Thunderbirds volleyball player Mac McNicol takes lessons from Korea back to UBC

Mac McNicol

At 6’8″, third-year UBC volleyball player Mackenzie McNicol is an impressive specimen. With physical athletic abilities engrained into his genetics, he is already a step ahead of the competition. Even with his physical gifts, McNicol has ensured to take every opportunity to better himself as a volleyball player, including a 24-day venture to South Korea for additional training this past summer.
UBC men’s volleyball head coach Richard Schick commends McNicol’s commitment to the sport.

“Mac’s a guy that you can see the enjoyment in his face on the court,” said Schick. “He’s always looking to get extra reps. I almost have to tell him not to come to stuff.” 
Besides being a full-time varsity athlete, McNicol is also enrolled as a full-time student in UBC’s computer engineering program within the faculty of applied sciences.

“I fix a lot of computers right now, and do tinkering with stuff like that,” said McNicol. “I thought it’d be a good thing to get in to, it’s something I enjoy and do on the side anyways.”

However, being a student in arguably the toughest undergraduate faculty along with being a varsity athlete is not an easy feat.

“It’s definitely a challenge,” said McNicol. “It made me learn how to learn on my own, just with how much time you’re spending away from school.”

Throughout the season the volleyball team keeps up the workload. With both individual and team practices, along with weight room and video sessions, McNicol estimates between three and four hours each day is spent in direct training. Once the regular season begins, the team will travel away from Vancouver an average of once every two weeks, causing the athletes to miss a good portion of Thursday and Friday’s lectures. Needless to say, time management is key. 

“You don’t have time to be wasting,” McNicol states simply.

McNicol’s technologically savvy nature found him a position with a network engineering company back home in Calgary this past summer. It was beneficial for McNicol to gain some experience in the workforce, as this summer was the first of his university career that he was not training with the Alberta Provincial team. This was due to a lack of teams that are offered past a certain age, rather than of McNicol’s own choosing. In the summer of 2013, he joined Team Alberta to compete at the Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke, Que., where the team ultimately won the tournament gold. McNicol held a prominent role in the team’s success. Despite having not trained with the provincial team this past summer, McNicol did not allow himself any time off. In preparation for the 2014/2015 Thunderbird season, he hit the weights almost every day.

“I’d come back from work, go to the gym for an hour or two, then come home and go to bed,” he said. “I was trying to get stronger. That’s where the game is going – being as big and as strong as possible.”

But he wasn’t away from the court for too long. Midway through the month of July, McNicol hopped on a plane at the Calgary International Airport that would take him to Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) in South Korea. The UBC men’s volleyball program has had a rich relationship with SKKU over the span of approximately 30 years. Instrumental to this relationship has been Dr. Han-Joo Eom, who earned his masters degree and PhD from UBC in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and was a former SKKU and Korean National Volleyball Team athlete. Dr. Eom retired from the Korean professional volleyball league and came to UBC in 1985 to pursue academics. While at UBC, he played on former UBC head coach Dale Ohman’s team for one year, and acted as an assistant coach to Ohman for some time after. Ohman was at the helm of the UBC program for 25 years prior to Schick’s inauguration as head coach, and saw the program to its last national title in 1983.

Since Dr. Eom’s time at UBC, the men’s volleyball team has visited SKKU once every four-years, and have hosted the Korean team in the middle of that cycle. This upcoming January the SKKU volleyball team will visit Vancouver to train with and play against the Thunderbird team in a weekend series, ceremonially marking the 30th anniversary of Dr. Eom’s initial visit to UBC. Dr. Eom, who has a PhD in applied statistics, is currently the Dean of Physical Education at SKKU.

Additionally, as a result of Dr. Eom’s relationship with the men’s volleyball program, UBC has sent athletes to train with SKKU over the Canadian summer break while the Korean team is in the midst of training. One of the most notable of these athletes is former men’s volleyball standout Jared Krause. Krause has excelled following his time at UBC, playing with the Canadian National team and professional teams in Denmark, Belgium and Greece. He took the trip to Korea following his third year at UBC. 

“The Korea trip really opened my eyes to different playing styles and strategies,” Krause said of his experience training with SKKU. “Their style is heavy on ball control and repetition. The discipline they bring to the game – it toughens you up mentally.”

SKKU is located in the city of Suwon, approximately 30km away from Seoul, the nation’s capital.

Both Krause and McNicol noticed a more technical focus in the Korean’s style of play when compared to Canadian volleyball players.

