Notre Dame High School girls volleyball coach Chris Wandler works with his team during an after school practice session.

Notre Dame High School girls volleyball coach Chris Wandler works with his team during an after school practice session.

Men coaching women a balancing act

When Trevor Keeper took over as head coach of the RDC Queens hockey team this season, he was stepping into a new world.

When Trevor Keeper took over as head coach of the RDC Queens hockey team this season, he was stepping into a new world.

He is coaching women for the first time. And while he wasn’t about to change his coaching philosophy, he knew he couldn’t go in with his eyes and mind closed to the new challenges.

“Personally my coaching philosophy and psychology is the same as with the boys — they’re elite athletes and they want to be treated the same. They want to be taught and work on relationships and team building,” he said. “But there are some subtle differences. Little things can be demanding. If you’re too hard on them they take it more personally than male athletes. The boys may hold a grudge, but they want to go out and prove you wrong and will perform, while the girls take it a little more personally.

“They’ll take feedback if it’s constructive, but you can’t make them feel they’re at fault.”

Longtime RDC Queens volleyball head coach and Alberta Sports Hall of Fame member Cor Ouwerkerk knows what Keeper is talking about.

Ouwerkerk took over as the Queens head coach in 1974 and coached full time until 1999, when Talbot Walton took over. Ouwerkerk is the winningest coach in Canadian colleges women’s volleyball history and was the only coach to win a national title outside of Quebec between 1978 and 2007. The Queens won gold in 1984 in Quebec and won seven silver and four bronze medals in other trips to the nationals.

“I remember the first tournament we went to after I took over, we finished in last place,” said Ouwerkerk. “Later that week at practice, I got the message that the players weren’t happy with that. I asked them if they wanted to work like the men and they all said yes.

“They wanted to work hard and they never complained. They learned quickly and played as a team, more so than the men, who always had one, two or three guys who were more interested in their stats. The girls worked hard as a team and complained less.”

Ouwerkerk found it easy to motivate the players as long as he gave them appropriate direction.

“Overall, they were more self-motivated than the men,” said Ouwerkerk, who coached men for two years at SAIT and four years at RDC before taking over the women’s program.

“But the main thing was you can’t be a bully type coach. You have to be democratic and when you emphasize the negative, there has to be a positive reinforcement. You give credit where credit is due, but you also have to be honest with that. You can’t be positive all the time. You overdo it and it becomes meaningless.”

Keeper knows that the relationships on the team are an important aspect in team building.

“The importance of relationships and team cohesion are important at any level, but more so with the girls,” he said. “I find that the girls don’t want to step up at times in case it may offend someone else. Sometimes guys can execute and perform even if they’re not getting along 100 per cent, but the girls’ relationships off the ice relate directly to how well they play. That’s something that’s interesting to me.”

But Keeper is excited above the challenge.

“Definitely. It’s a new challenge I need as a coach,” he said. “(Assistant coaches) Erik (Lodge) and Brandon (Cote) and myself have always coached boys and we saw right away how coachable the girls are in terms of team systems and individual skills. They ask more questions than guys and if you teach them something that will make them better, they’re quick to apply it.

“Guys rely on their athleticism and cut corners. If you teach the girls something, you can see them trying to do it right away, whereas guys you have to reinforce it more before it shows in a game.”

Notre Dame Cougars volleyball head coach Chris Wandler has been involved in coaching girls since he got out of high school in 1989. He coached junior high after high school, but did coach the boys at Notre Dame after graduating from university in 2000. He got back into coaching the girls in 2008, but has always been involved with the club and provincial girls’ teams.

“I’ve always been a teacher at heart and I found with women they love to learn and you see the benefits of that learning and I like that in athletes. The guys seem to be focused on the results while the girls were focused on the process, which drew me into it.”

Wandler, who has spent nine years as an assistant coach with the Queens, will add to his repertoire next year when he takes over as head coach of the Olds College women’s volleyball team.

“It’s new and exciting,” he said. “It’s a challenge in starting a program from scratch and recruiting the type of athletes that fit my systems. The time I spent with Talbot and the Queens enabled me to get a grasp on the type of skills needed to play at the college level and the mental training needed to play at the elite level. They execute at a higher level and are advanced physically and more mature.

“But you’re also still teaching.”

Wandler believes women are closing the gap on the men when it comes to athleticism.

“Their athleticism has come a long way in the last 10 years,” he said. “The opportunity to train is better and they’re starting to close the gap. I know the girls want to do well and have the motivation and drive to be their best.”

Ouwerkerk always set team goals, sometimes higher than what you’d expect.

“We set high goals, which forced us to work that much harder,” he said. “The main thing I always tried to do was to be honest. You don’t over emphasize the positive, but not the negative either.

“I always had a saying that ‘You might play like an idiot but you’re not an idiot. You’re a good young lady and it bothers me when you play like an idiot’.”

Ouwerkerk said the players came to him with more issues than the men.

“When there was tough situations I always thought about it a day or two to make sure to find the right solution.”

Keeper hasn’t been around long enough to see everything, but he does realize players at the college level are mature enough to handle a lot of situations.

“At this level they have been through the minors and understand what commitment is needed. It’s six days a week and they have to balance their time between hockey and school.

“All we ask is that they put in a full effort to get better. Not to just put in the time, but put in quality time and to improve as a group week to week.”