While Women Coaches are Currently Getting Some Recognition, Their Prominence Has Been a Long Time Coming Thanks to Trailblazers Like Olga Hrycak.
Olga Hrycak coached boys/men basketball at the high school, collegiate & university levels for 48 years. Her journey is remarkable & we all stand to be better for knowing her story.
Every Sunday I publish and deliver an email on leadership and human performance called The Physical Movement. While the intent was to create a resource for coaches, athletes and parents, it has generated interest from all walks of life. Thank you.
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Edition 33 overall, 1 of 2021.
Happy New Year and best of the season to you and yours. Thank you for spending some time. The Physical Movement continues with its commitment to highlight topics on leadership in the world of sports, with special focus on our youth.
Let’s get into edition 1 of 2021:
The timing of this article comes during a week when a few major stories have developed around women coaches in sports. NBA coach Becky Hammon of the San Antonio Spurs became the first woman to assume head coaching duties during a game this past week. The Boston Red Sox made news by naming Bianca Smith to their organizational coaches, becoming the first black woman to coach in pro baseball history. In 2020, Alyssa Nakken was the first woman to coach an MLB team with San Francisco.
Today, there are 11 women coaching in the NBA. There are 4 coaching in the NFL. 3 now in MLB. Women currently hold 8.6% division 1 men’s sport NCAA coaching positions. On women’s teams, 40.6% of head coaching positions are women.* This compared to 90% of head coaching positions being men in division 1 prior to 1972.
The prominence of women coaches is not a recent news item however.
Long before the above there was Olga Hrycak.
In 1979, the thought of having a woman coach a men’s/boys sport was not the norm. Yet, the young coach commanded instant respect has she entered the gym at Bishop’s University in July to coach a lesson on individual defensive skills and proper footwork. Coach Olga Hrycak commanded respect, communicated well, made it very clear what needed to be done and guided the young aspiring teenage athletes through their paces. The respect and the presence when Coach Hrycak walked in the gym was unforgettable. I know because I remember it, I was on the floor that day.
This was a few years into Coach Hrycak’s 48 year career as she went one to have the one of the most decorated coaching careers in Canadian sports. In 2017, she was inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.
In addition to many achievements, Coach Hrycak is in the unique position to provide some insight into the evolving world of women coaches, and women coaching men.
TPM recently had a discussion with Coach Hrycak and we covered a number of topics about her career, the connections she made, the contributions provided and the evolution of the women’s coach.
Olga’s coaching career started in 1967, with the opportunity to coach a boys high school team in Montreal. She thanks long time Quebec university coach Eddie Pomykala for opening that door to launching a boys basketball program in a newly co-educational school. Her time coaching high school was quite successful with multiple provincial championships in a short time. This opened the door to a job at Champlain College on the South Shore of Montreal in 1979, a tremendous risk for the college at the time, to hire a woman to coach the men. The Champlain opportunity brought success with a provincial championship. The success at Champlain opened the door to an opportunity with the Canadian National Men’s Team in 1984 with legendary Canadian Coach Jack Donoghue. The apprenticeship with Coach Donoghue provided experiences second to none, with players involved in the program such as Jay Triano and Bill Wennington, to name two that went on to make their own major impact in basketball. Olga’s commitment in joining the Canadian team meant that she had to leave Champlain College, a position she very much enjoyed. Returning from that apprenticeship coincided with a spot being open at Dawson College in 1989.
At Dawson, Olga had a fantastic string of success, winning 9 provincial championships in 15 years at Dawson, along with 3 x national silver medals and a bronze medal.
This is where our paths crossed again. In 1994-95, I was finishing my time at Dawson College with a 1 year assignment as intercollegiate coordinator. The role entailed working with the varsity teams in and their coaches, coordinating budgets, schedules and administration of the programs. Seeing how Olga ran the men’s basketball program, interacted with the players and other coaches and the discipline they had in their games and practices was truly awe inspiring. Her passion for the game and coaching, was matched only by her commitment to her players, and their wellbeing.
Coach Hrycak’s last stop was in at University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM), where she launched men’s varsity basketball in 2003, and won 2 provincial championships in her time there. Olga was the only woman in North America coaching a men’s basketball team at the university level until the fall of 2013.
Observation of Coach’s Hrycak’s successes, yielded some patterns:
· Built programs, not just good teams. Success came via connection with her athletes combined with her teaching skills and passion & knowledge of the game.
· Embracing opportunities for advancement and ongoing learning.
· Others speaking on Coach Hrycak’s behalf. When former players and colleagues speak on one’s behalf as a reference is very telling as to the contributions made.
With this kind of trailblazing, the question asked of Coach was around the challenging experiences as a woman coaching men. What were some of the difficult experiences?
Olga clearly remembers a game in the USA where her team won, and after the game could overhear the opposing coach ranting and raving about losing to a team coached by a woman. Very often when the referees would approach the coach prior to each game, as is the custom, they would go straight to Coach Hrycak’s assistant coach, who was always a male. While with the Canadian National Team in the 80’s in Uruguay, she remembers opposing coaches and referees could not understand the role of a woman on a men’s team. And while these experiences were outside of Canada, Coach Hrycak also mentions difficult moments in Canada at events where other coaches, both men and women would not speak to her.
