May the 14 Corporate
Coach Profile: Christine Biggs
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In just a short amount of time, Christine Biggs’ coaching resume has exploded.
The Edmonton, Alberta, native became an assistant coach with the University of Alberta Pandas in 2015, the same year that she was brought on as an assistant for Volleyball Canada’s national women’s sitting volleyball team - all of this on top of coaching at the provincial and club level.
In 2018, Biggs joined the University of New Brunswick Reds as the head coach of the women’s team. The program was coming off of a 0-20 record in 2017-18 and with the new coach at the helm, they improved to a 12-7 record and an Atlantic University Sport final appearance. She was named the AUS Coach of the Year for her efforts, although Biggs will be the first to say that it was a team effort. The coach has since moved to the University of Calgary Dinos, where she’s set to hit the court in the fall of 2021.
Still with the women’s sitting volleyball team, Biggs is a part of an all-female staff that has helped the team qualify for both the 2016 and 2021 Paralympics.
Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Biggs about her coaching career and some thoughts on coaching in the sport.
Volleyball Canada: How did you transition into coaching?
Christine Biggs: In my youth I was a gymnast, and our gym club had a great system of mentorship and development. I had a part-time job coaching there as early as grade 7. Being late to the sport of volleyball, I can’t say I thought about coaching as a career until college, when my Red Deer College coach Talbot Walton encouraged me to be part of the Queens Club coaching staff. It seemed like a dream-idea but it didn’t hold a lot of weight as a viable option in my head at that time. When I went on to play for Laurie Eisler at U of A, and later coach within then newly-developed Pandas Volleyball Club, I was really inspired by the idea of providing more leadership opportunities for women, and it started to materialize as a real possibility rather than a dream. After several years as a high school teacher, coaching on the side, I decided to take action toward this path.
VC: Who supported you in the journey? Do you have any mentors?
CB: So many supporters - too many to list. First of all, my parents were amazing! … Through my Master’s of Coaching at U of A, Laurie Eisler formally became my mentor, but I think she had been supporting me, answering questions, and providing development opportunities for me for years prior. She continues to be a great role model, mentor, and sounding board and I’m so grateful to have her in my life. From Edmonton Public Schools, Corrie Yusypchuk, offered me "informal mentorship" as a coach, new teacher, and leader. I learned so much from watching her lead with strong, efficient, and compassionate communication, she probably doesn’t know how much she impacted me and how encouraging she was.
I’ve also been fortunate to learn from biomechanist and coach Dr. Pierre Baudin both as an athlete and coach. And most recently, Kim Colpitts (one of my assistant coaches at UNB), was a huge impact in my development and challenging my thinking out East. Finally, the ongoing relationships and conversations with Nicole Ban and the staff of the sitting volleyball team always promote creative and evolving approaches to coaching and learning, and I’m so grateful for that entire staff, current and past members. That’s a small snippet anyway!
VC: What has been the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?
CB: Honestly, the biggest hurdle for me was believing it was possible. There are so few full-time positions as a head coach in USPORTS women’s volleyball, I don’t know too many jobs with such limited intake.
Naturally, it felt like a pretty large leap to take a leave from (and eventually resign) from my contract teaching position with the school board, to pursue my Masters at U of A and try to land one of those limited jobs. At the end of the day, I really had to work to believe that my strengths could be an asset to someone else, and that me achieving my coaching dream wasn’t just about my own fulfillment. It took a lot (and I still work at it), to embrace the mindset where I can feel like I know so little, and still have a lot to offer to others. I always feel grateful to be here and confidence has never come easily, but I think that’s been helpful for me as a learner and a teacher. I guess I just hope my own vulnerability makes it easier for those around me to be authentic with their experiences so we can be more efficient as we strive to grow.
VC: You’re the assistant coach for the women’s sitting national team. What’s that experience like with the national team?
CB: Working with the sitting team has, and continues to be, a phenomenal experience. The original staff when I joined (Nicole Ban, Ian Halliday, Kerry MacDonald) are an incredible group of creative volleyball minds, and I have thoroughly enjoyed their ideas, and the healthy debates we’ve shared coming from different backgrounds and experiences. Now as the staff evolves, I continue to feel like the program is not just a learning environment for the athletes but among coaching colleagues and staff.
VC: What are your thoughts on the future of sitting volleyball in Canada and how much does the women’s team Paralympic qualification weigh in on that?
CB: Attending the last Paralympics in Rio was an inspiring peek into how impactful sport is globally. Sport can act as a natural platform for humans to genuinely wish for the successes of a complete stranger. Walking into Maracanã Stadium for the opening ceremonies was life-changing and I believe it was program changing for women’s sitting volleyball in Canada. It was an experience that left the athletes and staff feeling visibly hungry for more from themselves and one another. The changes and choices made from there led to the developments needed to qualify for Tokyo, in a crazy competitive zone with USA and Brazil. While we’ve had very few changes in roster, we look like an entirely different team due to the commitment of the athletes, implementation of advanced and innovative systems, and increasingly better support for programming.
