Chris McGown: Thanks for joining us on the Volleyball Life podcast today. We’re talking with Tom Black and Tom has most recently moved into the head coaching spot at the University of Georgia. He came from LMU down in Southern California where he put together a number of great seasons and he was also most recently part of our USA Women’s National Team Staff, was at the Olympics in Rio. We talk about the Olympics, about the experience there, some of the things that he learned, what he took from that group and we talk about taking on a new job. What he looks for, what he did when he got to Georgia, how he started evaluating the needs there and installing and working around the priorities for his group there. Really interesting stuff. It’s the first in a series of new coaches taking on jobs, or coaches taking on new jobs. Thanks for joining us and hope you love the show.
Welcome back to the Volleyball Life podcast. I’m Chris McGown. Joining me today is Tom Black, most recently the head coach at the University of Georgia. Tom, how are you doing?
Tom Black: Good. Good. Thanks for having me on.
Chris McGown: Yeah, of course. Talk about a busy year. You might have had the busiest year of anyone ever.
Tom Black: Yeah.
Chris McGown: Olympic games, had a full season at LMU, left over the break and took a new job at Georgia. You have baby number two and–
Tom Black: Second daughter, yeah.
Chris McGown: Yes, second daughter. It’s just all coming at you at once. Here you go.
Tom Black: Yeah, which is kind of crazy, because first, the transition has been nuts, but I’m at a point now where I only have one job at the moment and it feels weird for everything that’s gone on in the past year so. It’s the whole thing from… I don’t know. From kind of deep season a year ago, into USA, into the Olympics, into LMU season, into the transition to Georgia. Yeah, the whole thing’s just… I don’t think I even have my mind around it yet.
Chris McGown: Yeah. Hey, I want to talk to you a little bit about the Olympics. I mean, it’s come and gone, but just pretty amazing stuff for you guys and must have been neat to have been a part of that group and I don’t know, just that effort over the last quad. I mean, it’s got to be like top three of all lifetime experiences, huh?
Tom Black: Yeah. I think the most powerful experiences for me were the opening ceremonies. I’ve just never seen or felt anything like that. That was kind of like just all the clichés came to me there. Being a part of something bigger. The whole world being connected through sports. I mean, I really felt it through that. That was incredible. Then on the flip side, losing to Serbia in the semis was kind of the opposite of that. It was just an incredibly crushing feeling. You do, you feel like you’re representing your country, and it happens once every four years, and just the feeling of your gold medal chances slipping away, that was pretty crushing. Then just the 24 hours. We almost had like a funeral to kind of bury our gold medal hopes and kind of refocus on the bronze medal and make the decision to do that. That was a pretty cool process to see everybody have to rebound and reset. Those three things were kind of really powerful that come to mind right away.
Chris McGown: Tell me a little bit more about that. You guys lose to Serbia in the most heartbreaking way possible. Like fifth set, right down to the wire kind of thing. What was said? What did you guys do? I mean, what did you think? Was there anything in particular that was talked about or was it just the nature of that group was like, “Look, you know, we’ve done so much to prepare for all these big moments. We’re prepared now for this big moment, but maybe not in the way that we want it, but it’s still a big moment.” How did you guys handle that?
Tom Black: Yeah. I mean, I think you pretty much summed it up. It’s more about… you still have to verbally communicate that to everybody and you have to get things out. Look each other in the eye and make sure… That’s just not something you’re going to assume in a situation like that. I think every coach is different. For me personally, I don’t want to talk to anyone after a game, win or lose. I just want to get away and I think, like especially after a game like that, I think a lot of people felt that way. Mike Gervais was our sport psychologist. He went to the coaches right away and said, “Hey, we’ve got to acknowledge this. We don’t have a lot of time.” Karch was very opened to that and so we… I think Karch sent out a text where we… I think we basically gave the players like two hours or something to either go with their family or go be alone. That might not even be correct, but there was a little bit of gap, and then we… That’s right. Then we ate at the restaurant we were always eating at and Karch started off, “You know, hey, you might be feeling this or you might be feeling that.” He was obviously pretty emotional also. Then a lot of players started speaking up and kind of saying… Christa Harmotto spoke up right away saying like, “I wanted the gold medal because I wanted… I wanted something that would honor this process, but it still is about this process and this process is bigger than a medal.” Then people started piping up behind that. I wouldn’t say we were totally over it at that moment, but I think we were ready to move forward. Then by the scouting report that night you could just tell everybody was ready to go. Kerri Walsh wrote an incredible letter to the team and people were fired up. By the time we actually stepped on the court the next day against Netherlands, you could tell we were completely focused on the match. Yeah, it was kind of everything you said, but you still have to actually say those things to each other. You still have to kind of work through it.