Coach Hrycak is the first to admit that she developed broad shoulders thick skin to see past these experiences and stay focused on what her main priority was, focusing on what she did best: caring, guiding and coaching her athletes to be the best they can.
In fact, the biggest theme of Coach Hrycak’s success is a universal one we have discussed before in The Physical Movement, and that is connecting with the athletes.
Caring for others is not something that can be faked or done to get ahead by focusing only on outcome. It comes from the heart, it comes from passion for making a contribution and having a purpose greater than wins and losses.
Coach Hrycak made it a point to have her athletes assist with the donation of Christmas baskets every year. Many of her athletes over the years came from difficult situations. Basketball and school were opportunities to build a foundation for being good people.
To this day, Coach Hrycak keeps in touch with many of her former players. Many have gone to play and coach professionally or somehow staying involved in the game. An example is Prosper Kavangwa, who is now the Vice President of Player Personnel with the Philadelphia 76ers.
One of the pieces of advice Kavangwa credits for his success in his career is quoted here: “One piece of advice a coach gave me when I was 18 years old: Treat everyone the way you want to be treated, because anyone you meet, at any given time, can have a role in your success or your failures.”17-19 years old is the age for most of Dawson College athletes. We can connect the dots where that advice came from!
When asked about what advice she could give young aspiring female coaches, her response was clear:
· Don’t be afraid of opportunity. Having confidence is key to taking the next step. Over the course of Coach Hrycak’s career she blazed a trail where no one has gone. Stepping up is a skill that comes from confidence.
· Learn how to teach. Communication is a skill. Teaching degrees in university are not as prevalent as they once were but there are other ways to develop this skill.
· If you care, people will know. Basketball is her passion, but really a tool to make a contribution to the athletes she served.
· Learn as much as you can about your craft. In today’s day and age there is no excuse to not being prepared, as the resources for access to information are a plenty.
· There are no shortcuts. Coach Hrycak’s work ethic was legendary. I saw that first hand at Dawson. She mentioned that she still has practice plans from 1972 documented.
Editor’s note: Coach Hrycak does not dwell much on the role of thick skin is pursuing her passion, but I can simply say that her treatment over the years because she was a woman would have been challenging for sure. This all the more reason to share her story and why the recognition she has received should be documented and acknowledged.
Coach Hrycak’s Career Highlights:
• 2017 Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame. She was the first Quebec head coach to be inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame. Hrycak was named the CCAA Men's Basketball Coach of the Year in 1991 and 1997.
• 2018 Canadian College Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
• First women’s coach of men in university setting, and the only one in North America from 2003-2013.
• Builder of a program at University of Montreal in 2003, with 2 provincial championships over her 12 year career there.
• 9 provincial championships in 15 years at Dawson College and 1 while at Champlain College- St. Lambert.
While we observe tremendous progress with Women coaching in sports, we can thank people like Olga Hrycak and those that opened doors for her during her career for blazing a trail so others can follow.
Unlike 1967 or 1979 or 2003, today, a young aspiring young woman coach can now look to someone who has done it before!
Olga Hrycak, A November 2020 presentation in acceptance of the YWCA Woman Of Distinction Award
Coach Olga Hrycak Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association Hall of Fame Acceptance Speech:
Additional information and articles on Coach Hrycak:
PLAY. LEAD. BE STRONG.
Additional Information on the Role of Women Coaches:
From the perspective of administrator and parent, the goal should simply to be to have the best qualified coach for our young people.
Whether that be gender or race or culture, our athletes and their parents deserve to have the best possible experience with the best possible coaches.
The career and contribution of Coach Hrycak shows that by excluding women, we are diminishing the talent pool by at least 50%. The impact of women coaches also touches participation by young lady athletes.
In the USA, Title IX in 1972 opened the door to more opportunities for women’s coaches in the NCAA, yet there are only 8.6% of division 1 men’s sports with women as coaches, and 0 in men’s basketball. In the NCAA, women hold 40.8% of all head coaching positions in division 1 sports. Prior to 1972, men held 90% of the head coaching positions. So some progress there, but still more required.
The good news is that women have been making an impact for some time in sports, including men’s sports. As Olga mentions in her acceptance speech in the Women of Distinction award, (paraphrasing): Many are not aware of the contribution women are making in coaching. It is not often talked about.
In a recent CBC.ca article, we discover that only 4 of the 600 coaches in the Greater Toronto Hockey League are women for example.
Also mentioned by Coach Hrycak is the decline of participation by girls and how it outnumbers the decline of boys. Could lack of women coaches play a role?
The Rally Report, released in June, found that participation levels for Canadian girls are much lower than boys, with a dramatic dropout rate of one in three girls leaving sport late in adolescence — a number that has barely budged since a similar report in 2016. By comparison, the number for boys in the same age group is only one in 10.
Despite the high-profile hiring in the NFL, NBA & MLB there is still some work to be done.