Vickie Croley is not only one of the very few female coaches working at the elite levels of track and field, but is also one of the very few female coaches coaching elite male athletes.
Vickie, who is the Head Coach at Western University Track & Field Team, Canada, is also the lead coach to Damien Warner, the Canadian Decathlete?who is?currently the Commonwealth Games and Pan Am Games Champion and who is one of the favourites for Gold at this years Olympic Games in Rio.
Having competed as an athlete at University, injury brought Vickie the opportunity to coach and since doing so still as an Undergraduate, she has gone on to become one of the top coaches within the sport.
Below, Vickie shares her coaching journey and reveals how preparations for Rio are coming along…
Can you tell us a little bit about your career as an athlete at the University of McMaster and how you progressed from being an athlete to a coach?
While at McMaster I competed in long jump, hurdles, 300m, 4 x 200m and 4 x 400m.? During January of my 4th year I required minor surgery and had to take 4-6 weeks off to recover. Since our season ended in March so did my competitive days. At this time Sue Wise, the head coach asked me if I would coach the hurdlers on the team? During my final year of my undergrad I was interested in pursuing coaching at the Master’s level. I had applied to that program at Western (where I?m currently coaching) as well as to Teacher?s College. There really weren?t many jobs in coaching therefore I thought I better have a back up plan.
My potential advisor at Western was going on sabbatical that year therefore I leaned towards teaching as a career. Another opportunity arose where I was offered a teaching position at a private school in Hamilton prior to attending Teacher?s College.? McMaster University is also located in Hamilton. I continued coaching jumps at the university as well as with the Hamilton Olympic Club, the local track and field club.? The club aged athletes were 13-17. After this year I went to Teacher?s College at Western although I was only in London, Ontario for 4 months therefore I continued to coach in Hamilton.? I then returned to the private school for one more year of teaching and coaching at the school, club and university levels. I guess this is where I caught the bug for coaching (and being busy) and haven?t looked back. After this year in Hamilton another opportunity arose.? Sue Wise was now the head coach at York University and she was going on maternity leave and had asked me if I would fill in while she was away.
I did and when she came back York made a position for me as an Assistant Jumps Coach.? While there I also was the Sports Information Officer and taught some courses in their Kinesiology program. It was really at my time at York that I began to start to develop strong university jumpers as well as some who competed at the National and International level.
Was it always your ambition to take your coaching as far as you have?
No. I don’t think I was thinking that way at all when I first began coaching, it just kind of evolved. I was lucky to have been able to coach at the university level early in my career and to have Sue as a strong mentor coach. This brought with it opportunity to be working with athletes with the potential to be some of Canada?s best. I always wanted those I worked with to be the best that they could be regardless of their ability level. That meant I needed to be educated through coaching courses and learning from other coaches. At this time some of the best athletes I coached included those that were making National Teams such as the World Juniors and FISU. I began to apply for staff positions on teams that my athletes were making. My first team was as a coach of our provincial team at the Canada Summer Games in 1989. My first National team was FISU in 1991.? 1993 was a big year for me. It marked the birth of my first child Caitlin in January. Shortly after that I began coaching Catherine Bond-Mills who was Canada’s top heptathlete at the time. I also began my job at The University of Western Ontario in September.
One of the most difficult things I had to do as a coach was to tell Catherine that I was going to take the job 2 hours away. I remember that day very well.? The best thing was her response and that she understood why I would take the job and also said that maybe her and her husband would move to London as they both had ties to the area. They did and I continued to coach Catherine for the next 3 years. The definite highlight of coaching Catherine was her setting a Canadian Record on home soil at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.? Really my experience with Catherine was the stepping stone to being selected to Major National teams as well as more importantly developing as a coach of elite athletes.
After the 1996 Olympics Catherine decided to make a coaching change and in our discussions about this change I felt that I couldn’t fully commit to her what she needed due to my family and university commitments. She said to me at the time that I was a young coach and I agreed that she needed someone more experienced. Catherine is an exceptional women who went on to be our high jump coach at Western as well as acting head coach for me in 2002-03.
As one of very few women to coach a male athlete at such a high level (Decathlete Damian Warner, World Championship Silver, Commonwealth and Pan Am Gold), have you come up against any external barriers or challenges because of your gender and do you find it frustrating that it is even mentioned?
