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Andrea Čanković has had a wild year.

In February 2020 she guided the VIU Mariners women’s volleyball team to provincial gold as co-captain, marking the third straight Pacific Western Athletic Association (PACWEST) title for her and the club.

A month later, under the looming threat of cancellation due to COVID-19, Čanković and her teammates celebrated an achievement that cemented them forever amongst the greatest in Mariners history—winning their third straight title, and fourth in five years, at the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) championship.

Čanković graduated from VIU in April with a geoscience degree and as VIU’s most decorated athlete ever.

Now, she’s ready for the next challenge—coaching the team she once played for.

Čanković is one of three VIU Mariners chosen to participate in the CCAA National Female Apprentice Coach Program. She’s been assisting the Mariners women’s volleyball coaches and running drills for the team during the 2020-21 season—a season in a constant state of reevaluation and without plans for championships in the near future. The CCAA announced the cancellation of its winter sports finals in October, and PACWEST followed suit in November.

I spoke with Čanković over the phone about her new role, what’s happening for her and her team moving forward, and what made her run with the Mariners so successful.

Since VIU has cancelled athletic activities, Čanković said the team plans to resume practicing in the second half of January. They’ll have a two-week buffer period between the end of winter break and the start of practices. Of course, COVID-19 may change that.

Čanković said her team isn’t giving up on the season even though the championship tournament is cancelled.

“The girls, they still want to come to practices and everything. It’s not like, ‘Oh, let’s completely quit.’ They still want to work hard. Regardless of not having a season, it’s still good to get the team culture and everything going … so that we have less work next year.”

Čanković still has plenty of challenges ahead of her in her first year as a coach, but she hasn’t been worried about the transition.

“Honestly, I thought it was going to be harder,” she said, laughing. “Because I played with most of the girls, I was a bit scared of that transition from being a teammate and a friend to being a coach. But the girls are all so respectful and they made it super easy for me.”

She attributes that mutual respect as the key to her team’s recent success and hopes they can bring VIU even more banners to hang in the future.

“Throughout the last five years, I think we’ve really found the blueprint to winning,” Čanković said.

Her and her team were able to develop team chemistry quicker, and they knew what needed to be done throughout the season in order to win in the end.

“We’ve proven in the last three years, getting the three-peat at nationals … [the blueprint] works,” she said.

With this tried and true strategy, she hopes to work alongside head coach Shane Hyde this season to give the young players a head-start. They can get into the right mindset in year one instead of “learning it the hard way” and only understanding how to win late in their student-athlete careers.

Čanković said getting a team to work together can be harder than it seems.

“We’ve had some really good players on the team, skill-wise, but it’s way more challenging to get them to gel together and support each other throughout the season. At the end, [that’s] kind of what helped us. We saw that we were way more team-y and have this ridiculous team culture that’s [so] different than most of the other Canadian teams. Now as a coach, I’m trying to learn from [Hyde], what he was doing all those years.”

This year is different, she said, because they couldn’t do the usual team-building exercises, like spending a cell phone-free weekend at Sproat Lake in Port Alberni or participating in a “crazy” Amazing Race that Coach Hyde organizes. Normally, they would travel for around 10 days during the winter break, playing a tournament, hanging out, and getting comfortable with each other. Now, that’s all off the table.

Čanković and fellow co-captain, Amanda Dobbin, were able to organize last year’s retreats, but now, as a coach, she said the circumstances of the year have “messed it up.”

The key for players, she added, is to remain positive and realize they still have each other as a support group, even if they won’t be spending as much time together.

Čanković is still learning team confidence and positivity practices from her apprenticeship coaching program in order to instill those values in the players. It’s nothing new though, because when she played on the team they always showed those values on the court—so well, in fact, that they often left fans confused.

“[Sometimes] I guess the people that are watching the game aren’t sure if we won the rally or not because we get like a really good serve-receive and we celebrate it so hard because that’s the one positive thing that happened in that rally—even though we absolutely lost … the point,” she said, laughing. “We really tend to see that one positive thing, at least, and then it gets contagious and leads to more positive things.”

She said that it was difficult to stay positive at the start of her time with the Mariners, but it became second nature since the team always practiced positivity. The results have been hard to ignore.

Čanković, who is originally from Croatia, is planning to get a job in geoscience in the new year and coach at the same time. That may seem like a daunting task to many, but Čanković has found the confidence she gained from playing volleyball has impacted other areas of her life.

“When I first came to Canada, I didn’t have a lot of confidence speaking English. Especially in my classes, like when I had to do presentations. And then [in] the volleyball world, I started doing really well. I was building my confidence that way, and then it projected [into] the whole school world,” she said. “It was really easy to show that confidence in other aspects of my life once I had it on the court.”

The other two VIU participants in the Apprentice Coach Program are Emma Platner and Nicole Foglietta, who are working with VIU’s basketball and soccer squads, respectively. This is the first time in the program’s 15-year history that there are three female participants in one year at VIU.

“I think that this whole apprenticeship program is pretty awesome,” Čanković said. “We get a chance to complete coaching courses, and still get paid for coaching so we don’t have to, right as we finish school, stress about getting a job right away in [our] field. [We] can focus a little bit on the coaching, and get started in this world, so that once [we] do get a job … it’s a little bit easier to make that transition, and to maybe combine both. I’m just really grateful to be a part of this program.”

As of 2019, Canadian Women and Sport states that only 34 percent of coaches who took a national coaching certification program were women.

Čanković said she’s glad to see women getting more chances in sports, but it wasn’t an issue in her mind since VIU has many women in prominent positions.

“Our Athletic Director, Danielle Hyde, is female [as was] the one before, Stephanie [White]. I’m surrounded by a lot of females in high positions, so I guess I’m really lucky to see that at VIU, and I’m very encouraged.” The Apprentice Coach Program has Zoom meetings, but the other women in the program can’t say the same about the institutions they’re working with.  

While VIU may have women in positions of power within their athletics department, it’s worth noting that none of the six VIU head coaches in volleyball, basketball, and soccer are women. Additionally, only three of 34—less than nine percent—of the 2020-2021 head coaching positions in the same sports within the PACWEST belong to women, according to the league’s website.

Moreover, COVID-19 offers a unique challenge to coaching this year; many might think it to be a difficult one. According to Čanković, it hasn’t been so.

“To be honest, I feel like it’s a lot easier,” she said. “Right now, we don’t have to put as much pressure on the girls as we normally do. Because as usually we’d have games every week, most of the coaches will put a lot of pressure on us every single week to perform really well. And this year, there’s none of that. It’s mostly just, ‘Okay, let’s get together and have an awesome practice, let’s all hang out and have something positive today.'”

“I think there’s going to be more and more of just trying to support each other,” she said. “Maybe going forward, we get some matches and, you know, you’re always going to be grateful for what you get instead of being like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to win this.’”

Čanković explained that she keeps herself and her team motivated through inter-squad matches.

“I’m like, ‘Okay girls, you might not have a game this weekend, or you might not have provincials, or nationals, but you still have a lot of little games between each other, and you’re all competitive people, so try to win those,'” she said. “I really want to make an emphasis on that, that you don’t have to have all these big games to still be a very competitive person.”

Čanković won’t get to guide the Mariners to another championship this season. Instead, she’ll look for success in other ways, like beginning a career in geoscience. However, one thing is certain: her impact on VIU sports has been immense and continues to be felt by the next generation of players. They’ll have Čanković’s teachings this season as a foundation.

Who knows, maybe VIU will owe even more championships to her influence.

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