Coaching Association of Canada

Forging Her Own Path

September 6, 2011

By Sheila Robertson

Brenda Van Tighem has just embarked on one of the most significant journeys of her coaching career. Her destination -- Daegu, South Korea, the site of the 2011 World Athletics Championships from August 27th to September 4th. (

As the personal coach of national sprint champion Sam Effah, and of talented relay runner Ammon Nelson, Van Tighem is on hand, not only to coach her protégés, but to share in the rarefied atmosphere of one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events.

With London 2012 looming in less than 11 months, the 2011 worlds take on added significance and are expected to provide coach and athlete with evidence that they are on the right path towards securing spots on Canada’s Olympic team.

VanTighem, a native of Trail, B.C., and by profession a physical and special education teacher, once dreamed of taking a small-town team to a provincial championship. Loftier goals didn’t seem feasible because, as her athletes progressed, most moved on to bigger centres. Nevertheless, driven by a strong belief in professional development, she worked her way through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP), attaining Level 4, and added a master’s degree in kinesiology. When she began to bring athletes to juvenile and junior national championships, Athletics Canada (AC) took notice and assigned her to Canada Games and national teams, including the head coach position at the 1999 Pan American Junior Track and Field Championships. Through it all she remained (and still is) a volunteer coach.

Eventually, discouraged by occasionally being named to teams and then inexplicably dropped, Van Tighem stepped away from coaching.

Her move to Calgary in 2001 led to an invitation from University of Calgary coaches Doug Lamont and Les Gramantik to assist with their power speed program. The position appealed to her compulsion to learn something new every day and, above all, to challenge herself. It also enabled her to retain athletes for the long haul, notably Nelson, who has been with her since high school, and Effah, whom she has coached for the past five years. “I’m able to keep them because they want to stay in Calgary, so it’s all come together quite well. For sure, others would have liked to coach them, but as they kept improving, they chose to stay with me.”

As Effah said recently, “Brenda is always looking to assist, whether you are a great athlete or not. There is no discrimination in any way and she is always doing her best to coach. With her knowledge of our sport, she has brought me from being a mediocre athlete to an elite, world-class athlete on the verge of breaking the 10-second barrier.”

To support her passion for coaching, Van Tighem has cobbled together various grants, which have allowed her to find part-time work at Mount Royal University where she runs literacy and numeracy programs for adults. There is a certain irony, she notes, in: “sitting at the table with my support team, which I lead, and everyone’s paid except me.”

A particularly important grant comes from the Coaching Association of Canada’s National Team Coaching Apprenticeship Program (NTAP) that provides funding and opportunities for female coaches to work with their national team programs up to, and during, major international events. In 2010, Van Tighem applied on the recommendation of Donna Harris, AC’s director of coach development and, following acceptance, had the good fortune to be assigned Gary Winckler as her mentor coach. The affable Winckler, the personal coach of two-time world champion hurdler Perdita Felicien, draws rave reviews from Van Tighem.

“He’s a very good person, approachable, and very laid back; the relationship works because it’s a safe and trusting environment. I can ask him any question I want and it’s all very positive.”

The first year was spent building the relationship with heavy reliance on email and telephone calls since Winckler is based at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The two also meet at events such as national championships and from time to time in Calgary where Felicien now trains. “I show him workouts and bounce ideas off him, update him, and get feedback; it’s very nice working with him and it’s only possible because of NTAP.”

Support also comes from B2ten (, which provides training and preparation-related services to selected athletes and invests in developing coaches and service providers. In Van Tighem’s case, the support came in the form of her flight to a pre-worlds training camp in Changwon, South Korea. AC chipped in by partially funding her to attend a recent relay training camp in Ottawa, with NTAP also contributing to this and other camps and events earlier in the year.

These days, Van Tighem finds herself in the news from time to time, more so as Effah climbs the world standings. Although she prefers to shun the spotlight, she understands that media exposure could encourage a sponsor to come forward as did B2ten. “Coaching is my passion, and it would be awesome if I could work at it full time. I love to volunteer, but there is a point when you volunteer so much there could be burnout.”

She points out that Effah and Nelson are targeted for 2016 in Rio de Janeiro so long as both wish to continue after London. Their decision will have an impact on her own future. For now, it’s one step at a time. Thanks to NTAP, she knows she has the tools and support to get them to London. “Coaching is rewarding; you get to know people really well, you get to challenge yourself, and help your athletes to excel.”

For more on Brenda, read a profile on her in the April edition of the Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching. (

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