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Thank You Carl McGown


Carl impacted volleyball coaches worldwide. After his passing we received an overwhelming number of “Carl stories” from former players, current coaches and of course friends.  We thought it would be appropriate to share a few of them here.

Here’s a video that one of our clients put together:

I was very fortunate to connect with Carl while working for his good friend, Jim McLaughlin, at K-State.

I was extraordinarily blessed that he came into my professional career early & shifted, like many other people, much of what I thought about teaching & coaching before I screwed it all up.

I remember us hosting a GM2 clinic 1997-98 & being incredibly overwhelmed & deathly afraid to ask Carl a dumb question.  Honestly, I had to attend about 10 more years & ask a lot of dumb questions, before I finally got it.  Not just understood it, but be able to actually apply what I knew on a daily basis to what we wanted to get done each day.

Now, 20 years later…Im thankful for all of the times Carl challenged me to do better & think differently, all the times he asked me ‘what the heck was doing’,  ‘why I hadn’t fixed this or that’, or ‘why the hell that girl was holding her hands like that to pass’ or why my damn team couldn’t do pancakes.

I always wanted to defend myself & tell him I was trying…that we were really working on getting better at these things…but I already knew the answer.  ‘Try harder because you are doing a crappy job of it’.  I loved him for that. Chris & Paul did a beautiful job of capturing their father today & Carl’s beautiful wife, Susan, shared with me yesterday.  ‘He loved you…he said you’ve got it’, don’t ever forget that.’

Thank you Susan.  Thank you for sharing him with the rest of us.  He made me a better coach.  He made me feel special.  He loved me & I loved him back.  He did that for a lot of people.

Carl’s book “Coaching Volleyball” was a book I bought because I learned about Carl through the volleyball coach at the University of Winnipeg up here in Winnipeg, Canada.

I was a university student studying education and was involved in coaching. After reading his book, I took with me the philosophies of teaching and learning and applied it to not only my volleyball coaching, but to my teaching in my Physical Education classes.

For the past 18 years I have not only put into practice, but I have mentored other coaches and student teachers on these methods as well. To say that these philosophies have had an impact on my career is an understatement.

I was absolutely thrilled when we were able to run a Gold Medal Squared clinic up in Winnipeg in 2011 (?) and Carl was one of the clinicians! I was even more thrilled when he personally pulled me aside to speak with me one on one. He was a hero to me!

I will always remember what he said to me, whether he was pumping my tires or not, but he said “Someone told me that you are the best young coach in this gym” and I said “Who” and he said he doesn’t matter, and he challenged me to do something better during a drill.

I enjoyed keeping in contact with him through the years via email and asking questions. A few years back, the University of Winnipeg Wesmen went down to BYU, and I was hoping to tag along and go skiing with Carl! Unfortunately it never happened.

I went to another GMS clinic in April of 2014, because Carl was going to be teaching there. Another absolute thrill to be there once again to learn from him. Even better, Carl wanted to go out for dinner and it was probably the best part of that trip for me.

I will miss Carl, but his legacy will live on. I cherish the moments that I was able to spend with him.

Many people have a chance in life to influence others, but few take advantage of that chance in the way that Carl did. He changed everything I thought about volleyball (and not without some resistance)…and a lot about what I thought about life as well.

I first met Carl and Chris in 2007 at a GMS clinic in West Palm Beach, FL. I was a young HS assistant coach, a former D1 women’s GA, and didn’t know half of what I thought I knew about anything. My head coach, already a GMS guy, kept talking about passing off the net, keys, and motor learning. I kept talking about hitting hard and blocking.

From the second I sat down in that small classroom at Palm Beach Community College, I knew that this was going to be different. Carl’s teaching pushed every mental model I had, and flipped most of them over. I haven’t stopped learning since that day.

After the first day of the clinic, a small group of coaches, including Carl and Chris, sat down for dinner at a local beach restaurant. During the conversation, I asked Carl, “If you were recruiting me to BYU: A hard working, Catholic, Boston raised kid who liked to have a few beers from time to time, what would you say to me?”. Carl didn’t hesitate, and replied “I would tell you that if you would like to come to BYU, you will have a great educational experience, learn a lot about volleyball, and be part of something larger than yourself.” I put my beer down and didn’t say anything for a few minutes (rare for me). Carl didn’t judge me. He didn’t say “you’ll never make it at BYU because of where you’re from, who you are, or what you believe in.” Carl saw to the core of a person, and that impression never left me and never will.

The next night, another coach and I were out sampling some of the local nightlife. Well, as the story goes, I met a girl at a bar, got her number, called her the next day, went on a date the following night…and we’ve now been joyously married for 5 years and have 2 beautiful little girls, and they are the center of my life. The night of our wedding, we made a last stop to meet up with a few close friends. As it happened, we met at that same spot where I shared dinner with Carl 4 years earlier.

Ever since that first weekend of GMS, I have attended a number of clinics, have tortured the staff with questions, and have been dedicated to the process of learning and getting better every day. I hope that Carl is proud of that, and I am forever grateful for the positive changes that his life’s work has brought to my family and me. I strive to be a good steward of that legacy every day.

Godspeed Carl, you are already missed.

I had known Carl for a few years, spent some time with him at the GMS volleyball clinics, and so on, but we hadn’t really worked on coaching together in detail. That changed during my first season coaching the University of Portland.