I don’t know how to express it other than the entire culture of the program feels like this giant learning sponge. It’s a healthy place to both contribute and to grow for everyone involved. I’m hopeful while we are out competing in Toyko that Canadians back home will tune in to check out the sport and support the team. For those who haven’t seen it, it’s wildly fast-paced and requires such precision and skill mastery.
VC: The women’s team also has an all-female coaching staff. Just how significant do you think that is?
CB: Our IST (support team) is all-female too! It’s been a great group to work with. When Nicole and I went to our first few international events it quickly became apparent how few women are in head and assistant coach roles in the sport, we’d be some of the only women in the room in the technical meetings. I love to see how Nicole has developed into one of the leaders in the sport internationally by doing things to change the game and the way it’s played. The entire staff is an inspiring crew of educated and compassionate leaders that I’m pretty lucky to be a part of.
VC: In 2018, you took on the head coach role with the University of New Brunswick Reds and led them to a 12-7 record after they finished 0-20 the year before, earning the AUS coach of the year honours. How did you find that success so quickly?
CB: I didn’t, we did! There were so many people and factors that contributed to the climb that first year. I’d credit strong recruiting from the prior coach and AD at UNB, the work ethic and growth mindset of the student-athletes, their desire to learn and their commitment to the process was so inspiring. We also had great support from our off-court team. Many community members, alumni, and volunteer assistant coaches committed time and resources, the strength and conditioning staff and practicum students were bought-in and a huge part of the team, and the athletic therapy team kept our student-athletes healthy. I felt very fortunate to be part of a group who was so eager to give the best of themselves daily, and I think we were all rewarded for that.
VC: Now, you’ve moved on to the University of Calgary as the head coach as of January. How have you been settling into the role in the midst of a cancelled season?
CB: I definitely wouldn’t say I’ve settled yet! It has certainly been a strange time to be joining a program, mid-way through a season that wasn’t to be, in a pandemic that continues to throw curve-balls at us on a daily basis. I’ve been grateful for the patience of the student-athletes and the welcoming environment of our University of Calgary Dinos Athletics staff and my Dinos and Canada West coaching colleagues who have offered to help with the transition. I’ve found it challenging to support student-athletes through this difficult time as I’m only just beginning to develop coach-athlete relationships with them, and to be completely honest, we as coaches aren’t immune to the stresses brought on by all this uncertainty and disruption in our lives either. I can say I’m extremely inspired by the resilience of the student-athletes through all of the challenges the past year (or more) has presented. I already know they are a strong group of women, and I’m so eager to continue to capitalize on our opportunities to grow through the coming months and into our first season start-up together in September.
VC: Do you have any particular interests outside of volleyball and coaching and if so, how do you find the balance between that interest and volleyball?
CB: I love to golf, hike, cook breakfast, paddleboard, run, camp, travel, pretty much doing anything outdoors or being anywhere with my dog and other dogs (and their people). Balance is a tough part of this job, and I’ve had to learn to re-define what society has taught me ‘balance’ means because coaching is not like many other professions, where you can just close your office door at 5pm and call it a day. I find I’m often doing my best work and thinking late at night after team training and it’s hard not to let that slip into your dreams and wake up thinking about work… so I started hand-grinding my coffee beans and committing some morning time for myself!
Two critical pieces to find balance are that you’ve got to love it and you’ve got to have people in your circle who support who you are as a coach and understand your passion (and your schedule). I’ve learned a lot about the work required in nurturing and valuing important relationships and showing gratitude for the choices people make to be in our lives when for several months of the year we are pretty absent/unavailable, then other months eager to make up for lost time.
VC: What are you most proud of in your coaching career?
CB: I think it’s the little stuff, the small pieces at an individual level with athletes that makes me proud of what I do. Small gains that quietly show up in a match, or mistakes made and lessons learned together. That stuff doesn’t necessarily show up on a stats line, but seems to somehow swing the scoreboard in our favour - and that’s the part of coaching I love and makes me proudest of what I do.
VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?
CB: I want to provide positive developmental and competitive experiences for student athletes, coaches, and staff. I am passionate about what I do because I had great people creating those environments for me - so I think I’d consider myself successful if those who come through the program are inspired to give back with their time or resources, stay connected through alumni opportunities, and consider themselves proud members of a constantly evolving family. I also wouldn’t object to a National Championship banner or 10, and a Paralympic podium appearance for our sitting national team!
VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches? Perhaps something you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?
CB: Find colleagues to connect with regularly in volleyball and from other sports and don’t shy away from questioning and having healthy heated debates! It’s easy to watch other’s success and want to be like them, but it’s important to be yourself based on your own thinking. There are best practices and there is science, and there are the examples and the paths paved before us by our mentors and idols, but don’t be afraid to try your own way and to listen to your own inquisitive mind. The sport evolves and people grow in a curious and authentic environment, there’s no need to try to fit in a mould.
Interview by Josh Bell