The playing side of volleyball always came so naturally to Karch Kiraly.
Kiraly seemed to be perpetually on the attack, from high school phenom to college All-American to international star and Olympic gold medalist.
The same kind of destiny was never as predictable in regards to coaching.
“It kind of snuck up on me,” said Kiraly, who was picked last September to take over the U.S. women’s national team.
“I cannot say that in 2003 I saw myself doing this. So I got a pretty late start to a coaching career.”
Kiraly, 52, leads Team USA into the NORCECA Women’s Continental Championship that starts Monday at the Ralston Arena. The job comes with a different type of pressure than he ever experienced playing the game until he retired in 2007.
It also comes with some on-the-job training despite his vast knowledge in the sport.
“I will always have a ton to learn,” Kiraly said. “We tell our athletes that their biggest job is to be learners and figure out ways to improve and get better, and the same applies to me.
“I also know that I have a lot less experience than lots of coaches out there and others at the college level. So I stay in touch with a lot of coaches and we bounce ideas off each other.”
Why the pressure?
Kiraly is tasked with maintaining the women’s program that was good enough to win a silver medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics and hold a current world rank of No. 2. In addition to avoiding any slip, the next squad will include the quest to possibly turn that silver into gold in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, as well as possibly win a World Championship or World Cup.
Kiraly said he understood both the positives and negatives that go with that responsibility after serving as an assistant to Hugh McCutcheon with Team USA leading up to and through the 2012 London Games.
It was McCutcheon who first got Kiraly involved back in 2009, when McCutcheon was transitioning from the men’s to women’s programs.
“He was looking for a new staff and we ended up on a plane together going to a random coaching clinic in Seattle,” Kiraly said. “He knew I was contemplating getting deeper into coaching and he just asked, ‘Karch, what would you think about being part of my staff?’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s an exciting possibility.’ ”
Up to that point, Kiraly’s experience was limited to some spot duty with McCutcheon in 2008, coaching some boys high school volleyball and basically just “helping out here and there and everywhere” with others.
But McCutcheon said shortly after Kiraly was promoted that he would always be well-armed for whatever came because of “a volleyball IQ that’s off the charts.”
“Not just great — phenomenal,” McCutcheon said.
Kiraly said a hard part with Team USA is knowing that his decisions affect 35 to 40 players. He has tried to stay focused on his beliefs, which are built around constant learning, being about the team, competition and making teammates better.
“If I look at it from those principles, it’s not nearly so daunting,” he said. “So bit by bit, some pieces have been put in place that seem to be having a reasonable impact on the program, and have us heading in the direction that I want it to head.”
Team USA has a 17-5 record as it heads into the NORCECA Continental Championship, which will bring nine teams to Omaha. The winner after six days advances to the FIVB Grand Champions Cup in November.
Kiraly said this week is about something else, too.
“It’s always important to try and do as well as possible and develop a psychological edge against all our opponents and against teams in our zone,” Kiraly said. “That’s what’s always at stake at a zone championship.”