Jan the 07 Corporate
Coach Profile: Tania Harrison
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With nearly 25 years of coaching experience, Tania Harrison struggles to narrow down her coaching highlights – there have been too many.
The Saskatchewan coach played for the University of Regina in her post-secondary days, starting to coach at the club and provincial levels before she finished her playing career. She has spent a number of summers coaching Team Saskatchewan in the Canada Games, including as an assistant coach in 2001 and head coach in 2005 and 2013.
Her loyalty to the University of Regina kept her with the school, serving as an assistant coach with the women’s for a large portion of her coaching career. She’s the head coach of Volleyball Canada’s Regional Excellence Program in Regina, and has served on the coaching staff for Youth, Junior, and Senior National Teams.
Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Harrison about her coaching career and some general thoughts on coaching in the sport.
Volleyball Canada: Let’s start off at the beginning, how did you begin your coaching career?
Tania Harrison: I was always in the sports environment, and I always loved it. I gravitated towards being a leader with a lot of the teams I was on, including being voted captain and I just looked for those leadership positions when I was an athlete. So I think that naturally lent itself towards coaching. Plus, when I first started coaching I was still competing for Regina and I liked the idea of it, it helped me become a more intelligent player because I was able to see the game through a different lens. I think it was my third year of university when I started coaching club level and then got into provincial coaching in my last year playing, which would have been in 1999. But that was the first year that I applied to be a provincial team coach and I ended up with a Bachelor of Education, so being a teacher, coaching the provincial team in July and August when you have the summers off was a pretty easy bit for me. I haven’t had a year since university that I haven’t coached. The first year I coached was about ’97, so we’re just about at 25 years here. That’s pretty crazy.
VC: Did anyone in particular help you in the journey to coaching?
TH: Honestly, volleyball wasn’t my chosen sport when I was younger. I barely made my grade 9 volleyball team. I was terrible - probably should have been cut. But I figured that if I was an athlete, athletes play volleyball. Then going into grade 10, I was like alright, this is embarrassing, I don’t want to be terrible at a sport. So I went to a couple summer camps and then they were actually short players on the senior team so somehow I made the senior volleyball team in grade 10 after being horrible in grade 9. The senior girls’ volleyball coach, his name was Brad Hennenfent, became quite an influential person in my life at a young age and has been a life-long mentor for me. He was probably the first person that introduced me to teaching appropriate skills and just teaching the game and I started to love it. He was someone that helped me improve as an athlete, to have the opportunities at the U Sports level and then through U Sports, it was a grind. I had to work hard to be on the same level as the competition. I never really saw meaningful playing time until probably my third year. From a mental and emotional standpoint, Brad really helped me to keep working hard and keep focused on working towards the goals that I had as an athlete. Now, Brad and I have coached provincial teams together, we coached Canada Games together, we go golfing in the summer quite frequently. The relationship has evolved and changed and he’s definitely been a big part of contributing to the person that I am today and being a coach too. He was the first real coach that I had that had a positive influence and impact on me.
VC: Do you have anyone you’d consider a mentor?
TH: It would definitely be Brad. Then, as I working on my levels with coaching, after I started working with the provincial team I was looking at the NCCP process and I had some goals, including coaching in a Canada Games. Working towards the certifications I needed, I worked with Anne Cote. She was a very influential person to take my coaching to the next level. I was coaching the provincial team in my 20s and she was in her 40s, so she brought some much-needed maturity to the coaching staff. We still remain in touch and she works now with Dr. Lorne Sawula with ASPIRE Volleyball - he’s a former National Team coach. Lorne was probably a bit of a mentor too, he was kicking around a lot with my university coach and then also with Anne, so I had kind of a connection with him. Not on a regular basis, but he did come in an mentor me as well.
VC: You are the lead coach of the Volleyball Canada Regional Excellence Program in Regina. What does that entail?
TH: Number one, I think it’s a really important program to provide athletes that have aspirations, regardless of the club or school that they go to. The opportunity to train on a consistent basis and work on skills, especially at a current level or standard. I recruit coaches, that’s a big part of my job because in a high performance setting, the success of the program and the program delivery to the athletes is very much around the expertise that you have in the gym. I have a bunch of young, ambitious coaches that are working with athletes. Athletes seem to really be drawn to that. I recruit coaches, book facilities, advertise, run our Instagram. I try to do highlights on graduated athletes, doing little spotlights on them.
We have close to 30 athletes now that have been through our program that are playing post-secondary. I think that’s really impressive, especially just as Southern Saskatchewan, not even including the North. A lot of the athletes that come through, that’s part of their goals. I think we provide a service for them to take their games to the next level. And maybe they don’t have the same level of coaches at their high school level or their club level but they can come to VC REP and they’re coaches by quality coaches, a lot of them are provincial coaches.
VC: You’ve held some other roles with VC, including serving as the assistant coach with the Junior National Team at the 2006 NORCECA Championships. What was that experience like?
TH: That was pretty cool. I was invited as a guest coach a couple of times before that with the Senior National Team and Junior National Team tryouts. I always had an aspiration to work with the best athletes in Canada at that level. Working with some amazing coaches that have some great ideas and just being in that community and that circle and sharing ideas, I view it as professional development and then I can gather all that information and bring it back to VC REP in Regina and share it with the athletes and coaches that I work with. Just trying to push our level and standard of volleyball in our province. It was an amazing experience. Some of those athletes just recently retired. Kyla Richey was on that team for example. There were a bunch of athletes that were in that previous grouping that are now retired but before that, watching them when they were in university, then moving on to the Senior National Team, it was just really cool to see that I had a little bit of a role in their development when they were at that junior age. We were so close that year, that was actually the first international trip that I’ve ever done with Volleyball Canada so there was a lot of learning. And then with my role, I was an assistant coach but I also took on the role of manager. ... For the competition itself, we were in the bronze medal final and just lost a very close match and that match would have qualified that group of athletes for Worlds. We were so close.
