Newman-Gonchar asks his mentors — Black, Johnson-Lynch, Kiraly, Watson — about their coaching paths

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Jon Newman-Gonchar : "I, like most of you who coach, sometimes just wish I had the perfect answer at least some of the time."/UNM photo

Jon Newman-Gonchar is preparing for his second season as head coach at the University of New Mexico. When he was hired in January 2019, it was his first job as a head coach after serving as an assistant at Iowa State, Arkansas, Loyola Marymount, UC San Diego, and Louisiana-Lafayette.
What’s more, he spent more than his share of time in the USA national-team gym and in 2018 — while still an assistant at Arkansas — was head coach of the USA Pan American Cup team that won gold.
He wanted to share how his mentors helped him and set up a series of questions for four of them, USA women’s Olympic coach Karch Kiraly, Georgia and Canada women’s Olympic coach Tom Black, Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, and Arkansas coach Jason Watson. All have impeccable credentials and all have been big influences on Newman-Gonchar.

No matter how you happened upon this profession, we are all in the same boat and we are all looking for ways to stay connected to our sport and our athletes in this unprecedented time.

A topic that most all coaches, regardless of sport, have in common is this: They share a common thread of having trusted advisors and or supporters who we come to know as mentors.

As Cervantes wrote, “The journey is greater than the inn.” This couldn’t be more true than in my own personal coaching journey. I have personally benefited from the guidance and support of some of the greatest minds in our sport today. Each of whom share a critical strand of DNA in common, they deeply care about not only the advancement of our revered sport but are deeply passionate and committed to growing people in the process.

As I reflect on my past 13 months as a first-year head coach, I can recall daily experiences over the course of my last year that had me challenging myself to ask, “How would Tom have written that practice to be more effective and bring a higer level of efficiency?” Or “What would Karch have said in that moment of challenge to bring more clarity to that situation?” Or “Why didn’t I handle that player interaction as delicately and understandingly the way Christy would have?” Or “What would Jason look at and evaluate in order to make the best decision for the team in this situation?”

Perhaps there are always more questions than answers, and that, deep down, is what my mentors wanted for me. But I, like most of you who coach, sometimes just wish I had the perfect answer at least some of the time. It’s made me realize the influence of these incredible mentors have had on me and that they permeate much beyond the volleyball court. For that I couldn’t be more deeply grateful.

While I can’t provide you the innumerable lessons I accumulated during thousands of airline miles sitting side by side talking shop, or “nerding out,” as Jason would say, while sharing countless meals with each of these incredible ambassadors of our sport or even sharing laughs while waiting in customs lines and having passport pages stamped, I can offer you the next best thing: A series of questions aimed to provoke deep responses asked to each of what I consider to be my greatest influencers in my career. 

My hope is that this will allow you to learn like I have about what makes them so unique and so richly successful in so many ways. Ideally during this unconventional down time, we can all learn to not only be better for those around us but also be a little selfish and take away a few things for ourselves in the process. And as all mentors tend to do, leave us curious to be better in each and every way. 

Without fail, they have yet again left me curious to be better, proving Cervantes correct that it is really more about the journey we are all on.

Tom Black coaches during a USA women’s national team scrimmage/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

How did you determine this journey was the path you wanted to pursue and what motivates you in your relentless pursuit to be great?

Tom Black — It took a while. I stumbled into it initially. I was working a crummy job after college while I was trying to pursue a pro beach career, and my best friend at the time, Travis Ferguson, was tired of hearing me bitch about it and asked if I wanted to assist his dad, Bob Ferguson at Royal High School. I loved it immediately even though it took a while for me to decide that’s what I wanted to do full time. But, I think that initial experience of giving back to a game I loved, the camaraderie of being on a team in a competitive environment, and most importantly, the modeling support and guidance of such a great leader like Bob helped lead me down the path. 

What drives me? Who knows? I love to coach, I don’t want to lose, I don’t think I know very much, and once I get connected to the players I just want them to be good so badly. Then as I start learning more about what I’m struggling with I get excited by my own growth. But I realized a while ago I don’t know very much and I really don’t like being around people who think they do. The amazing thing about coaching is how many disciplines and fields it employs. We can’t be an expert in any of them or we wouldn’t be able to coach. That means we’ll never be good enough and there’s always more to learn. We’re lucky to be in a field that guarantees continual growth.

Christy Johnson-Lynch — I happened into college coaching. I was teaching math at my old high school and got a call out of the blue from John Cook to ask if I was interested in interviewing for an assistant position at the University of Wisconsin. I got the job and on the first day I knew this was the career for me. Immediately I loved just about everything about coaching college volleyball.

