As the head coach of Canada’s senior women’s basketball team, Allison McNeill has a singular goal of getting to the London Summer Games.
Less than 80 days away, the road to the 2012 Olympics passes first through Turkey, where the team must finish in the top five at a 12-team qualifying tournament at the end of June.
London may follow as the ultimate sign of success that the nation’s women’s basketball program is succeeding. It took a decade to get here and success, by McNeill’s definition, will not be fleeting.
Early in her tenure she demanded changes. “I did say to Canada Basketball: ‘We can’t win doing what we’re doing so either we change or we’re going to be average. If you’re happy with average, then I’m outta here. I don’t want to be average.”
To elevate the national team, McNeill knew players needed to see more of each other, train together more often and experience more competition against the world’s best.
The chemistry is evident.
Megan Pinske (a.k.a. Pearl) and Janelle Bekkering (a.k.a. Muffins) remixed Justin Beiber’s “Boyfriend” and croon to the pop song, “Say hello to London two thousand, one, two. Just come watch our hoop games and enjoy the show. If we were your dream team, we’d never let you go.”
McNeill spoke to the Courier Tuesday morning by phone as the team travelled to Seattle to play the Storm of the WNBA.
Q: It’s hard to hear you, what’s happening? Are you watching a movie?
Allison McNeill: It’s an emotional intelligence session. We have to make use of our time so we’re on the bus and we’re learning. The whole idea is that your emotions drive your behaviour and your behaviour drives your performance. And so if all you look at is performance, then your performance is never going to be great. You can’t just change your performance if you don’t look at your behaviour and if you don’t look at your emotions. They’re all tied in. Every one of our athletes is a leader and it starts by leading themselves. If we’re all leading ourselves properly, then we can interact with others.
Q: How does a coach use emotional intelligence?
AM: On the court, we can’t lead, we have to prepare them and have great internal leadership. So, between our sport psychologist, the last three years and EI sessions, that’s what we’re focusing on. When the crunch time comes, they have to trust the work they’ve done and lead each other to the Olympics.
Q: How has your professional approach as a coach changed the women’s program?
AM: When our staff first walked into this program, I would have to say, and I coined this term, I thought it was recreationally elite. I really didn’t think it was a fully elite national team. We had great coaches prior to me—it was not bout the coaching. It was about the funding and the way we used the funding. There was very little support. We didn’t have a sport psychologist, we didn’t have an exercise physiologist, we didn’t have any help. As good as I think our coaching staff is, and we’re very good, we’re not expert in all of those areas. We really added […] an integrated sports team. I jut feel that is what the best teams in the world do. 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.
Q: If it was “recreational elite,” what do you call the program now?
Q: What else changed?
AM: It was definitely an elite program, we had the athletes. But you can’t be elite if you train for eight days and then go to a competition. I remember saying, ‘If this doesn’t change after three years, I’m outta here. And [former head coaches] Bev Smith did leave and Kathy Shields did leave. They’re really tough, but maybe I’m tougher and crazier. 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 because as the head coach at a university, for example, you do it all. So I had to step back. If the strength conditioning coach says this needs to happen at practice or the sport psychologist needs me to do more of this with the players, you have to believe what you’re doing is the best thing for the athletes to reach their… 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.
Q: Why did you stay?
AM: I think I’m just super passionate and believed I could get it done and I’m quite determined. And I don’t get knocked off a path very easily. I handle adversity very well. I’m pretty confident so I thought we could make some of these changes. I did say to Canada Basketball: We can’t win doing what we’re doing so either we change or we’re going to be average. If you’re happy with average, then I’m outta here. I don’t want to be average. We had to look at how we were using our money. I asked people, ‘Do you want to help us be great?’ At some point, I realized, Own The Podium [didn’t] care about us and that’s fine, maybe they shouldn’t because we weren’t that good right [then] -- so what are we going to do for ourselves? Whatever Sport Canada has given us, that’s going to be good enough, we’re not moping about it. We’re going to go do our own thing and get it done and as we’ve been getting it done, they’ve come in and been more supportive, which I agree with. You have to get your own house in order before you can look for someone else to contribute. Own The Podium has given us money now.
Q: Have attitudes and ability turned a corner because there is more funding to spend time together, training and competing as a team?
AM: Yeah, we were able to build a lot of team chemistry. We don’t have the talent and the population to draw from like the Americans do or the Brazilians do, so team chemistry we have to execute better. We have to be tougher. You have to build a lot of that in those days and teach lessons to people in those days. That time together truly helped. We have a theme coming into this summer. We put it on the back of our shirts. It’s win the day. The reason we have that is if we come into practice and we win every day, meaning we get better, we’re striving for excellence, we’re pursuing excellence, we’re excellent every day, because the best is needed every day. We need to go to Turkey and win three days. That’s all we need and we’re in the Olympics.
Q: Tell me about the ‘Boyfriend” video parody posted by Muffins and Pearl on YouTube.
AM: We previewed it last night. They unveiled it, Megan [Pinske] and Janelle [Bekkering], they’ve done many of these. They’re a very intelligent group of women and they’re kind and compassionate and competitive. When you go for high-performance and your pursue excellence, that’s the kind of people you get. We thought that was the most hilarious thing ever. We had to play it through there times because the fist times we didn’t hear anything, we were laughing so hard.
Q: How does social media, especially Twitter, enhance what you do as a coach? (Find her online at @AllisonMcNeill)
AM: I get a lot of young kids and other coaches, saying to me, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ It makes me think of my practices and what I’m doing. You know what else it’s done for me? It’s a bit of a debriefing model. I can go on there and say, ‘This worked, that worked.’ I really like it. I like Twitter. I like connecting with athletes through it. It’s become a way for us to communicate with each other, too.
Q: You host China next week on three nights at three different locations around the Lower Mainland.
AM: If I’ve ever done a clinic for you, coached you or your child, coached you anywhere, spoke at a conference, if you’ve ever seen me in front of you ever doing anything, come out and support us. That would fill everyone of those venues.
Canada plays three exhibition games against China May 16 at the Langley Events Centre, May 17 at the Richmond Oval and May 18 at the University of the Fraser Valley. All games start at 7 p.m. For more details, visit basketball.ca.
(This interview has been condensed and edited.)