Feb the 12 Corporate
Coach Profile: Dave Preston
“It’s more important to understand the athlete and how they learn than it is for them to understand how much you know.”
For nearly two decades, Dave Preston has been the face of the McMaster Marauders men’s volleyball team.
Although he wouldn’t stand alone in that spotlight, as he always points to his players and coaches as equal partners in his team’s success.
He’s led the charge for the most successful dynasty in OUA history, winning six straight conference titles (2013-2018), nine OUA Championships, and participated in 12 U SPORTS Championships. He’s collected two silver medals and four bronze medals there. All of those medals came in that 2013 to 2018 run. He was named OUA and CIS Coach of the year in 2008, 2010, and 2015, and OUA West Coach of the Year in 2017 and 2018.
The Chatham, Ontario, native is also the coach of the Canadian U21 men’s team, a role he’s held since 2012. He’s captured a silver at the NORCECA Championships so far. He also stood with Team Canada from 1999 to 2004 as an assistant coach, winning a bronze at the 1999 Pan Am Games. That team was named to Volleyball Canada’s Hall of Fame.
Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Preston about his coaching career and some thoughts on coaching in the sport.
Volleyball Canada: How did you transition into coaching?
Dave Preston: I don’t know if consciously I did. Given my stature and the way the game was going I knew that playing wasn’t going to be an option. I did play at the university level but after that – well, I had a cup of coffee at the university level. I could see that my playing days were going to get limited and I really love the game, wanted to give back and stay involved. I was still a university student at the time and coaching seemed to be the way to go. Thankfully I was surrounded by some really great mentors and people that I really looked up to. Not as coaches but as people. They were tremendous human beings and I wanted to get down that path. Coaching led me down that road.
VC: Who supported you in the journey? Do you have any mentors?
DP: There were quite a few when I was younger. My original high school coaches, Mary-Jane Kiaraga and Pat Whelihan. And then the biggest influence on my volleyball career after that became Vaughn Peckham. He and I started the Forest City Volleyball Club together with a couple of other people. Vaughn was just a great role model for me a really positive, strong man. When I was done my playing career at Western, he made me the offer and said if I come back to the high school that I played at, I could take over the senior program, he could go down to the junior program, and we’d be able to see if we could do something pretty special. Three years later, we won an OFSSA Championship. That was kind of cool. Hernan Humana, who was the technical director at the Ontario Volleyball Association at the time, Melissa’s (Humana-Paredes) father was really good in terms of getting the formalities, the levels of coaching, and all that other kind of stuff done. At that time, I was still a university student. And then my National Team opportunity came from Garth Pischke. When I was with Team Ontario in ’97 at the Canada Games in Manitoba, Garth asked me to join Team Canada. That was just a life changing experience to be an assistant coach at that age – I was only 30 years old at the time. It was the experience of a lifetime. The number of people in my career, we could talk for hours and hours. But if I had to narrow it down to three, it would be Vaughn, Hernan, and Garth.
VC: What has been the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?
DP: The biggest thing was, when I first started coaching, coaching in Ontario as a full-time university coach was non-existent. It didn’t exist. If you worked at a university you were either a professor or you worked in the recreation department, or you had additional duties. There was some coaches out west that I believe had more full-time equivalencies in their coaching contracts, but were still teaching classes. But an actual full-time coaching position in Canada when I was growing up, it didn’t exist. It would be like me saying I was going to work for Google. Google didn’t exist then. It wasn’t even a thought. But as it started to progress, the work in progress of how do you develop a living, how do you make this a career as opposed to a part-time passion. I think that was one of them. And Therese Quigley, who was the athletic director at McMaster back in 2002 when I was hired, she gave me that full-time opportunity. I will be grateful to her for everything. You talked about the mentors of coaching, she was a mentor as an administrator. I never played for her, I know she was a coach before, but in my mind she’s an angel. That was kind of how I got through it. She saw my vision and gave me an opportunity at McMaster.
VC: You led the most successful dynasty in OUA history, with six straight conference titles, nine OUA championships, six medals at Nationals, on top of all the accolades that you received and your players received. How have you been able to maintain the success you’ve had in the program?
DP: First off, I think all those things are more of a statement of the people that played and the coaches that I’ve been with. Volleyball’s a team game. I’ve just been really, really fortunate to be around some really great people to work with. To work with some great student-athletes and some great coaches along the way that just shared in my beliefs and shared in the game. I guess my philosophy on this is that if you get the right people and you put them in the right positions, and you create an environment where they can be successful, good things happen. There’s no secret to that. You get the right people and you put them in the right positions. Historically, McMaster has been very supportive of our men’s volleyball program since I’ve been there. They’ve been really able to provide opportunities for student athletes. And so my job is to go get the right people to fit in that environment. I’ve been blessed with some tremendous student athletes, some tremendous young men throughout the years, and some great staff along the way. The secret to success, for a lack of a better term, has been the people that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.
VC: You’ve also coached the Canadian U21 team and been an assistant coach for Team Canada. What has your experience with the National programs been like?
