The Varsity Blues women’s basketball team’s long and difficult season has concluded, leaving behind a trail of injuries and constantly changing lineups. The season went down to the wire, as a victory against the York Lions and several other alternative outcomes could have led to a playoff run. Despite the inconsistent lineups all season, the one stalwart constant was coach Michèle Bélanger’s commitment to developing strong and team-oriented players.
During halftime of the Blues’ final game, Bélanger’s 40th season milestone was recognized. The ceremony had more to do with fans’ appreciation for and recognition of a great coach than for Bélanger herself. In fact, Bélanger has found success by making her job about everyone but herself — the mark of a truly devoted leader.
Bélanger admits that she’s not easily excited by celebrating Coach of the Year awards, coaching Team Canada, or making it to year 40 with the Blues. Instead her main source of excitement and pride is working with the hundreds of Varsity Blues players whom she has helped improve, both on and off the court.
The Varsity spoke with Bélanger before the final weekend of the regular season about her coaching career and how she builds team communication and leadership.
The Varsity: Can you tell me what you were like as a player?
Michèle Bélanger: I really picked up the game in grade nine. We had one weekend tournament and I got kind of hooked on it. I thought it was kind of an exciting game. The coach basically told me to go from one end to the other underneath the basket, and I thought, “Oh, this is a lot of fun!” I learned that team sports is really what I’m all about. I played big in high school and then when I got to Laurentian, I was mostly inside out. I was more of a 3, 4 [a forward], and on the national team I was a 3 [small forward]. Back in the day we had no three-point line, so I learned how to do a pull-up jumper in my last two years of playing, because women really didn’t do a pull-up jumper. It was a set shot: catch, shoot. The guys did it and I wanted to know how to do that, [so] I went to coach and he just walked away. I transfered to Victoria and asked a good friend of ours who was coaching the men’s team, and said I want to learn how to do this!
TV: When did you realize you wanted to stay with basketball as a coach?
MB: I got cut from the national team in my last year playing at Victoria, in 1978–1979. That spring, I got really sick that year, and I still thought I could do it. The competing level is always there but the body wasn’t. So anyway, I got cut. I was really hurt by it, I didn’t know how to fill that void. [My friend] encouraged me to apply for this job — it was open — I said I don’t know much about coaching, so I did. I came in for an interview. In my mind it was going to be a one-year deal.
TV: Over the 40 years of coaching here, what has been your biggest accomplishment?
MB: Coming into work never feeling like it’s actually work. My biggest accomplishment? I don’t know, I don’t have one. It’s really hard to say. What I find more rewarding than anything else is the athletes coming back and remembering the good times that they’ve had, and telling stories and liking to be around each other. They always think that their teams were better than everyone else’s.
TV: Has there been one really low point?
MB: No, no, no, no, no. No dark days. I still love it every day. There’s not one day where I rethink: do I really want to be here?
TV: What about the U of T program has kept you around?
MB: The support has been outstanding. We’ve had great support from the institution, I think this institution in particular really fosters women moving forward and keeping women involved in the game, or in sport itself. There’s not a lot of institutions that [have] lots of women in positions of authority. The athletic director is female, they’re not afraid of doing that — they’re really open-minded. I think that showed a lot of progress, we’ve done that right from the get-go. When I started in 1979, we had women in powerful positions, and they were great mentors. You don’t see a lot of that. So it’s been a really welcoming environment.
TV: Your overall record before this season, including playoffs, is 838–462, giving you about a .650 record.
MB: .650, this year that’s going down the tubes!
TV: Do you ever think about those stats?
MB: No, oh my god, no! That to me is all irrelevant.
TV: What about your eight Coach of the Year awards?
MB: No, no. I don’t even like this whole celebration thing. It’s really not about me, it’s about the players… It’s not about being singled out, it’s not about the amount of wins, it’s not about the awards. It’s really about the experiences that you are providing those 12–15 athletes that are on that given year. And to give them the best and move them forward as best [as] you possibly can.
TV: What are your main coaching strategies and morals?
MB: To be always ethical in everything that you do. To treat each and every person as an individual within the context of the team, and to try and get everyone to mould together as a team. It has gotten harder and harder over these last 10–12 years because of social media.
MB: The world is different today than it was 10–12 years ago. People are growing up with phones, people don’t communicate as well as they used to. It’s made it very difficult to get players to talk to each other authentically. The sense of urgency in the now is very different than it was. It’s just a matter of putting it all together. I think they really desperately want to be great communicators. And I think it’s going to be a lost art if we don’t fix it.
TV: Are there team rules regarding phones?
MB: Oh yeah, they’re good. The girls are outstanding. They don’t bring phones to meetings, their phones are not on in the team room. We don’t need to put those rules in, they know.
TV: So you’ve always made the effort to always get to know players?
MB: I got to get to know people. You get a sense of what they’re like and then that’s what you have to build the relationship. If you don’t know, then how could you build a relationship? If you don’t have a relationship then it’s hard to trust. If they’re going to work hard for the whole, then you need to know about the whole. Like if there’s a hardship going on in someone’s life, if it’s not shared with the coach or the team, then it’s very difficult to have empathy and sympathy… to build that connection so people have your back. It’s hard to have your back on the court if you don’t know what’s going on in their life. I’ve got to believe that.
TV: When you took the job did you see yourself staying here for 40 years?
MB: Oh my god, never! I didn’t see myself here until I was forced to buy into the pension plan [laughs]. I think you have to be 30 or something and then you have to buy into it, so I was like oh, I guess I have no choice. In my mind it was always going to be a short-term thing and then you start to love it… then you start to live it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.