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Coach Profile: Doug Reimer

“We are teachers first and foremost, helping set the environment in a positive way that helps young people grow in sport.”

The long legacy of Doug Reimer continues to grow.

The head coach of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds women’s volleyball team, Reimer has become a legend on the U SPORTS circuit and the Canadian volleyball scene. Playing in the nation’s best conference, the coach has led his team to the national championship tournament 21 out of the last 22 years.

This impressive run includes eight national titles, four silver medals and three bronze medals. He also won a National Championship with the University of Winnipeg in 1993, bringing his count to nine. He led UBC to a national-record six straight U SPORTS Championship titles from 2008 to 2013. That 2008 victory was the program’s first title in 30 years.

Individually, the veteran coach has been named U SPORTS Coach of the Year five times – the most of any women’s volleyball head coach in the country. He has also coached Team Saskatchewan to a gold medal in the Canada Games and Team Canada in the late 1990s where he helped lead the team to a second-place finish at the NORCECA Olympic qualifier.

In his playing days, Reimer played with the University of Victoria where he was a two-time All-Canadian setter and the school’s top student-athlete. He later went on to coach at his alma mater before switching to Winnipeg and now UBC.

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

Volleyball Canada: Let’s start with your playing days, what are you most proud of from your playing career?

Doug Reimer: That was too long ago but I think just being a setter and getting to play in a 6-2 system really helped my understanding of the game and make me more comfortable training setters now.

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

Doug Reimer: I started young and while I was still in university. I was the assistant coach of the British Columbia boy’s provincial team and the head coach of a high school team. Back in the day there weren’t full-time coaching jobs but I did think that a great career path would be to teach and coach at a high school or college. 

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

DR: I was fortunate in high school to have Rod Belinski as a high school coach and that gave me the chance to make the University of Victoria team where I had a great relationship with the (late) Bob Harrison. I think unconsciously we learn and model a lot of what we see from our formative coaches.  I moved to Regina and coached Saskatchewan’s Canada Games program and was benefited enormously from Lorne Sawula in the late ‘80s when he was the National Team coach and there was a full-time training centre. Lorne was very open and encouraging to me and many other coaches. Since I was a head coach so young, that really gave me the chance to watch training and talk with other experienced coaches that Lorne involved.

And for the past twenty years, my wife and daughter’s support, sacrifices and help in getting some sense of balance has been so important to coaching for the long term. Coaching post-secondary involves giving up almost all your weekends from September to March and then more of them moving into club season They have had had to put up with that so that I could keep coaching.

VC: How does coaching differ from playing?

DR: The lens for the coaches is the group, while for the player it is their individual role and their situation. It would help players to teach and/or coach more and experience the stress of individual development within a team concept. And flip that around and it would help a coach to keep playing, or learn a new skill or position, to get a sense, or be reminded of the challenges the players - especially younger players - are going through. 

A coach drives the program philosophy, the culture, the daily environment. That foundation has a tremendous impact but it is up to the individuals that are on the team, and ultimately on the court, to drive the result. They are the ones that get to make the decisions, drive the result and ultimately bear the weight of the mental and emotional challenges that come with being on the team, both on and off the court. 

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

DR: Early on, staying composed and confident while not letting interpersonal challenges distract from communicating effectively. Specifically, I reflect on the disappointment and then likely burnout during and after coaching the National Team 1997-2000. I don’t think I was ready to coach older athletes from a variety of programs, that were a wide variety of ages, among other challenges. Also, one of my goals in taking on the position was to also drive systemic change in developmental programs. That piece alone takes a lot of energy and is in many ways a full-time job as well. I needed some combination of more coaching experience, especially internationally, as well as money or paid staff to have done a better job. We were so close to qualifying and had some great athletes so that of course makes it harder.

Part of getting through it was probably just hanging in there and that was likely when I started to regularly say: “This too shall pass.” Coming back to UBC gave me the chance to do some things differently and those struggles helped keep things in better perspective moving forward.

The second hurdle was coming close to winning National Championships, especially back-to-back silver medals, before going on our successful run. I was proud of how we were a successful program but being so close, it’s hard for athletes and coaches. I am not sure there was one thing that helped get through it other than a combination of experience, reflection, and just getting a bit better at a few things in terms of team culture, preparation, and being more calm in the competitive environment helped get over the hurdle.  I know we like to talk to athletes about persistence and resilience but it is of course so important for coaches as well.

VC: You’ve been coaching for a long time now, but is there anything you still hope to achieve? What do you hope to add to your coaching resume?

DR: I want to continue to learn and get better so that I give the players in the program the chance to get the most satisfaction possible during the time they are in the program. Hopefully, they look back and see learning and transfer into their relationships in all the non-competitive sport challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. I feel lucky to work with the great students and athletes in such a formative time in their lives. That is not about a resume, but it’s the motivation about the mutual learning and growth that occurs. I learn a lot and continue to be challenged by the student athletes. Because of that I am motivated to keeping trying to get a little bit better to try and help them. Victor Frankl wrote something along the lines of: “Mental health is based on a certain amount of tension between what has already been achieved and what one ought to accomplish, that gap between what is and what one should become.”

I think there is a lot of truth to that and I think it helps explain with positive relationships you can develop and impact on young people, which is why I and others keep coaching.

VC: You’ve had the most successful coaching career in U SPORTS women’s volleyball history, why do you think you’ve been able to maintain your success all these years?

DR: Good players, and I mean very talented players, and having so many players that didn’t win awards but played the consistent stabilizing, leadership roles. Strong assistant coaches are so important and they play a huge role in success. And a little luck every now and then doesn’t hurt.

Did I mention getting good players?

VC: In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of coaching?

DR: The key to me is building trust. Individual trust in themselves and group trust that they can handle what is coming at them. A second way to approach this is to always remember that we are teachers first and foremost, helping set the environment in a positive way that helps young people grow in sport. Good teaching requires good communication. You will never go wrong if you can focus and improve on your abilities to observe, provide direction, and give feedback. The communication in meetings, both individual and team, are also critical components.  

I could keep going on and on with this question and that points to the fact that there are so many facets to the profession. You need to keep improving and find others to support you. The head coach doesn’t do it alone and realizing that might be one of the most important first steps.

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

DR: I’d say consistency of results while generally focusing on the ‘process’ of helping players get better and learn. And, seeing many of them maintain great friendships long after they graduate.

VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?

DR: Spend time on honest self awareness. You need to know enough about communicating key aspects of skills and basic system of play so that you are able to run a good training session. Master the craft so that you give good individual and team feedback and then the players will start to trust you for the tough situations that always lie ahead.

Secondly, the old John Wooden quote – “They have to know that you care, before they care what you know.” This speaks to communication and openness. Bag your ego as much as you can and focus on observing players and understanding how to positively impact them. What I always need to continue to do more of is communicate with individuals. I would suggest new coaches really spend time understanding and talking with all of their players.

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

DR: The chance to work as an assistant coach to more good coaches, but what I really should have done was go into more gyms and ask more questions of coaches and players. I would have loved to have had access to the podcasts, videos, and other learning that is all around us now when I was first starting out.

I will say you have to know how and what to take in but mainly get comfortable with who and where you are. Don’t try and be someone else. Coach in a supportive way to help those you are working with.

 

Interview by Josh Bell

Photo: Richard Lam (UBC)