I’m driven by a strong work ethic and a bit of a perfectionist personality. I really love challenges, I love when there is a difficult problem and I have to work at a solution. More than anything I am driven to empower the people in my program, particularly our female athletes and staff. For me, few things are more rewarding than seeing a young woman mature and gain confidence while in our program.

Karch Kiraly — For most of my 30-plus years playing high-level volleyball, I entertained very few thoughts about becoming a coach … I didn’t believe I had the patience for it! Then, an opportunity arose for me to coach our sons’ high school team, and I fell in love with the process. What a great gift that opportunity to begin coaching was. One, I’m captivated with growth and improvement, so becoming a beginner at something ignited me as a learner. I dove in, signed up for a Coaching 101 clinic with Marv Dunphy, and tried to approach it as if I knew zero about coaching. And two, the fresh start happened to allow me to stay involved in the sport I fell in love with over five decades ago.

Jason Watson — My first coaching job was in 1996 at Montana State with Dave Gantt. Dave was really instrumental in helping me understand the complexities of the profession. His influence came at the right time and in a way that helped me see the profession as a profession. I’ve always been grateful for his influence. If I go back further, to look at coaching as methods and principles, Carl McGown was a key figure in my life and coaching journey. He did for me what he did for so many, which was to present coaching in a way that really resonated.

There is so much about this sport, and teaching in general, that I don’t know. I’m always fascinated in the developments in motor learning, in feedback, systems and the connectivity of skills to both efficient and effective performances. I enjoy diving into those topics and asking questions, looking at data and trying to find ways to be better as a coach. I don’t know if that’s quite a “relentless pursuit to be great?” In the book “Good To Great,” it’s said that good is the enemy of great. My goal is to never be complacent. As hard as it is, I really do like the challenges I’ve faced as a head coach at different programs.

Christy Johnson-Lynch-Iowa State-Cyclones-Big 12
Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch

What are your priorities when it comes to establishing the Big Rocks of your team culture?

TB — I think it’s more of a pragmatic approach that employs principles as they pop up. I think otherwise you could be guided more by theory than reality. We want our team to do as well as possible in a manner that makes them better for the experience. What that means and what principles are employed for each team each year will always be a little different. But, this is just my opinion and how I do it. I by no means have written the book on this and many people are better qualified to answer than me.

CJL — Work hard. Players, coaches, support staff, everyone that is involved with our team. There’s just no excuse for anything else.

Constant and clear communication. I’m big on roles and everyone knowing what’s expected of them.

Support the program. Embrace your role and what is asked of you, even if you don’t like or agree with it.

Positive attitude, Don’t complain, don’t feel sorry for yourself and take charge of your own development.

KK — I define culture as all of the actions and all of the words that happen around our program. My two big principles for our culture are:

    1. Learning and growth: All of us with the USA women’s team, players and staff alike, are “not there yet.” That starts with me, and applies to everyone in the program. So many great players and coaches have come before on whose work and shoulders we stand, but there are still big hairy things out there we have not achieved, like winning an Olympic gold medal. It’s OK that we’re “not there yet,” because we want to be a place of becoming, not being. Becoming is in many ways more fun. And…
    2. Team: We’ve all played on or been a part of numerous teams. Some look great on paper, but add up to way less. Some teams add up to about the sum of those parts. We want to be, and we NEED to be, the kind of team that adds up to MORE than the sum of our parts. Yes, our parts are amazing, our players and staff are all special people, but for us to accomplish some of the things we aspire to, we have to out-team our opponents, and that means elevating the play of those around us, and bringing out the best in each other.

JW — Trust. I trust my team. If they are here for the right reasons, then there is no need to micro-manage them. That trust can, at times, be violated. Which in turn brings me to patience. My goal is to be the most patient coach in the country. There’s no way to know if that’s true or even if I am. But, it’s my goal. I’m going to be patient, calm and careful with my words. Every day I strive to honor the trust we have developed and maintain a level of patience that is consist for my athletes.

Karch Kiraly during the 2016 Olympics/FIVB Photo

Who are mentors/role models you have? What drew you to that person and what have you learned from them?

TB — I’ve been blessed with some incredible mentors. I can never thank them enough. Carl McGown, Ron Larsen, Bob Ferguson and Jim McLaughlin have taught me pretty much everything. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for any of them. Carl’s passing was a dark moment. I really miss him. 

The two who have shaped me the most are my dad and Ken Stanley. My dad basically taught me how to behave, how to live, how to work and how to commit to something. I’m not at his level and never will be, but his example has shaped me.

Ken “Big Daddy” Stanley became a second dad to me during a time I really needed it and changed my life. He pretty much crushed me and my model of coaching at the time and built me back up brick by brick. He didn’t care how I felt, he cared how good I became for the players and the team. I have yet to see, be or observe a mentor put the heavy lifting into a student the way he did into me and so many others. I didn’t deserve it I was just lucky. He was unrelenting towards excellence as well as deeply caring. I owe him everything. There is no one better. 

