Student-coaches steer their peers

The trials, tribulations and occasional perks of student-run sports teams

Darryl McGrath is a member of the Queen’s mountain biking team coached by third-year student Cam Robertston.
Darryl McGrath is a member of the Queen’s mountain biking team coached by third-year student Cam Robertston.
Ian Myles, Sci ‘07, is the head coach of the Nordic Ski team.
Ian Myles, Sci ‘07, is the head coach of the Nordic Ski team.

The pre-competition routine for most athletes is pretty basic. Check your equipment; pack some spare
socks and maybe a snack. For a student-athlete, that plan might include bringing along a textbook to read on the bus ride home. But what if the routine also included picking up the rental van or arranging or athletes to illet with families for the weekend? These are examples of the added challenges tackled by the student-athlete coaches of the Nordic ski team, the mountain biking team and a handful of other Queen’s teams.

Ian Myles, Sci ’07, is the head coach of the men’s and women’s Nordic ski teams.

The ski team is considered an Ontario University Athletics (OUA) club—not a varsity team—but they
are the highest level of university skiing. Now in his fourth year with the team, Myles has taken over the coaching and administrative duties that, on most other teams, are handled by a professional coach or a manager. He said his experience with the team has helped him transition smoothly into his new role. “It’s definitely a little more time commitment, but being on the team for four years definitely helps with managing that time commitment.” He said he spends 10 to 15 hours per week with the team. At the end of his second year at Queen’s, Myles was approached by his coaches and asked if he
was interested in taking on the position of assistant coach the following year.

Myles has no formal coaching training and the team doesn’t hold any kind of training session.

“The experience just comes from years and years of doing the sport and competing at a high level,”
he said. Both Nordic skiing and mountain biking follow the same steps in choosing their coaches. Every year, the head coach selects a third-year athlete to act as assistant coach who then takes over the head coaching job the following year. “I guess I took it because I wanted to support the team,” Myles said. “I’ve had a lot of great coaches since I started with the team, and it seemed like a good a way to give back to the skiing community,” he said, adding that he was surprised at the scope of the position he took. “I’ve noticed that there are duties that come that you wouldn’t necessarily think of.”

Myles is responsible for the maintenance of the team’s waxing equipment, including storing it for the summer; picking up uniforms and returning them to the PEC before and after every meet; and organizing all aspects of the team’s travel and accommodations. And all the while trying to make the best use of whatever funding the team receives from Queen’s Athletics. “There have been definite
budget constraints over the years,” he said. “For the last four years I’ve been here, we haven’t had the budget to stay in hotels.”

This means that, before the team can go anywhere, Myles must find families in the host city willing to take in athletes for the weekend. Cam Robertson, ArtSci ’08 and head coach of the mountain biking teams, said his team relies on the university administration to rent cars and vans to get to meets. Janean Sergeant, Queen’s interuniversity co-ordinator, said each club gets a grant at the beginning of the year proportionate to its projected yearly expenses. “If, for example they’re doing something every week, then they’d be at the top of the grant list. If they only compete three or four times a year, their grant would reflect that.” But Robertson said athletes still bear the worst of the financial
burden of the season. “If an athlete went to every race, they would probably be looking at around $300 [for the season].” Because the teams are classifiedas OUA and competitive clubs, they are responsible for ensuring that, at the end of year, the team is in the black. Sergeant said Queen’s covers all expenses for qualifying events and championships but teams cover the rest of their costs with their grant and any fundraising they choose to do throughout the year.“We want to make sure that
they’re not cutting corners on those [events] and that they’re well rested to go for the banner.”

Larger sports like football and basketball get funding for travel and accommodations, and receive a meal subsidiary meant to cover some of the cost of food for away events. Queen’s Athletics also contributes money to out-of-province trips like training camps.

Apart from travel expenses, Robertson said his team deals very little with the athletics department.

“Because of the way our team is run, we’re fairly independent,” he said. “We train outside so we don’t
need gym time or ice time.” Sergeant said this independence is one of the things that makes student-coached teams such a beneficial part of the Queen’s Athletics family. “There are lots of local ways for
them to develop.” She said that, because a lot of their competitions are relatively close to home, they are able to keep their sports alive on a small budget.

“The reason why we have [student-coached teams] in the first place is that they’re usually sports where it’s almost impossible to find a leader within the community.” Myles acknowledges the help he has received from the administration as a whole. “Administratively, we get a lot of support. [Nordic skiing] comes across as a team Queen’s wants to continue putting on snow.”

All student-coaches sign an annual contract with Queen’s Athletics outlining their duties as coaches as well as guidelines to follow to help them adjust to their responsibilities. All coaches also receive yearly evaluations from their athletes. The administration compiles the evaluations into a report for each team, and Sergeant goes through it with each coach at the end of the year. “It allows a coach to develop, and if there are any problems, they can be pointed out to help them grow as a coach,” she said. All Queen’s Athletics coaches receive an honorarium of at least $100. While only two coaches
are employed full-time, many others receive salaries beyond their honorarium.

Bill Sparrow, interuniversity co-ordinator, refused to say how much money specific teams receive
for coaching staff. Myles isn’t paid anything beyond his honorarium. Despite the added responsibilities of being a coach and an athlete at the same time, Myles said that, if the team ever gets an increase in their funding, hiring a coach is not at the top of its list of priorities.

“I like the system we have now in terms of coaching,” he said. “I think there are other things that
are more pressing.” He said he would sooner spend any money the team has on travel expenses and equipment for the athletes. Both coaches said that, during their years at least, there haven’t been any major conflicts between coaches and athletes in terms of exercising authority over people who are, essentially, their peers.

“Luckily, we’ve never run into a situation where we’ve had to discipline someone,” Robertson said.
On the contrary, he said he thinks the closeness in age of the athletes and coaches creates a dynamic that isn’t always possible with an older coach. “It’s really kind of helpful, [other athletes] being the same age as you because they can understand what you’re going through,” he said. Sergeant said she thinks the position is a great opportunity for students to develop real-world skills.

Myles agreed. “I’ve actually really enjoyed coaching the team this year,” he said. “I definitely found things out about myself in terms of leadership qualities.”

He added that the experience has led him to consider continuing to coach the sport after he graduates.
Myles credits the commitment of the athletes with keeping the team as strong as it has been in the past. “We have a great program, but it takes some dedicated students to keep it going.”

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