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Coach Profile: Josh Nichol

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When it comes to volleyball, Josh Nichol has coached it. He’s put together a strong coaching resume, with the latest addition being his recent promotion to be Volleyball Canada’s Next Gen Coach.

A big part of Nichol’s coaching legacy is his work with the George Brown College men’s volleyball team. Starting as a volunteer, he helped get the program off the ground. After just missing the playoffs by one game the first season, he led the team to the postseason in just their second year.

On top of George Brown, Nichol has spent time with Volleyball Canada, the Ontario Volleyball Association, Leaside Volleyball Club, Ngun Lam Volleyball, Team Ontario, and the Canada Games.

Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Nichol 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?

Josh Nichol: Yes, and no. I’ve always loved sport and was really lucky to have three older siblings and grow up in a small town where playing sports was the social thing to do. Every season I was onto something new and would play at school, club, and in the backyard.

I started pursuing coaching when I was a teenager and it became clear that my athletic skills weren’t going to take me to the level of sport I wanted to be involved at. When I was in the 12th grade, Chris Lawson was hosting a Level 1 Coaching Clinic in Goderich (Ontario). I jumped at the opportunity to get certified and start learning more about coaching.

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

JN: Honestly, everyone supported me. ... Hard to say if I had a formal mentor. I’ve been extremely lucky to have friends, meet a lot of coaches, and work for the Ontario Volleyball Association and Volleyball Canada where I’m surrounded by a lot of people that are passionate about volleyball. A lot of what I’ve learned has happened informally during water breaks, phone calls, dinners, or on the Passin Dimes Podcast. When you surround yourself with people as passionate as you it’s very easy to get into some really cool subjects and go deep into the details.

I don’t think I’ve told a lot of people this story but when I was in my early 20s, before the internet had a lot of coaching information on it and there weren’t many games being live streamed, I would research something the best I could and if I couldn’t find the answer I would cold call or email someone who I thought would have the answer. Some replied, some didn’t, but if I really wanted to learn something, I was going to find someone who knew more than I did and pick their brain. I’m not sure if those people would count as mentors but I really appreciated how open to sharing most volleyball coaches were.

VC: You recently got a new role with the Volleyball Canada beach program, as the men’s Next Gen coach, can you tell me a bit your new role?

JN: I still feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity and work hard everyday to earn the right to feel like I’m the best person to coach this program.

The Next Gen program is based in Toronto at our Beach High Performance Centre. The program is designed to support and develop Canada’s next wave of talent with a goal of future podium results on the FIVB World Tour and at the Olympics and World Championships.

My role in the daily training environment is to plan and run the on sand training and video sessions while working with our top tier Integrated Support Team (IST) to make sure our training block and periodization is working as planned. The IST provides coaching and planning in mental training, nutrition, recovery, strength and conditioning and many other areas.

VC: You created the volleyball podcast Passin Dimes. What led to the creation of that podcast?

JN: I’m really big into podcasts. I’ve always thought it would be fun to do a volleyball one. Dallas Keith and I decided to give it a try. We agreed the focus should be on storytelling and showcasing the amazing people in our sport. He’s since moved on and I’ve continued with the show for a few reasons. I really enjoy getting the opportunity to speak to and learn from experts in our sport and I think it’s important to spotlight the amazing people in the volleyball community. I hope people enjoy it and get something out of it too.... 

Every week when I edit the upcoming episode, I get excited to release it and think every guest we’ve had is great. If I had to pick one episode for anyone who hasn’t listened yet that showcases what we want the show to be, I think it would be The Mark Heese Show Episode 96. His passion really comes through in his storytelling and I think it’s a great combination of an entertaining and educational show.

VC: You have experience coaching both indoor and beach. How does your approach to each sport differ – or, how is it similar?

JN: It’s more the same than it is different. I want practices to be organized and up tempo. I really like creating situations that are specific to what we’ll see in games and try to make everything we do fit our game model.

I think the differences would be based on the rules on coaching for each sport. Beach Volleyball doesn’t allow coaching during the matches, so you need to help prepare the athletes to compete and have their own game plan. There is a lot of athlete autonomy in beach because in the battle they have to make their own decisions. It’s important that they have a clear idea of what they want/need to do and what to look for to adjust the plan.

I value a lot of the same characteristics from beach when coaching indoor, but because you are allowed to communicate with the athletes during the match, call timeouts, make substitutions etc, the coach needs to be more involved. I think there is still a lot of athlete autonomy, but the coach is now serving the team from a place of leadership. You would be doing your team a disservice if you just sat there and weren’t supporting the team or involved in the tactics.

VC: Heading into your role with George Brown, you led the charge to build up that program. You quickly saw success with the college. What was that process of building the program like and what helped lead to your success?

JN: I look back at my time with George Brown College very fondly. I didn’t realize how lucky I was during and should have enjoyed the challenge and process more.

