Q&A with John Knuth

Marysville High School

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.11, November 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1211/qaknuth.htm

With 918 wins in 20 seasons, John Knuth ranks among the all-time leaders in career volleyball victories by a high school coach. But an even more impressive number is 69, the number of losses Marysville (Mich.) High School has suffered in those 20 seasons with Knuth as its head coach, which includes an active streak of eight consecutive Class B state titles.

After winning more than 90 percent of the matches heís coached, itís no surprise that numerous awards have followed. Heís won six consecutive Coach of the Year honors from the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association, and in 2002, he was named National Volleyball Coach of the Year by the NFHS Coaches Association.

Marysvilleís success on the court, which includes a 192-match winning streak from 1996-2002, is mirrored in the classroom. For 10 years running, the Vikings have earned the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award, which requires each player to maintain at least a 3.3 grade point average for the entire season.

Three years ago, Knuth resigned as a health and physical education teacher at Marysville and took on the challenge of becoming an athletic director. While remaining head volleyball coach at Marysville, he signed on as Athletic Director at nearby Croswell-Lexington High School. In this interview, we talk to Knuth about his teamís "positive attitude policy," the nontraditional seasons litigation in Michigan, and how he keeps on winning.

CM: To what do you attribute your teamsí consistent success?

Knuth: I have been blessed with good athletes who have allowed me to be part of their lives. Beyond that, I have never believed that I was going to win any match or game that Iíve gone into. I always believe that it can happen, but I never feel that it definitely will. That is just my personality. I never overlook an opponent, and I do not allow my teams to overlook opponents.

I know that our program has achieved a lot, but we do not spend time reflecting on our achievements. I never mention to this yearís team anything about past teamsí accomplishments. Time goes by very quickly, and what happened last year or five years ago is not really important. I believe that we should try our very best at every moment, and I think that has something to do with our success.

What goes into your weekly practice plan?

Most coaches have general, overall plans that address monthly or seasonal goals. But I think the really important plan is the weekly plan. I put a lot of detail into each of my weekly practice plans.

I have on file every weekly practice plan that Iíve ever used, and I sometimes look back at those. But the majority of the plan comes from taking a look at where the team is, and what we need to accomplish. Then I decide what amount of time we need to spend on each skill to improve as a team by the end of the week. I also spend time on scouting to make sure we are prepared with a gameplan for each of our matches, and then I incorporate the gameplan into our weekly practice plan.

Youíve instituted a "positive attitude policy" with your players. What is that policy?

As an athletic director and as a coach, I have three major expectations for athletes. I want them to follow our code of conduct as far as drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and those types of things. The second expectation is that they perform well academically. And the third expectation is that they have a positive attitude.

I tell them that they are fortunate to have the opportunity to play a sport. Itís not the most important thing in their lives, but itís what theyíre doing at this moment, and just like any other thing that theyíre doing at that moment, they should do it the very best they canóand do it with a positive attitude. I demand that from the time they walk into practice and throughout our matches. I demand it of myself as well.

So I have instituted a positive attitude policy. First of all, I tell them that if they are having a bad day and they need a little leeway, to see me before practice and I will give them that. Otherwise, if they are not trying their hardest or if they are complaining, I will send them home from practice. Each athlete and their parents have signed this policy, so they are aware of what Iím asking. Despite being sent home, the athletes know theyíre not kicked off the team, and that theyíre to come back to the next practice or match ready to play.

How do you communicate your expectations to your players?

I am not big on talking to players individually. Of course, there are some personal circumstances in their lives and when those arise I will speak to them alone. But for any topic that has an impact on the team, I talk to them openly and in front of the team, like a family would do at the supper table.

I also feel itís important to clearly outline expectations and tell players, "These expectations are the price tag for being part of this team." Then you must be relentless in refusing to lower them. In todayís world, kids love discipline, they love to be in a structured environment, and they respond well to it.

But you also have to coach with love. Being a good coach is a lot like being a good parent. You wonít get very far if youíre just giving love without discipline, or vice versa.

How do you promote academic success on your team?

If I have a student who is struggling in class, I have her come to practice but I donít let her play volleyball. I have her sit in the bleachers and work on her homework during that time period. Even if she is eligible to play, I want to make sure she understands that academics are more important than volleyball.

At the beginning of the season, I also have each player give me three to five academic goals for the year in writing. I compile them and give the entire list to each person on the team so that they can support and challenge each other.

What advice do you give an athlete who is being recruited to play in college?

First, Iíll meet with her parents and explain how the process works. Then Iíll make phone calls to college coaches. It takes some work, but if an athlete of mine wants to play in college, itís important to me, and I make the time.

The advice I give players is that first, they should know they want to go to this particular college. Only then should they consider the opportunity to play.

Iím also careful not to push a player to think about college scholarships, no matter how talented she is. I have had players with the ability to play at the Division I level who wanted to go on and just be students, and I tell them thatís great. There is nothing wrong with that. Or if they wish to play some other sport, I try to help them with that goal too.

Do many of your players participate in club volleyball?

Some of our kids get involved, but itís mostly when they are younger. We place an emphasis on playing multiple sports instead. Almost all of the players on my team play three sports, and I think thatís the route to go.

I remember growing up, I was really into basketball and thought about quitting football. But when I reflect back on the highlights of my high school career, football ended up being my best sport. You never know what coach is going to touch their lives or what experience they might have that will change their lives, so the more sports the better.

Michigan high schools play girlsí volleyball in the winter, but an ongoing court case may switch your season to the fall. How do you feel about the change?

My personal feeling is that the winter volleyball season is fine the way it is. But since it looks like itís going to change, letís find ways to make this a positive thing for our student-athletes. Everything will be fine after one year of the new system. People wonít even remember that volleyball was ever played in the winter.

Do you believe that having girls play in a nontraditional season presents a gender equity issue?

I know that some people have questioned whether it causes our players to lose scholarship opportunities. I personally have not experienced that to a high degree. Most of my players are recruited in their junior year, so it hasnít been a big issue. However, this year, I do have a senior player who is being affected by the nontraditional season to some extent, because she is not able to play in front of a college coach who wanted to see her play some more. I think itís going to work out okay as far as her scholarship is concerned, but if she was playing in the fall, they would definitely be able to come out and take a look at her.

How do you manage your time while being an athletic director at one school and a coach at another?

In the fall and spring, I donít do anything with regard to coaching, but during the winter season, my schedule is very hectic. I put in a normal day as an athletic director, then I go to Marysville and coach volleyball practice, and then I return back to Croswell-Lexington to help with varsity basketball games and those kinds of activities.

Sunday is the day that has changed since I took on both roles. Now I devote Sundays to doing all of my practice plans, and I also spend a great deal of time planning for my athletic director job to make sure that Iím organized for the week ahead. During that day, every moment is taken up.

How has being an AD for the past three years changed your perspective as a coach?

Iíd like to think itís made me a better coach. Itís given me a broader perspective and allowed me to look at coaching more from a management point of view. Itís easier to see how the decisions I make as a coach have an effect on a bigger scale than just with my volleyball program.

What do athletic directors wish coaches understood better?

That they should do their jobs with passion and not get sucked into negativity. As an athletic director, I love to see coaches with the passion that it takes to be successful in coaching.
Beyond that, I like to see them focus on organizational skills. From an administrative perspective, itís important that everybody is on the same page, and it takes everybody making a big effort at organization to accomplish that.