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Coach Profile: Kristine Drakich

Kristine Drakich: “I love that volleyball and competitive sport is like a life laboratory”

There isn’t much that Kristine Drakich hasn’t done in her volleyball career.

The women’s volleyball head coach for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues has held the position since 1989-90 and has led the team to the OUA final four in 30 of her 31 years, including a 22-year streak to start her career and a current nine-year run. Under her leadership, the team has won 11 OUA Championship titles. She led the team to a perfect record in 2015-16, winning the first National Championship in program history, one year after being honoured as the U SPORTS National Coach of the Year.

Drakich has coached at all levels of the game, both indoor and beach up to international levels. She’s coached in world championships, NORCECA championships, and at the Canada Games. She’s been named both Ontario Volleyball and 3M National High Performance Coach of the Year, and was the OUA Coach of the Year nine times.

Even in her playing days, also with the Varsity Blues, Drakich was a team captain and an all-Canadian. She was a member of both Canada’s indoor and beach national teams. Her mom Mary and her brother Ed, Volleyball Canada’s beach Director of High Performance, were also national team members. In 2001, Drakich was inducted into the University of Toronto Sports Hall of Fame.

Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Drakich about her coaching career and some general thoughts on coaching in the sport.

Volleyball Canada: Let’s start with your playing career, what is your most memorable moment?

Kristine Drakich: There are so many, it’s hard to come up with only one. I’d say the first summer I played for Canada’s Junior National Team - this was very memorable because it exposed me to something I had never experienced before. That summer made me realize how much I loved training, learning and working together with an amazing group of hard-working and committed people. We trained out of John Abbott College in Montreal three times a day for a few weeks. After training, we toured France and Italy.

Michel Gagnon was the head coach and Charles Cardinal was our head of delegation when we went to Europe, and they were amazing leaders for my first experience at this level. Both Michel Gagnon and Charles Cardinal have made tremendous contributions to the sport of volleyball in Quebec and Canada and have both been inducted into the VC Hall of Fame – I was lucky to be able to work with them at that time in their careers.

VC: How much did your family influence your volleyball career?

KD: My family was by far the biggest influence on my volleyball career and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be playing or coaching if it wasn’t for them.

My mom, Mary, played volleyball and was a member of the national women’s volleyball team when I was young.  She introduced our family to volleyball and beach volleyball and loved the sport and loved competing. 

My father, Eli, was a great athlete who taught himself how to play volleyball after he met my mom and enjoyed playing on the beach. He was also very involved off the court as a volleyball coach and volunteer with VC (then called CVA) and also the OVA.

My brother, Ed, started playing club volleyball long before I did. We both grew up playing beach volleyball with our parents and their friends but I just played volleyball at school. Every clinic my parents enrolled me in I usually quit. Finally, when I was in grade 10 or 11 my brother convinced me and forced me to go my first club team tryout. I made it and kept going.

VC: How did you transition into coaching?  Was it something that you always thought about?

KD: It was a combination of factors and somewhat accidental. I never thought about coaching as a career. I loved volleyball and I coached at clinics and camps but I never thought of it as anything more than that. My career interests varied for many years and at university, I studied sociology and a bit of criminology with an interest of going into law, social work or something like that. But I had no clue.

I left school to train full-time in Regina for a few years with the national team. We didn’t qualify for Seoul Olympics and we had some time off from training, so I went back to school to finish my degree. I played that year at U of T and ended up tearing my ACL.

That winter, Sport Canada was offering a three-year full-time mentoring program for women to help increase the number of women in coaching. Our coach at U of T wasn’t returning the next season and my athletic director asked if I would consider coaching and told me that I’d be good at it. She also indicated that U of T would support me in an application for this mentorship program and encouraged me to apply. So I thought “I might as well give it a try for a few years.” I applied and was selected. That was over 30 years ago.

VC: So you thought that coaching would be short-lived, what kept you in it?

KD:  Yes, I thought I’d give it a try for four or five years – I’m now entering my 32nd season!

I enjoy helping committed people grow and learn. I enjoy learning from the people I work with – everyone is different and everyone has something to teach me. I love the challenge and process of finding ways to get a group of people to work together to achieve something great.

I love that volleyball and competitive sport is like a life laboratory. Volleyball requires tremendous teamwork and players need to rely on others to succeed. Sport is a place to learn more about yourself, to learn how to work together to bring the best of yourself and those around you in moments when it’s easy and when it’s hard, to learn how to rise when you fall and how to find opportunities in challenges – much like life and the consequences of failure, in volleyball is that the ball hits the ground. There’s minimal risk with so much opportunity for growth.

VC: Who supported you in the journey? Do you have any mentors?

KD: So many people have supported and continue to support me on my coaching journey. The list of who has supported me includes all the staff I have ever worked with and currently work with, so many of the athletes who I’ve been able to work with, etc. … the list is very long.