Chris McGown: Kerri, the timing for her was… She had already… They had lost the opportunity as well to play in the gold medal match and then had played in the bronze, and so yeah, had some pretty deep meaning there coming from her in that circumstance, yeah.
Tom Black: Yeah. I can’t remember the letter verbatim, but she just… she captured the emotions of it perfectly. Like the disappointment of the goal, but then like looking yourself in the mirror, how are you going to handle this moment. It was a beautiful letter and it really inspired the girls.
Chris McGown: That’s pretty neat.
Tom Black: Yeah.
Chris McGown: Everybody I talked to that was around that team… At these high-level competitions, you do everything you can to prepare, but it’s like that, you know?
Tom Black: Yeah.
Chris McGown: A few points go here or there and every team is so good and every point is such a big deal that you hope that you can play your best and obviously sometimes it doesn’t go that way. But pretty great tournament for the USA nonetheless. I was really proud watching you guys and just… it was fun thinking about the way that you guys had gone about not just that tournament but the whole quad and the way the group came together and the kind of kids that were on that team. The attitudes they held were, I think, something really special.
Tom Black: Yeah. I think one of the things special about it, or unique about it, in terms of like evaluating a quad versus… most of us are going through seasons and this is like a quad. There’s five million moving parts to it. Like all of these coaches, all of these players, all these different rosters, all these different years, and you’re trying to… and trying to evaluate it accurately is tough, but I think obviously there was a ton of successes. Even the Olympics itself, I mean, that match that we lost to Serbia was kind of like this microcosm because we were playing incredible volleyball the seven matches before that. Then the last match I thought we played a really good match too. Yeah, the first set against Serbia in that match that we lost we were rolling and Luke goes out. Then we’re trying to struggle through line ups and then able to win set four. The fifth game seems completely in hand. That match just seemed… It didn’t fit at all with all the other matches we played in the Olympics. Yeah, there’s just so many different experiences and it’s not always easy to get your head around it in terms of when you’re trying to evaluate it.
Chris McGown: That’s one of the things that you’d like to prepare for lots of eventualities as a coach. Hey, we want to try and stress our kids and put them in situations where they’re going to have to battle from behind, but it’s almost never that it would occur to you to go, “All right, what happens if we lose our best player or somebody that’s really, really a big part of what we’re doing here. Now, where do we go?” It’s a super-high stress moment and all right, we’re going to simulate that. It doesn’t even occur to you to do that. It never did me, anyway, as a head coach. Even if you wanted to, I mean, it’s one of these circumstances that are… I mean, you can’t simulate it. The stresses and the reaction and all that are completely unpredictable. I just thought, what do you do in a situation like that? Did you guys have any kind of after-action report where you talked about that? What did you take away from that, I guess?
Tom Black: Yeah. Well, I’m laughing because I’m trying to think of what the drill would be in practice. “Luke, okay. Pretend your leg’s about to snap. All right, everybody else, game to five.” You know?
Chris McGown: Yeah, exactly.
Tom Black: I’m trying to think what the drill would be. Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe we should have done that. We had a debrief over the phone, but I don’t know if we really had like a thorough debrief the way we would any other time in the quad just because we are never physically together again like as a coaching staff.
