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Head coach Steve Johnson talks about coaching the women’s soccer team

EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO head coach Steve Johnson came to the University of Ottawa in order to found the women’s soccer team. Since then, he has led the Garnet and Grey to 11 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) championships that saw the Gees earn three bronze medals and four silver, and six Ontario University Athletic championship titles.

Johnson is a firm believer in performing to the best of a team’s potential, and refuses to settle for mediocre. The Fulcrum talked with Johnson after the 2011 CIS championships to find out why he came to the U of O, what it meant to go to nationals, and what he would do if he weren’t coaching.

The Fulcrum: Why did you decide to become coach at the U of O 18 years ago?

Johnson: I used to coach the Mount Allison University soccer team when I was attending university as an undergrad and enjoyed my experience. When I moved to Ottawa in 1989, I started coaching a very talented under-18 club team. When these players graduated high school, they wanted to stay in town and play university soccer, but they did not want to go to Carleton.  They asked me if I would coach them at [the University of Ottawa]. It was a challenging experience, as this was the beginning of an exceptionally promising soccer program.

How would you describe your coaching style?

I would describe my coaching style as flexible. I will use whatever style I think fits the occasion. Different situations will require different approaches.

What did it mean for you to get back into the CIS championships after a two-year absence?

It is really important for us to get back to the CIS Championships. Going to nationals helps us to maintain the strength of the program. I want to coach talented and committed athletes. Recruits who want to play at a strong university soccer program can look at our record, both this year and over the past 18 years, and see that our program is consistently competitive. In addition to attracting great recruits, a strong program helps to attract a great coaching staff, and I think the two are drawn together in our environment.

What is your take on the coach-player relationship? How much importance do you put on it?

The coach-player relationship is very important—there has to be trust and respect …  Throughout the season, in every game and every practice, both the coach and player will do things and make decisions that will challenge the strength of that relationship … Being led by a part-time coach and a volunteer coaching staff, our soccer program is extremely vulnerable to situations and events that can disrupt a healthy and successful season. Our success in any given year depends on the staff and players getting those relationships right.

However, to be completely honest, I do not have the time to spend with each player, and so some relationships are closer than others and some are still developing.  I know I am completely exhausted at the end of the season … I rely on my staff and captains to fill in the gaps, as every player needs to have support and acceptance.

What has been your most memorable moment in those past 18 years—good or bad?

You definitely want to think about the good when you coach—no one should live a bitter life. My most memorable season was in 1996 when I coached with one of my closest friends and roommate from my university days. Graham Chandler was a roommate and friend from Mount Allison, and he made the decision to move to Ottawa and live with myself and my wife, Jane Allain, to help me coach the Gee-Gees for one year. It was a season completely filled with intensity, joy, and hard work.

In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of soccer?

In a university soccer program, no question: It is the people you work with every day.

If you could do anything—be anything— what would that “anything” be? 

I wish I could sing.

—Katherine DeClerq