by Michael Sun, The Charlatan
When the Western Mustangs contacted Nate McKibbon about their head coach opening last summer, it gave him a chance to go back to his roots.
McKibbon had just finished his fourth season as the women’s basketball head coach at Mount Royal University in Calgary when the Western job became open after Brian Cheng’s departure. “The biggest reason why I came home was being close to friends and family,” McKibbon said.
The Hamilton native had spent most of his basketball career in Ontario. From fulfilling his dream as a high school player at Westdale Secondary School to coaching club, high school and university basketball all throughout the province.
McKibbon had his triumphs and lower moments. This season with Western, the Mustangs finished with the OUA’s best regular-season record and are one win away from nationals.
However, through that journey, he’s tried to find more balance in his basketball life – an ongoing process for him. It’s a testament to who he was growing up, who he became and who he wants to be.
McKibbon grew up in the Westdale area of Hamilton, the west end part of the city. He calls himself an introverted person. “I’m an extrovert by profession but not by choice,” he said. “I was a very quiet player who just sort of worked hard and loved being part of the team.”
From a young age, his dream was to play at Westdale, the local high school. “I didn’t dream of being Michael Jordan on the Bulls,” he said. “I dreamed of being John Dingle, playing for [coach] Wayne Hager at Westdale.”
Dingle was a star player at Westdale before becoming a star at Western. He was at Western when McKibbon was at Westdale.
Once McKibbon made the Westdale team, it was a dream come true. His first senior high school game was against Eastern Commerce, featuring future NBA all-star Jamaal Magloire. He remembers winning a city championship on the McMaster court, cutting down the net.
“Doesn’t matter what level you play at, any time you get to cut down a net, it’s special,” McKibbon said. Westdale then went one step further and won the GHAC, the regional championships.
Especially given he didn’t play club or university basketball, those moments became the peak of his playing career.
McKibbon understood early on his playing career would likely end after Westdale. “It wasn’t like a huge disappointment not to play post-secondary basketball,” he noted. “It was something that I always sort of knew and sort of valued the opportunity to have on a high-level team like Westdale.” His ambition was always to play at Westdale and he had achieved that.
While at Westdale, he learned traits that would eventually lead him to coaching.
Being on a team forced him to open up. As a role player more than a star, he understood his role and what he needed to do to make the team better. “I always appreciated what it was like to be part of a team and I always hope in some ways or another always to be part of a team,” he said. “Always willing to play a role in something bigger than myself.”
While he was at Westdale, assistant coach Amos Connolly approached him about the possibility of coaching. “At the moment, I just took it for what it was,” McKibbon said. “It was just a coach providing a compliment to someone who could potentially coach.”
His interest in coaching and helping others came naturally. His mother was a university professor, with a background and passion in helping others. McKibbon soon discovered that passion as well.
“As soon as I started coaching, I realized I was a far better coach than I ever was a player,” he said. “I also got far more enjoyment from helping other people reach their goals or do something new. I think I realized pretty early that in between those lines, coaching would provide far more fulfillment for me than playing ever would.”
He loved teaching and helping players and teams reach their goals and grow. “I just love the look on a player’s face when they do something that they either thought was hard or not possible,” McKibbon said.
While growing up, he also had a gritty, hard work-ethic instilled in him. “The Hamilton culture,” he calls it. “Hamilton breeds toughness and effort and time,” he added. “That’s the culture we were in. You had to work hard to be successful. You had to be tougher than the next person. You had to be willing to put extra time in.”
His dad carried that work ethic and toughness with him as well, something McKibbon learned from him. His dad worked his way to two Master’s Degrees and started his own environmental consulting business.
“A smaller company that was completely reliant on his work ethic and his ability to generate business,” McKibbon said. “I think [my parents] provided a huge example of me of how to just put your head down and work hard and still care about the people around you.”
That work ethic drove him as a coach. It motivated him to prove people wrong.
“I always thought my advantage was I was just willing to grind and work hard,” McKibbon said. “I just have sort of the model that I keep showing up. You keep telling me I can’t do something, I’m going to keep showing up and eventually, you’re going to realize and it’s going to be easier to get me involved than get rid of me.”
McKibbon’s hard work continued to pay off over the 22 years of coaching. He developed as a coach during his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto. He spent numerous years as a high school and community coach in Hamilton. He gravitated towards coaching women’s basketball in particular.
The success started to come as well. He coached St. Mary’s High School (also in the Westdale area of Hamilton) to city championships. He coached the Hamilton Transway JUEL team – featuring notable players like Elizabeth Leblanc, Christina Buttenham, Hilary Hanaka and Kia Nurse – to championships as well.