Chris McGown: Yeah. Everybody takes off and life is back on you in a hurry, yeah.
Tom Black: Yeah, so I think there’d be a bunch of different take ins. Our coaching staff is so big. I think there is… there’s probably a bunch of different takes among the coaches. But I don’t know, I’m going to think about that match for the rest of my life because that was definitely a blow. Luke was on fire and then she goes out. We still had the match in hand. We didn’t quite like our line ups and substitutes at set three and we worked through that. Then we found a lineup at set four that we really liked. Won that match. Like I said, set five was in hand and then we made some uncharacteristic plays, and Serbia is playing great… It’s a really great weird match. Part of it… that’s why you play sports, because you don’t know what’s going to happen and we never stop learning. It’s kind of weird. For as much as we know more about coaching now than we did 10 years ago, I feel like we’re still talking about the same things. Like how to get your team to respond under pressure. How do you play your best when it matters? How do you get people to step up? We still don’t know the answers to this stuff. That match just completely symbolizes it for me. I think I’m better describing that match than answering it, because I still have a lot of questions about it.
Chris McGown: Yeah. I think it’s fun for people to hear that even at the highest levels those are still the things that coaches worry about, and the things that you’re trying to get better at–
Tom Black: Sure.
Chris McGown: For sure, yeah. For me–
Tom Black: Yeah. I’m sure.
Chris McGown: It was two things. One is, you talked about that’s why you kind of play and that’s why… from a US perspective it’s this crushing blow but from a Serbia perspective it’s the same thing. That’s why you play. You’ve got a chance in those matches and maybe the other team has a few hiccups, but you just… at every point, “I’m still in this. I’m still in this.” I think that and then the other thing is, one of the things we talk about a lot is this kind of distaste for us, for me anyway, of playing first team versus second team as the rule in our practices. We talk about in the clinics of course that one of things we encourage very strongly is mix your teams up all the time. Almost never play first team versus second team. Maybe that was one of the other things that I was thinking about was just maybe you can’t simulate an injury. That kind of deal; you’re done, you’re gone. But I think there’re so many really good kind of value-add things when you’ve got this mixed-up group and you’re getting to play with different faces every day, and seeing different people and getting to be able to respond with a different group of team mates. I think there’s some real value there for me.
Tom Black: I couldn’t agree with that more. I’m a huge believer in that. A lot of times one of the things you get pushed back on when you talk about that is like, “Well, what about the day before the game? Like we’ve got to get used to each other.” That may or may not be right but I don’t know anything that actually scientifically supports that. I do know that we can’t predict tomorrow, just like you said. I’d rather have a team that can adjust to anything, can play with anyone. I mean, the players know who the best players are, but they can still… Like I know how to set that player. I just set her 24 hours ago. I’d rather have that than I’m expecting this line up and now it didn’t happen, what do I need to do. I couldn’t agree more.
Chris McGown: Yeah. Well, straight from the Olympics into another nice year with LMU. We talk about it all the time, but the WCC is a sneaky conference in that every team in there is a good team, and a bunch of great coaches, and everybody is doing a good job. You guys put up another nice year and then tell me about the opportunity to make the move.
Tom Black: Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t easy, for sure. Like you said, I love being in the WCC and I love competing against the coaches and they push me hard. There’re so many great coaches in that conference and they get the most out of their players. Tactically their players are going to be sound and fundamentally they’re going to be sound. It was a great challenge and I really enjoyed it. I think for just a couple different reasons, yeah obviously… You kind of said at the beginning of this, I’ve been doing a lot of different things and as the end of the quad was approaching I was becoming pretty aware I couldn’t keep doing that many things. At least not at the pace I was. With two kids now and it was tough being on the road or being away from your young daughters. I was definitely eyeing, kind of focusing in a little bit more… There’s always stuff I’d like to pursue, but I was kind of eyeing, focusing in a little bit more. For some reason my wife actually is a college volleyball junky. So she watches games all the time. She had the Georgia match on and just watching the team play and I started thinking about Georgia, and I started researching a little bit. I was just, “God, this place could be incredible.” Things just kind of evolved over the next six weeks and all of a sudden, I’m actually in Georgia. As I went on the interview… I was excited coming on the interview, but I just was blown away not… I mean, there’s kind of the grandeur of the campus and the facilities and all that. That’s awesome, but I mean, just how badly everybody here wanted to be good in all the sports and how there’s a real… the coaches here really care like one sport to the next. I hadn’t really been in an environment like that where coaches are really sharing and helping. That was really exciting to me. I just started putting all of it together and I just thought this place could be really, really great and couldn’t pass it up. It just kind of all added up by the end of it.
