Have Whistle, Will travel - the Coaching Story of Robin MacDowell
Written By: Doug Crosse
In Mexico, they call him Coach Loco. In Saskatchewan, it’s just Coach or Robin. His travel agent follows the Mexican theme, this coach is crazy when it comes to the job of coaching teams from multiple locations in multiple countries.
Robin MacDowell, 38, a former Canadian sevens team member, has gotten the coaching bug in a big way in the past few years. He has also gotten pretty adept at airline schedules and packing light in the process.
“I am a sick animal,” he laughs, as he details his coaching life. “I love living 12 months a year out of a suitcase, I love being the underdog.”
His personal catchphrase with all the teams he works with is simple. Dream. Believe. Succeed.
Consider that in November, MacDowell, in his first year at the helm of the Mexican Women’s Sevens team, booked Les Serpientes to a first ever World Cup berth. While his team was celebrating in the growing darkness of the pitch set on the Presidential grounds in Mexico City, he had a brief word with the young women, telling them to enjoy the moment and get ready for more hard work. With that, he hit the airport to catch a flight to Dubai where he was co-coaching a North American hybrid team of U19 boys at the famous World Series stop in the Middle East.
With one practice before the tournament, he helped blood a new generation of North American kids into top-level rugby. While they didn’t win, getting that kind of exposure was key to the future of sevens rugby for both the Americans and Canadians.
“It was a lot of fun getting to work with some of these top US kids, but for me, it was a lot of fun coaching the next group of Canadian kids as well,” he says enthusiastically.
By his own reckoning in 2017, he has triple digits worth of practices for his various squads.
“I coached hundreds of practices and nearly two dozen teams, so I am going to work a little smarter next year,” MacDowell says with a sardonic laugh.
He also has his own elite men’s squads and he will be coaching the Canadian junior Olympic Games team next year, among other assignments.
Throw in the Saskatchewan-based MacDowell Rugby Academy featuring 50 athletes, a gig leading various age-grade provincial sides at tournaments, and coaching the University of Regina Cougars women’s team and the Dog River Howlers invitational sides, you would think it is enough for the young BC native. But hold on. He also has a full-time job with a very rugby friendly company, Young’s Equipment in Regina, where MacDowell works in the marketing department when he is there and even when he isn’t.
“They have been so supportive,” he says of his employers, who previously have sponsored the Prairie Fire and count rugby mad Tim Young among the key components of the company. “I don’t know too many companies that would allow for the type of schedule I have been running, but I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Still, MacDowell knows all about hard work. He never just walked into a spot on the Canadian Sevens team. As a sevens player, you could slot the diminutive MacDowell in the category of the fabled football player Rudy Ruettiger of Notre Dame fame. A lot of perseverance saw him crack the Canadian team after seven years of trying at age 26. A three-year stint saw him participate in 13 tournaments from 2005 to 2007.
“Just about every situation on a field I have been there as a player and definitely been there as a coach,” he says. “Because Sevens is so unpredictable, I am using that experience with my athletes to prepare them.”
So what kicked the coaching bug into overdrive in the past twelve months? In 2016, McDowell got an honest assessment from a friend who advised that it was time to go all-in with his coaching dream. He changed jobs, opened the MacDowell Rugby Academy, and began accepting new coaching assignments.
The one thing he has learned through all the various coaching assignments is how to do a lot with not too much.
“I always wanted my own academy,” he explains. “I have lived out of the back of my truck for the ten years since I retired from playing.
“I took all the energy I had for business and put it into sport.”
His desire to be the best comes at the expense of realizing he was nowhere near that coming into this breakout year.
“I lost a lot in past years,” MacDowell says bluntly. “I have probably lost 95 percent of the tournaments I was involved in coming into this year, but just recently I have started to see the wins.”
He points to the guiding influence of Canadian men’s Sevens coach Damian McGrath as an important factor in his development as a coach. He says the former Samoa coach, who took Canada to its first-ever series Cup win in his first season last season, gave him guidance in what is needed to prepare a team for any competition.
“I spent a week with Damian and assistant coach Lee Douglas as we prepared the Canadian U18’s for the Youth Olympic qualifiers in Las Vegas in 2018,“ he explains. “He’s made me realize I have a long way to go. It was really humbling.
“I’ve really taken a step back in the last six months. I feel like I am a strong coach but am I a world class coach? And the answer is no. I never had anybody to push me that way. Rugby Canada has pushed me to do some multi-sport courses; and I have looked at my professional coaching when I am not coaching, not traveling, and not working to be more of a professional coach, which is ultimately going to better for my athletes down the road.”
In Mexico, he held a 10-day camp in preparation for the Rugby Americas North 7s tournament, the qualifying event that would get his women’s side entry to the 2018 Rugby World Cup of Sevens in San Francisco. The whole time he and his coaches stayed in the same spartan barracks as the players, a mostly concrete bunker where “sometimes the water in the showers was warm.”
“We took an amateur program and turned it professional,” says MacDowell. He even went so far as to get his players off the social media grid.
“I hijacked their phones, just like Ben Ryan did with Fiji,” he says with a laugh. “Thank god we won or they would never let me touch their phones again.”
MacDowell’s ability to convince people to do the unimaginable includes recruiting people in supporting roles, such as getting his pal Trevor Harrison, a former Canadian men’s rugby player, to be part of the preparation camp. Harrison, like MacDowell, hails from Cowichan. He played pro rugby in Europe, and worked exclusively on Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers to get him back on the floor. His client list is pulled from the who’s who of NFL, NHL, NBA and pro soccer.
“He is an amazing guy, flying down and volunteering his time,” MacDowell says of Harrison. “He’s used to five-star hotels and in Mexico, we sleep in bunk beds in a dorm. A small town Cowichan/Canadian kid working with this small country is fantastic.”
While he says it is easy to list off the things a team or program might not have due to underfunding, “It comes down to hard work and belief and everybody having that team culture that you can do anything.”
But that tenacity paid off, with the Mexican women running through the opposition, and scoring the only try of the game in the final against Trinidad and Tobago.
Dream. Believe. Succeed. In 2017, it appears MacDowell’s own mantra has hit pay dirt for him personally.