Even more cool was when I had the opportunity to work with the 2017 group that went to NORCECA. I was on that coaching staff and we went down to Tulsa and then they announced later that that group was going to be sent to Honduras for NORCECAs, but it was in the third week of September so because I was a teacher, I wasn’t able to make the trek but I worked with that group through the summer up until they had to leave. When they left for Honduras, they qualified for Worlds went the following year in Egypt. That was really neat and brought back a lot of nostalgia from the 2006 group. Fortunately, this time around, they qualified, which was pretty huge. Women’s volleyball - the pipeline is really exciting right now.
VC: You spent a long time with the University of Regina, including playing from 1994 to 1999 and then coaching for a number of years. Looking back at your time with U of R, what was it that kept you tied to the school?
TH: I think I’m just a very loyal person, so that’s a big part of it. It’s in my nature. Just being alumni and wanting to make a difference with that program. It hasn’t been a perennial successful program, such as UBC, U of A, or the Dinos and so on. So trying to bring a positive experience and work with the athletes to bring success to that program was a big motivation for me. And while I was there, we did make some pretty big strides in that area which was great.
VC: Do you have any standout memories from your time coaching with U of R?
TH: I think the biggest thing that I value are the relationships with the volleyball community. I was an assistant coach there for 12 years, so it would have been essentially three cycles of athletes that would have gone through. I still have a lot of positive relationship with athletes from the team which in the bigger picture is what it’s all about. I think taking a group and then working with them for a series of three-to-five years and then seeing the progress and results improve over time is very rewarding. In 2010 or 2011 we qualified for Nationals at U of A, that group was a pretty special group. When U of R hosted in 2014 or 2015, that group was matched up with UBC in the final – they were the No. 1 team coming into the tournament – and we went five sets with them and I believe the fifth set was 16-18 and it was back and forth. We had them. That would have been such a sweet win. It was very close. That was a very special group and in our home gym, that was special.
VC: What has been the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?
TH: I think as a female coach, applying for positions and then not getting them even though your qualifications and experiences are superior. I think that when that’s happened to me, and it’s happened two or three times where I’ve interviewed for positions and haven’t gotten them, the only thing that it does is it ignites in me a "what’s the next thing I can do?" thought process. The year I started with the Youth National Team, there was a coaching position in Saskatchewan that I applied for, didn’t get it, and my response was to apply for the National Team program – and then I got it. There are lots of opportunities, lots of doors, and if one door shuts, it doesn’t mean the end of coaching if you love the sport and if you have a passion for it – and I would say that’s me.
More opportunities are starting to happen for younger coaches, and I think that’s awesome. I think the other big hurdle is that I’m still looking for my ultimate goal of being a full-time, professional coach. So we’ll see.
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?
TH: I’m an avid outdoors person. Whatever the season, I’m pretty active. In the summer, I do a lot hiking, a lot of mountain biking, I golf. In the winter, I downhill ski – which is hilarious because I live in Saskatchewan. But I go to the mountains quite a bit, I love the mountains. A lot of the things I love to do are in that area. In Saskatchewan, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice fishing. I’m also a certified ski patroller. I patrol at our local hill here just outside of Regina. I teach and outdoor pursuits class at the school where I teach at too. I take students on experiences such as five-day canoe trips up north. Most people think I’m crazy. But the dynamic of working with groups, teaching skills, and seeing students work towards improving their skills to a level where they can go test themselves in nature, I think there are a lot of parallels with coaching so I think that’s why I like that environment.
VC: What are you most proud of in your coaching career?
TH: I teach at Campbell Collegiate in Regina and when I came here I started with the junior girls and then moved to the senior girl’s team in 2017. Then in 2018 and 2019 the group that I started with at the junior girl’s level, we ended up winning provincials in back-to-back years. Working with that group of athletes for three-to-four years and then for them to bring it all together and perform – and many are now off playing at U Sports or college levels now and having success – I think that’s a highlight for me. Another highlight would be when we went to Tulsa with the Junior National Team in 2017, that was a pretty big highlight. Coaching Canada Games at home in 2005, we played against Team Alberta and beat them in five and I think there was over 2000 fans in the stands. You couldn’t find an empty seat. That was pretty cool. And then in 2006 going to Monterrey, Mexico with Team Canada was a highlight – there have been lots of highlights!
VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches? Perhaps something you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?
TH: It’s ok to admit you don’t have all the answers. I think as a young coach, we sometimes think we have it all figured out, I know I did too. Understand that the focus is on the athletes and their process versus wins and losses and your ego. I think working with a more experienced mentor coach, there’s so much to learn. ... There’s a balance between working hard and enjoying and creating those lifelong relationships with your athletes and with your coaches. Coach with people you enjoy being around. You put in a lot of hours so if you’re spending those hours with people that you don’t see eye-to-eye with, it tends to be a bit of a grind. If you want to be involved with something where you’re going to be challenged every single day, then coaching is for you.
- Interview by Josh Bell