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OKOTOKIAN: For the love of the game

Volunteer coaches giving back through sport

With Sweet Georgia Brown playing through the speakers a dream was born across the pond.

Okotokian Jason Barlow caught the basketball bug at the age of 12 while growing up in Manchester, England after witnessing the handywork of a famed group of basketball wizards.

“The Harlem Globetrotters came to town and I was super excited and just inspired by the way a person could move on the floor, shoot the ball and the skills they had,” said Barlow, a pillar of the Okotoks Minor Basketball Association. “At that point I turned my hand to basketball and didn’t look back.”

Like many young athletes growing up in the 90s, Barlow idolized “His Airness” himself, Michael Jordan, one of the legendary competitors of all time.

“I spend hours studying that man,” he said. “He really inspired me, not only from the point of view of playing that sport. He inspired me from the point of view of the man he became as far as his tenacity, his confidence, his commitment, his work ethic, his discipline.

“What I love most of all about coaching, the youth in particular, is the sport psychology,
getting into that mental training aspect and teaching these kids how to deal with adversity, difficult people and difficult situations. Because beyond the scope of basketball we all have to deal with daily life.”

Barlow continued with the game and played at the national league level in England in U17 and U19 before three years of university basketball while completing a degree in sports science.

“I certainly had aspirations to go on and play professionally,” he said. “But that wasn’t meant to be.”

After immigrating to Canada in 2005 Barlow’s family grew exponentially with four boys aged four and under — all of whom were exposed to the multi-sport athlete philosophy, inclusive of basketball.

The transition from player to coach took some getting used to.

“The first challenges for me, were one, being able to sit still and just be a coach. I had been a player for so many years and I was itching to be on the court,” Barlow said. “I was frustrated at first as a coach because I had a lot of experience and I knew how to play things out and now I’m having to articulate to a very beginner basketball player how to do those things.

“I never consider all those fundamentals, all those early stages of learning that I had gone through.”

After being quiet on the sidelines at the beginning as a coach, he gradually got his voice on the bench and sought more training through the OMBA.

For Barlow, one of the best age groups to coach has been the U11s who share a thirst for knowledge and eagerness to play.

“There’s an element of competition, but I would say fun is above competition,” he said. “As we get older, we get more competitive, we get more driven, which in many regards serves a great purpose, but I think it’s important that we infuse play back into that. And I’m speaking to adults just as much as kids.

“I try to integrate that into my coaching style to make sure we’re still seeing lots of smiles on these kids’ faces.”

Barlow picked up much of his coaching philosophy from fellow Okotokian Mark Hogan, who launched the STARS basketball program, one where global players are at the forefront.

“Every player should be able to dribble the ball effectively, every player should be able to shoot the ball from a range of different positions, every player should be able to finish with good footwork close to the rim and every player should learn how to post a player up,” he said.

“There could be a kid who’s 6-foot-8, but is dynamite with the three-point shooting and we need to hone that.”

The opportunity to provide lessons taught through sport, with basketball as the conduit, is the most rewarding part of coaching on the court.

“As coaches, we try to translate what we’re teaching them on the basketball court to something they’re maybe experiencing outside of basketball,” he said. “I like to know I’ve left them as much of a positive impression in their mind for a male role model as I possibly can because I know what past coaches have done for me in the UK, they’re still influencing my life to this day.

“I love all aspects of this game because of what it’s brought to my life and changed my life and how that then has translated to leading a healthy life and my career direction was very much influenced by that passion also.”

Off the court, Barlow runs his own Okotoks-based business, The Centre for Muscle Therapy, as a massage therapist with an injury clinic out of his home.

On top of career and family time, he’s also the director of player development for the Okotoks Rockies with a big role in continuing on the basketball academy, was an assistant coach on the St. John Paul II Collegiate Grade 9 boys team and coached U15 boys in the community program.

“There’s probably seven or eight practices a week plus tournaments on the weekend,” he said. “This season in particular was quite a challenge. The nice thing is that those programs involved my kids coming with me.

“My wife, we’re usually connecting while we’re driving to the games, that’s probably the most precious time overall is the drive to the game and the drive back to the games, driving the kids to school and picking them up from school, that’s definitely cherished time for us as a family.

“We make it work.” 

 

Life at the lanes

Youth bowling is flourishing at younger age groups at Okotoks’ Millennium Lanes due in no small part to the efforts of its tireless volunteer coaches.

Kyle Honish grew up knocking down pins in Manitoba and after finding work in Calgary found a new bowling alley opening up shop by the banks of the Sheep River.

“I thought ‘wow, what an opportunity to go in and be part of something new and build something,” Honish said. “So I started coming out here in 2000, it’s been 20 years now.  I took three years off for the birth of my first child and after I got him involved I couldn’t hold back the itch, I had to come back and coach.”

As the dedicated coach explained, his friends and family have been made through the game – contacts he still has to this day in Manitoba.

It’s the same social philosophy he’s brought to Millennium Lanes.   

The youth bowling group feature the Dinos, Peewees, Bantams and Juniors – those aged 12 to 15.

There are regional and provincial competitions available for those who want to get into qualifications.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with the older kids,” Honish said. “But over the last 10 years, I’ve worked with the little ones and I’ve really enjoyed getting to see their growth. The improvement they’ve shown and demonstrated over a few years has just been phenomenal.

“We’ve got the largest under-8 program in the Calgary area and a lot of those younger ones are now moving up to the under 10, 11 area and they’re quite competitive province-wide. I believe it’s because of that strong foundation, that love to begin with.”

Honish, a math teacher, is able to bring his work experience to what is a game of numbers.