It all started when I interviewed to be the Head Coach of the Women’s Varsity Team. Unfortunately, I didn’t get it but when the Athletic Director at the time, Ed Mark, called me with the news he said he had been approached by a student, Daniel Szafran who proposed they start men’s varsity program. There was no budget and very limited gym time, but he said if I was interested in volunteering, he wanted to enter the league a year later. So I teamed up Ed, Daniel and our sport coordinator was an intern at the time Chad Van Dyk. Together we started looking for athletes and running open gyms on Wednesdays 6-8 pm and Sundays 8-10 pm. The gym times weren’t exactly prime time, but it did show that the athletes showing up were passionate about volleyball. I’ll always be thankful to the OVA clubs, high schools, 9man teams, and OCAA teams that agreed to play us in exhibition matches or let us into their tournaments so we could compete while creating our team.

The following year we entered the OCAA as planned, and it was way harder than I could have ever expected. I think we went 3-7 the first semester which made me really question if I knew what I was doing. Thankfully we followed it up with a 5-5 second semester, missing the playoffs by one game. The following year we caught fire and went 16-4 and made the playoffs. We had success again the following year making the final 8. The foundation was set for the program to be successful and it stopped feeling like an expansion team.

I think what led to our early success was the guys worked hard and didn’t push back on anything. Other coaches thought we weren’t ready to do video or scouting or have a strategy because we could barely execute fundamental skills. I received a lot of unsolicited advice telling me to focus on basic skills and keep it simple. Why would we focus on a serving strategy when we could barely control the ball, or why teach the team how to triple block when our middles weren’t closing blocks on out of system high balls etc. I didn’t see it that way, I loved our team and was going to push us to develop new skills and a better understanding of our game. I put in the extra time to make sure we were prepared and ready to compete. It was really great timing because I was young in my coaching career and had all this ambition. Not all of it worked obviously, but it was a great lesson in never underestimating your team and never thinking they aren’t ready for something more advanced. Athletes and teams will buy in and follow if you are passionate about what you’re doing and can explain the why.

I stepped away after five seasons. It’s a great feeling to support what Garrett May was able to do with the program and now look forward to GBC hiring a new coach and seeing what they can do. It’s pretty cool to look back and see how well the team is doing now when it started with a volunteer coach, a hard-working intern, amazing people in the community that added games to their schedules and a bunch of great guys that bought their own jerseys so we could make it happen.

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

JN: I don’t want to sound like I’m contradicting my last answer but I’m proud that I set a goal and after a long journey I achieved it. I wanted to coach our National Team since I started coaching. I’m easily influenced, and some would say gullible so when sport and media celebrate amazing people like Kobe Bryant. I start to research their journeys more and think that’s how I should do things. I don’t think there is one common thread that all high achievers share but I feel singular focus is something the elite have in common.

I tried to follow the same path of high achievers, where I thought if I wasn’t obsessed that I would be average. I look back at my schedule and there was no way I would do that now. For a few years I would work at the OVA from 7 am-3 pm hustle to Upper Canada College to be at a 4 pm practice, then go to George Brown or a club practice in the evening. And do that 4-5 times a week plus games and tournaments on the weekend. A few years later I would coach VCCE from 6 am-8 am, hustle to be at work for 9 am, then coach club or George Brown, sometimes both at night and add in games and tournaments. Then in the summer I was either running the OVA Beach Tour or coaching and working at camps. It was crazy how many hours I was putting into coaching but it gave me an opportunity to work with so many athletes, trial and error some things, and really confirm that I wanted to coach as much as I could. 

VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?

JN: To me the great thing about coaching and sport is there isn’t an ultimate goal. It’s one of those things where it’s always changing and not enough. ...

I think in the short-term goal I have would be to win an FIVB event and hear our national anthem. I remember being an event waiting for the shuttle on the final day and one of the Australian coaches was speaking to his young daughter. She was so excited that if their team won they would the national anthem. That joy and excitement made me realize what we do is really special, and it would be a thrill to win an event and hear O Canada.

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

JN: If I could tell my younger self something, I would say slow down, you don’t know as much as you think you do, and don’t take it personally when an athlete doesn’t understand. I was in such a hurry to climb the ladder and get opportunities to coach at the next level. I had this idea that things would be different at the next level but things are really similar no matter if you’re coaching a school team or the provincial team....

From an education standpoint, I think the biggest thing that clicked for me that I wish I knew earlier was having a growth mindset and the deliberate factors for learning. There has to be a want and need to learn, valuing repetition, knowing when and why to use the skill, receiving and applying feedback and hopefully they reach a point where they can teach it to other. I wasn’t always very patient with athletes and didn’t understand that it could take weeks, months, sometimes years for an athlete to fully grasp a skill or concept.

I think a lot in life and in coaching comes down to things you need to experience for yourself and can’t be told by someone else, but as I look back I think having a head start in these areas would have helped me a lot.

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Josh Nichol at the Beach Centre in Toronto