Sep the 18 Corporate
Coach Profile: Laurie Eisler
“Challenge yourself by pushing your comfort zone and exposing yourself to situations you may not feel quite ready for.”
In U SPORTS women’s volleyball history, you’d be hard-pressed to find a coach with a more successful resume than Laurie Eisler.
Head coach of the University of Alberta Pandas, Eisler has been at the helm for 28 seasons, leading the team to six National Championships, including five straight from 1995 to 1999. This past season, she reached the 800-win mark for her career, becoming just the second women’s volleyball coach to reach that impressive milestone.
In addition to her six National titles, Eisler has helped the Pandas to 11 Canada West titles and 15 National medals. She’s been recognized as the conference coach of the year seven times and has been honoured as the national coach of the year three times.
Eisler has coached internationally as well, from the World University Games to the 1996 Summer Olympics. She was inducted into the Edmonton Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Eisler about her coaching career and some general thoughts on coaching in the sport.
Volleyball Canada: How did you transition into coaching? Was it something that you always thought about?
Laurie Eisler: When I finished playing at the University of Saskatchewan I had an Education degree but I knew I didn’t want to go into teaching at that time. Our head coach, Mark Tennant, gave me an opportunity to work as an assistant coach and support the team administratively organizing the events that the program hosted. I spent four years in that capacity and started my Masters of Science in Physical Education with a focus in Sport Psychology. I also was able to be an interim head coach for one season during that time as Mark went away on sabbatical. That gave me a very early taste of what the Head Coaching position was like – the good and the bad! Fortunately for me the position at the U of Alberta was open in 1991 and I was given the opportunity to start my career here at that time.
VC: Who supported you in the journey? Do you have any mentors?
LE: I had some really great coaches coming up through school volleyball who helped instil a respect for the training process and a love for the game. I recognized very early that for me the best part of school was sport and I really thrived on the opportunities these coaches provided for us.
Without a doubt, Mark Tennant at the University of Saskatchewan made the greatest impact on my life. I was fortunate to spend nine years working with him as an athlete and coach. Everything that I needed to know about coaching I learned from him and I don’t think I would have pursued the career without his encouragement, support and guidance.
Since coming to U of A, I worked closely for several years with Dr. Lorne Sawula who was not only a great support of me and our program but a great mind and passion for the game. I also have learned a ton from my many Japanese coaching colleagues and to this day am fortunate to work alongside one of them, Naoki Miyashita!
Sandy Silver was a real inspiration and source of wisdom for me over the years and is so sadly missed by everyone that she touched. She was so strong and smart and cared so deeply about the people in our sport. We really got to know each other as she served as the convenor of Canada West for many years and in that capacity, she provided me with invaluable advice in my roles with U SPORTS and Canada West Coaches Associations and with my involvement with Volleyball Canada, in particular Team Canada.
VC: What has been the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?
LE: I’m not sure I would call it a hurdle but probably the biggest challenge has been to balance being a wife, mother and coach. I don’t think I could capture in a few words what this has entailed but I will say I am extremely fortunate to have a very supportive husband and two great kids that have enriched our lives and have helped keep everything in perspective. I’ve also been supported beyond expectation at the University of Alberta as the athletic directors and deans who I have had the privilege of working for have completely supported my career and understood the challenges that having a family presented. I was given support and flexibility to make it work knowing that they understood our context and the difficulties of finding balance in work and life.
VC: In 2019, you became just the second women’s volleyball coach in Canadian university history to reach 800 wins. What was it like to reach that accolade, and how have you been so successful over your nearly 30-year career?
LE: Probably the best part of reaching that milestone was the light it shone on the people who were part of the process to achieve those wins. I have been blessed with being surrounded by incredible people including coaches, support staff, student therapists and of course the amazing young women I’ve had the opportunity to coach. None of the successes would have been possible without them and the unique roles they played. As a program, we have always found pride in having a tremendous work ethic, constantly striving for improvement and never being satisfied with where we are. As a collective, we share a feeling of ‘hating to lose more than loving to win’ so along with those 800+ wins have been a lot of losses which have left a mark and helped all of us grow in the volleyball context and in life.
VC: Coaching the Beach National Team at the 1996 Olympics, what was that experience like?
LE: It was a tremendous experience to support the women’s team (Barb Broen and Margo Malowney) in their final preparations for the Olympic Games in 1996. I joined them after they had already accomplished the hard part – qualifying for the Games! My role was to help them make some improvements in the final weeks before the Games and it was an honour to be part of their process. I was new to the beach game so my focus was a bit different. I learned a lot and have tremendous respect for the women who play on the beach. It exposes and challenges them in ways that are so different than the indoor game. They are fierce, strong, independent competitors who really are inspirational to be around.
VC: I read your article on Innovating Canada, “For Women, A Rewarding Coaching Career Begins with the NCCP.” Can you touch on what you were hoping people would take away from that article?
LE: I think the coaching opportunities that CAC are providing young women to encourage them to pursue a career in coaching is tremendous. Recently U SPORTS has created a mentorship program for young females and I think it will lead to more young women feeling more prepared and supported in the pursuit of a coaching career. I think that it’s critical to increase the number of women in coaching by recruiting and encouraging them early and to provide them with coaching experiences where they are financially supported and under the guidance of a mentor.
VC: Have you seen the diversity in the sport improve over your career? How can this continue to be improved?
LE: I think we have a long way to go. Women are still very under-represented in coaching and other leadership positions in our sport. I also don’t believe we reflect Canadian society. Volleyball is becoming more and more a sport that only the privileged in our society can pursue due to the costs of playing at any level (school, club, provincial, national team). This has limited our reach into the community and with the context we are in now (COVID-19 and the impact on the economy) it’s not going to be easier. Collectively we need to find solutions to some very old problems and make a commitment to changing our ways.
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?
LE: My interests outside of volleyball for the past 23 years has been my family! Both of our kids have been very involved in sport so when I wasn’t in the gym, I was helping support them in their pursuits whether that be on the golf course, baseball diamond, hockey rink or again, back on the volleyball court.
VC: What are you most proud of in your coaching career?
LE: I’m proud of our Panda family. Our alumni are doing amazing work and are improving their communities all over the world! I’m privileged to have played a role in their lives and so very proud of their strength and willingness to give back and contribute where they feel the most need.
VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?
LE: I am always striving to learn and improve at what I do just like I ask that of all our people. I would like to leave the Pandas Volleyball program in a solid position competitively, financially and developmentally so that when I am no longer there, no one will notice. The program will not only carry on but will grow and advance and continue to be better!
VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?
LE: Coaches get better at coaching by coaching! Find diverse opportunities to learn and grow. Challenge yourself by pushing your comfort zone and exposing yourself to situations you may not feel quite ready for. Find a mentor that you can trust and rely on to support, challenge and guide you. Surround yourself with people you trust, people who help you grow and make you laugh. Coaching is so hard and so intense, it’s important to enjoy it and be amongst people who not only support you but make life better.
Never stop learning or growing. There are no short cuts to becoming great at what you do. There are many ways to count to ten so challenge your own conceptions or traditions and open yourself up to alternative ways of doing things and solving problems.
VC: What do you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?
LE: I wish I had more experience and wisdom as a leader. I think many of the mistakes I made early in my career were related to this deficit in my preparation. Coaching is so much more than the physical, mental, technical and tactical aspects of the game. Learning how to lead a diverse group of young women and helping them become the best that they individually can be on and off the court has been something I needed to and continue to discover through the years.
Interview by Josh Bell. Photos: University of Alberta