For as long as student-athletes have competed in university sports across Canada, coaches have been right there alongside them every step of the journey.
Leaders of their craft and mentors to the next generation – many even former varsity athletes themselves – they relish the opportunity to give back to their communities.
“All the mentors, all the people that have supported me, that have helped, that have given me advice…it’s been a great part of who I am, how I raise my kids, and how I operate with friends and family.”
Charles Kissi - Former U SPORTS Men's Basketball Head Coach (Ryerson Rams, Brock Badgers)
As the largest employer of coaches in Canada, U SPORTS proudly celebrates National Coaches Week, which began on Sept. 19 and wraps on Sunday. In total, there are over 700 bench bosses across the 56 member athletic programs, and 12 U SPORTS-sanctioned sports that compete annually for 21 national championships within four member conferences.
Factor in additional university sports sanctioned at the conference and institutional levels which play up to championship events through National Sport Organizations or other external governing bodies, and the number rises to 900.
No matter the stage involved, the experience is often life-changing.
“It goes beyond sport for me,” says Charles Kissi, a former basketball head coach with both the Ryerson Rams and Brock Badgers, who most recently was behind the bench of the Guelph Nighthawks for the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) Summer Series “All the mentors, all the people that have supported me, that have helped, that have given me advice…it’s been a great part of who I am, how I raise my kids, and how I operate with friends and family.”
Coaching both OUA men’s and women’s basketball over a period of seven seasons – highlighted by a national championship appearance with the Badgers in 2018 – gave Kissi the necessary skills and allowed him to build important relationships that remain to this day, helping him take the next step in his career. A former McMaster Marauder in his playing days, the Toronto native has also worked for the Raptors as an apprentice, as well as the team’s G-League Affiliate, Raptors 905, as an assistant.
Today, Kissi is using his platform as both a coach and former police officer to bring the issues of systemic racism in various parts of society to the forefront on his podcast entitled Think About it, while also launching Equity Connections, an organization focused on creating equitable workplaces and communities by providing training, consultation and policy review. In addition, Kissi supports the work of his colleagues in the recently formed Black Canadian Coaches Association (BCCA), which was announced in June and aims to celebrate coaches of colour, promote advocacy through allyship and foster a culture of networking to help create meaningful opportunities for advancement.
Lee Anna Osei, head coach of the StFX X-Women basketball squad leads the BCCA as its founder and director and has spent the last several months reaching out to various sports leaders and organizations to share the organization’s messages.
“There’s a real willingness now to stop and think critically (about) what are we doing systemically that maybe disadvantages some groups, or privileges some groups over another,” says Osei, currently in her third year behind the X-Women bench. “The first part of that is asking that question and bringing everybody to the table.”
“There’s a real willingness now to stop and think critically (about) what are we doing systemically that maybe disadvantages some groups, or privileges some groups over another.”
Lee Anna Osei - Women's Basketball Head Coach, StFX X-Women
The ex-Laurier Golden Hawk student-athlete and former OUA All-Star most recently was at the helm of The RISE Centre Academy in Brantford, Ont., within the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association. Now coaching in the AUS and U SPORTS, Osei is excited by the prospect of working with young leaders she can inspire, develop on a daily basis, and open new doors both from a social justice standpoint, as well as for fellow women.
The latter is a central objective of the inaugural U SPORTS Female Apprentice Coach Program, debuting for the 2020-21 season. Funded through Sport Canada, the new initiative aims to increase the number of females in coaching positions across Canadian universities, by matching apprentice coaches who have recently graduated, with a mentor coach.
Sarah Neufeld, a former basketball player with the Trinity Western Spartans and assistant coach with the Mount Royal Cougars, is one of 18 women across eight sports taking part in the first year of the program. After spending two seasons as a member of Nate McKibbon’s staff at MRU, Neufeld now finds herself working with the crosstown rival Calgary Dinos under head coach Damian Jennings.
“Simply using sport to get young women to a place where they feel successful and feel like they are able to take on whatever challenge they have next, that’s what coaching is for me."
Sarah Neufeld - Women's Basketball Apprentice Coach, Calgary Dinoss
Just six months after the team made an at-large berth appearance at the U SPORTS Final 8 in Ottawa, Neufeld is looking forward to leaving a foundational impact on the players.
“Simply using sport to get young women to a place where they feel successful and feel like they are able to take on whatever challenge they have next,” says Neufeld. “That’s what coaching is for me…(This program) just shows the effort and the intentionality being put behind females in coaching at a high level.”
Beyond the Female Apprentice Coach Program, U SPORTS provides other significant high-performance coaching opportunities on an annual basis.
Each year, Men’s and Women’s Hockey All-Star Teams participate in Hockey Canada events; the East-West Bowl top prospects game is organized by the Canadian University Football Coaches’ Association (CUFCA) in partnership with the CFL to showcase top draft-eligible talent; and International University Sports Federation (FISU) events like the World University Games, World University Championships and University World Cups provide the chance to represent Canada on the world stage.
“It is an outstanding lifetime opportunity and a real privilege,” says Gardiner MacDougall, head coach of the UNB Reds and the 2019 U SPORTS Men’s Hockey All-Stars. “(Especially) when you look at the outstanding coaches across our country, to get a chance to lead an amazing group of student-athletes."