Chris McGown: I’m telling everybody kind of quietly, the SEC is going to be the next juggernaut, because it’s like you said, they love–
Tom Black: Oh, I think so.
Chris McGown: They love their sports and they have a lot of resources and they’re starting to understand that women’s volleyball can be a great part of the athletic program at their individual schools. I’m super-fired up for you. I don’t know how you evaluate it when you took a look at it, but I think as you start moving up as a coach, especially in women’s volleyball, one of the priorities has to be I want to be in a school where I can compete for a national championship. You guys did remarkable things in LMU to get in the conversation but at the end of the day it just seems like Georgia is a kind of school where you guys could be not only in the conversation but in the battle year in and year out.
Tom Black: Yeah, I think so too. I mean, there is the short-term goals of how we want to advance the program, but I do have a long-term goal of growing the game especially in the south and here in Georgia; that’s really important to me. But one thing that’s really stood out that I’m trying to increase awareness of… Volleyball is so big in Southern California, but I think a lot of us coaches and players, for as big as it is, both beach and indoors, you feel undervalued. Like, no matter how much it grows or how great a sport it is, people just aren’t paying attention to it. That was one of the things that I was kind of putting together as I was walking through Georgia. I’m like this place… Just like you said about the SEC, this place truly cares about its sport and its athletes. You don’t have to beg people to watch or hope that people get interested. They already are interested. You just need to give them the product. They want to support it. I think that’s really attractive. There’re so many great players on the West Coast and they can really feel valued in this environment. One of my big goals is to connect the dots there between these great players and getting them in a situation where they can feel that and then just the long-term effect that could have on the game within Georgia, where I think a lot more kids could be playing as they see that. I’m hoping there’s a lot good repercussions. Not just for UGA, but for the game as a whole. That’s something we’re inspiring to long-term.
Chris McGown: Yeah. I’m so fired up for you. Yeah, that’s really… that’s awesome. Well, I wanted to ask you as you got going there, lots of coaches take on new jobs and at every level there’s going to be turnover of coaches and you’re going to inherit a new team and a new program, a new environment. What for you was the process? I’m in here. How are you evaluating the needs and your goals and setting priorities and then working those priorities? I mean, as you landed there what was the process?
Tom Black: That’s been fun to kind of go through too, because it was just another reminder. I mean, obviously I was all prepared. Okay, I got to get this, this, this, this in place, all these different things. Then within two days I’m like, “Wait. I got to get to know these kids and see what’s actually going on.” I mean, no matter how many times I was telling myself, I still was making a lot of assumptions on where they might be at mentally and physically and all of that. I definitely have some goals, but one thing I was kind of concerned about what the… I was kind of judging our results is wondering what their work habits were like and what their mentality was like and I think I didn’t give them enough credit. That was just a good lesson to make sure you observe and learn your people with a blank slate and not make any assumptions. These kids are really ready to work at a way higher level than I anticipated. I’ve been in jobs where I had to teach how to play but I also had to teach, “You are capable of winning. You don’t need to accept defeat like inherently.” I kind of thought that would be the case here and it’s not. It’s more like, “We know we’re capable of doing better. Just tell us how.” That was a little bit of a shift for me. We want to get fundamentally sound. We’re just starting to wrap up volleyball camp at this point, we’re about six weeks in. We want to get fundamentally sound. We want to get our systems in place. I think we have an understanding of that. We’re in the beginning to mid of the associative phase with the system and the fundamentals, but it was also cool for them to kind of teach me about their mentality and to teach me okay, like “Don’t judge us by what was going on. We’re ready to work and we’re tough kids.” That was really cool for me to see and it was a little unique for me, honestly. It’s been me learning and also getting things in place and going from there.
