Coaching Association of Canada

GROUNDBREAKER: ‘Shaking Things Up’ is Second Nature to Joan McDonald

Joan McDonald has lived through plenty of changes to her sport of archery and more often than not, she was in the thick of things. Total immersion has always been her style, and today archery in Canada is the better for it.

Joan's 'dive in with both feet' approach was apparent from the days when she was Canada's top woman archer, a worthy successor to 1974 world champion Lucille Lessard and to Lucille Lemay, fifth at the 1976 Olympic Games. Joan, who started shooting as a youngster at summer camp, won 13 national titles between 1962 and her retirement in 1992, was a member of eight world championship teams, placing eighth in 1978, and won silver and bronze at the 1979 Pan American Games. She attributes her success to her fitness, unusual in the sport in those days. “In archery you stand there. How hard is that? But if you're not fit, it can be a challenge. To be fit seemed obvious to me. I was basically self-taught and my workouts — this was before the fitness craze — could have been a whole lot better.”

Joan's transition from athlete to coach wasn't easy. Knowing that retirement was the right thing didn't help. “I did my retirement by the book, but that didn't change how I felt. It was like I had no goals that touched my soul.” Coincidentally, her retirement coincided with dramatic changes within archery and that led her into the politics of sport. She became president of the Ontario Association of Archers (OAA), a deeply divided organization mainly because of the upheaval caused by the development of the technically sophisticated compound bow. Some saw the new bow as a major innovation in power and accuracy; to others it was an unwelcome break with tradition. Pulling together a key group of like-minded people, she set to work to modernize the OAA, re-writing the constitution and by-laws, revamping the equipment categories and the rules of shooting, bringing several organizations back under one roof, and laying the foundation for the success the OAA is today.

Joan also worked on the Federation of Canadian Archer's high performance committee and headed a sub-committee that re-designed the Canadian ranking system to align it with scores shot at the world level, while making it accessible to Canadian archers.

While Joan agrees that this work was important to her sport, she did not feel fulfilled. She had always done some coaching and in 1995, she began to coach at the international level. Suddenly she found herself doing something that was very important to her. “I think all my shooting prepared me to be a coach. Maybe I wasn't an athlete; maybe I was always a coach. I was rushing about doing lots of things, but it was high-level coaching that brought me great satisfaction.”

These days, Joan is preparing for her fourth consecutive assignment as an Olympic head coach, an unprecedented achievement by a woman coach in Canada. Denied the opportunity to compete herself because of Canada's boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, she made her first appearance in Atlanta in 1996 when her archers, Kevin Sally and Rob Rusnov, made the team.

It was a time of great change as the International Olympic Committee was changing the number of athletes who could compete at the Games. FITA, the international archery federation, was determined to appeal to television audiences worldwide and changed archery's format from an open competition and cut the number of entrants to 64 men and 64 women. Instead of every competitor shooting 244 scoring arrows over four days, with the person with the highest score being declared the winner, a single elimination match play was introduced. A seeding round of 72 arrows ranks archers from one to 64. The number one archer then shoots a match against number 64, number two takes on number 63, and so on. Matches are only 12 arrows and each is over in 15 minutes, with the loser eliminated.

When the changes were announced, controversy immediately broke out. “Not only was the nature of archery changed, also changed was the kind of person who could excel in the sport. The average age plummeted. It became a young person's sport; young people are gutsy and just go out and do it.”

Joan was ready. “In Canada, our sport tends to be stuck in the past, highly resistant to change, and parochial. It doesn't look outside its borders. I do. I made a conscious decision to find out what was happening in the rest of the world, to go to the tournaments by training my athletes to qualify, and to volunteer to lead the teams.” And to continue to generate controversy by changing the Canadian archers ranking system. “By tying the rankings to world championship results instead of national results, only top-calibre archers make the cut for the big events. As a result, we slowly attracted growing numbers of young archers, people who weren't interested in settling for 64th.”

Since 1999, Joan's archers have consistently held top spot in Canada. She has been head coach at two more Olympic Games and six World Target Championships. Now, as Beijing nears, she is taking her first-ever full complement of male archers to an Olympic Games, thanks to an unprecedented eighth-place finish at the 2007 world championships. “Never before has Canada, under the new system, been able to quality an archer from the world championships. This is an incredible achievement.”

The team consists of Jay Lyon, who trains in Winnipeg, and Crispin Duenas and John David Burnes, both protégés of Joan, as is the alternate, Hugh MacDonald. Duenas, the national junior and senior champion, is arguably Canada's best male archer ever. When he showed up unannounced at Joan's archery range — it was 2000 and he was 14 years old — she was immediately struck by his high fitness level, which became a key factor in his rapid development. He is, she says, a classic long-term athlete development prototype, with exposure to a wide range of sports. His athletic abilities had earned him admittance to the Birchmount Exceptional Athlete Program, offered by the Toronto-area high school to students wanting to excel in sports. “Crispin's arrival was a really cool thing. I had been beating my head against the wall on the fitness thing and he dragged people along. If you're really good, people copy.”

And what about the women? To date, Joan's success has been with male archers because in recent years, few women have been attracted to the sport. That, she notes, is changing, and several young women vied for a spot on the Olympic team.

Joan's tight schedule leaves her little free time, but she manages to spend three days a week, when not on the road, doing administration at the National Coaching Institute-Ontario. “I do it because the benefit I got from the NCI was extraordinary. It made me have a much more open mind. The value in working in groups of coaches from different sports is tremendous and is something that Canadian coaches should take much more advantage of.”

Joan McDonald is a force to be reckoned with. She has driven her sport hard and stepped on a few toes along the way. No one can deny, however, that her tenacity, her willingness to take stands, to accept challenges, to work incredibly hard have created a positive environment for the young team that is set to challenge the world in Beijing.

Article by Sheila Robertson