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Coach Profile: Sandra Lamb

“I think that is the most important thing; those authentic relationships between a player and a coach.”

Sandra Lamb and Mount Royal University volleyball are synonymous at this point.

Lamb has been with the Mount Royal Cougars since 1993, back when she was a player for the university. After finishing up her playing career in 1997-98, she joined the men’s team as an assistant coach in 1998-99. Halfway through the campaign, she switched to the women’s team to take over as head coach.

She’s won national titles with club teams at the 15U, 16U, 17U, and 18U levels, she won a Canada Games gold medal with Team Alberta in 2013, she’s been recognized as the CCAA and ACAC Coach of the Year (both in 2004), and in 2011, she was awarded the CCAA Coaching Excellence Award. She’s led the Cougars to six CCAA medals, highlighted by a National Championship in 2011.

Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Lamb 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?

Sandra Lamb: It was kind of luck of the draw, but I’ve always been interested in being a coach. I was playing at Mount Royal and I had taken a year off. I started to assistant coach with the men’s program under Rod Durant at the time and then transitioned over to the women’s program as the assistant coach. Eventually I just fell into the job. Somewhere around ’98 I believe is when I first started coaching.

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

SL: You have to surround yourself with good people in order to be successful. At the time, Rod Durant was somebody that I definitely looked up to. I had some former coaches that I had looked up to as well. But the main one was Calvin Aubin. He was a mentor back then. He had also been in the Volleyball Canada program as well. There were lots of people that were supporting me, I was pretty young when I first started into it, so having those people around me was definitely a blessing.

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

SL: Like I said, I started out when I was pretty young and the transition from a player to a coach, probably took me a little bit longer than it should have. I was a pretty feisty player and I tried to continue that going into my coaching career. I was fairly emotional when it came to wins and losses and I really had to take a look and figure some things out. How to mature as a coach and how to respond as a coach. So that’s watching other people, being in their gyms, really investing in my craft. You know that’s the one thing that I wish I would have been able to transition a whole lot quicker and a whole lot better. You can’t look back and go “I wish I would have known what I know now.” I definitely had to talk to a lot of people and just try to understand how to keep the emotion of a player away from being a coach. You’re not out there on the floor any more, you have to try to figure it out a different way.

VC: In 2019-20, you had a remarkable season, winning Mount Royal University’s first ever USPORTS medal. What was that like to make history for the school?

SL: It was unbelievable. I still look back at that. Obviously we never got to play at Nationals, but that team was extremely special. They really bought in from the beginning. Being able to bring back our first Canada West medal to Mount Royal was something that we took a lot of pride in. The players themselves, they will cherish that forever, as will the coaching staff.

VC: Then, the National Championships were unfortunately cancelled. After your impressive season, how hard was that cancellation on you and the team?

SL: It was devastating. There’s really no other way to say it. We were out for out team meals, we had our practice, everything we were doing was preparing for it, and then 11 o’clock at night, I had to call the team and let them know. We met the next day, there were tears flowing. Obviously my fifth years and older players, they took it really hard. But not only them, it was everybody. It was something that you’ve worked hard for from the very beginning of the season and you finally make it there and it would have been our first appearance ever. All of a sudden it’s ripped out from underneath you. It was tough. It still stings, there’s not doubt about that.

VC: Last season, you had 39-year-old Tasha Holness on your roster. Can you briefly touch on the story of her re-joining the roster after nearly 15 years?

SL: Oh, Tasha. She is just a wonderful human being. She had been in our program previously, and went off and had a wonderful career. There’s One Volleyball that was going on in Calgary here. She signed up for it and I’m like “Man, that lady. She still has it. She is just an athletic specimen.” I’ve always had a great relationship with Tasha and continue to have conversations with her. She was finishing up her schooling, she wasn’t quite done and I said, “would you ever think about coming back for another year?” She said, “Well Sandra, I’m not really doing anything, let me think about it.” So she thought about it and next thing you know she was in the gym.

She was such an amazing person to have. Tasha’s super outgoing but she’s not a person that’s going to say a lot in a team atmosphere. Just the love of the sport, the personality, and the mentorship that she brought to the team was super invaluable. And not only her experience itself, but she was still a young lady playing the game with a whole lot of passion, heart, and excitement. It was really impressive to see the transformation of her at that age and being able to really buy in. A 39-year-old with 20-year-olds, you would think it would be a little bit of a tough go, but not a chance. She was in there and loved by everybody. Like I said, she was a pleasant surprise to say the least.

