Every Body’s Different

Learnings from Coaching the Best Sport (and Athletes) in the World
By Nicole Ban – Canada Women’s Head Coach

Happy International Women’s Day! As one of the handful of women Head Coaches within World Paravolley, I am proud to be paving the way for future generations. This job is truly a blessing and for that, I am forever grateful. But as I have said before, I am not out here competing to be the best “female coach in the world”, I’m just simply trying to be the best I can be. Period.

I believe the future of sport is to see more women involved – coaching, participating, refereeing, announcing, administering, leading – and specifically, I hope to see an increase in disabled women in sport. Each and every woman who participates in sitting volleyball is creating change and showing the world WHAT IS POSSIBLE. I am incredibly proud to coach a group of strong, independent women who show up every day striving to be the best version of themselves, and then come back the next day to improve on that further.

“Here’s to strong women: May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”

– Unknown

Now to the title, yes, it is a play on words of “Everybody is Different” because I truly believe that when coaches approach sport knowing that each athlete is different, supporting and celebrating their uniqueness, more can be achieved by the collective.

Coach Nicole Ban led Canada clinch the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games qualification spot after finishing with a silver medal at the 2023 World ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Cup in Cairo, Egypt.

As you likely know by now (I’m guessing you know, because you are here reading this), sitting volleyball athletes have varying disabilities and impairments. It’s what Para sport is all about, and we are here to celebrate it!

I played indoor volleyball in university and later at a semi-professional level. I then completed a Master of Coaching degree and had the opportunity to learn from some incredible mentors. Previously, I had only known the game of indoor volleyball and I thought I knew my path forward coaching. What I didn’t know was that during my master’s degree I would have the opportunity to coach sitting volleyball and that my whole (tiny, but whole) coaching world would be turned upside down… in the best way possible!

I took the cookie-cutter, stay inside the box, colour inside the lines approach to coaching that I once knew and threw it out the window. I didn’t know how much my life would change and looking back nine years and two Paralympic Games later, it has changed more than I could ever imagine, and I couldn’t be more thankful.

I am very proud to be the Head Coach of Team Canada Women’s Sitting Volleyball and I am even more proud of the journey each and every athlete that I have coached. Some athletes joined the team knowing what sitting volleyball was, some joined without ever touching a volleyball before, some have had their disability or impairment since they were born, and others acquired their disability or impairment close to when they joined. Despite such varying backgrounds, each athlete is united by a common goal of perseverance in the face of adversity while they chase excellence. The lessons I have learned while coaching these incredible women are invaluable and have made a huge impact on how I see the world and approach coaching, so I wanted to share these lessons with all of you.

Ask a lot of them, and then ask some more. Be curious and ask your athletes about themselves. Ask them about why they do what they do and how you can support them to be the best athlete they can be!

When I first started coaching sitting volleyball, I had to stop myself from saying “move your feet” (I would always say this coaching indoor, but this isn’t applicable on the ground), instead I asked them, “how do you best move?”, “did they prefer to use their arm(s) or leg(s)?”, was it easiest for them to move “forwards?”, “backwards?” or “side to side?”. Your athletes are the experts of their own body and I encourage to ask them about what works best.

I then asked if I could try to sit down to play and move like them… and I did and I failed, and I loved it and I failed some more.

And here I am today, still loving it and still trying but learning, learning a lot… and remaining curious, asking questions whenever I don’t know the answer.

Literally, if you are able to, sit down and experience what it is like to play this sped up, much harder, version of volleyball. If you’ve played indoor or beach volleyball at a high level, in sitting volleyball you will be second guessing your skills and rethinking everything. It is amazing and it will make you grow and learn and appreciate the sport you are coaching.

I’ve been sitting down and playing with my athletes since the very first day I joined the team. They initially taught me this sport and because of that, we have built a level of trust. They now take the feedback I provide more seriously and are much more willing to try some of my wild and crazy ideas on how to advance our game.

The beauty of Para sport – there is no one way to do anything. Yes, there is a specific way to perform a volleyball skill and a lot of teaching of skills can transfer from indoor or beach but as the title suggests, no athletes’ body is the exact same, so start learning how to teach volleyball differently.

If you think you know how to do something, this will likely be challenged … have you only ever known how to set using two hands? You will now need to learn to teach your athlete who only has one hand. This might seem hard, but this is exciting, TRY NEW THINGS! We like new and we like different because we learn best outside our comfort zone, so get used to living and thriving there.

Start with modifying the equipment you use, the way you set up a practice plan and the way you talk to your athletes (think: time out).

The equipment you use will all be made for indoor volleyball and likely be way too high (nets, whiteboards, ball carts, setting hoops, blocking targets). Don’t accept this, change this. For example, our team has modified multiple ball carts and its time that this is done at international competitions too. Simply, cut the legs off the carts to ensure that your coaches and athletes can reach into them to get balls out. Don’t accept what the world provides for your athletes, change it to make sure they are accessible for everyone.

The way you plan your practice will have to change, you will need to be more efficient and think about how your athletes move through time and space. Think about the way athletes switch positions or move within a drill and the time it will take when they are now sliding on the ground to do so. Don’t be afraid to adjust your drills to best suit the athlete, for example, enter the ball into the drill from a seated position, its more realistic and your athletes will appreciate you for it.

And lastly, the way you talk to your athletes creates mutual respect. So… if they are sitting on the ground and you are able to do the same, don’t you think you should at least try? If you call a time out or have a team meeting, take a knee or sit down, or if not possible, get a lower chair. Make eye contact with your athletes when talking one on one or in a group and let them know that you will meet them where they are. This creates respect, and that is everything in sport.

These are small but mighty modifications – I guarantee you that you will get more out of your athletes by taking the extra time to consider their needs and put them first!

Yes, I am back to the title, but it is truly the key to your success as a sitting volleyball coach. Take the time to understand your athletes’ bodies and how they physically move through time and space when playing sitting volleyball. Ask them if the way that you are teaching the skill makes sense and is possible for them to do. As I said above, they are the experts of their bodies and by showing them that you care enough to learn about their unique needs, they will be even more likely to learn from you.

No two athletes will do any skill in sitting volleyball the exact same and it is your job to notice this and provide them with information on how to best execute. A perfect example of teaching the same skill differently is the attack for a right-handed athlete. Two athletes may both be right hand dominant and both be lower limb amputees but because they have amputations on different legs, they will perform their approach completely different. If your athlete has their right leg (left-leg amputee), they will be able to push into their approach and rotate through their attack, putting their knee down when their hand contacts the ball. But if your athlete has their left leg (right-leg amputee), they will have to pull into their attack and then rotate their body and contact the ball when their left leg tucks toward them. By teaching each athlete differently and noticing the difference in their body when they are performing the skill, you will be able to provide feedback that can better impact their performance.

Honestly, I could go on for days about the many things that I have learned from coaching sitting volleyball, but half the fun is learning yourself. I truly believe that this is just the beginning of how great sitting volleyball will be worldwide; the sport has already advanced immensely from when I began, and I am excited for the future. If we continue to support athletes to be the best version of themselves; to be brave, to take risks and to continue to try new ways to perform skills and tactics, there’s no telling where this game will go.

Keep dreaming big and inspiring your athletes to do the same!

Canada will be competing in their third consecutive Paralympic Games this August in Paris, France. After finishing fourth in Tokyo, they rose to the top of the world rankings after three consecutive silver medal finishes in major competitions.