“Technically they’re very skilled,” noted Krause. “It’s drilled into them from an early age, and they definitely put in the hours.”

“Everything they do is precise; it’s more about precision than power,” added McNicol.

This development of skill is achieved through six to eight hours of intensive training each day for five or more days a week. The training revolves around rigorous repetition of specific volleyball movements and skills, seeking to instill the proper techniques and physical contacts into muscle memory. The SKKU team also implemented cardiovascular exercise heavily into their training, despite volleyball being a sport that requires quick and explosive movements comparatively more than cardiovascular abilities.

“We did a lot of running,” McNicol recalls. “In a normal day I would get up at 6:30, we’d go for a four kilometer run to warm up, then breakfast. You’d go to the morning practice of usually three or four hours, lunch, then another three to four hours of training.” 

McNicol acknowledges the work ethic of the Korean athletes.

“It was motivating, how they worked so hard everyday,” he said. “They’re very skilled and technical. It made me want to work harder.”

Another discrepancy between the two university programs is in the balance between athletics and academics. Traditionally, athletes of Canadian post-secondary institutions attend university in order to earn a bachelors degree – to help them along a specific career path – in addition to a pursuit of continued athletics. Although there are a number of university athletes that go on to play professionally in their respective sports, such as Krause, the vast majority of athletes will retire following their five years of eligibility and settle into an alternative career. In the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), the governing body of university sport in Canada, all athletes are required to be enrolled and pass a minimum of nine academic credits or three courses per term in order to maintain athletic eligibility. This type of academic requirements has only recently been implemented in the Korean university league. With education systems being entirely different in South Korea, former UBC head coach Ohman notes that athletes have often not taken classes since they were young.

“Essentially in elementary school these kids have to choose if they want to be an athlete or they want to be a student – you can’t do both,” said Ohman.

Although the academic requirements of SKKU athletes have increased over the past few years, from McNicol’s vantage point, the players hold still athletics as the utmost priority, with academics being an afterthought.

“You’re not there to get an education, necessarily,” he said. “You’re there to prepare to play professionally.”

For this focus on athletics from such a young age, Ohman estimates Korean volleyball players will have put in over 10,000 hours by the time they reach the university level. Compare this to the approximate dedication of 1500 hours of a Canadian athlete who has played volleyball year-round since middle school. This variance in developmental training between cultures shows in the Korean’s possession of an enormous amount of at a relatively young age. Historically the SKKU team has defeated UBC in a gross majority of the team’s matchups, with the Thunderbirds prevailing only a handful of times.

The living arrangements at SKKU were also quite different than McNicol has been accustomed to at UBC, with coaches and players all living under the same roof.

“I think almost every sports team [at SKKU] lived in the same dorm,” he said. “There were four or five guys per dorm room, and the coach and the assistant coaches lived there as well.

Additionally, the athletes have a hired kitchen staff that prepares meals for them at certain times throughout the day.

All in all, McNicol notes the experience as being exceptionally positive and worthwhile.

“It’s made be appreciate [volleyball] more. For them it’s kind of like ‘do-or-die’ – it’s a lifestyle. Whereas for us, everyone is here because they love the sport. It was humbling.”

Returning to UBC, McNicol feels confident and skilled.

“Coming back, I feel more refined and consistent,” he said. “There’s still a lot of things to work on, but I definitely feel more confident.”

“He does look a lot more comfortable on the floor,” said Schick of McNicol’s overall improved demeanour on the court. “He seems more focused and driven; he looks good so far.”

McNicol has undergone tremendous development through his two years at UBC, which he indicates is due in large part to the Thunderbird coaching staff.

I’ve been really lucky with Rich and [assistant coach Matt Lebourdais] letting me pursue what I want to pursue,” he said. “They’ve let me make mistakes and work it out in order to get to where I am now.”

Following his five years of eligibility at UBC, McNicol intends to pursue volleyball at a professional level.

“I’d like to play overseas for a couple years, if my body holds up – knock on wood,” he said with a smile.

Schick has always seen the potential in McNicol. 

“When you can get the work ethic, the strength, and the growth – the sky’s the limit,” said the Thunderbird head coach.

Now the starting right-side for the Thunderbirds, McNicol and the UBC men’s volleyball team have begun the 2014-2015 regular season and are looking strong.

“Our team this year has really high expectations; we have to keep demanding that we improve,” said McNicol. “I’m really excited to see where we go.”

Be sure to follow McNicol and the UBC men’s volleyball team on their quest for excellence in the 2014-2015 season.