Karch Kiraly was a legend as a player. After putting in his time as an assistant, he’s had tremendous success as the coach of the USA women’s national team. Now he faces a new challenge and opportunity in the Rio Olympics.
The three-time Olympic gold-medalist, dubbed by former Volleyball magazine editor Mike Miazga as the Babe Ruth of the sport and selected by his industry peers as the most influential name in volleyball, has his U.S. team prepared to go after the program’s first gold medal after a back-to-back silver-medal finishes.
“When Karch talks, people listen,” said Team USA setter Courtney Thompson, the former University of Washington All-American who, at 32, is the elder statesmen on the 12-woman Olympic squad.
During the team’s final week of preparations for the Olympics at its home base, the American Sports Centers in Anaheim, Calif., Miazga conducted the following interview with Kiraly, who talked at length about a number of subjects, including making the jump from player to coach, his improvement as the bench boss and his thoughts on the 2016 Olympic field that his team, ranked No. 1 in the world, will encounter in Rio.
VBM: How much fun are you having coaching this group?
Kiraly: A lot. I really enjoy working with this group. It’s a special group of people because we have a lot of quality human beings who happen to be good volleyball players and quality teammates. It’s a nice combination to have. My former coach, the legendary Marv Dunphy (the legendary Pepperdine head men’s coach and a scout coach for Team USA) said one of the best things about coaching is you get to surround yourself with a lot of good people. The good part about all this is all the hard work you put in becomes a lot more measurable when you have a lot of good players and a lot of good people on staff like we do here.
VBM: What expectations did you have when you took over the program (which he did in 2012. Kiraly was an assistant to Hugh McCutcheon in 2012)?
Kiraly: Any coach who takes over any program always has hopes. I certainly did. I don’t operate with a lot of leeway on expectations. What you have to do is take care of today and if you string a bunch of those together, you might be able to do a lot of nice things. The USA team has been a top team for a long time. Our goal is to contend fiercely and be a threat to win. We’ve had a lot of good players in this program and a lot of good teams. We should compete fiercely in every tournament we enter. We don’t always do that, but we’ve had a lot of successes. The USA has been very strong in each of the last two Olympics, losing in the final and getting silver. Some day, sooner rather than later, I’d like to see the USA women stand on top of the podium.
VBM: What’s it been like going from Karch the great player to Karch the coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic team?
Kiraly: It’s been wonderfully challenging for me. It’s forced me to be an even better learner. Coaching is very different from playing. There is so much about teaching and bringing out the best in people and the best in the group. It’s been a huge learning experience for me the last seven and a half years.
VBM: How have you grown as a coach?
Kiraly: I have learned how important these people are — the members of this team —and the large role they play in the culture we are trying to create here. We’re creating a culture about helping everybody find the best version of themselves. It’s a culture that celebrates learning and taking risks and making mistakes because that’s the best way you accelerate the learning process. We aspire to have all the parts add up to create the sum of all the parts. I’ve aspired to that and the players have played a major role in all that. We’ve tried essentially to be servant leaders, but these players are the ones out there who have to make on-time and real-time decisions. We try to set them up for the best success they possibly can have.
VBM: Did you have any doubts when you started as the head coach of this program?
Kiraly: Anybody who has never been a head coach before or a USA coach can have moments of doubt and then can understand these (doubts) aren’t particularly appropriate. You don’t know what its like until you do it, but you also can be excited about the challenge.
The norm in coaching is people who have had a lot of success as players tend not to have so much as coaches. I’m definitely aware I’m swimming upstream on that. I know I have Olympic experience and I know that must be a little different than other coaches. I just want to put that experience to good use.
VBM: How much credit can you take for what this program has been able to do the last four years?
Kiraly: I will take very little of it. That’s for the players and our coaching staff. If you back it up even more, we have a phenomenal group of people here that comprises 30 players or so who all work their tails off to make the program better. We have a phenomenal staff that includes our coaches and our certified medical trainer and our strength-and-conditioning coach. The list goes on and on. We have a lot of great people here helping out. It’s a huge group effort.
VBM: What do you like about your team heading into Rio de Janeiro?
Kiraly: I like how we battle together. We have a nice blend of experience and youth. Even though we have some youth, they all are used to battling the world’s best teams. We certainly try to play together and to play like a second family and be strong together. Nobody is strong as an individual. You are strong together. Hopefully people see we have fun. What these women do is a hard thing and they should find moments of joy. We battle with veracity and face adversity with fortitude.
VBM: From a strategic standpoint, what will catch people’s eye in terms the 12-woman roster you have chosen (3 setters, 1 libero, 3 middles, 3 outsides and 2 opposites)?
Kiraly: Our roster allows us to make a number of strategic changes whether that it’s a passing upgrade, a serving upgrade or a blocking upgrade. We have different combinations we can put together. We’ve put together a group that really wants to battle hard for each other. Whoever wins the Olympic games will have to face some huge adversity along the way. Nobody wins the Olympics without it. I’ve never seen a team glide through it. We’ve put together a group that will be able to muster the most resilient response to the many tests we are going to face.
VBM: How badly do you want to see this group win an Olympic gold medal?
Kiraly: I would love for this program to win one someday. I don’t know if it’s going to be this August, in four years or 100 years down the road. If we are more focused on the end result, the less chance we will have to make it happen. We’re more focused on the things we can control right now like the next play in training, that’s something we can focus on right now. Once we get there, we have Puerto Rico. The more we focus on that next play the better we can be at making some of those other things happen.