Not from external sources however I have definitely added some personal challenges that I think is more common to mothers verses fathers, like guilt and true feelings of missing family while being away. Although some fathers definitely go through similar feelings.? Going back to when my children were young and having to leave them with my husband meant that it was a lot to ask of him when I’m away 10 weekends during the university season and then again for weeks at a time for training camps and competitions in the spring and summer. There were times when I took my kids with me to camps however this was not a possibility to take them to university meets without having a babysitter and there is no opportunity to have them with you while at a major games.
One thing that does frustrate me is that there aren’t more female coaches as head coaches or coaching our elite athletes. To me it is purely a lifestyle decision that women don?t choose. Of course they are as capable as men. I have always had several female coaches on my university coaching staff (currently 6 women, 6 men). I hope that they have the passion for coaching and stick with it.
As stated above, you are one of very few female track & field coaches around the World who coach male athletes at such a high level and also hold the title of Head Coach?with track & field elite competitors being a 50 / 50 split, why do you think there are a lack of female coaches at the higher levels of the sport?
In addition to my above answer I addressed this at the university track and field level within my own program. I added to my budget a fund for daycare/ babysitting so that our coaches didn?t always have to ask their spouse to always be the one to be home with the children. It let them have some flexibility to do their own passionate things or work and hopefully have less stress in their marriage because of coaching. We have had families attend our training camp. I think the accepting family commitments is very important to show support and let coaches know that family comes first and to show the athletes that you can be a great coach and we can be accepting and accommodating to their personal requests. Having this type of inclusive atmosphere will encourage more parents (not only women) to continue coaching once they have children.
I do think that having funds set aside for daycare and babysitting would be helpful. If there were a place where children of coaches could be looked after at Provincial, National and International events would definitely allow for more parents to attend these events. This needs to be more widely accepted by sports governing bodies.
I saw a really interesting quote from you in a recent article about your coaching: ‘That’s the schedule that led Croley’s daughter, Caitlin, who was 10 at the time, to tell her something she’s never forgotten. “Mommy, you’ve missed everybody’s birthday this year, including yours, because of track” Croley recalls. That hit home. That was probably when I stopped applying for national team appointments? “How did that make you feel?
It wasn’t only this comment but around this time I came to the realization that coaching university, elite club athletes and raising a family was taking its toll and I wasn?t doing any of those things as well as I could have. I decided to take a one year leave from university coaching. I only coached a couple athletes outside that program. I needed time to reflect on how I could make this situation better and often when faced with a dilemma it is difficult to fix it while immersed in it. I stayed full-time at the university as an instructor and doubled my teaching workload to make up for not coaching the team in order to maintain my salary. My Athletic Director at the time was very supportive and also hired and interim head coach. It really meant that I could be home during the 4:30-6:30pm dinner hour and my weekends were spent with family.
And whilst family will always be your number one priority as a mother, did you ever feel you were (or are) missing out on coaching opportunities when you made the decision to stay at home more?
No. This year was perfect it also provided me with the time to enroll in the National Coaching Institute in Toronto and I furthered my coaching education.? Something that again when immersed in coaching you don?t always have time to do.? It allowed me the needed time with my family as well as time to figure out ways to balance being a mom to two active kids and how to be a part of their lives as much as possible once I went back to coaching. Once I returned to the head coaching role I remember having a meeting with my staff and saying that there were going to be a couple meets that I wouldn’t attend due to travelling with my kids to their sporting events. They were very supportive and understood. I learned to trust my athletes with others and tried to develop my athletes into more independent competitors. Through this I learned that the athletes that are more independent, prepared and confident will be the ones that are most successful while competing in track and field. Therefore myself buying into having some time away from the meets actually helped some athletes develop into stronger competitors. They were also able to learn from other coaches who have different coaching styles than myself. They could hear different cues and potentially learn what works better for them. It’s important that good coaches don’t have big ego’s in order for their athletes to be the best they can be.
The coaching staff hasn’t been announced publically therefore I don’t know if there will be any female coaches.
How are things progressing with Damian in the lead up to Rio 2016? Is everything going to plan?
Very well. Everything is going as planned so far.? Damian needed to specifically address a few of his events where he could make some improvements. In December, he travelled with his coaches to Phoenix to work with Dan Pfaff and Greg Hull in both pole vault and Dan in long jump at Altis, an elite athlete and coaches training environment.? In January, Larry Steinke, coach of Canadian record holder in javelin, Liz Gleadle came to London to work with Damian and his throws coaches. Both of these initiatives were very beneficial and we look forward to continuing the drills learned with Damian. His testing in running events proves to be improving and on pace for improvements in those events as well.