The longest serving coach at the University of Ottawa has brought great success to the women’s volleyball program in recent years. Lionel Woods started with the Gee-Gees 25 years ago as the assistant coach and athletic therapist. He never played a game of volleyball in his life, but took on the head coaching position in 1992 and has never looked back.
The Fulcrum: When speaking to the team, they always mention how much respect they have for you. How do you build this respect as a coach?
Lionel Woods: When I started coaching, we had a family atmosphere, a family philosophy. It’s not just about the sport. The girls have school, they have life, they are paying for their education, they are paying to be here—there’s got to be more of a reason to be here instead of just the sport. We tell them that’s how we coach—we build our schedules, from our practices to how we even manage our practices and our demands. There is always a discussion with the captains, vets, and our rookies on how we live our lives as well, how we make our decisions to adjust to the life of students. Because of that, the little decisions we make—how we talk to people, how we make decisions to take a night off or practice again—it’s all based on the same philosophy. I hope that’s what fosters respect both ways.
Do you give motivational speeches?
Sport psychology is day-to-day and I’m sure my athletes would tell me that I talk too much and that’s just what coaches do. I think that every day, our staff or myself always do little motivational things. Sometimes it’s a speech, sometimes it’s an action. And I think that’s pretty consistent at match time, too. Sometimes at a match, the most motivation is less speech. We do have a pregame ritual that at certain times we have a little conversation, and sometimes I am a little more emotional than others, but I say my thing 45 minutes before the match and that’s it, then it’s their turn. Having said that, I am a really emotional coach and I get involved in the match. I like getting involved in the excitement. That’s the fun of it, and so it’s a big part of how we coach for sure.
What made you coach women’s volleyball?
An accident. I was going to be a teacher because I wanted to coach. I had no intention of going to the University of Ottawa. I was going to go to Laval University to play soccer, and I came here for a year and took on coaching a volleyball class with the head coach at the time. He could clearly tell that I loved coaching and the concept of it, but I knew nothing about volleyball, nothing. I was not a volleyball player, that’s not where I came from. So I think that’s why I love coaching it. I’m not sick of volleyball. Coaching was why I did it. It’s very technical individually, skills-wise, it’s very Xs and Os—it’s a fun challenge. It’s really exciting to do it for a living. It’s a hobby for me that turned into something great.
Do you come into each season thinking you’ll win nationals or do you come in thinking you’re going to build off last year?
To be perfectly honest, my job is to recruit so that an Ontario championship is possible every year. That’s what I think my job is and because of that, my players are at my mercy on that one. Depending on where they are in their career, they all have their individual goal as part of that process. If you are a rookie, you may not be the one I am leaning on to win that championship for that year, but your role is to be a part of a championship team. When you’re the one playing, you were a part of that and you will continue it.
Do you remember everyone who’s played for you?
It’s a family atmosphere and it’s pretty hard to forget any one single player. Over 25 years, we don’t have 100 alumni. We graduate one to four players a year, so that is still less than 100 in my career. That’s not a lot. I have pictures in my office, and history and traditions are important to me. I do a lot of those things because I want the players to have the tradition. But it’s also for me, too; I like thinking back and remembering those people. Our players are great with checking up with us at least once a year and sending us family pictures and baby pictures. That is a fun part of this whole thing, too.
What has changed in the dynamic of the team from this year since last year?
By the time last year’s group finished, we did a lot of things together. It was one of the first groups in a long time that won a bronze, silver, and gold all in the same year. That was a really good formula. Whatever it was, we’re trying to think: what did they go through, what did they learn, how did they grow, how did they start to play better together over that time, what was the mould of the formula of those athletes? No group is the same, but we are trying to remould that and do that again to some extent. It’s the same, but it’s different because people have different jobs. This group is very similar and I think that’s why it’s working. We are a little more successful than I expected this early. It’s looking very similar to a mature team and that’s very exciting for me.
What is left for the program and for you as a coach to accomplish?
As a coach I can honestly tell you nothing. I think that’s why I am a better coach today than 10 years ago, 15 years ago. I think winning at least one conference championship was a really big deal for me. The day the championship happened, there weren’t any better groups that were second, third, or fourth. Just little things went our way. But it’s almost as if the minute that happened, I know I took a little pressure off myself and I became a better coach from that moment on. And we won way more from that moment on. What’s left for the program is to win a national championship, and it hasn’t been done before. It would be exciting for me to give the program and school a first-ever women’s volleyball national championship.
What do you do when you get time off, if you get time off? Who do you spend it with?
Honestly, my kids. Right now, that’s the phase of my life. They are right in with being a Gee-Gee, they come to all of our games and are as excited about our wins and losses as we are. That was my goal, to involve them in that. My son and my daughter sit on the bench with us and my son went to nationals with us. If I think I am doing this because it’s a big part of character building, then what a great place for my son and daughter to get that aspect of life too.
What is your favourite sport to watch? Which team?
Hockey. I grew up playing hockey. I think the Boston Bruins.