do you see from her?
Jeremiah Larsen: I think accountability, for us we presented it as looking at things realistically. If you’re not playing it as hard as you can and someone’s not playing as hard as you can, then you should be the one to hold yourself accountable and say, “Yeah, I need to be better.” You should be able to look at your team mates and say, “You need to play better because of us, for us. It’s about us. It’s not about you.” At that time, I had a six-month old daughter and one day she was going to eat a paper clip and I wanted her to not eat that paper clip. So I went away and before she put it in her mouth, I slapped the paper clip out of her hand. She cried, but I had to do it because I’m accountable for her. I’m responsible for her and if she would have eaten that paper clip she probably could have got really sick or died. Then what? So I said our program is like a little baby and we’re out there and we’re worried about whether or not we’re going to hurt each other’s feelings, when we should be really worried about what’s going to keep our program alive instead of what’s killing it. If we’re going to hold this accountable, and we cherish each other, and we love each other, and we love this program, then we should be able to say just about anything, as long as it’s for the betterment of the team. Once they realize, “Oh my gosh, yeah this makes sense,” then they started holding each other accountable and it’s really fun to see, because they’ll go up and say, “Hey, I know you’re having a tough day, but we need you to play a little bit smarter right now. We need you to be more thoughtful with what you’re doing. We need you to go dive for that ball.” Now it takes a huge load off my shoulders. I don’t have to yell, I don’t have to scream, I don’t have to push, I can just go be a coach. One player said, “Wow, you’re no longer a jerk anymore to me because we’re holding each other accountable.” I think it was a huge thing for our kids, because they took… that accountability now gave them some type of ownership to our program, because they understand they had control over it. I think it was the catalyst that kind of got us to where we needed to be.
Chris McGown: How much time… hard to probably put a number on it, but just as a percentage of your time that you spend with the team, how much of your time would you say was spent in some of these kinds of soft areas like teaching accountability versus what I would consider maybe a hard area like teaching fundamental skills, mechanics, or systems or really highly volleyball-specific stuff? How much of it was kind of in the soft stuff?
Jeremiah Larsen: Well, initially it was a lot less. I think the percentage of the soft stuff was a lot less at the beginning. Then we saw as… they were on the plateau on the middle of our season and we couldn’t quite figure out why we were plateauing. I think it was like 80 percent skill instruction, and system, and something to that sort. Then the 20% was based more upon our principles, our work ethic, our accountability. I mean, we took off really fast and then we had this steady plateau. Somewhere along that plateau we realized, “Oh my goodness, I think something’s wrong.” That’s when we started focusing more on the soft stuff which was more like 70-30. Were are the quality swings, was the work ethic solid, were the angles right, was the effort good? Oh yeah, and are we holding each other accountable? Are we okay with the style of practice or the effort into our practice right now? If it’s not, what are you going to do about it? We did a lot more along those lines and left the skill instruction alone for the last half of our season. I think once we grasped a hold of that then we could go back to the skill instruction, because I think the foundation was finally in place.
Chris McGown: This season… and for women’s coaches it’s awful. It’s just the worse possible scenario. Here you go. You’ve got two weeks to prepare and… maybe three weeks to prepare and now we’re playing matches. As you started out the season, what were your priorities?
Jeremiah Larsen: Our priorities were I think to… we wrote down our priorities right before our season. One was to integrate these six freshmen into our nine returners. We thought that was going to be… we had a good thing going with these nine returners. We wanted the six freshmen to come in and integrate and feel welcomed, and also not cause segregation with the other nine. We wanted a good team chemistry. That was a huge priority for us. Number two, we wanted to see where we’re at and then add to the foundation and skill instruction. We wanted to get better in certain aspects of our game. Passing was a huge concern for us. Our outside hitting wasn’t good. We needed to get better at there, and our setting needed a huge upgrade and our… setters had to be better. So we went in–
Chris McGown: Those are the three pretty important areas.
Jeremiah Larsen: Yeah. Exactly, so we’re like “Okay, here we go.” With those priorities, I was not expecting anything 9-0. We were expecting we were going to be okay with 5-4. So as long as we saw some steady increase every single tournament and every single weekend… and so yeah, I was like, “Wow, we have to pass better, we don’t have great setter. Oh, and our outsides are inconsistent. So here we go.” We got in and we saw really nice advancements in their skills from over the summer, because I thought they worked hard. Next thing you know, things are kind of falling in place. They just really… the intensity in our gym was fantastic. Freshmen slipped in perfectly. The upper class men embraced them and it was just a perfect, seamless transition there. The intensity in our gym was amazing. I come out with goose bumps every single day thinking, “Wow, this is a special group of kids and they’re working at a really high level.”
