Volleyball Canada


Coach Profile: Jimmy El-Turk

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Jimmy El-Turk has taken coaching to a level higher than a career – it’s an obsession.

After finishing his playing career with the University of Windsor, he started working with the team, eventually becoming the team’s full-time assistant coach. The role opened doors for El-Turk, going on to coach in the Canada Games and as an assistant with Volleyball Canada’s women’s U18 junior team.

In 2015, El-Turk was named the head coach of the women’s program at St. Clair College, leading the team to an OCAA bronze medal in 2018 - the program’s first medal in 21 years. With a focus on building a lasting culture and the importance of recruitment, El-Turk has helped build the program into a regular contender in the OCAA.

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

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

Jimmy El-Turk: No, it wasn’t something that I always thought about. I definitely didn’t know what I wanted to do as I was working through my undergrad. I attended the University of Windsor and graduated with a kinesiology degree with a specialization in sport management. I applied for my Master’s in sport management at Windsor as well. I finished my playing career there and transitioned kind of into coaching, but not really. I was kind of hanging around the team, trying to help out while completing my Master’s. As the season progressed it turned into something more formal where I was starting to do a little more coaching.

I graduated in 2013 and that summer I started applying for jobs all across the country in the sporting field. I applied to over 200 jobs and did not get a single email or call back. That was pretty challenging and frustrating. So, I applied for a job here in Windsor, selling insurance. I got the job, I went in, signed my contract, and they gave me a tour of the place. They showed me where I was going to be working and it was this dark cubicle in a basement. In that moment, I realized this is not what I want to do. I went home, I was still living with my folks at the time, and I was talking to my mom and I just told her I can’t do this. So I called them and I quit. I had just signed my contract about an hour ago. My mom asked me, "what do you love to do?" I said I’m loving coaching. She asked if I could make it a profession and I said I have no idea but I’d love to give it a chance.

So I called James Gravelle, who was the men’s coach at the University of Windsor, he had just been hired, and was heading into his first season. I asked if he had any money for an assistant coach. He said that he had $2,000 and I said you’ve got yourself a full-time assistant. That’s all I did that year, I didn’t work another job, so luckily I had really supportive parents. I was able to grind out the first year with Windsor doing practices in the early morning, breaking down video, and then coming back for sessions in the afternoon. I was also doing a lot of recruiting and that’s how I became obsessed and addicted, and that’s how it all started.

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

JET: First and foremost, none of this would be possible with the support of my parents and my brother. Being able to live with my parents rent free to pursue my dream is a luxury that not many people have. Having my brother support me as a business partner to make some additional income in the offseason so that I could continue to pursue your dream isn’t something that many people have either so I owe everything to my family.

In terms of people who have supported me, the list is far too long and I don’t want to start naming any names because I’m sure to leave some people off the list but one person in particular believed in me enough to give me a shot with Team Canada and that’s Dale Melnick. Dale is responsible for allowing me the privilege of wearing the maple leaf on my chest and represent my country internationally on some of the biggest stages in youth volleyball, not something I ever thought was possible and I am forever grateful for her belief in me.

My two mentors that I owe a lot of my success to as a coach, partner, and father are James Gravelle and Nathan Janzen. Both James and Nate have shaped me in ways that far extend beyond the sidelines. James gave me a shot to be on a USPORTS bench as an assistant coach at the University of Windsor with the men’s program, which then lead to us starting a boys youth volleyball club here in Windsor together, SKY Volley. Nathan is responsible for getting me involved with the Team Ontario indoor program and continues to be somebody that I go to regularly anytime that I need something, whether it be volleyball, life, parenting, or fantasy baseball.

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

JET: The biggest hurdle for me was back in 2019 when we lost to the Niagara Knights in the quarterfinals of the OCAA Championship, after going 15-3 in the regular season that year. That moment sent into a challenging place as a coach for many months, evaluating and re-evaluating exactly why I started coaching. I was so focused on winning and so consumed by wanting to accomplish winning that I lost sight about the most important part: the people.

I realized that I wasn’t leading the team the way that I truly wanted to lead them. I wasn’t taking care of the athletes the way that I thought I was. I wasn’t prioritizing the culture that I talked about building. I spent a lot of time that offseason obsessing about leadership and culture, talking to other coaches that I thought were doing a good job with their team culture and essentially hitting the reset button. It took me a few months for me to love volleyball again but as I worked through my personal fear or failure and disappointment, I became motivated to right those wrongs and have been working diligently since then to prioritize our team culture and core values over our on-court wins and loss record.

VC: Reading about you joining the St. Clair College Saints six years ago, you talked about having a long-term vision for the program, centered around the culture of the team. How did you go about instilling your vision in the program?

JET: What I wanted to do as a first year coach was build a culture centered around tenacity, resilience, and competition. Our staff put a priority on hard work in the gym and built a volleyball culture around defense. I also wanted to be more of a developmental coach, especially knowing that recruiting top tier athletes to our program might be challenging in the first few years and so we would have to develop athletes from within our program and locally here in Windsor before hopefully being able to spread our wings into the bigger recruiting markets in Ontario.  

VC: Do you think you’ve been successful in seeing that vision through?