“My advantage would be having a better understanding of how kids work,” Honish said. “And knowing the student today is a complex student – whether it be intellectually, physically, at one point we had seven autistic children in our program, about three years ago. And still we’ve got everything from ADHD to autistic to cerebral palsy and they’re all included, they’re all part of it.”

Millennium Lanes now boasts its largest group of volunteer coaches – Honish, Brett Vidican, Donna Stratton, Amanda Howlett, Jen Sutton, Breanne Shuya and Cherie Robinson -- in its history.

“It’s just seeing their smiles,” Honish said. “The first time a kid throws a spare or a strike, it makes their
day and when they come back and give you the
high-fives.

“You see them in the community and they come up and they hug your leg, you know you’ve made a difference.”

Vidican is fortunate enough to coach the same Youth Bowling Canada that he played in as a youth in Ontario.

“For the first three years I just brought the kids,” he said. “When my youngest turned three I said ‘you know, I’m here every weekend, I love coaching and I’ll coach here as well.’”

Being a volunteer coach has evolved over the years, requiring more training and certification than just merely coming forward and selflessly giving one’s own time.

“I decided to go through and do that to get a certain level of coaching programs and validation under my belt so that I could also coach at tournaments,” Vidican said. “Coaching in a program you love is fantastic, I also bowl in league.

“My youngest no longer bowls with the program, but I wanted to make sure I continued on and wanted to make sure to even though none of them are still in the program.”

After helping out at the lanes for the better part of a decade, the kids become like family for Vidican.

“When you see kids from when they’re three years old up until they’re 19 years old, it’s very rewarding,” Vidican said. “I’m a big believer in giving back to the community, you develop that connection not only with the kids, but what we really try to do at this centre, in particular, is have a really family feel and fun environment where people are comfortable.

“It’s not highly competitive, we do exceptionally well for our numbers at these big tournaments, you see the banners on the wall.

“We’re a very tight-knit group and have a lot of long-term members of the YBC program.”

Keeping it fun is one of the fundamentals for the coaches, with an eye on giving those interested in the sport every reason to stick with it.

“Priority one is have fun,” he said. “We also early on in the season want to know who’s interested in competitive bowling and who’s interested in being here and having fun.

“Then as coaches we can talk about how we want to develop the kids further, really hone in on technique and lane etiquette, team environment, what to expect in tournaments, those types of things.”

Vidican, who runs Craze Mobile Detailing in Okotoks as his day job, said it’s the social and community aspect that brings him back to the lanes every weekend.

“It’s not hard at all for me to get up in the morning, I travel to the tournaments, I go where I’m needed when I’m needed just because I’m committed to them. It helps get me going, it keeps me active,” he said.

“My Saturday mornings are perfect, it gives me a chance to be involved in the community, helping out the kids and contributing. I have a strong belief that volunteers are critical to continuing development of all sports in town.”

 

Making his mark

From the ice to the bench.

It’s a logical transition and one that gave Trevor Forbes, one of dozens of Okotoks Minor Hockey Association volunteer coaches, a chance to give back to the game.

“I played competitive hockey for a number of years and once my career ended I wasn’t ready to give up on the game,” said Forbes. “I got involved with coaching at that point and once my kids came of age where they were looking to play sports it was just a natural progression.”

Forbes, who has also coached extensively with Okotoks minor lacrosse, has coached his son Cody’s age group from Timbit for the past 10 years, coaching the Okotoks Midget Tier 2 team in the 2019-20 season. Forbes, who was the co-winner of the OMHA’s Coach of the Year award in 2018-19, also coached the Bantam 4 squad this year.

On a typical week during hockey season that’s two practices per team per seven days along with two league games each weekend for the teams as well as tournaments to places as far as Las Vegas in the case of the Midget team.

Forbes, the manager of operations for Bow Mark Paving, volunteers for the two teams while also balancing work and family commitments.

It’s a high-wire balancing act.

“It’s a really big challenge,” Forbes said. “I have an understanding wife and I’m lucky my employers, the McArthur family, are absolutely amazing. The amount they give back to the community, they totally understand the coaching and encourage it.”

Forbes, who’s also on the board for the Okotoks Oilers Athletic Association as the director for the Okotoks Bow Mark Oilers, has a mandate to get players to compete at the next level.

“We’re trying to build these athletes first off as students, second as people and we want them to progress into that athlete that can at least have the option of playing the elite level,” Forbes said.  “The biggest thing I tell them, my Midgets especially, is you’re interviewing for the rest of your life. This is where you learn how to work, this is how you learn to be part of a team, part of a group, supporting each other, helping each other out. This team that we’re developing is the team you’re going to have in the workplace for the rest of your life.

“Those are the lessons we take into the workplace, the more you put into it, the harder you work the more you’re going to be rewarded.”

And it’s not only the players who get the reward.

Giving back to the game and seeing the young athletes advance in life is what it’s all about for the dedicated volunteer.

“When you see the players the next year or two or three years down the road and you see the success that they’ve had and they come back to you and say ‘thanks coach, it’s all because of that year,’ that’s big to me,” Forbes said. “I grow really attached to these kids, they’re part of your family almost, especially the ones we’ve had long-term and that’s kind of the downside of midget, you realize that’s the end of some of these players’ playing career. It’s difficult.”

Forbes said it’s the interaction with the kids that keeps bringing him back to the rink.

“These kids are hilarious, they’re so much fun to be around,” he said. “I can’t imagine what you would do without that. When my kids are done playing past the game, I can’t see walking away from the game. I will still be involved in minor hockey at some level, I enjoy it. I love giving back to the game. There are so many people who gave their time for me and I’m going to give back until I can’t.

“And it’s selfishly because I enjoy it, I get as much or more than the kids do.”




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Remy Greer

About the Author: Remy Greer

Remy Greer is the assistant editor and sports reporter for Okotokstoday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper. For story tips contact rgreer@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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