Leaside Volleyball Club’s Stephane Vlachos started coaching when he first became a secondary school teacher back in 2010 and the two paths could not be any more complementary of each other.
A kinesiology undergrad at Western University, Vlachos was involved at the athletics injuries program and was placed with the men’s volleyball team as a student trainer. Being around the environment, a young Vlachos picked up information from the coaching side of the game and later, after graduating from teacher’s college, felt he had a pretty good base to be a volleyball coach. Navigating the high school system as a young and enthusiastic new teacher, he tried to make his mark by taking on as much as he could and coached for the school’s various volleyball teams for boys and girls. Through trial and error, he learning what works well with athletes including looking at the cross-section of a typical high school team that is comprises of club and non-club players and how to create an effective team that utilizes the strengths of every individual.
Looking to expand his knowledge and through fellow coaches in the high school circuit, he branched out his coaching services with Leaside Volleyball Club where has been for the last seven years. Starting his first four years as an assistant coach, he transitioned to the role of head coach. The possibility of then coaching at the provincial level spurred him into the next progression to acquire more certification. He was able to be a Team Ontario Academy over the summer which he considers a large jump forward in his coaching career where he was able to utilize his teaching background to provide instruction for the online camps.
OVA: Is there a significant difference between Stephane the coach and Stephane the teacher?
There’s a lot of overlap and it has more to do with the athletes you have in front of you. This year, I’m coaching 14U boys, so approaching 12-13 year old kids in the gym to be able to teach and instruct volleyball is not all that different from being able to do it in a phys-ed setting for a grade 9 class. I think where the coaching and the teaching differs is the outcome you’re looking for and also the structure with which you’ll achieve that. For some of the content, I’ll be working towards advanced volleyball skills, systems, higher intensity but I think the way you interact and communicate with those athletes is going to be very similar between what I do as a teacher and what I do as a coach. The message may be slightly different in the way it’s delivered is still going to be in a positive, structured and nurturing way that makes some sense for the level of the athlete that I’m working with.
Being a teacher has helped me to be a coach but the same applies the other way.
OVA: For coaching high school volleyball, how do you manage a team that integrates both club level volleyball players and those who may be relatively new to the sport?
From (high school) coaches that I’ve run into, they’ve definitely run into that challenge a lot. Personally, I’ve been very fortunate in that many of the athletes I’ve had have been very understanding when they are on the same team with players that may not be of the same ability that they are. What I’ve found is… if the opportunity exists, you give them a leadership role that they can help some of those other players along the instruction that we are doing. Empowering your athletes that have more experience helps build those relationships with those that haven’t had the training and ultimately helps with the team chemistry. Those players don’t feel like they’re on the outside of the team and everyone is looking out for each other.
That team cohesion is something I’ve really focused on from the start so that any differences in skill or difficulties in personality complexes can be more easily navigated because the culture with one team and one goal can be better understood; they find different motivations to make it work as long as they understand the bigger picture.
OVA: Who have been your mentors along the way?
When I started early on, I approached it more as a phys-ed teacher so more of my mentors would have been more involved in that field. One of my instructors at teacher’s college, Carolyn Temertzoglou really set me up well in understanding the role of a phys-ed teacher and all the ways you could potentially impact students both positively and negatively depending on what your outlook was like and what you could bring to the table. Carolyn and her husband, Ted, are two well respected among Toronto’s teaching circles who I would count as two of my mentors.
One of the lasting ideas that I’ve since implemented in my coaching - that initially started off as a teaching mantra – is the student/athlete will not care how much you know until they know how much care. I used that as a guiding principle; why should this young person be listening and believing what I say if they don’t believe that I’ve got their back, their best intentions at heart and that we’re on the same side. I’m here to support them with their success also being my success.
That message is something that to this day, 12-13 years later, I still have stuck in my head and is something that I’ve passed on to younger teachers and coaches when I’m talking to them about why my philosophy is or how I’m able to have successful and strong relationships with some of my athletes. It’s being genuine with them, showing how much you care and then they’ll show respect and will want to know what it is you want to coach them.
OVA: What are your coaching goals?
For an actual quantitative-based idea as a coach I would like to get my Advanced Development certification and be able to coach a successful 18U level team that reaches Provincials and Nationals.
In terms of what impact I believe I can actually have as a coach, is if I can leave a lasting idea of positivity, of growth, of good memories and good experiences and maybe a few life lessons learned from being on volleyball teams that I’ve coached. That and personal character development is really the big goal of the coaching that I do. It’s also one of the reasons I teach phys-ed because I think there’s a lot of space and ability for you to be able to impact students on a more personal level. Sport is a wonderful vehicle to get kids to do a lot of self-discovery and challenge themselves and figure out what they can do and can’t do right now.
From the results standpoint, there’s all these great things; furthering my accreditation, working with a National program and working up the ladder of the athlete development within the OVA. Those are all personal goals that I would love and will keep working towards though they may be long term. On the short term – practice to practice, competition to competition – I want to create an environment that’s both positive and challenging for the athletes that I coach so when their time in volleyball is done, they can look back on it and say those were great years and that’s where I learned x, y and z about myself.
OVA: Has your mantra been the sole guiding philosophy, or have you tried to implement others in your coaching? Did some just not work?
