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Coach Profile: Natasha Spaling

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From player to coach, Natasha Spaling has transitioned very well to the next stage of her volleyball career.

As a member of the Waterloo Warriors, Spaling worked her way up to captain of the team, a position she held for two seasons. In 2014-15, she was named an Ontario University Athletics All-Star. From there, she moved on to complete her Masters of Coaching at the University of Alberta, where she joined the Pandas’ staff as an assistant coach.

In that role, Spaling helped the team to two USPORTS silver medals and a Canada West conference championship. In 2018-19, she was the head coach for Niagara College, earning a silver medal in the Ontario Collegiate Athletic Association. After that year, she was brought on to the Queen’s University women’s volleyball team as an assistant coach.

Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Spaling about her 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?

Natasha Spaling: I have always loved coaching but I did not always want to be a coach. In fact, I was fairly certain that coaching wasn’t a ‘real job’ when I was younger. My original goal when going into university was to pursue a career in a health-related field.

During my time as an athlete at the University of Waterloo I had three different coaches. Between my third and fourth year, I was lucky enough to be on the hiring committee for the current coach (Richard Eddy). Throughout that process I had some great discussions with the assistant director (Christine Stapleton) and the men’s volleyball head coach (Chris Lawson) about the potential of me becoming a coach.

Luck struck again that I was living in Calgary that summer with my sister, so Christine set up an opportunity for me to meet Laurie Eisler, head coach of the University of Alberta Pandas. After that discussion I went back to play my final years at Waterloo, I ended up tearing my ACL for a second time going into my fifth year and that is really what finalized my decision to apply to the University of Alberta’s Masters of Coaching program and start my coaching career.

VC: You were the captain of Waterloo Warriors in your playing days, earning an OUA All-Star nod, how has your playing career helped that move into coaching?

NS: My experiences as an athlete have given me great tools to relate to the players, to have empathy for the challenges they are facing and to appreciate the work that each athlete puts in to the team. I think that my experiences (mostly mistakes I learned from as an athlete to be honest) really helped to shape my understanding of what it takes to be a good leader and what type of support, motivation, and communication different players and people need.

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

NS: My sister has probably been my biggest support so far in my coaching career. I don’t think I have made a decision yet that she hasn’t been a huge part of. I think she believes in me more than I do.

As far as mentors, I have been so fortunate to have incredible women and men around me to help guide me through my coaching path and I am so grateful to all of them.

I have to say a special thank you to Laurie Eisler (University of Alberta – head coach), Michele O’Keefe (Niagara College - Athletic Director), Ryan Ratushniak (Queen’s University- head coach) and Jimmy El-Turk (St. Clair College- head coach). I would not be where I am without these people. They have all inspired me, challenged me, and have all made me a much better coach in their own way.

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

NS: The biggest hurdle for me so far has been trying to navigate what the balance of life and coaching looks like. It can be really challenging at times to not be at every event for family and friends. I am trying my best to appreciate the time I have with them and plan time in my day to connect with the people I love. I am not sure I have managed to get over that hurdle effectively, but I am so lucky I have such amazing people in my circles that support me and know how much I love them and my job.

VC: You helped the University of Alberta volleyball team to two USPORTS silver medals and a Canada West conference championship. What was your experience with the Pandas like?

NS: Coaching with the Pandas was one of the best experiences I have ever had. The quality and caliber of athletes and coaches in that program is absolutely incredible. Getting to learn from such wise people was invaluable for me as such a young coach and really shaped my outlook on coaching. Some of the biggest lessons I learned from coaching there were how much responsibility you have as a coach to keep your athletes mentally, physically and emotionally safe and how much time, dedication and care you need to put in to your work so that your athletes have every opportunity to succeed.

VC: Then you took the head coach position with Niagara College, winning a silver again in the OCAA. How have your roles with the Pandas and Knights prepared you for your relatively new role as an assistant with Queens?

NS: All my coaching roles have allowed me to grow in so many different ways. To start the Pandas helped to teach me that the athletes are the most important people in the gym (not me/coaches), and that it’s important to make decisions based on what is best for the athletes and the team. The experience of being a head coach at Niagara gave me a lot of confidence to make decisions and discover who I was as a coach. The ability to run a program, try out a training schedule, make mistakes and learn from real experience was so valuable. It really helped solidify my values as a coach.

It was eye-opening to come to Queen’s after Alberta and Niagara because we run completely different systems here so that has just grown my technical and tactical knowledge so much as a coach. I am so grateful to be in this new role, Ryan has been incredibly open and empowering to me as an assistant. I have learned a lot from all these people and places, and I am happy I can share my knowledge and experience with our program here at Queen’s.

VC: I imagine this has been an interesting start for you at Queen’s, joining in July 2019 and just having the one season. With the 2020-21 season being cancelled, how has your year been looking with the team?

NS: Well first, it has been a heart-breaking year for so many athletes and people in our communities, and I really hope that circumstances change this year. The part about all of this that still amazes me every day is how resilient our athletes are and how incredibly focussed they are on the process of being a high-performance athlete. We have been in and out of practice on court this year, but our athletes have remained so dedicated to our academics, strength and conditioning programs, and most of all, staying connected and building our community. We are really focussed on controlling what we can and can’t wait to get back on the court!

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?

NS: I have three nephews (Harrison, Casey & Harvey) and a niece (Molly) and I try to see them as much as I possibly can. They are so fun, I love being an aunt, and I want to be able to play with them (until they no longer think I am cool) and be a part of their lives as much as possible.  I am not sure I have balance yet, but I am very lucky that they like to come watch and cheer at games so I can see them a little more!

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

NS: I am very proud that I have supported so many incredible athletes and coaches and that I get to help, in some small way, on the journey to accomplish their dreams. I am also really proud to be a female coach, a positive role model, and support for other women in sport.

VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?

NS: I am not sure I have one ultimate goal in coaching. But for now I think my ultimate goal is to continuous help athletes improve, stay open-minded and learn, make a positive impact on volleyball in Canada and coach at the highest level I possibly can.

VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?

NS: Some of the best advice I have received has been to surround yourself with people that inspire you, challenge you and that you trust will look out for you and your best interest. I would not be where I am without incredible people in my corner that believe in me and want me to succeed.

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