DP: Unbelievable. I’ll forever be grateful for those opportunities. I still remember the first time I had the leaf on my chest and heard the national anthem played. The emotional rush I received from representing my country. I have a Canadian tattoo on me, a maple leaf. It was a feeling like no other. It was a responsibility that I took very, very seriously. I wanted to do justice to that program. I wanted to work as hard as I possibly could to put those athletes in a position that they could live their Olympic dream. We weren’t able to do that at that time. As great as it was, as great as an experience it was for me, I’m still not sure I was satisfied with it. I was very, very happy and very, very grateful but we came short in a couple of quads. It’s mixed emotions in that way because I know how much the players invested in that program – the senior team – and how important their Olympic dreams were. I worked tirelessly to try and make that dream a reality and unfortunately came up short. There’s a little bit of a gap there for me still. Coaching with the junior level team, coaching at the FISU level last year at the U19 FISUs were amazing. Again, great to work with amazing student athletes and coaches from across the country. If I take anything away from this beautiful sport, it’s going to be the amazing people I’ve had opportunities to work with.
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?
DP: My biggest interest outside of volleyball outside of volleyball is my family. I have two teenage girls and a very supportive wife who understands that this isn’t a career, this is a passion. You don’t always leave this stuff at the door. Thankfully, my family has been woven into the fabric of the teams that I’ve coached. I’ve experienced tremendous support for me to pursue this. I think that’s my biggest interest. When I get a chance to get away from the court, my first interest is re-engaging or staying engaged with my family. After that, golf has been a good release for me, it’s a sport that I’ve been able to participate in. It’s a sport that I can play for the rest of my life. Not very well mind you, but I can still play. And then just recently I’ve taken up a bit of fishing. I find it very relaxing and the group of guys I fish with just provides me a little bit of solace.
VC: I read an article about you entitled, “Family, then volleyball, in that order, for McMaster coach Preston.” That article noted that your number one rule when recruiting is that you recruit a person more than a player. Can you expand on why that is so important?
DP: Character is critical for any form of success, no matter what your arena is. If we have the right characters we can teach some skills. The game of volleyball is a teachable component. Integrity, honesty, and respect – those are characteristics that are requirements in success. When I’m doing my homework on potential student athletes, for this program or others, I really like guys who you know you can count on because the character is solid. If it comes down to it in the last couple points in a match, and something really needs to be executed, I want to trust that the young man knows it and is capable of it. If you take care of coaching the person, the game will start to take care of itself. The athletes that we deal with are self-motivated, self-directed, self-disciplined people. They just are. If you get the right people with good character, the rest of it becomes a lot easier. Either way it’s work. You either do your work on the front end: get the right people and put them in the right positions, or it’s work on the backend of trying to change the way somebody views something. Those are harder things to learn.
One of the things I like to do at tournaments, especially in multi-court facilities, is I like to stand off two or three courts away from a player that I’m watching so that they don’t know that I’m there. And just watch them from afar and see how they interact with their coaches, with their teammates, with their parents, with the officials, in good moments and in bad. Sometimes when you’re on a court, players know you’re watching so they put their best foot forward, you might not see everything that you’re looking for.
VC: What are you proudest of in your coaching career?
DP: I’m proud of a lot of the things that we’ve been able to accomplish. I think the thing I’m proudest of is the relationships that I’ve developed with the people that I’ve worked with. The athletes that I coached 20 years ago, who we still stay in touch with. Who still come by the house for a barbeque or an adult beverage. I started when I was pretty young, so some of them aren’t that much younger than I am. I think the thing I’m proudest of is the relationships with the players and the coaches I’ve worked with and coached against over the years. Those connections, I would say that’s probably the thing that I’m the proudest of.
VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?
DP: Olympic gold would be the ultimate goal. There are a few steps along the way. I still don’t have a Natty (National Championship gold) and I think we’ve been in a position to challenge for a couple of them and come up short. So that would be a short-term one, and Olympic gold a medium-term one. I think those two things stand out in terms of coaching goals.
VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?
DP: If I could write a letter to my younger self, it would be summarized by: It’s more important to understand the athlete and how they learn than it is for them to understand how much you know. I think when I was younger, and I look back on this now, I was so determined to make sure people knew how much I thought I knew about the sport. For some reason, I guess that in my mind that validated some of the positions that I was in because I coached university at a young age, and I coached the National team at a fairly young age. I think I was more concerned about that than I was about “what does this player need to get better?” Now, that’s all I spend my time on. I go through my roster almost daily saying, “What can I do to help this young man? How do I make this person better physically, technically, tactically, or mentally.”
VC: What do you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?
DP: I was pretty fortunate. I had some of the greatest coaches in the world that I had access to, to listen to, and to watch. I had great players who trusted me, I had family and friends that I could share the experiences with. All of those things were important. If there was something that I wish I had, I’d maybe say it was perhaps a greater sense of humility to accept some of the success and perhaps a little bit more discretion when I was younger. A better understanding of passion and perfection. I think that might have helped me a little more. But I’ve grown into it, and I think that’s what they call maturing. I think back then, a better understanding of “control what you can control. Honestly, I was so fortunate to be around some of the greatest in some of the greatest environments. I’m truly humbled by the people I was able to learn from.
- Interview by Josh Bell. Photo courtesy of McMaster.
- Thanks to Mizuno Canada for its ongoing support of Volleyball Canada's coaching programs.