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A smiling coach (left) and a basketball players dribbling the ball (right)
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Basketball homecoming on the horizon for former Rams

By Ben Okazawa

In August 2020, Rams alumna Hayley Robertson signed a contract to play professional basketball for ​​Basket Féminin d’Escaudain Porte du Hainaut (BFEPH) in Escaudain, France. The move came on the heels of a two-year stint with the Rams women’s basketball team, in which she set a single-season assist record and finished as the third all-time leader in assists

Unfortunately, her plans were thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before Robertson got the chance to establish herself in her new home, a fresh wave of COVID-19 cases forced the country into a sudden and strict lockdown. With no basketball to be played and no new adventures to be taken, she returned to Toronto. Robertson spent just four months in France after her initial arrival. 

“If COVID wasn’t a thing, maybe I’d still be playing overseas,” she mused. “But, that chapter kind of closed naturally.” 

Initially unsure of her next step after returning home, Robertson found her calling with the help of an old friend. 

Jessica Roque spent the better part of a decade playing and coaching south of the border at Cleveland State University. She was also a guest coach with Sacramento Kings during the summer of 2019 and continued to develop a good head for the game while working with esteemed Rams women’s basketball head coach Carly Clarke from 2016 to 2020. 

“If COVID-19 wasn’t a thing maybe I’d still be playing overseas, but that chapter kind of closed naturally”

So it comes as no surprise that Roque, currently serving as the Waterloo Warriors women’s basketball head coach, was heavily involved in hiring Robertson as an assistant coach for the team in June 2021.

From an outside perspective, it was easy for many to tell that Robertson would make a good coach someday. From the fiery competitive spirit she showed in her two years with the Rams between 2018 and 2020 to her lead-by-example approach to the game, she showed a lot of coaching attributes in her time as a player. 

But where fans know Hayley Robertson the player, Roque knows Hayley Robertson the person—and she doesn’t think her strength as a coach can just be chalked up to the attributes Rams fans saw on the court.

“Hayley’s awareness of other people is what makes her unique,” she said. 

Roque’s face lit up with a smile as she looked back on her interactions with Robertson during early-morning practices in the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC). The senior guard would come in early and ask the then-Rams assistant coach about her weekend and how she was. 

They’re pretty simple and standard questions, but Roque remembers being surprised at the sincerity in Robertson’s voice. Roque said emotional intelligence is one of the more underappreciated aspects of coaching, and added that Robertson has it in bunches. The simple act of asking about her weekend showed more than enough of that. 

On top of the emotional intelligence she brings to the table, Robertson is coming into her first season at Waterloo with an abundance of coaching experience. She said she’s been coaching as far back as high school, when she helped head her younger sisters’ teams. She’s also coached at youth summer camps and even spent time as a coach for the co-ed and girls basketball teams at The York School, a private school in Toronto.

“Hayley’s awareness of other people is what makes her unique”

Even after all those years of experience, there’s a sense of excitement that Robertson feels for her first year with the Warriors.

“I love when I’m able to give someone quick feedback on the fly, and they can actually change or adjust whatever they’re doing,” said Robertson. “I like seeing them light up and realize they can do it and [building] their confidence.”

Being that person for her players is an exciting prospect for Robertson. Perhaps the least surprised to see Robertson relish in her new role is Rams head coach Carly Clarke, who got to see her both in the locker room and from the sidelines for the entirety of her two seasons with the Rams. 

Robertson recalled coming back to Canada after spending her first three collegiate seasons in Vermont and being recruited by the Rams. She knew of Clarke, a seasoned U SPORTS coach who spent a lot of time with Canada’s national teams, but didn’t quite know what to expect when they met. She had seen it all in her time being recruited by basketball programs, and in her experience, coaches tended to go “over the top” with their pitches.

“She was really great in allowing me to have a healthy work-life balance”

But Robertson didn’t feel Clarke was like that at all. Robertson said Clarke was about as authentic as one can be.

“She seemed…like she cares about her players and that she’s pretty passionate about the game,” said Robertson. “As I got to know her even more, I [realized] that all of that was true tenfold.” 

Clarke is more than just a mentor to Robertson; Roque credits her former head coach with much of her recent success as well. The most important lesson from Clarke that Roque has kept with her since moving to Waterloo is more applicable to her lifestyle than basketball, but she feels as though it carries over into the sport in a positive way. 

“She was really great in allowing me to have a healthy work-life balance,” recalled Roque, who said she struggled with maintaining any semblance of balance during her time at Cleveland State. 

“It’s allowed me now as a head coach to continue to grow…to provide that for my current staff and athletes.” 

Roque and Robertson are set to make their return to the MAC on Oct. 30, when the Waterloo Warriors take on the Rams women’s basketball team. But this time they’ll be on the opposite side of the all-too-familiar sidelines, coaching against the woman who helped them get to where they are today. 

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