Chris McGown: That’s cool. When you talk about becoming fundamentally sound, what for you is the process? Where do you start? Is it just, “Hey, we’re going back to basics. Here are the keys, here are the skills and we’re just going to start from there?”
Tom Black: Yeah, a hundred percent. I mean, we started with, “Hey, this is how your brain works and this is what we want to do.” We try to keep things Uber-simple. Each day we show some clips, like this is how people do it and this is what we’re going to work up to. Then we just taught the keys and we kept it on one thing. Then next day it was something else, but we just kept it really simple and tried to provide a lot of video clips and a lot of stories and then… We didn’t want their eyes rolling in the back of their head. Just enough of the science so that they can understand like your body will adapt to this, your brain will adapt. Then we’ve just been trying to build. Then obviously giving them some patience. We don’t expect mastery overnight, we just want to get a little bit better each day. So yeah, that was the deal. There’s no magic, nothing.
Chris McGown: Yeah.
Tom Black: Nothing really incredible about it.
Chris McGown: No shortcuts for sure, yeah.
Tom Black: Yeah. You’re just putting one brick on the other.
Chris McGown: When you talk about you showed them a lot of video and told them a lot of stories, what kind of video are you showing them?
Tom Black: I kept it with USA players, like men and women, and just try to show selective clips and here’s how they’re passing here, here is how this player is transitioning and then trying to connect the dots. Okay, how would that pay off? It’s one thing to understand it, but I think if you can link that into how it’s going to pay off, it’s a lot more motivating and a lot easier to remember.
Chris McGown: Just showing them how to move–
Tom Black: We’ve just seen a lot of that.
Chris McGown: Relative to the keys? Hey look, watch how she moves her platform here. This is what we’re looking for.
Tom Black: Yeah, exactly. Then having them tell me why that’s going to matter. Like why is it going to pay off. Then make it okay, like if you don’t think it is, tell me. You’re not going to get punished, but let’s try to connect the dots about what this work’s going to pay off for you.
Chris McGown: Yeah and what kinds of stories are you telling them or talking about with them?
Tom Black: Yeah. Just kind of get learning from every angle. Like people that have been learning at a really high level. Whether it’s a USA player with the Super Bowl, the Falcons got in there. We’re trying to use some Super Bowls stories of… because that was a relevant example. Just any story we could think of that would hit on that learning theme and how it pays off.
Chris McGown: All right. Okay. That’s really interesting. Good stuff. What else? You started looking at I want to be fundamentally sound and then you talked about kind of system stuff. That’s not as easy to do with the restrictions that you have in practice right now, yeah.
Tom Black: No, it’s been maddening. That’s where I really praise them because we’re just going… I don’t know if we’re going too fast, but we’re definitely going too short.
Chris McGown: Just to clarify–
Tom Black: What’s that?
Chris McGown: Just to clarify for those listening in with the NCAA in your off season right now… Tom’s talking about a time where they have eight hours total with the athletes during the week. Two of which can be coachable instruction. Six of which can be conditioning and then at some point later on in the spring you guys will transition to a time where you’ve got 20 hours with the athletes, all of which can be instruction. But right now you’re working on about two hours a week with each kid.
Tom Black: Yeah, it’s a joke and it’s a really silly rule, but that’s the rule. I mean, I don’t mind the eight-hour things but at least let us have some more control over how those eight hours are spent, regardless. That’s a side note. Yeah, it’s just way too short and in a lot of ways, it’s really unfair to ask someone to completely change in fifteen minutes, to work on it, because we only have two hours. It’s been a testament to them. Like, “Okay, like I know I’m not going to get enough time and very few of these routes are going to be successful, but I’m going to stay with it.” That’s been really cool for them to see. It takes a fair amount of toughness on their end. I’ve been really impressed with their ability to do that.
