Apr the 23 Corporate
Coach Profile: Garth Pischke
Volleyball Canada’s “Coach Profiles” are proudly powered by Mizuno, a supporter of our National Teams and coaching programs.
After over four decades of volleyball experience, Garth Pischke recently hung up his clipboard, bringing an end to one of the most impressive coaching careers in USPORTS history.
Starting out as a player, Pischke is widely known in the sport as one of the best Canadian male volleyball players of all time. Playing for the University of Manitoba and University of Winnipeg, he won three national championships. He then moved on to play professionally in the International Volleyball Association with El Paso and Denver, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP.
With the men’s national team, the Winnipeg native worked his way up through the youth and junior teams, and was named to the 1976 Olympic men’s team when still in Grade 12. He appeared at in the Olympics again in 1984, becoming the first Canadian double Olympian in volleyball.
As a coach with the University of Manitoba, Pischke continued his tremendous career for 38 more years before retiring in 2020, leading the team to 28 Nationals appearances, nine gold medals, nine silvers, five bronze medals, two fourth-place, and two fifth-place finishes. He also coached the men’s national team from 1996 to 2000, helping the team rise from their 21st-place world ranking to 10th.
He’s been inducted into both the Canadian Olympic Association Hall of Fame, the Volleyball Canada Hall of Fame, was named Manitoba’s Athlete of the Century,
Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Pischke about his coaching career and some thoughts on coaching in the sport.
Volleyball Canada: You announced your retirement from coaching about a year ago now, how has this first year been for you?
Garth Pischke: I am sure that most people that have spent 43 years in a profession experience a sense of loss when they retire. It has been the same for me. As a professional coach in charge of a major university program, having that responsibility end has left a large void in my daily thoughts, activities and responsibilities. It has been a challenge. Also, the timing of COVID-19 has halted a lot of my retirement plans so that has made it more difficult. Having said that, I have enjoyed the opportunity to tackle and put a dent in my “To Do” list, that has managed to grow over time.
VC: You had a very long career, spreading from playing to coaching. Back in your playing days, you suited up for Canada at the Olympics twice. What were those experiences like?
GP: Representing Canada was the highlight of my playing career. To be a part of the growth of Canadian volleyball and living the changes and progress that Canada made from 1973-1984 was extremely exciting! From competing on our home court in Montreal in ‘76 to finishing fourth in the ‘84 Olympics in Los Angeles were both incredible experiences. It was my pleasure and honour to have the opportunity to compete with all of the excellent teammates I had over this period of time.
VC: How did you transition into coaching? Was it something that you always thought about?
GP: Honestly, I never considered coaching to be a goal of mine until it happened. I was very motivated to being involved in the business world, with my degree in Management. I had completed most of my Master’s in Business Administration during my early years of coaching, but with the university creating a full-time coaching position for me, I chose to head in that direction.
VC: Who supported you in the journey? Did you have any mentors?
GP: I had coaching mentors and I had administrative mentors. My first few years of coaching were on an honorarium basis ($2000/year). Then I was hired into a joint position as Technical Director of Volleyball Manitoba and Head Coach at the University of Manitoba. I did that for one year but it was not for me. I informed the university that to do the best job that I could possibly do, I needed to be in one place. Two key individuals at the University of Manitoba were Henry Janzen (Dean) and Joyce Fromson (Athletic Director). They got together and created a full-time position for me at the University of Manitoba. It consisted of coaching, teaching, and administrative duties within the Faculty of Physical Education. There have been many, many coaching mentors and I have learned from each and every one that I had in sport. There are too many to name and I don’t want to leave anyone out.
VC: What was the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?
GP: My biggest hurdle was blending my coaching career with the life and family goals that myself and wife Cindy wanted to pursue. The biggest "shot in the arm" that I received was the unquestionable support and sacrifice that I received from Cindy. To accomplish what I did professionally and to raise a family would never have been possible without the behind the scenes support and commitment from her.
VC: In your USPORTS career, you have 28 Nationals appearances, nine gold medals, nine silvers, five bronze medals, two fourth place finishes, two fifth place finishes, and one COVID cancellation. That’s a very impressive stat line. Considering your coaching career with the Bisons spanned 38 seasons, how were you able to maintain success throughout that stretch?
