In December of 2019, I was approached by Mark Smith (Head Coach) and Scott Willgress (Head Strength & Conditioning Coach), asking if I would be interested in travelling south of the border for eight weeks to help train the Canadian Women’s Olympic Softball Team leading up to the 2020 Olympic Games. I had known Scott and Mark for a few years prior to this and have always followed their team, so when they asked me to join, it was a huge honour. For those who are not aware, Softball made its return to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Knowing that softball will not be in the next Olympic cycle, for many of these women it is their last dance before retiring from the sport they’ve played since they were little girls. In 2020, COVID had other plans and the games were postponed until this summer. Although disappointing at the time, this allowed the team another 365 days of preparation, which many of the players and staff will admit ended up being a blessing in disguise. Thankfully, the opportunity to work with this world class organization still presented itself this summer and I was able to join the team from May to July before they departed for Tokyo.
Leading up to this experience, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous. I was flying to another country, unvaccinated, in the middle of a pandemic. It was a unique situation where Scott would be heading home for seven weeks to see his family and train other Olympians. This meant I would be responsible for leading all strength & conditioning services while he was gone with a team that I had only met once previously. Given that this was only a couple of months leading up to the biggest sporting event of these women’s lives, my main thought was “just soak it all in and don’t screw it up”. Now writing this eight weeks later, I can safely say that I survived, and I don’t think I screwed anything up (that I know of at least).
There are many lessons that I took away from this experience, which made it difficult when deciding which direction to take this article. However, after reflecting and talking with other coaches, I decided it would be best to discuss three pieces of advice that I would offer to coaches who may find themselves in a similar situation in their careers and are joining a new organization for the first time.
The first piece of advice I would offer based on my experience is to prepare as best you can for the environment you are about to enter. In my experience, I prepared by researching four key areas about the Canadian Women’s Olympic Softball team:
- Sport & Culture
- Purpose and Mission
Before I first met the team in March of 2020, I made it a priority to put a name to the face of every player and staff member. In my experience, when you can walk into your first session with a new team confidently knowing the athletes’ names, it makes coaching that first session much easier. It also shows the athletes and staff that you genuinely care, and an element of trust can start to form. My mentor Elliott Richardson stressed this to me since I was an intern and is advice that I give to all my interns to this day. It may sound simple, but in my opinion, first impressions are everything.
I was joining the team in year four of their Olympic cycle. Although I could never replicate having been there for the last four years, I felt it was important to try and understand how the team had reached that point. To do this, I watched film from various championships, including the game where they qualified for Tokyo. I watched player features and read articles on the team. I followed and interacted with the players on social media, where I got to see what they were up to in their day-to-day lives. I had conversations with Mark and Scott about different events and moments in their journey to this point. These little events helped as conversation starters once I was with the team and ultimately made my transition much easier.
Sport & Culture
At StFX, I am fortunate to work with seven or more different sports in the same week. Each sport is unique, whether it be the physical, technical, tactical, or psychological skills that it takes to play the sport or the cultural norms that surround it. In my experience, I believe it is important that, as strength coaches, we take a global approach to trying to understand how all the pieces fit together. This is especially important if you have never played or worked with the sport before, which in my case, I had not. Fortunately, I had Scott Wilgress to lean on for this and we spent many meetings talking about the team, the sport, and what I could expect going into this experience.
Purpose and Mission
When I had my first meeting with Mark Smith back in December of 2019, it was very clear what the team’s mission was, and that was to win a gold medal. Every decision that we made as a staff was to be made with the intention of putting these 15 women in the best possible position to accomplish this mission when they step on the field in Tokyo July 21st.
The second piece of advice I would offer is knowing your role and leaving your ego at the door. I think one challenging part about entering a new environment is feeling that you need to prove you belong. As mentioned earlier, I was only coming into this environment as a relief coach for eight weeks. Scott had spent the last 4.5 years preparing the team for the mission and he was the captain. The team had full trust in his system, so all I needed to do was help keep the ship afloat. Although that may sound easy, I knew going in that we were about to take on one of the most challenging phases of their entire Olympic journey. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “smooth seas never made a skilled sailor” and in this experience we took on a stormy sea. During this phase we spent eight weeks in a bubble where most athletes and staff could only communicate with their friends and family via facetime. We spent many days practicing for long hours in the blistering heat, and when it wasn’t hot, it was raining. On top of this, we were performing a phase of French contrast, which many of you reading this know is one of the higher nervous system demanding phases you can do. As a team we developed a philosophy that we were diving into the pit, and it was going to take all twenty-five of us to help climb back out. Fortunately, we were all able to make it out, but it wasn’t without a few scars. This was one of my most memorable coaching experiences, as I got to see the sacrifices elite athletes make to reach the pinnacle of their sport.
Looking back, if I had come into this experience trying to make it about me, trying to prove my worth, I wouldn’t have lasted a week. There were three skills that I found vital to helping me through this challenging phase: the ability to listen, the ability to adapt, and the ability to communicate. Listening was a critical skill, as I needed to begin to understand the athletes. Within our group, we had women who were in their early twenties, mid-thirties, and in one case, early forties. These women had experienced a lot throughout their careers, so it was important for me to listen and understand that to ultimately adapt and communicate as necessary. In our field, rarely does plan A ever go as planned which proved true in this experience as we were constantly adapting, whether it was due to time, weather, facilities, or other reasons. When this happens, your ability to communicate clearly and concisely becomes vital as every detail matters to these athletes.
The last piece of advice I would offer is to be available and help in any way possible. For eight weeks, there were many times where I found myself doing things that had nothing to do with strength & conditioning. However, based on feedback from the staff, these moments were noted as being extremely helpful. Whether it was going to pick up food for post games, doing airport runs, picking up COVID tests, helping move equipment, or shagging balls, all of these “little moments” took added stress off the athletes and staff and allowed them to do what they do best.
As you have probably noted, much of the information provided in this article has little to do with the x’s and o’s of strength & conditioning. Although this may be true, I believe the information provided can help lay the foundation for success when entering a new environment. In my experience, these “soft skills” proved to be even more important when working with Olympians, as these athletes have put everything on the line to pursue their dream of becoming Olympic gold medalists.
Josh Crouse is currently entering his 4th year as the Head of Sports Performance at StFX University. Josh is responsible for the oversight of all twelve varsity teams and serves as an instructor in the Human Kinetics Department where he teaches courses in Weight Training and Sports Science.