Had it not been for his deteriorating eyesight, Michael Ling may have never gotten involved in high-performance volleyball.
The women’s volleyball head coach didn’t play the sport competitively growing up, instead harbouring dreams of a career as a jet fighter in the military.
Now, he finds himself at the helm of the Queen’s varsity program, after spending over a decade with one of Canada’s top university teams.
Ling started coaching the Gaels this season, having served as an assistant coach with the Alberta Pandas since 2000. He won a CIS national championship with the Pandas in 2007.
Born in Malaysia and raised in Edmonton, the self-professed “bookworm” became interested in volleyball by watching his friends who played in high school.
“I was always a small boy in a big man’s sport,” Ling said.
Instead of athletic pursuits, he had aspirations of joining the military as a young man. He joined the Loyal Edmonton Regiment reserve unit after high school and entertained the idea of signing up with an airborne regiment, but financial and political developments cast a negative light on joining the Canadian Forces, he said.
Instead, he pursued a Bachelor of Education at the University of Alberta — and began volunteering at a local high school, working with the senior boys’ volleyball team.
The next year, he was invited to take over the girls’ team, and succeeded despite his admittedly limited knowledge.
“I came up with this simplistic system, [and] we ended up being really successful — went to city championships, went to provincials two or three years in a row,” he said.
Ling eventually went into coaching at the club level, opening a door to join Alberta as an assistant in 2000. When Pandas head coach Laurie Eisler called Ling with an offer of employment, he accepted without hesitation.
“I just thought to myself, when the University of Alberta Pandas come calling, you really don’t say no,” he said.
“It was a very scary experience. I was basically a glorified ball-shagger for many years before I even had the courage to say anything technical.”
The Pandas are a force in women’s volleyball. Ling joined on as an assistant coach just after the team was coming off a string of six straight CIS championships, won between 1995-2000.
“We were in a rebuilding phase at that time. Still had a very good team, but it wasn’t a national championship team at that point,” he said. “I came in as a club coach, a high school coach — not really knowing much of anything.”
Fourteen years later, the father of two has come to Kingston with a little more confidence and a clear vision for the Gaels.
“I came into this program and heard a lot of talk about [how] the goal is to win OUAs,” he said. “I said, ‘what about the national championship?’ That’s the pinnacle. That was always our goal at U of A. You’re going for everything.”
The first-year head coach said he’s driven by a particular will to win — and to win soon.
“People have told me that takes time, and I know it does take time, but there’s always a level of impatience,” Ling added. “That pushes me, and I want to instill some of that drive and that motivation into these young women that are coming into university volleyball.”
No longer the timid assistant coach of yesteryear, Ling has developed a hands-on style of coaching.
“I like to bang balls and I’ll toss balls in. I’ll control the tempo of the drills,” he said. “In many ways I think coaching is that — to create situations for your athletes such that they’re feeling pressure … or dialing it back a bit so they can actually get some good quality reps to really see how it should look.”
In games, Ling said he focuses much of his attention on the opposing team.
“I know my team, because I spend every day with them so I’m pretty confident what package we bring in,” he said.
The Gaels are 11-6 with two games left in their season: one tonight against the McMaster Marauders (14-3) and tomorrow against the Guelph Gryphons (9-8).
The women sit fourth in the East, which would mean a tough first-round playoff matchup against the Toronto Varsity Blues (17-0).
Ling said he’s optimistic that some of the athletes who pass through his program will continue to play competitively.
“My hope and my goal is to not just give them the university experiences, but to set them up to go to the national team or to find a pro contract in Europe,” he said.
“Work will always be there, career will always be there — but volleyball as a capable athlete won’t always be there when you’re a 30-something.”
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