Amid the balls bouncing off the court, squeaking sneakers and ear-throbbing music at the women’s world volleyball championships, there is one thing Canadian head coach Shannon Winzer won’t see or hear.
Another female head coach.
As astounding as that sounds in this day and age, of the 24 teams at the world championships in the Netherlands and Poland, coach Winzer stands alone.
“Working in this space, I think it’s a big deal for other women to see it’s possible, not just because I’m a woman but because I’m a woman who’s married and has a young family,” Winzer said. “There’s a way to make it work. I hope being a bit more visible will allow other women to do the same.”
Canadian captain and veteran middle blocker Jennifer Cross says Winzer has brought a dynamic that they haven’t had before.
“Being the head of a female team, for us, shows that it doesn’t matter if you have a family or kids, you can still follow your dreams to the ultimate level. That’s something that’s trickled down through our program,” said Cross, a 30-year-old native of Scarborough, Ont.
“Also she’s like one of us. She was a player herself so she has that perspective of what playing pro is like, and what being away from your family is like. It’s something we can bond over.”
Communication and delegation skills
Cross notes Winzer’s communication and delegation skills as particular strengths.
“Shannon does a great job of having a really great feedback loop with us, keeping us involved in the process. I feel like I can go to her about anything in life or in volleyball.
“It’s nice to have a coach that you trust in that way, who not only cares about you as an athlete but also someone who cares about you as a person.”
Make no mistake, coaching is an intense, all-consuming job. From goal setting and planning, technical and tactical details, balancing personalities and travel, practice preparations and in-game manoeuvring, it’s a 24-hour day, seven-day a week, 365-day a year kind of commitment.
Winzer credits the support she’s received from Volleyball Canada, her husband Mark, daughter Riley, and sons Campbell and Brooklyn, 11, 9 and 7, for helping make it work.
“Coaching is intense, right? It’s nonstop. Once I let go of the fact that my marriage and my family life and my parenting had to look like everybody else’s. Once I kind of accepted that, I was OK. It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse, it’s just different.”
While she’s well known on the international volleyball circuit, it’s still fairly common to have an official, opposing coach or media member approach her male assistants, presuming they are the head coach.
“Yeah. It’s frustrating. They’re just assuming. It gets me riled up. But I have broad shoulders, I can take it.
“I always say: ‘men have to prove they can’t coach and I need to prove I can coach.'”
Playing in Europe
Originally from Port Coquitlam, B.C., Winzer suited up for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds before playing professionally in Europe and Australia. From there, she transitioned into coaching, eventually guiding the women’s national team and Volleyball Australia’s Centre of Excellence.
Winzer returned to Canada in 2019 where she started as head coach of the NextGen squad and assistant coach with the senior national team. In December 2020, she was elevated to the head coaching job when mentor Tom Black stepped down for personal reasons. She’s the first female head coach of the program in nearly 40 years.
After getting acquainted with the program in her first year at the helm, her main goals for the team this season were to remain in the prestigious 16-team Volleyball Nations League (VNL), improve world ranking points and to make the second round of the world championships for the first time in team history.
They’ve accomplished two of those so far, improving their VNL record to 4-12 including a victory over powerhouse Turkey and a couple close games against other top nations. As for ranking, they’re now No. 16 in the world.
But the biggest goal is getting the team back to the Olympics for the first time since 1996, whether it’s Paris 2024 or Los Angeles 2028. Doing that means shifting the mindset of the team.
“I think playing VNL this year was the first time a lot of the players went, wow, 2024 is really possible. We were able to play with some of the best teams and obviously beating Turkey was big for us. And when you’re able to play with the big teams and beat the big teams, it was like the first time the players really started to believe.
“In the past, I think there was this history of wanting to play for Canada, but that’s not good enough. You’ve got to want to be an Olympian. And I think that with VNL, we’re starting to realize that. You start to realize how far away we are or how close we are. And there has to be a shift in the mindset. It’s not just good enough to play for Canada, you’ve got to want to be one of the best in the world.”
“This is the best chance we’ve had to qualify [for the Olympics] since I’ve been part of the program,” said Cross, who was part of the team that missed qualifying for Tokyo.
“We’re not just happy to be here, we’re here to compete and to win and that mindshift has happened. We’re not satisfied with winning one set or two sets, we want to win matches.”
Of course, to be the best in the world, there are some glaring areas in the game on which Winzer and her staff are focusing.
Passing continues to be a sore spot for the Canadian women. They were among the worst nations in passing efficiency in VNL the past two seasons.
“I don’t think it’s something we’re going to fix for 2024, but it’s a work in progress.”
They also had a high serving error percentage, particularly in their tight games, so they’ve made adjustments in their approach, going from being all-out aggressive to developing a serving identity that players are responsible for working on their own.
“We’ve set some minimum standards in our gym of what error percentage you have to be under, what percentage of float you have to be hitting and what percentage are you hitting your target. So far our serve error percentages have dropped tremendously. I really see it’s paying off.”
It’s clear Winzer loves what she sees in her squad, what she calls a mix of character, compete, fearlessness and potential.
And it’s also apparent that she loves coaching, once she got hooked on it.
“Coaching is a problem that never gets solved. And that’s what keeps me there is I will never know everything. You will never be good enough. And those same reasons are probably what will eventually have me retire,” she laughed.
“But that’s what kept me coaching. Once I tried it out, there’s this whole world I have no idea about, and every year it’s a challenge for me to be better than last year.”