By Ottawa Sportspage, for Louis-Riel Rebelles
He wears the maple leaf proudly with Team Canada, he’s a key builder of the innovative sports-études program at Louis-Riel high school, and he effectively eats, sleeps and breathes coaching. Look for François St-Denis and you’ll never find him far from the volleyball court.
For 20 years of teaching, St-Denis has coached at least 3 teams in the school year – often more. Add in club volleyball and it often equates to 4 practices a day during the peak season. In summer, it’s the regional, provincial or national level, plus time on the beach court.
“Other than a week or two maybe in August, I don’t really have time off coaching,” highlights St-Denis, thankful for the support of his wife Tammy, who puts in a tonne of time on admin and some coaching herself. “It’s a big load, but I’d like to think that we’ve helped a lot of people along the way.”
The graduate of L’Escale high school played just about every sport under the sun growing up in Rockland – soccer, cross-country running, volleyball, basketball, badminton, tennis, hockey and track-and-field amongst them. Tennis instruction provided his first foray into coaching.
“To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked volleyball. I liked all these sports,” signals St-Denis, who began teaching at L’Escale in 1997 – one season after directing their senior boys’ volleyball team to their first OFSAA appearance. “But I love the game. I’m a science and math teacher, and volleyball is a very structured game in that sense: statistics-based, repetitions.”
The University of Ottawa human kinetics grad’s passion for coaching stemmed from his studies in biomechanics, sport psychology, nutrition and the physiology of sport, plus his multi-sport background.
“I really like to read,” notes St-Denis, who meticulously consults theory from NCAA and other coaching legends. “I don’t do something just because I think it’s good. I really need to research it, create my own notes, plan and vision from that.”
Alongside club president Kerry MacLean, St-Denis helped form the local Maverick Volleyball Club’s groundbreaking high-performance program in 2003. When Volleyball Canada put out its Long-Term Athlete Development model in 2005, the guidelines were practically identical to what the Mavs had implemented based on their research.
Dedicated work away from the spotlight is the key to coaches’, and athletes’, successes, underlines St-Denis, who’s enjoyed his fair share over the years. He’s coached many players on to the university ranks, with several playing for Canada internationally.
Other highlights include his first OFSAA title in front of a packed home crowd at L’Escale in 2003, and then earning provincial titles while coaching his own sons – Louis-Riel students Alexandre and Maxime – in club (2014) and with the Rebelles (2016).
“It was just like a Hollywood story,” St-Denis says of the club triumph when his team overcame a 8-4 championship-set deficit to win 18-16 over the tournament favourites – their fourth such victory by the minimum in 10 games.
“You work so hard with everybody else and you hope you can do it with your kids too,” he adds. “This year, we did it together at OFSAA as well when they were in Grade 11 and 12. Those would have to be my two greatest memories.”
But like 5-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, St-Denis states that his favourite title is the next one.
“I seem to always have the need to achieve something at the next level,” explains the past Region 6 and Team Ontario Canada Summer Games coach.
Last summer, St-Denis landed his first coaching gig with Team Canada as an assistant with the men’s junior national team. The first tryouts landed a day after the Canadian senior men qualified for the Olympics, and soon enough there were national team veterans in the same classroom talking strategy.
“It was just surreal to be around that,” indicates St-Denis, who will coach Canada once again at the U21 Pan American Cup May 14-22 in Fort McMurray. “I learned a tonne. Everybody has some strength or neat trick that I like to steal.”
Nowadays, there are many St-Denis products sharing the wisdom he once imparted. Amongst them is former L’Escale and Université Laval player Thierry Lavigne, who celebrated an OFSAA crown coaching Franco-Cité the same day the Rebelles won in December. At tournaments, St-Denis sees a pile of his past players now coaching themselves.
“It makes me feel very proud,” St-Denis underlines. “As a coach, I always tell them, I don’t really care about the results or the medals. I’m going to trade every medal for the last tournament of the year, so all the medals for an OFSAA medal. Then I tell them, I’m going to trade all of these medals for you playing at the next level. And then I’m going to trade every result at the next level for you to play your full post-secondary career and graduate.
“And then I’m going to trade all that if you’re a lifer – if you keep playing as long as you can or give back to the game in coaching.
“When I see them, I always tell them how grateful I am and how satisfied I am. We still sit down and chat, and a lot of them still come to me for advice. At the end of the day, I like to say that’s my real payment.”