Chris McGown: It brings to mind this question. Maybe this comes with more time as they get older in the program, but it’s… are you guys doing anything to increase their ability to get better when they’re not with you, when they’re by themselves?
Tom Black: Yeah. You’ve got to be careful because it all has to be voluntary. I have to make it like abundantly clear that this is voluntary and I’m not going to know either way. You can give them… They ask for it and you can give them some suggestion like, “Yeah, if you wanted to work extra, you could do this or you could do that.” They’ve jumped all over that. Yeah, I think video clips are really huge. So we’ve been using that. But you need to play… I mean, we all know that, it’s a huge part of the learning process too, I mean, if I give you some instruction and then I walk away and you got to figure it out on your own, or figure it out with your team mates even better. I mean, I think we all know that’s an incredible way to learn. Lots of us were playing open gym doubles and trying to figure stuff out. There’s some good stuff going on when they’re doing it on their own.
Chris McGown: Right on. Continuing with kind of the priorities here, fundamental skill systems, what else was… as you got there, even in terms of just the bigger pictures, what were the priorities and how are you working those?
Tom Black: Yeah. I mean, being about learning, that’s the most important thing to me. Like me personally being a great learner and helping them to be hopefully great learners. I’m not saying I’m a great learner, I’m just saying that’s something I aspire to and hopefully getting them to that and then taking it with you for the rest of your life. That’s our biggest goal. That wasn’t really negotiable. That was something I really wanted to put in place right away, but–
Chris McGown: Hey, by the way–
Tom Black: From that… Yeah?
Chris McGown: No false humility needed with me here. You’re like the best learner I’ve ever come across in my entire life. I’m serious. I just, I’m consistently blown away with how dedicated you are to always getting better and how fearless you are in just figuring out how to learn. I love it.
Tom Black: Well thanks.
Chris McGown: I love watching you do that. Anyway, you’re a phenomenal learner.
Tom Black: Cool, thanks that means a lot.
Chris McGown: Anyway, going forward— Yeah, seeing if that translates to the kids here, yeah.
Tom Black: That’s what you been saying, but then yeah, I want… I guess it’s two things. I want them to take that but also kind of figure out what they think that we’re about, heading into this season. Just trying to open their eyes that you don’t… I know lots of people are saying lots of stuff about where we’re at and what we’re doing, but we don’t need to let anyone define us but us. There’s a lot that we’re capable of doing, more than anybody thinks. I think kind of those two things. I’m slowly working that out. I’m trying not to be heavy-handed about that, but just trying to plant some seeds and hopefully by the end of the year we have a good idea of what we want to be about this next season. And then knowing our opponents have a lot to say about it, but we have even more in terms what our fate is and what we’re capable of.
Chris McGown: Yeah. All right. Well, it’s been awesome talking to you and–
Tom Black: Oh, thanks for having me on.
Chris McGown: Yeah.
Tom Black: I’m honored. GMS just meant everything to me. So it’s from Carl to you to Marv and Mike Wall and Tom, I don’t even know where I would be as a coach. It’s an honor to be a part of it and I get fired up to go to the clinics and learn and make new relationships with the coaches. I owe GMS just pretty much everything.
Chris McGown: Yeah, it’s awesome. We love… Yeah. It’s just it’s been really fun for me to see you kind of get it going and I’m so stoked for you out there. Like I’ve been telling everybody, I just think you guys are going to be sneaky good really soon and I’m excited to see it.
Tom Black: All right, thanks. I’ll let the girls know you said that today. We’ll use that.
Chris McGown: Yeah. Yeah, I’m fired up for you. Well, thanks again and we’ll catch up soon.
Tom Black: Thanks. All right, thanks Chris.
Chris McGown: Okay. I’ll talk to you later.
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