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My coaching Journey; Carmen Pekkarinen, Espoo, Finland

Carmen was born and raised in northern Ontario in Canada. She has been living and working in Finland since 1998 and feels a diverse background such as hers brings a value to the bench as a coach.

I’ve been involved in sports for as long as I can remember. I never excelled at anything and was labelled a good “all-rounder” by an award selection committee when I was in high school. I suppose it is a good label to have because I feel that is how my life has played out: I am a “Jill of all trades, but a master of none.” That’s okay, I feel like I have a variety of experiences to apply in any new situation I find myself in, and that includes coaching.

The first team I ever helped coach was a boys’ basketball team from my former elementary school when I was in high school. In my last year of high school I found myself on the coaching roster of our wrestling team. I was speed skating and needed some good cross-training to keep my fitness level up. When I approached the coaches they enthusiastically took me on-board because it allowed them work more on the technical aspects with the team, so I became responsible for fitness training. Looking back on that time I feel really bad now, boy did we ever drive the boys hard at the beginning of the season! They never forgot it, but it paid off dearly because we had one of the best wrestling teams in all of northern Ontario that season.

Girls’ wrestling in Canada began to emerge with more prominence in the early-mid 1990s and in university I found myself back on the mat with our club team at tournaments. The coaches were very good and they brought me on board as a support. I didn’t know a lot about wrestling and some of the girls looked to the more experienced coaches for help, but I learned as I went and felt like a valuable member of a team. At one point our girls as a team were ranked as one of the best teams in all of Ontario. They were driven and I know that good coaching played a role in that.

I wasn’t sure how to describe myself as a coach, so I asked a former colleague of mine, Mark, to add a few words. He said:

“What kind of Coach is Carmen Pekkarinen?  She's the best kind of coach.  She’s demanding and she's positive. Carmen believes a good attitude mixed with a sufficient amount of tough love can produce results for anyone.  When Carmen coaches you, you always feel like she believes in you.  No matter how difficult your quest is...you know Carmen will be there for you.  At the same time Carmen does not settle for a weak effort.  She will push you and push you until you begin to realize you can achieve more than you thought you could, as long as you are willing to make the effort. Most of all - Carmen inspires her athletes with her own willingness to do what they are doing, to train as hard as they are training, and to push herself to her own limits.  Carmen's willingness to lead by example, and her belief that each athlete can excel with the proper attitude and effort, are what make her a great coach.”

In 1997 and 1998 I was working on my coaching certification for wrestling, but suddenly decided to move Finland to live because of good opportunities to work. The promises in wrestling were high, I had even been approached by the head of the Ontario Wrestling Association to become the athletes’ Ombudsman. With the move to Finland, I closed the door on the sport unfortunately, unable to get myself in the door on this side of the pond.

Integrating into the life of new country takes time and with lacklustre language skills I didn’t muster up the courage to join group activities or sports until just a few years ago. Having a child changed that because I had to venture out with her. I thank my neighbours for giving me confidence, and a new vocabulary!

Fast forward to 2012: My then four year-old daughter started playing ringette with the Espoon Kiekkoseura (Espoo Hockey Club) in January and after a stint in ringette school, she was moved to a team in the fall. I asked if I could join the team on the ice and I haven’t looked back. I found myself on the bench as a “huoltaja,” a caretaker of sorts: tightening skates, adjusting equipment, getting the goalie ready, filling water bottles and giving minor first aid among other things.

Last season I even dusted off my whistle, helped with drills and lead some of the warm-ups. Last year was a great season from my perspective, I worked with a group of 5-6-7 year-old girls who started off pretty slow. By the end of the season we had strong skaters, which was really great. A lot of them learned more about the game of ringette, my own daughter included, when I noticed that something had clicked for her, I was incredibly surprised. I wondered: “Wow, how did that happen!?”

The best part of coaching this crew of girls was that they didn’t care if I didn’t speak perfect Finnish, they understood me most of the time. We also had six girls who could speak and understand English, so that was a great bonus. As a group overall this team was better than the team of the previous year and it showed in our tournament performances against other clubs. I know they’re small kids, but we must have done something right!

My daughter and some of her teammates have moved up to the next level this season, so the demands are a little higher and the skill set a little more complicated. These kids are learning a lot stuff that I never learned as a player back in Canada. No wonder Finland has the best ringette players in the world! What pleased me the most was to hear one of the coaches say just a few weeks ago, that this group of girls have a better overall skating skill level than last year’s team.  I relayed that back to my old team and let them know – we did the right thing!
I even started playing again too and joined a women’s team in the same organization a year ago. The game has changed a lot since I played back in Canada, so the learning curve is high! I think my biggest challenge is the language, Finnish is not easy to learn!

Demand for coaching training is so high that getting into the annual ringette coaching clinics in Finland is tough. So far it is only offered once a year. I have missed it two years in a row now. Add on top of that a new language and the challenges increase. I have been assured I could make it through the coaching training in Finnish, so let’s hope I can get in next year. I suspect I’ll be following my daughter up the ranks as she gets older (provided she wants to stick with it) in the role of a coach or a caretaker. If she decides not to, I’ll go back to helping the small kids because I think that is where the most rewards and satisfaction are.

So I am with Mark, the best coach is the coach that is engaged with their kids and is out there on the court, field, mat or rink with them. The best coach is also a coach who believes in all of her players on a team, only one can be the best, but it’s important to extend support to all athletes on the team by giving them a chance to prove themselves.
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