We were not a good team, and I needed to change some things. I reached out to Carl to talk about blocking. Ever ready to help, Carl suggested I send him video of recent matches and then we could talk over Skype. I sent an email along with the video, and outlined my thoughts, concerns, and questions about our blocking. A few days later, we connected on Skype. His first comment went like this: “I talk to Jim McLaughlin every day about blocking. And we never talked about any of things you wrote about in your email.” How’s that to start off the conversation! 🙂

After bumbling a response to the effect, “Well Carl, tell me where we should start,” he stated, “First we have to teach them how to move. Then, we need to teach them how to see.” Now this is a line I’m sure Carl has repeated to hundreds of coaches over the years, and I had heard before as well. But now, in this new context – a one-on-one meeting in the midst of a losing streak – it had a deeper meaning for me. Over the next couple of hours, and then over the course of the next two seasons, Carl went out of his way to mentor me. Phone calls, video sessions, and sit downs.

The success at UP over the past three seasons is in no small part due to Carl’s help. He never, ever pulled punches, but I always left our interactions feeling inspired to be better, and that he believed that I could be. I will forever be grateful for the short amount of time we spent together, and will miss terribly the times that we could have had in the future.

Facts Not Opinions

I first met Carl in the spring of 2004 at a GM Coaches Clinic hosted by the University of Washington. At that time I was a high school coach at King’s High School in Seattle but my full time job was as an Associate Professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at the University of Washington. As a Ph.D. scientist, the principle-based, data-driven approach promoted by GM2 was appealing to me and I was eager to learn as much as I could at this 3-day clinic.

The first session of that clinic was right in my wheelhouse as Carl was presenting the science behind motor programs and the application of motor learning principles to volleyball coaching. Carl’s ability to simplify complex ideas and the ease with which he conveyed them to the coaches in attendance was inspiring and a tribute to his teaching prowess. As Carl progressed through the session he eventually came to “The Question” ~ “Raise your hand if you believe there is such a thing as ‘general athletic ability’?” I immediately took the bait and raised my hand. After all, I was a trained scientist and had well-formed “opinions” on the topic and felt I could hold my own against Dr. McGown. What followed was a brief yet spirited exchange where I was KO’ed by the facts in Round 1. Yes, I was a scientist but motor learning was not my field and Carl quickly parried my naïve attempts to validate the notion of ‘general athletic ability’ with the facts and while I didn’t know it at the time, that exchange was about to change my life forever.

Before that weekend ended I approached Carl and asked, “So Carl, how are these “motor programs” stored in the brain? And what are the mechanisms and pathways in the brain that are actually involved in skill learning?” I didn’t get anything close to the response I expected but I got the answer that changed my life. To paraphrase Carl it went something like this, “Dr. Bain, I don’t know. I’m retired now. I want to play golf and ski in my free time. You’re the scientist, why don’t you figure it out and let me know what you learn.” Over the intervening years I did just that and plunged myself into the scientific literature in an attempt to understand as much as I could about the neuronal basis of skill learning, motor programs, specificity, contextual interference, transfer of learning, variable practice, and all the rest. The best part about this journey was that Carl was right there with me, exchanging emails and discussing the latest research on everything from neuroplasticity to stochastic perturbations. Whenever we were at a GM Clinic together, our conversations invariably turned to the latest research in synaptic specificity and the power of the human brain.

One of the highlights of that journey occurred in 2010 when the AVCA published a paper on the value of using “part training” over “whole training” in teaching the game of volleyball. As it happened, that paper came out about the same time that I attended a GM Coaching Clinic at Kansas State. Carl didn’t seem too surprised when I told him that the AVCA was publishing nonsense and we seemed to agree that someone should write a rebuttal to the paper and set the record straight. To my surprise, less than one week after the clinic Carl sent an email to John Kessel and informing John that, “Steve Bain at the University of Washington had volunteered to write the rebuttal” and that John should contact me straight away! John emailed and said the vote was 2 to 1 and if the AVCA wouldn’t publish it, he would certainly put it up on his blog.

Since it was impossible to argue with both Carl and John, I agreed to write the rebuttal, on one condition; that Carl McGown would be a Co-Author. Later that year, the AVCA published our rebuttal, “Motor Learning Principles and The Superiority of Whole Training in Volleyball”. Now, while I have not been a prolific writer in my scientific career, I have experienced modest success with over 60 published manuscripts in peer-reviewed scientific journals, several book chapters, and multiple patents in the field of drug discovery and bioengineering. However, that one paper that Carl and I published in the AVCA has had more impact and generated more interest and enthusiasm (and debate!) then all of my other scientific endeavors combined.

Since that paper, Carl and I continued to share our mutual interest in motor learning and a month never went by without an email exchange or phone call to discuss the latest research in the field. Significantly, Carl always directed our correspondence and scientific discussions towards the same objective; “Yes, Dr. Bain, this is a very interesting paper on myelin, but tell me, how you can apply these facts to make yourself a better teacher and coach?”. Indeed, Carl was always keen to learn how I was applying these principles in my gym and to also share the data to prove they were working!

I hope this story captures the profound impact that Carl’s friendship had on my professional career. It literally changed the course of my life. And yet my story is just one of what I know must be hundreds that will be shared demonstrating equal and far greater impact. I am certain though that all of these stories will underscore the transformative power of Carl’s teaching and the joy and sense of accomplishment that he brought to so many lives. Carl would often close his email correspondence with, “I can’t wait to be in the gym with you again”. I can say with great certainty, Carl, you will always be in the gym with me.

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