VC: With the 2020-21 season cancelled, how do your days look now? What are you doing to keep busy?

SL: Our job is never done. The tough part has been we’re always recruiting, we still have practice times, and all of that kind of stuff. But there’s been a lot of Zoom meetings, with not being able to have the face-to-face time with our recruits and people we’re trying to recruit for the ’21 year. Basically, we’re working from home. The coaches, we’re behind the screen a lot of the time, and still working towards what we need to get better at, what we need to do, video analysis, all that kind of stuff. It really doesn’t stop. We were very fortunate that we got to train from September up to December, with all the stuff going on in Alberta. We had a pretty good chunk where we could continue to really break down some basic stuff in the gym and analyze that stuff. Our goal is still – we had a little taste. We want to get back to Nationals. Right now we’re doing everything that we possibly can in order to achieve that in the years coming.

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?

SL: I’ve taken up squash, and during this pandemic I’ve taken up running just to clear my mind. I shouldn’t say I love running, but I enjoy the feeling of accomplishing the runs. Basically, everything is a balance. You have to visit family, however that is, that could be behind a screen again. Our department is very proactive when it comes to understanding life-work balance. We’re very fortunate to have that support from the top. And then it’s just a matter of finding different interests. Getting involved in things that I haven’t been involved in in a long, long time. Basically, I’m trying to stay as active as I can to try and maintain all sanity during this pandemic.

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

SL: A lot. During this pandemic, you get to sit back and you get to really realize what you have and how precious that is. Just watching players graduate, going into the workforce, the relationships you build, they’re standing up beside each other at their weddings, now they’re having kids and things like that. I’m a small part but it’s such a fulfilling, rewarding part that they came together with their time at Mount Royal. And then obviously, the successes on the court have been nothing short of unbelievable. Winning a National Championship at the college level and then jumping in the U SPORTS league. We made it to the Final Four once and we made it to the Nationals once. Those are things that I really cherish and I look back at how hard of a struggle it was to get there and you just never know when you’re going to get back. Being able to cherish those moments is something that I’ve really reflected on and am so fortunate to be a part of. Along with the coaches and players buying into the system. And they’re just wonderful, wonderful people. I can’t talk enough about how many wonderful women have went through this program, have changed my life, and have made me a better person as well.

VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?

SL: I love to win. I want to win at every level. So far, I’ve been pretty fortunate with that and now I’m looking for a U SPORTS National Championship. I always want to learn and continue to grow the game and things like that. And being in touch with the National team. I haven’t really been a part of it too much but staying in touch with the coaches that are there, I always want to be sending players on the hopefully will be exceptional at the national stage and the international stage as well. Right now, I love my job, I love what I do, I can’t imagine a better place than Mount Royal at this particular time. I’ve been a lifer, I’ll probably remain a lifer. I definitely want to continue to grow my knowledge of the game and that involves just being a part and understanding what the next level is.

VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?

SL: So much! The biggest advice that I can give is get in as many coaches gyms as you possibly can. And that doesn’t necessarily mean just your own sport. I’ve been fortunate in that I have a hockey coach in my family as well and being able to talk with a lot of high-level, elite coaches, and being able to pick their brains a little bit, I think that’s so invaluable in being able to hit the rink or field or court and listening to them and how they interact. One of the biggest things, if you can sit in on meetings and the relationship-building that they have with players, I think that that is the most important thing, those authentic relationships between a player and a coach. Trying to find ways how different people really get into those deep, mutual respect conversations. I think that’s the hardest thing. If you can, as a young coach, expose yourself to as many different situations like that, I think it’s going to be valuable in your career.

VC: What do you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?

SL: The big thing is, I think getting a mentor right from the start. I jumped into the coaching role, and you have your assistant coaches and you really rely on that, but you don’t have an outlet of someone who has had years and years of experience. It doesn’t need to be a specific sport’s coach, just somebody that has been in sport and coached for a lot of years, I wish that I would have sought that out right away. I really, truly believe that that would have helped with the player-to-coach transition and obviously, learning and knowing what I know now, there’s so much to it. The organization part, and how you make a full season training plan and that kind of stuff. Really diving into it with somebody else would have been something that I wish I had right from the get-go.