GP: Recruiting played a very huge part in the program’s success. For the most part, the athletes that played in my program were very confident players that worked extremely hard, possessed a high level of talent, and chose the path of working toward team goals. I managed to communicate to most athletes that my instruction and coaching advice during practices and games were there to motivate and to push them to reach their team and individual goals, while working hard and following and respecting team rules. My goals were to create the best team possible. I recruited athletes because I felt that they were prepared to put individual goals second to team goals and were genuinely happy with the successes of their teammates. Most athletes reached their athletic and academic goals. However, for those that did not, I have confidence that they understood they did the best and would move on to continued success after university through the experiences that made them grow.
VC: You also had a stint with the Canadian men’s national team, from 1996 to 2000, leading the helm as the team rose from 21st to 10th in the World Rankings. What stands out from your time with the national team?
GP: The athletes that we had on the team at that time were exceptional! It was a pleasure for me to have had the opportunity to work with each and every one of them. We had some amazing victories together and I cherish many moments from that period in my life.
VC: Given that your life had been dedicated to the sport of volleyball, how have you seen the game evolve throughout your career? And maybe tied to that, where do you think the game is going?
GP: The game has come a long way since I started. When I first started playing, we ran a 5-1 system, five setters and one hitter (Laughs). The most exciting part of the game has been the constant push for more specialization. Obviously, other, more established, sports were way ahead of volleyball in this area, but no question volleyball has caught up and even past some of the others in this regard. The rules have changed a lot, mostly for the better.
Two things stick out in my mind with regards to volleyball and, I guess, specifically men’s volleyball in Canada. The number of high-calibre athletes that play volleyball has increased every year as well as the number of high-calibre coaches. Currently, I believe the leadership and commitment of our current national team staff is second to no other country. They have continued to take the men’s program to the highest level yet. Canada has become a world power and that is a credit to their dedication, commitment, and expertise. Secondly, the support men’s volleyball has received in preparing athletes for the national team programs have been largely enhanced by the level of coaching in our university and college programs. It is clear to me that there are now many excellent university and college coaches in Canada. This area of growth has expanded very rapidly within our country. I am proud to have been a part of the developmental system.
VC: You’ve had some incredible moments, including coaching your kids. Taylor went on to the beach national team and you and Dane won a U SPORTS bronze in 2012. How special was it for you to be able to coach your children and share experiences with them?
GP: I feel incredibly fortunate that with Cindy’s help we have been able to blend our family life with our passion for volleyball and my career. Coaching Dane and Taylor has brought some of the best volleyball experiences into my life, filled with lasting memories and gratification. Watching them both represent Canada and play at such a high level has been extremely satisfying and to see them mature into the strong, independent, and successful adults that they have become has been the most gratifying.
VC: What are you most proud of in your coaching career?
GP: I am most proud of the consistency that my university program experienced. I really felt that we were one of the leading programs in the country that fueled other programs to keep working hard to excel. I feel great about the state of the sport upon retiring as I now see many outstanding programs and coaches both in university and in college.
VC: What was your ultimate goal in coaching?
GP: Once I committed to coaching, I always had the ultimate goal to coach our national team. It was a very rewarding experience for myself, and I hope that I helped with the continued positive evolution of the program and the sport in Canada.
VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches? Perhaps something you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?
GP: Communication is the most important skill in coaching. I could go on for hours about this subject with the experiences I have had over the years. I have always preached an open-door policy to discuss any concerns, comments, individual or team goals, problems, perceptions, or any life issues that an athlete may need support or advice on. My goal was to provide the best experience for the team and the athletes. I recruited individuals to give them the opportunity to excel and become the best players that they could possibly be. I did my best to motivate them to work hard and work smart. I believe most players understood this. With regards to volleyball-related questions or concerns, they needed to communicate with me. My decisions would always be based on what I felt was best for the team. Coaches often have to make difficult decisions for the betterment of the team and to empower athletes to accept their roles/responsibilities as equal contributing members of the team. This gives the athlete the opportunity to express their concerns in order to solve problems as soon as they arise.
Interview by Josh Bell. Photos: (top) U of M (below) CP/COC