For sure the University of Toronto and in particular the leaders there who took a chance on me and encouraged me to get into coaching. If they hadn’t encouraged me to get into coaching and supported me applying for that mentorship program I’m not sure I would not be coaching. I’m also very grateful to the current leaders and my coaching colleagues at U of T who continue to support my journey every day.

The most impactful and longest-lasting supporter, advisor, guide, teacher, mentor is Sandy Silver and although she passed away in 2019, she still influences me every day.

I feel very lucky to have grown up at a time when many female coaches were coaching all sports. In high school, women coached me in volleyball, basketball and track. I had the same high school volleyball coach for five years, Halya Hilferink (Stefaniuk). She was someone who had a huge impact on me and who continues to support my coaching journey almost 40 years later. I remember many women coaching volleyball at different levels - coaches like Julia Andruchiw, Betty Baxter, Marge Holman, Sandy Silver, Cookie Leach, Pat Richards, Gail Blake, Mary Lyons, Therese Quigley, Sue Brown, Brenda Willis, Pat Davis and so many more. They helped to influence my way of seeing the world that included females leading and coaching.

I am so thankful for the coaching support and guidance of former national team head coach, Lorne Sawula who continues to encourage and demonstrate his belief in me 30-plus years after he coached me with Team Canada. I am also grateful that I had the opportunity to be coached by Merv Mosher and then have him as a coaching colleague in the OUA when I started at U of T. His support, guidance and wisdom had a huge influence on me and my coaching career.

Keith Wasylik was another wonderful supporter when I started coaching. Keith was my NCCP coaching mentor for my first three years of coaching and also helped me see the game from a coaching lens versus a playing lens and grow as a coach. He encouraged me to get involved with the provincial team and it was his belief in my ability and his support that led me to coaching Team Ontario for three summers including the Canada Summer Games.

And, of course, my family supported my involvement in sports as an athlete and a coach and my father was my assistant coach at U of T from 1989 to 1996.

VC: How does coaching differ from playing?

KD: For me, I think of it as the difference between being in the middle of a storm versus watching a storm and seeing it move. When I’m playing, I have to respond immediately to what’s happening in each moment and when I’m coaching, it’s like watching the storm evolve over time and from a distance, seeing it’s path and patterns, being able to plan, adapt and problem-solve with lots of information.

VC: What has been the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?

KD: Many hurdles make coaching in sport very challenging – gender bias and racial bias are at the top of my list. It’s challenging to address these issues because there is often so much hostility when the status quo is questioned which creates resistance to learning and changing. Most conversations and calls to action about addressing these issues have not been very sustainable and the issues have not changed much in 30 years and what makes it complicated is that there is a lot of hostility when the status quo is questioned. So I’d say I and we are not through it.

VC: You’ve had some remarkable success in the OUA, why do you think you’ve been able to maintain your success all these years?

KD: It’s hard to know for sure. It’s so multi-factorial and likely a combination of factors. We have great people involved with the coaching and support staff who work really well together to improve performance from technical, strategic, strength, nutrition, mental performance, therapy, sport medicine, etc. perspectives. The student-athletes who have come through the program have always been willing to invest so much time energy and effort in their individual growth and our collective growth.

VC: What are you most proud of in your coaching career?

KD: It’s great to see the players grow so much each year both on and off the court – in volleyball, academics and personally – and know that our program influenced them in some way. It’s amazing to see people achieve things beyond what they or others thought was possible. So many who have gotten jobs or into graduate and professional programs that at one point they thought might be out of reach for them or the three athletes who have qualified for the Olympics Elodie LI Yuk Lo (Mauritius), Heather Bansley (CAN) and Kristina May (Valjas)(CAN).

VC: On top of your many coaching awards, you won the CAAWS Breakthrough Award and the Marion Lay “Herstorical” Breakthrough Award. What did those awards mean to you?

KD: It’s nice to be recognized for contributions to the sporting community. the reality is that there are a lot of people working to make sport a better place and not all are lucky enough to be recognized with awards like this.

VC: What do you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?

KD: I feel very privileged to have had a great deal of support, advice and access to education. The coaching system in Canada supported my entry and had processes in place to ensure that I would develop – with long-term commitments to coaching positions and access to mentor and training – and U of T made a multi-year commitment to invest in me as a coach when I had never really coached before.

VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?

KD: It’s tough to know what things might be useful to share with new coaches.

Here are some things that are important for me and they aren’t in any order:

1. Never coach alone - always find someone to coach with who you trust.

2. Create a community of people to support your coaching journey. They can be within or outside of volleyball and/or sport. They can support you by being a non-judgmental sounding board, they can provide guidance, they can help you make sense of what you are experiencing, they can safely challenge you to grow, they help to bring perspective and so much more.

3. Make sure the people you choose to be close to – your partner and/or close friends – believe in you and support you and your coaching efforts.

4. Be clear about who you are and what’s important to you. It’s hard to inspire and lead others without this.

5. Be curious and be open to learning.

 

Interview by Josh Bell. Photo: Seyran Mammadov