Nov the 13 Corporate
Coach Profile: Sean McKay
“Build healthy relationships in your volleyball community, this will help you personally, professionally and make things much more fun”
There’s a new face on the U SPORTS circuit.
Sean McKay took over the reins for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies in 2019-20, becoming the ninth coach in the school’s history. The Sudbury native came from the South Alberta Institute of Technology Trojans, where he spent three years. He led the team to medals in each season, including a gold in 2018.
The young coach isn’t that far removed from his own playing days, graduating from Western University in 2014 as the captain and setter for the Mustangs. He helped the team to four Ontario University Athletics silver medals and two top-five finishes at the National Championships. He was also the assistant coach of the Fanshawe Falcons of the OCAA, before heading overseas to play professionally and continue coaching.
McKay has also spent time with the Volleyball Canada Regional Excellence Program and Volleyball Alberta, including a U17 silver medal at the Canada Cup in 2018.
Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with McKay about his coaching career and some general thoughts on coaching in the sport.
Volleyball Canada: How did you transition into coaching?
Sean McKay: Coaching for me began in university. The usual camps and clinics as a summer job. From there I chose to pursue my masters in coaching so I could finish up my fifth year of eligibility. I started to love what I was doing when I got a short contract coaching in the Caribbean and realized that making a living doing this was something I wanted to do (despite not having a plan to do so). A couple years and coaching gigs later I found myself at SAIT. I would say my transition was mostly an unplanned series of fortunate events which I am extremely grateful for.
VC: Who supported you in the journey? Do you have any mentors?
SM: The fortunate series of events mentioned above is mostly relationships I have built with people I work with/for. Having bounced around to different places I try to latch on to sport minds, learn from them and hopefully build a personal relationship with them. Two that really stick out are Patrick Johnston and Shawn Sky, both helped me on and off the court tremendously in sorting out life and career. But the list goes on and on. I try to treat most individuals as mentors in a sense that I can learn something from everyone. Whether that be my athletic director, assistant coach or Home Depot clerk, everyone has some experience or knowledge that I want.
What is now becoming more obvious to me is the roll my parents had in forming me as a coach and person. My father the realistic perfectionist and mother the empathetic relationship builder. While I am still striving to get to their level of character, I am beginning to realize the value of the traits they have imparted on me.
VC: What has been the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?
SM: I struggle with the word hurdle. I like to think that is because I have a more opportunistic outlook on challenges but it very well could be I just haven’t had that tough of a road (yet)! Overall hard work and approaching those hurdles as a learning opportunity helps turn them into steps. Admittedly, I am only on the first few steps of my career and life.
VC: You aren’t too far removed from being a player yourself, how do you think being a recent player helps you as a coach?
SM: This actually goes both ways. I think I am able to use these experiences to approach some problems more empathetically. I find this especially relevant when dealing with the interaction between being a student, a 20-year-old and an athlete. This is a juggling act and one I feel I was semi-successful at.
That being said, I find myself saying, “I would have loved this when I was an athlete” after a failed drill or activity more than a successful one. As coaches fresh out of playing we need to remember that each athlete is very different from one another and ourselves as an athlete. Your coaching your athletes, not who you were as an athlete.
VC: How does playing differ from coaching for you?
SM: If you ask my players it’s not the amount you sweat!
I think it’s the feeling of control. I always felt quite in control of a match as an athlete and setter, maybe this was more ego than anything. I think as a coach you trust your athletes to control the match, and that the work you did prior to is going to be enough for them to be successful. This is something I am trying to come to terms with, especially communicating that trust to my athletes.
I currently find myself carrying losses a lot heavier than when I was an athlete. Still looking to get to the root of this and fix or manage it. Always open to suggestions!
VC: Coaching the SAIT Trojans, you quickly had success, medalling in each of your three years there including a gold medal. How were you able to have that success so quickly, and how can you bring that over to the University of Saskatchewan?
SM: At the risk of being a terrible interviewee, I rarely describe my time at SAIT as successful in terms of outcome. I was successful in building relationships, growing the program and learning. I hope I helped some athletes grow as players and individuals but in terms of medals, there was still work to be done. Work which I think Dallas Soonias will get done!
I have found very little similarities in the two jobs and their environments. I think my ability to be malleable and let go of an idea that may have previously worked will be more important than actually porting information over to the Huskies. I think if I can keep consistent on my values when they are tested I will be able to see some of the same “success.”
Patience will also be key in getting to a similar level of success. The recruiting and development game are much different at the CCAA level and favour faster changes. I think things will take a little longer with the Huskies, especially with some of what the program has been through.
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?
SM: I feel as though a personal life is an interest that sharply conflicts with coaching. My fiancée and I are learning every day and season what it takes to make it all work, and we don’t even have kids yet! Wait… maybe that’s a hurdle! Communication, compromise and excessive planning seem to be what I have picked up from fellow coaches with much more experience in this realm than I.
VC: What are you most proud of in your coaching career?
SM: Career wise, I am quite proud that I joined U SPORTS at the age of 28 but that is mostly a personal accomplishment. In terms of successful events or moments, I vividly recall instances of athletes opening up and expressing how I may have helped them on or off the court. These moments hit me pretty hard. Getting an 18-24-year-old male to open up and share some vulnerability is pretty powerful and no small feat in my mind!
VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?
SM: Outcome wise, there is no doubt I want a U SPORTS championship and hopefully coach and manage a highly-regarded program. But I think my “why” is more grounded in helping young people grow up (even if I am at the same time) and creating something people get joy from being a part of.
I ask myself pretty frequently if I would like to or can coach at the next level, national team or professionally. Right now I don’t see that as a necessary step to accomplishing my “why” but that “why” seems to change every once in a while.
VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?
SM: Work hard, people are relying on you. Build healthy relationships in your volleyball community, this will help you personally, professionally and make things much more fun. Learn from everyone, if you’re the smartest person in the room, change the topic or change your mindset because you’re not.
VC: What do you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?
SM: I think I will be better suited to answer this question in 10 years. But one thing I would time machine back and tell myself, is put your ego aside start listening and learning.
Interview by Josh Bell