JET: I believe that we have been successful in growing our recruiting profile in Ontario, which has certainly helped our on-court success. In terms of the culture piece, I think I’ve done a 180 on what I’m looking for from our culture and I think the things that I once valued aren’t so high on the list of priorities anymore. For me, success is our team winning Academic Team of the Year at St. Clair in two of my first four years, in making every single guest in our gym be greeted by every athlete with a handshake and a personal introduction so they feel safe in our space. Those are the things that I now use to define success, whereas early on it was simply about wins and losses.

VC: You led the team to an OCAA bronze, the program’s first medal in 21 years. Did that accomplishment help to validate the work you’ve been putting in?

JET: That moment was definitely validation for me and our coaching staff. I will never forget that bronze medal match, it was an incredible display of grit and determination from our team, being down 0-2 and down big in both the third and fourth sets. I left the gym that day never having felt more proud and I believe that moment played a part in me landing a few more coaching opportunities with Ontario Volleyball Association and Team Canada.

VC: You’ve had some interesting recruitments, earning commitments from players that hadn’t even heard of St. Clair College and had universities recruiting them as well. What is it about the program that draws these players in?

JET: I truly believe that it’s the warmth of our school and our volleyball environment that allows so many of the athletes that come to visit our school feel like it’s the right fit for them. We are a community school, beautiful yet small campus, and we have a group of athletes on our team that take the time to make the prospective athlete and their families feel welcome in a way that they might not have been expecting. I certainly think that our on-court success has helped us sell our program much easier, and my role with Team Ontario over the last few years has definitely allowed me to get to watch more athletes play, which has led to a few of our more recent high-profile commitments.

VC: You’re also the head coach for the indoor girl’s Team Ontario for the Canada Summer Games and the assistant for the U18 Junior team for Volleyball Canada. Constantly working with different ages and genders, at many different levels, how does this improve your skill as a coach?

JET: In my opinion, when you coach the same gender and age level for a long time it stunts your growth as a coach. Having to coach a volleyball camp for 12- and 13-year-old athletes is a very enlightening process because it takes you to a place where fundamentals and joy are hyper-present and that can center you as a coach. When I watch Team Canada men play in the VNL vs. Brazil or France, that level of volleyball triggers my mind to think about the game in a way that I wouldn’t if I only ever coached my team at St. Clair. Having experience coaching men and women in post-secondary, provincial team and club has given me a unique perspective on coaching that I try to tap into as much as I can.

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?

JET: Stephanie (my partner) and I have absolutely loved being parents to our six-month old son, Benjamin. I was excited to become a father yet Ben has found a way to take that excitement to another level. I am also very big basketball fan. It was my first true love as a child and I played far more basketball than I ever did volleyball growing up, so I love watching it, especially the NBA. I haven’t quite had the opportunity to balance being a father with coaching as our season was cancelled this year but I can already tell that the scales are going to be tipped in favour of being a father. I love volleyball, it has given me more than I could ever put into words but there is nothing more important to me than my family and finding a balance will certainly be difficult but I think it comes with far more positives than negatives.

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

JET: I’m most proud of being able to follow in the footsteps of James, Nathan and Dale and pay it forward to young coaches who have a lot to give to this sport. I’ve been fortunate enough to be selected as a mentor coach with the CCAA’s Female Apprentice Coach Program (FACP) and lead two of my former athletes at St. Clair College, Taylor Fitzgerald and Julie Ann Milling, through the apprentice coach program and have them both remain on staff with our program. I think it’s critical that we open doors for one another and work together as a larger volleyball community to grow the sport of volleyball in Canada and teach young people life skills through this beautiful game and I’m honoured to have been afforded that opportunity with the CCAA and very lucky to have Taylor and Julie Ann in my corner.

VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?

JET: I think it’s two fold. The first part, I’d like to win. I’d like to win a provincial championship at St. Clair College. 1997 was the last provincial championship for women’s volleyball here. I think our athletes put in a lot of work to get close and I want to help them achieve that goal. That’s the goal they set every year and I think that’s important for me. We’ve talked about validation, I think winning is a big part of validation for me and I think that that’s certainly a big goal for me. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d love to be a head coach of one of the youth or junior programs for Team Canada one day. I’ve really enjoyed my experience with Volleyball Canada and I’ve had a chance to travel to some amazing places and meet some incredible people. I would love the chance to put my name in the application pool for one of those U16 or U18 head coaching positions one day.

Aside from that, I think my job is to teach life through volleyball. I am a teacher, I’m just not in a classroom. My classroom is the volleyball court. It’s the means in which brings us all together. At the end of the day, I’m coaching young women and a part of my job is to assist them through that process that allows them to graduate as more confident, willing to step into leadership roles, and being role models and trailblazers for the next generation. I know that’s tough to quantify, but I think that that offers perspective every day.

VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches? Perhaps something you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?

JET: Be confident in your abilities as a coach but not too confident that it gets in the way of growth and development, be confident in the things that you do but don’t let it get in the way of seeking out better ways, and surround yourself with people who are going to uplift you and hold you accountable at the same time because those are the people that you will be able to trust when you truly need something. My final piece of advice would be to study exactly what good listening skills are and then practice those, especially when you’re in larger group settings with other coaches. You never know what might trigger a thought that leads to a coaching breakthrough for you but if you aren’t engaged in listening to what others have to say without feeling the need to share your opinion, you just might miss an opportunity to get better.

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Jimmy El-Turk