I think because of the timing of when that message was communicated to me – I was just starting out as a teacher – that was one of the main ideas that Carolyn and Ted wanted to pass along to us. It’s one of those ‘if you remember nothing else from this particular class or session, please make a note and try to remember this because it will be a guiding principle’. Not to say that it hasn’t had some bumps along the road; you’re doing your best to show empathy, compassion and the best interest for that player is at your heart, but you’re not playing them as much as they’d like, parents get upset…all of those challenges that come across as part of a volleyball team and season is just the nature of the sport.
That message sometimes gets a little muffled, so it’s important for me to check back in and reflect and say ‘this is still what I believe, it’s still what I’m trying to do’ even though I might have a difficult situation with the team, player, parent, etc. In the long term it’s much more about creating an atmosphere that is welcoming for all the players and still taking account for what the group as a whole is trying to accomplish – not just any one individual player. So, there’s a little bit of a balancing act with that philosophy.
OVA: What’s the most important thing a coach from learn from a coach?
If not for that idea of showing empathy and caring and making sure you connect well with the players in front of you, I would probably say that relationships – especially between a coach and players – need to be founded in mutual respect. I think it’s easy given that coaches are usually put in a higher position of responsibility and degree of influence for them to just assume that they will say this thing and it will be understood, respected and done, not recognizing that there’s still an element and human nature of buy in. I need to recognize what you’re saying is important and I also need to believe that what you’re saying is what is going to be best for me. The tangent to that idea of making sure that they know how much you care so they’ll care how much you know is founded in mutual respect and finding a way to have positive and productive communication even when there are challenges.
I have found more recently with the generation of athletes we’ve been working with, it is very difficult to get that buy in if there’s the automatic assumption of respect. To some degree it does need to be earned but that will quickly fade away if that relationship is not nurtured.
OVA: What’s the most important thing an athlete from learn from a coach?
The value of hard work and a strong work ethic. One of the big culture pieces that I’m trying to implement with my teams is practicing at an intensity and a level that will serve you in a game. I also talk about it with the students that I work with. When you’re practicing something or trying to develop a skill, there has to be an element of doing it with intention and purpose and understanding what it is you want to get out of it; not simply doing something for the sake of doing it.
I think that strongly ties in with work ethic because those people that have a naturally strong ethic don’t have to make that connection, but for those that have a harder time recognizing that need to realize they will have to work at it. I have seen many high-level and talented athletes that have not been as successful as they wanted to be, could have been or should have been, simply because at some point they plateaued when things got challenging and they weren’t able to respond to keep pushing and progressing. When I’m working with younger athletes, I reiterate that idea of work hard for things that you really want because you can always work hard even when you’re very skilled. Working hard is always something that you have within your control.
OVA: Were those some of the ideas that you were taught when you played volleyball in high school?
Oh it took me a long time to learn those lessons. Our high school program was not very successful; we had it two of the five years I was there. There was no actual volleyball coach, it was a teacher – bless her. She gave us an opportunity to play volleyball and to play against other schools and travel so it was wonderful to have that experience but my volleyball learning and instruction has been self-directed from early on. I taught myself and learned a lot and observed and it’s only now that I’ve been involved in the sport for some years that I’m really getting more professional about doing my development and purposeful in the things I want to accomplish and do. That lesson of hard work came more from the teaching side of things than the coaching side.
OVA: What are some memorable moments from your involvement with volleyball?
It was my second year of coaching club. We were coaching 14U girls and we’d had some turnover in the group – a headstrong group – had mixed results, a lot of outside observers said things like ‘you should be really talented’, ‘this group is going to be very good, they have the potential’…very complimentary on the surface but underlying that we’re not quite there yet. We hadn’t had a great finish at Provincials, not a terrible result but a little disappointing based on the goals we had set and what we thought we could accomplish. We singed up for West Nationals in Winnipeg and at some point during that tournament, our girls started to just play together and mesh together and you could see the quality of their play just increase with every match. It wasn’t without some interventions and some serious talks about how things are functioning and where they needed to be mentally, so while it was difficult on that front it paid off for us with the results on the court. We ended up with a silver medal but more importantly we saw them unlock a little bit of potential and the joy from the girls on the plane ride home and the big celebration when we landed in Toronto was a great feeling. It was great feeling to see that for the girls to be able to have that level of success and to discover that in themselves.
OVA: Why do you keep coaching?
It enjoy coaching a lot. It complements my teaching in some ways, it gives my teaching variety in some ways because of the similarities but also in the differences of the people who I instruct in the two fields. Coaching is the fun one; it’s leisure, it’s where I take my own time out of my day to be able to do that and work with those athletes and other coaches. It’s always changing and I can always learn something new, so from that perspective it will always be appealing and it also helps me keep young also. By that I mean it keeps me informed on the challenges they’re facing and understanding the subculture that exists.
National Coaches Week is being celebrated from September 19-27, 2020! Join us as we highlight coaches from Ontario who's commitments and devotion to the game has made great impacts on the programs and players they have been involved with and taught.
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For coaches, there are free and discounted NCCP courses that can be attended as well. Visit https://www.coachesontario.ca/events/coachesweek/ to find out how else you can get involved this National Coaches Week.