Coach’s Corner: Fleckenstein cultivates a culture of connection
By Gage Smith, Sports Editor
There aren’t many coaches in the U SPORTS league who can say they have experience from coast to coast. Robyn Fleckenstein, the head coach of Mount Royal University’s (MRU) women’s basketball team, the Cougars, is one of them.
“The East Coast to the West Coast basketball-wise is a really different cultural phenomenon. In the East, basketball is just everything. It’s as big as hockey is for us [in the West] and it’s a way of life,” she says.
That fiery passion for basketball on the other side of the country sparked a longtime love for the game. It also led to an early inclination towards the more glamorous half of the sport for Fleckenstein, especially in her time as a player at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.
“I think I am very enamored by offensive basketball. I think it’s the most beautiful part of the game. Defense is grit and hustle and physicality and [all about] if you can outwork someone, whereas I think good offense is just like poetry, it’s beautiful. I do value the importance of a great defense and I think it can truly fuel beautiful offense,” she says.
Coach Fleckenstein also gives credit to her father, who coached basketball at Acadia University, for inspiring her view of the game.
“He’s very offensive-minded- like, to a fault. He does not see the other side of the ball,” she teases. “So for sure, it was my dad’s influence. My dad watches all my games and calls me after every single one of them good, bad or indifferent. And I think it’s definitely interesting to always hear his perspective.”
The stereotypical basketball coach has a number of key values: hustle, fundamentals, teamwork. But most of all, coaches are famous for preaching that defense wins championships. As Fleckenstein transitioned from the court to the sidelines, her view of the game also started to shift closer to that of the stereotypical coach.
“I was very offensive-minded and it’s changed a lot. I think that I always felt like there was more to learn and I still feel like that now,” she says. “Maybe those are two dichotomies… I’m working my butt off to try and be more defensive-minded, but it’s not my first instinct. We’re all learning and growing, you know?”
She has a Master of Education in Coaching Studies from the University of Victoria and says that the networking and connections she made along the way were comparable in value to the degree itself. While at school in B.C., she met a number of other coaches who helped her become a “lifelong learner.”
She says her interactions with other coaches weren’t limited to her own sport, and that one of her biggest influences (and one of the most fun and interesting people she got to know) was actually a men’s rugby coach.
The importance of relationships is something Fleckenstein emphasizes when building a culture and identity for her MRU Cougars. The team currently has a 4-10 record and was going through a major losing streak at the time of her interview with The Reflector.
“My dad kind of did try to teach this to me, but it’s all about the importance of forming relationships with your athletes. You’ll go into battle together. I think that those relationships can’t be undervalued, not for a second,” she says. “Sometimes [it’s about] getting to know them off the court and having them know that you care and know that it’s all bigger than basketball, as much as I’m sure sometimes the kids don’t feel like that. They’re all doing other things in their lives, right? We only have five years.”
Fleckenstein says that improving in small ways every day, building a culture in which players want to be part of something bigger than themselves and continuing to build those relationships is where the team’s attention should be focused and not always on the team’s overall record.
She says, “If it was easy, everyone would do it. We know it’s difficult. But we just remind ourselves that we’re not here to try to build Rome in a day… When we look at how far we’ve come since September and how much further and how much better we are and how much more cohesion there is, we’re very proud of this group. We’re very happy with the direction they’re going in and just staying the course. I think sometimes it’s hard, [players will] be like, ‘I’ve done everything you’ve asked, like why am I not there already?’ Sometimes the only thing that we need is time. We just need more time.”
It looks like Fleckenstein was right. Only days after this interview was done, the Cougars would take down the elite University of Alberta Pandas 80-79 on Jan. 29. Don’t look now, but MRU has won two of their last three games at the time of writing and may have turned a corner.
However, for Fleckenstein, the relationships within the team remain at the forefront of the conversation. This outlook seems like it’s pointing the Cougars in the direction of a bright future.
“I love them,” she says. “I think getting to spend every single day with this group… we always tell them, ‘You guys are the most incredible young women in the world.’ And I think that, every day I get to come to work and I get to spend my day with them- there’s nothing more amazing than that.”