From worst to first

Chantal Vallee’s McGill master’s thesis explored how coaches build winning teams. She has followed that blueprint to two consecutive national championships.

by Ben Makuch

University of Windsor Lancers head coach Chantal Vallée, MA'02, instructs her players, winners of back-to-back national championships (Photo: Edwin Tam)

It’s been another banner year full of accolades for Windsor University women’s basketball head coach Chantal Vallée, MA’02, after winning the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national championship for a second consecutive time. But the road wasn’t always so smooth for Vallée, who first took control of the lowly Windsor Lancers in 2005, inheriting the last place team in the nation. Despite their unpromising position, she came up with an audacious five-year plan to make them national champions.

After earning her degree from McGill’s graduate program in sports psychology, Vallée began implementing a new approach to developing the team based on the research she did in preparing her master’s thesis with her supervisor Gordon Bloom, an associate professor of kinesiology and physical education and the director of McGill's Sports Psychology Research Laboratory.

“There are many factors that went into making the team that won the national championship two years in a row, but none are more important than the education I received at McGill under the guidance of Professor Bloom. It really is the foundation for everything that I’ve done at Windsor.”

Her research examined the commonalities between university level varsity coaches who had all turned around losing programs and transformed them into winners.

“What I found were the coaches who stressed the development of the whole athlete to produce leaders of the future were the ones who succeeded. It was about educating not just the athlete’s body, but their mind in a social and emotional way.”

Vallée’s philosophy stresses the value of creating not only long-term team goals, but personal goals for every player. That includes implementing disciplined training regimens, mandatory group discussions, and encouraging individual therapy sessions with the team’s performance consultant.

“Unfortunately, I feel some people consider my style a gimmick and still think coaching is about X’s and O’s and simply making your team work harder than your opponent.” But that attitude is outdated, says Vallée. “The coach that yells and screams, then leaves the room, is doomed to failure.”

Vallée is an example of a new brand of coach that’s starting to appear in every sport and at every level; those who believe in diplomatic interactions with players, making them feel valuable to the team, along with demanding elite performance. “It’s important to create a positive environment that’s not just about winning but about personal growth. Of course talent matters and that’s why recruiting is important, but there’s more to it than that once they get to Windsor.”

“Before her I’ve never seen someone apply the theories of this field directly to a program,” says Bloom. “As her thesis stated, successful coaches develop elite citizens and the rest follows.”

Bloom’s own work emphasizes the positive role of the coach in developing leadership skills in their players. In other words, the classic authoritative coach isn’t always a winning coach.

“Is it a coincidence that coaches like Chantal are very successful? I don’t think so. It was a pleasure working with her and it’s great to see she has become the exact poster child of our research.”

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