One phrase says it all for Allison McNeill: Win the day.
“We had the theme coming into this summer and we put it on the backs of our shirts,” said the women’s national basketball coach as the team travelled by bus to Seattle for a scrimmage against the Storm of the WNBA.
“If we come into practice and we win every day, meaning we get better, we’re striving for excellence, we’re pursing excellence, we’re excellent every day… We’ll go to Turkey and play our best basketball and let that lead us to the Olympics.”
Twenty-five players are trying out now at a training camp at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford. Next week they play a triple-header against China, who finished fourth at the Beijing Games.
Canada will compete against 12 teams for the final five spots at the London Summer Olympics. At the end of June, they travel to Ankara, Turkey to play in the first round of the qualifying tournament against No. 8 France and Mali, ranked 19th. They may then meet another team, likely Korea or Croatia, in the quarterfinals.
Canada is 11th in the world and will punch their ticket to London with a quarterfinal win.
“The best is needed every day,” said McNeill. “We need to go to Turkey and win three days. That seems like a daunting task when you think of getting to the Olympics, but that’s what we’re training for. We’re going to try to win the day, every day.”
McNeill’s immediate goal is winning each day, every day, especially three crucial days in June, but over the course of a decade, her attitude has brought an increasing level of success for the national women’s program.
Eleven seasons ago when she took the reins of Team Canada, McNeill considered the program “recreational elite.”
“I coined this term,” she said. “We had great coaches prior to me—it was not about the coaching—it was about the funding and the way we used the funding.”
Athletes were elite and head coaches like Kathy Shields and Bev Smith, one of the country’s best-ever players who now helms the program at the University of Oregon, were knowledgeable and dedicated. However, in other ways Canada wasn’t keeping pace with the competition.
“You can’t be elite if you train for eight days and then go to a competition. You can’t be elite if you play 10 games this summer,” said McNeill. “I remember saying, ‘If this doesn’t change after three years, I’m outta here.’ And Bev Smith did leave and Kathy Shields did leave. I said, ‘We can get it done, but things have to change and we can make these changes.’ And I had to change, too, to be honest. I had to give up some control and that’s not always easy.”
They needed support from strength and conditioning experts, nutritionists, sport psychologists and athletic therapists.
“We didn’t have that,” she said by cellphone as a consultant (also a mother of one of the team’s players) delivered a workshop about emotional intelligence.
“As good as I think our coaching staff is, and we’re very good, we’re not expert in all of those areas. We didn’t have that funding. We went out and found people. It’s taken a long time to build but I think we’re right where we should be in terms of putting this program on a professional path.”
She now describes the program as “high-performance.”
A network of national performance centres first established by Smith and the women’s team directors in 2000 was embraced by McNeill. Now, players from the first junior team in Canadian history to compete at the world championships eight years ago are on the senior team roster.
The approach was collaborative she said.
Preparing for the Olympic qualifying tournament, the national team will travel to France and Scotland. They will host China May 16 in Langley, May 17 in Richmond and May 18 in Abbotsford (visit basketball.ca for details).
“My goal as a leader is to have them all performing at their best as a group and to lead them to their best performances,” she said.
One day at a time, they aim to win.