Chris McGown: Did you guys do anything specific with the freshmen? Six is a big incoming class for sure to… I mean, it’s almost half your team is going to be incoming freshmen. You guys do anything specific with respect to hey we want to do a whole lot of ropes courses, or trust falls or…? I mean, how did you integrate the freshmen? Everybody’s kind of got their thing. Hey, we went away and camped in the woods for a week. What was it that you did? Did you do anything overtly like that or was it just, “Hey we’re talking about it, and making you aware of it, and going from there?”
Jeremiah Larsen: I like to say that we had this detailed idea of what we needed to do, this great plan, but we didn’t. It was like okay, we had some activities or we spend more time with each other as a group, talked a little bit. We read a book over the summer called “Resilience,” which I think is a fantastic book about Navy Seals and dealing with life. We had them do some activities through that.
Chris McGown: Who’s the author? Do you remember?
Jeremiah Larsen: Eric Greitens, I think is name is. I don’t know how to properly pronounce his last name, but yeah, it’s a wonderful book. Our kids, there are some principles in there that we are trying to instill in our program from last year that are our founding principles. They did maybe four or five little activities, but I’ll be honest, the best activity we had was just being in the gym and competing with one another. They really bonded through that more than anything else and gained true respect for each other as volleyball players. The freshmen saw how bad our upper classmen were when they came on their visits and then they’re like, “Oh my gosh, they’re good.” So they gained respect from them and our older kids respected the younger kids because they were contributing right away. I think the big thing was is that they were a bunch of kids that love to play volleyball all of a sudden and they just loved to play with each other. The intensity that we provided and the focus of our practices were something that I think bonded them just a little bit more than, I think, those activities, to be perfectly honest.
Chris McGown: Yeah. You guys start conference this upcoming weekend?
Jeremiah Larsen: Yeah.
Chris McGown: You’ve got a nice little conference. The travel isn’t too bad and you get to go some cool places and get after it here. I mean, I didn’t pay too much attention to the kind of preseason polling and that sort of thing, but is it just the same mindset as you had last year? Does starting out like this create some expectations that you kind of want to be weary of and just understand here’s what got us here, we’re going to keep doing that and yeah, the wins are nice but let’s stay the course in terms of what our real goals are here?
Jeremiah Larsen: The message we’re sending is, we still haven’t done anything. Being 9-0 is nice, but we’re still not in the Conference Tournament, which we haven’t done in a long time. That’s really our goal. Our goal for our returners last year was we want to play in the Conference Tournament. They had never done that before here. At least these four, these upper class men, they were like, “We want to play in the Conference Tournament.” I’m like, “Okay.” I try to remind them just because we have gone 9-0 it hasn’t done anything and we’re still not in the conference tournament.” Our league is really good, especially our half of our league. NAU, Portland State are very good volleyball teams right now. Sacramento State, Idaho State and so I’m like, “We haven’t done anything. No one’s going to respect us. We got to go just work hard every single day in the gym and work hard for our goal, because it’s not going to happen easily. Yeah, I don’t think the message has changed much. I think if anything, the thing that going 9-0 has done is it just makes them realize it’s realistic, like it can happen and it gets them excited to be in the gym a little bit more. I gave them the day off because we had a long weekend today and they didn’t want to miss out on a practice. They were like, “Oh, we’d rather practice.” I said, “Wow, okay. Well, let’s think of our bodies here.” They want to be in the gym. They want to be in the gym all the time, which is a nice thing to have.
Chris McGown: Yeah. Like here’s a little secret. I don’t want to practice. I’m the coach and so you guys get a day off here, yeah.
Jeremiah Larsen: I think they needed it, but they didn’t want it.
Chris McGown: That’s good.
Jeremiah Larsen: Which is good, but yeah, I don’t think the message has changed. I think what got us here was the idea of process over outcome and are we working hard, are we getting better every single day we’re in the gym. We had Aussie Antoinette, who I played with always said every play every day kind of stuff to me. So I think we kind of take that into our gym too.
Chris McGown: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, hey. I know you’ve got meetings to get too and stuff to get back to, but thanks so much for your time.
Jeremiah Larsen: My pleasure.
Chris McGown: You’re one of my favorite guys of course, and just it’s awesome seeing the things you’re doing up there. I couldn’t be more happy for anybody. So yeah, I’m stoked for you.
Jeremiah Larsen: Thanks Chris. I appreciate it.
Chris McGown: Okay. I’ll talk to you soon.
Jeremiah Larsen: Okay. See you.
Chris McGown: All right, see you.
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