Although she, herself, only played one year of college basketball, Natalie Russell is currently the youngest basketball head coach in the Calgary Senior High School Athletic Association, and has plans of becoming a high-level coach.
“My ideal coaching position is probably in the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association],” says Russell. “I would love to be able to get to that elite university level. My plan is to just keep moving up through the ranks wherever I can.”
Russell has coached with five different organizations over her six years of coaching. Her first coaching experience was with National Basketball Camps (NBC) as a junior coach.
She attended the camps as a player before becoming a coach. She credits her coach at the time for fueling her love for basketball.
“I owe everything in my basketball career to them, [the NBC]. My coach there quite literally changed my life, and having the opportunity to do that for someone else is what inspired me to pursue coaching.”
Despite the excellent coaching Russell received at NBC, other coaches she’s had elsewhere had the opposite effect on her and teammates. Those negative experiences played a role in Russell wanting to become a coach, herself.
“It helps you recognize the kind of coach that you want to be,” says Russell. “I would never want to be the coach who hurt one of my players mentally.”
Despite her drive for coaching, Russell pursued a college basketball career out of high school. She attended Concordia University of Edmonton where, after a year of not playing as a redshirt and watching from the sidelines, Russell decided to move on and pursue coaching full-time.
However, Russell recognizes that there are some challenges she faces in achieving her lofty goals after only playing one year at the post-secondary level.
“I don't have as broad of a sense for the game as maybe I would have if I had stuck it out for a few more years,” says Russell.
Growing up in Langdon, Alta., and attending Chestermere High School, Russell has loved her time back in Calgary, and the coaching opportunities that have followed.
During the summers, she coaches the Chestermere Wolfpack basketball club. The club is run by her dad, Derrick Russell, who is confident in his daughter’s coaching ability despite her only being 19.
“I believe she's got some pretty some pretty solid principles when it comes to coaching,” Derrick says. “She's not worried about the perception of her as a coach.”
Derrick thinks that his daughter is on the path to finding success as a coach. Russell’s basketball resume has taken her from coaching NBC camps and local Chestermere clubs to successful Calgary high school programs in William Aberhart and Bishop Carroll.
“There's not a whole lot of 20-year old high school coaches, especially at high school programs like Abe and Carroll. Those are big programs that attract high-level people for the most part. So, for her to be a part of that group, and that culture, is huge.”
In her pursuit of reaching the next level of coaching, Russell wants to get as much experience head-coaching a team as she can.
“It's all about the experience. As an assistant coach, you only get to do so much,” says Russell.
According to Jess Lauzier, one of Russell’s players from her time at Aberhart, Russell’s ability to be a head coach was never in question.
“Even though she was our assistant coach, whenever the head coach had to step back, she could step up and really lead a team without it being a big deal.”
Lauzier is inspired by Russell’s age and ability to be a head coach, as most head coaches in the city are many years older.
“She shows me that even if you’re young, you can be a coach if you want to be, as long as you have what it takes.”
Russell thinks that connecting with players like Lauzier is the most rewarding part of being a coach. As much as she wants to win a national championship, it’s the relationship with the players that she values over everything else.
“How much you can affect that kid is immense. Coaches have that special bond with kids where you not only get to see them work on the court ...you get to see them grow as people off the court as well.”
Russell hopes that her approach to coaching, combined with her experience at the high school level, will ultimately be stepping stones to bigger and better things in her coaching career.
This summer, Russell will turn her attention to coaching the Chestermere clubs before returning to Bishop Carroll to start another school year.
- By Zach Worden