A chance meeting in the old Mitchell Athletics Centre gym on the University of Guelph campus started Guelph native Hayden Nichol on his way of pursuing a career as a volleyball coach.
After winning three District 10 high school boys’ volleyball championships during his four years at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School, Nichol moved on to study civil engineering at Conestoga College and play varsity volleyball there.
“The school part, I didn't really like my program so I decided to transfer to (the University of) Guelph and I thought volleyball was done for me,” Nichol said. “I was just planning on being a student and just still being a fan of the game, but not really playing so much any more.
"Then Paul Funk, the women's coach at Guelph, saw me just playing drop-in volleyball at the university and he wanted to know if I wanted to come out and just help him at practices, just like serving and hitting balls at his girls and stuff like that.
“After a year and a bit, I managed to get that into a paid assistant coaching job while I was doing my undergrad at Guelph which was awesome. It was a very interesting start to coaching for me. To just kind of get thrown into a university program at a university job right away was very unique. It was a great experience.”
Now he’s in Germany where he’s an assistant coach with Schwarz-Weiss Erfurt of the Women’s Volleyball Bundesliga’s top division. Like his start with the Gryphons women’s team, catching on with the Erfurt team was something that happened quickly.
After his time at the U of G, Nichol went to Georgian College in Barrie for a post-grad studies and had originally planned to remain in that city for work.
“I was supposed to be working a co-op job in Barrie for my program that I was in at Georgian. Two weeks before I was supposed to start and move back to Barrie, it got cancelled,” he said. “I was unemployed. I was living with my parents. Not much was really going on. I was kind of just golfing over the summer. I wasn't really doing anything of interest.”
That got him to thinking about getting back into coaching volleyball. While he was originally going to be an assistant with Georgian’s women’s team, he ended up playing one final season of volleyball and caught on with Georgian’s men’s team.
“It was definitely a fantastic decision,” Nichol said. “I got to be the team captain and Georgian got its first men's volleyball medal ever last year. It's a good feeling for me and I'm really proud of the team and what we were able to do. I'm glad I got that out of the way before all this COVID stuff really started to go down in Canada and all over the world. It was a good way to finish the playing career, but I'm done now.”
While he might have been done playing, he didn’t want to step away from the sport.
“I was looking for jobs and I got in contact with a Canadian coach in the NCAA, David Kwan. He coaches at a small school (Adrian College in Michigan),” Nichol said. “He told me to register with this American volleyball website, the AVCA. I did that because I wanted to pursue coaching as a full-time career. It's very hard to do that in Canada. There's not very many full-time jobs unless you're a university head coach and that's not going to happen for me at 24 years old. I started to look to the States and then a professional job in Germany came up on that website. They were looking for a young assistant coach.
“I applied, not really thinking too much about it because it's a professional job and I'd only coached two and a half seasons with Guelph. But I got through the first part and the next part and then all of a sudden I got the offer about three weeks before I had to leave and get on a plane and come to Germany. It was a quick goodbye to all my friends and family and on the plane to Germany.”
In all reality, the path to the job in Germany followed the same volleyball path that he’s been on since graduating from Lourdes.
“It was really quick and an almost unexpected experience in a way, but all parts of my coaching so far have been unexpected,” he said. “I didn't really have too much experience before I started with Guelph. I didn't have a ton of post-secondary playing experience before I went to Georgian and had success there. And here, I'm doing pretty well and my role has expanded a lot since I've been here as well which is awesome. It's just given me more opportunities to learn about coaching and learning even more about the game. It doesn't really matter how good a coach you are, you're always just learning and developing your skills and developing ways to improve your athletes.”
While Nichol is an assistant coach with the team, he’s also a scout during the games and he keeps track of the tendencies of both his team and their opposition.
But does Nichol speak German?
“Very little because I only really got the job there weeks before I left,” he answered. “I tried to learn as much as I could in those three weeks, but ever since the day I got here I've been working with the team and planning so I haven't put a ton of work into my German, which is unfortunate because the city I live in is very German. There's not a lot of English speakers here at all. It's kind of an older population. But it's good that the team itself communicates in English completely. All the German girls on our team speak good enough English to understand and speak with me. We have five foreigners on our team who all speak English as well.”
One of the foreigners is Sara Kovac from Niagara Falls, Ont.
Erfurt is in the centre of the country, a three-hour train ride from Frankfurt and it’s about twice the size of Guelph.
As for the team, it’s ranked 11th in the 11-team division with one win in seven matches. However, one other team has a single win and three more have two wins apiece.
“We have a really young team and a lot of really young German girls as well. Our oldest girl is only 25, a year older than me,” Nichol said. “That's what the club's spot in the league is, taking the younger players and developing them and pushing them out into bigger clubs throughout the league.
“Financially, we're lower compared to most other clubs in the league. The girls have been doing a really good job of making sure that they come to play every day no matter the result. Taking personal wins when we can, even if the scoreboard says otherwise. We're just trying to make sure that everyone stays positive, even if we're in a bit of a rough patch right now. It's a long season and we're not even halfway done yet so a lot of things can happen and I think we're really trending in the right direction lately.”
The league started its season allowing teams to play in gyms that were quarter-full with spectators. That lasted a couple of weeks and then spectators were banned from the games as the COVID cases in the country started to rise.
Nichol gets a swab up his nostril for a COVID test once a week.
And it’s a minor inconvenience for Nichol on his first steps toward being a full-time coach.
“I love the atmosphere over here and I love the professional scene and what it offers,” he said. “I really have no complaints. I get to learn from a fantastic coach (Dirk Sauermann) and have a big role on a professional volleyball team. I can't really ask for any more than that.”