CJL — I’ve had so many! My high school coach Deb Grafentin and club coach Disa Johnson taught me the game and I grew to love volleyball because of them. John Cook and Pete Waite, my bosses at University of Wisconsin, taught me about managing and motivating people and programs. I learned just about everything I know about recruiting from Chris Bigelow, we shared an office for two years and she was an amazing woman. One of my current mentors is Terry Pettit, my former college coach. He taught me a ton about leadership as a player and now that’s evolved into leadership in coaching.

KK — I’m incredibly lucky to have played for, worked with or met many of the best who’ve ever coached in this game. So I count myself as blessed to be able to call or message many of those people, and bounce ideas off them. Still, one of the most impactful mentors I’ve had is probably Marv Dunphy. I’ve been drawn to him because he’s a great man, a great coach, and a great model (I got to play for him during part of my time with the USA men). He has myriad things to offer, but one I’ve tried to learn from is his ability to connect with people, to inspire them, to build trust with them. One example: Marv filled a temporary role as assistant coach with our World Championship gold-medal winning team in 2014, for just a few weeks, yet a few of our players said that they’ve never felt such confidence as they did working with him.

JW — I perhaps touched on this earlier when talking about Coach McGown. When I think of this, I tend to think there is never just one person. I was fortunate to work for some outstanding coaches early in my career: Dave Gantt, Craig Cummings, Jim McLaughlin, Suzie Fritz and Karen Lamb. There were days when I wasn’t a good assistant. Actually, I was probably a horrible assistant. Yet there is not a season that goes by where I don’t reference back to an experience I shared while working on their respective staffs. If I was to draw a common theme, coaching is about relationships. While each was competitive and wanted to win, all knew they ultimately are a service provider to their student-athletes. Each put their student-athletes first. That’s a really powerful lesson to learn and see in person.

Then I think of the assistant coaches I’ve worked alongside. They have also helped shaped and develop my coaching identity. Each of the assistants I’ve worked with have all been outstanding people, who coach. I think that’s a really important point. It grounds you as a person. I’ve never been surrounded by coaches whose character and principles have been tied to performance. In “The Ideal Team Player,” they talk about traits of good teammates. Humble and hungry come to mind when I reflect upon all those that have influenced my career. Humble enough to know they don’t know everything and hungry to come to work each day to get better. 

Arkansas coach Jason Watson

If you could go back to the day one of your coaching journey what would the 2020 version of you tell that coach on day 1?

TB — Nothing. The things I’ve learned deeply I wouldn’t have learned without the mistakes. If I would have told myself I either wouldn’t have listened well enough or it would have changed the learning. I might have given myself a little encouragement because the road ahead was going to be incredibly hard. But, that’s about it. Unless I sensed I was genuinely asking myself something and listening with some degree of intensity. It’s hard to resist helping someone like that. If that was the case I’m guessing a good talk could ensue. 

CJL — Believe in yourself and overcommunicate. When I fail to do either of these, I get myself in trouble! 

KK — Day One: Karch, even though you’re trying to approach this as if you know nothing, you’re not even close to as OK as you might think you are. You’re pretty damn lousy as a coach. So, immerse yourself in learning. Ask questions. Take notes by hand. Reflect. Journal.

JW — Listen. Listen more. Talk less. Be slow to judge. Simple is far better than complex. Spend more time serving – like a lot more time.

What’s next? What are you chasing? 

TB — There’s a lot to learn and get better at and I hope that leads to being a better coach and person for my teams and family. If I can manage to do that I’m confident results will follow. There’s a lot to learn. 

CJL — We are always chasing a conference championship and deep NCAA run. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been on a journey to become a more transformational coach. The wins are still important, but now more than ever I want to be there for my family, my players, and my staff.

KK — For the longer term: We’re chasing gold in Tokyo. For the shorter term, we’re chasing how to make the most of this challenging time. We coaches talk all the time about being comfortable being uncomfortable. This is a chance to live that.

JW — Concise and efficient use of feedback while maintaining good tempo and flow to practice. Get out of the way of our athletes and let them seek solutions. Spend more time in practice standing alongside our athletes as they process the game, rather than in front of them. Collaborate more than direct. 

Jon Newman-Gonchar — Here are some of the most accomplished coaches who have learned from some of the best that came before them, repeatedly talking about how much more they have to learn.

While at first glance this left me feeling less than good, upon further reflection leaves me looking forward to all the learning I have left to do and focuses my priorities on what I can do for this sport and the athletes and staff in my charge.

My challenge to each and every coach reading this is two parts: How can you leave this sport better for having been a part of it, and how can you leave those in your wake better for having spent time with you?

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