He was an assistant at Windsor under Chantal Vallée when the Lancers won their OUA championships. He coached in different roles for Canada Basketball.
There were more cutting down of nets, more trophies for the trophy cabinet. However, throughout that, he said continued to enjoy the fulfillment coaching brought him, regardless of level or what that meant for his career path.
“If I stopped coaching today at the university level, obviously I would have to find another way to pay the bills, my mortgage,” McKibbon said. “But I would still coach and I wouldn’t see it as lesser than if I was coaching at the high school or club level.”
After years of coaching, he got his shot as a university head coach in 2015. He became the new head coach at Mount Royal.
Coaching at Mount Royal meant that McKibbon was a rookie university head coach. It also meant he would be leaving friends and family in Ontario behind to move to Calgary. “It was incredibly exciting but incredibly terrifying all at the same time,” he said.
He called it terrifying moving away from friends and family, McMaster (where he was an assistant) to a whole new conference and province he respected but didn’t know much about. He arrived in Calgary on June 1 that summer, when most coaches were away on vacation.
“I’m sitting in an empty office, wondering, ‘what did I just get myself into’,” McKibbon recalled. “Feeling very much like I’m making stuff up as I go. Am I good enough for this? Am I ready for this? There was definitely a lot of doubt, a lot of fear from being on my own.”
It was one of the first times he felt alone and away from his comfort zone, according to him.
The experience brought challenges as well as successes. More importantly, it brought at a valuable learning experience. “I don’t regret it at all,” McKibbon said. “I think it forced me to grow as coach.”
He credits the support system he had – from assistant coaches to athletic director Karla Karch. However, there was adversity on the court. The team won two, four, one and two games in his four seasons there.
“I probably made more mistakes than I made right calls at Mount Royal and I think, inevitably as a head coach, you’re going to make more mistakes than right calls,” he said. “It’s just a job that you have to sort of know that you’re never going to be perfect. You just got to try to put one foot in front of the other and do what’s best for your athletes.”
McKibbon saw how hard his players worked. He saw how they grew and yet the losses continued to pile up. “There were small victories as we went through,” he said. “I think we did a really good job early really focusing on the process and I think as we went, I probably became too focused on the wins and losses. That just made it more difficult for me and also my athletes.”
Part of the drive towards focusing on results came from wanting validation. Validation of him as a coach and validation of his athletes. “You want to show progress and you want to show people the work you’re doing,” he said. “For me, the biggest thing is, I just wanted people to recognize how hard those young women played on a daily basis.”
He said he loved for the players to get the validation of their hard work in practices and games through wins and recognition from others.
Meanwhile, McKibbon continued to push himself as a coach to work for his athletes’ validation. Away from friends and family in Ontario, he continued to grind – fueled by the work ethic he gained growing up. “I think just being away from home and not having those escapes from basketball, basketball very much became all-consuming – right or wrong,” he said.
For him, confidence came from preparation. At Mount Royal, that meant countless hours of film, studying and planning, always preparing for the next game.
“It’s funny. It’s one of these things were there’s always one more email to send, there’s always one more game to go watch, there’s always one more video you can watch in preparation for a team,” he noted.
“This job can be as much as you want it to be. You can spend as many hours on this job as you choose to put in,” he continued. “There’s really no end point. There’s no point you’re going to feel completely prepared or that you’ve done absolutely everything. It’s just understanding you know, when are you to the point of diminishing returns. You watch one more game. Are you really going to be that much more prepared?”
His days would consist of early morning and long days – “home, eat, sleep, repeat,” he described it as. McKibbon said the hours he put in was his choice – not forced on him by anyone – and what he felt he needed to do to become successful. He said he’s always considered himself at servitude to the game, always at the service of helping others.
In the past year or so, McKibbon realized he needed to better help himself to help others. “Sometimes, you need to learn how to be a servant to yourself a little bit,” he said. “Be a little bit selfish so you can be better for the people around you.”
There wasn’t a certain moment it came to him but it became more clear over time. He realized he needed to find more balance in his life.
“I think the biggest thing is the realization that maybe you haven’t been your best self for the athletes again,” McKibbon noted. “I take far more pleasure in watching our players be successful than anything that sort of comes my way. I think it’s the realization that I need to do things individually to put my athletes in better situations.”
Around that time, the Western job opened up and McKibbon took it. He expressed gratitude towards Mount Royal for his time there.
“I thoroughly enjoyed Mount Royal,” he said. “I’m incredibly appreciative of that opportunity that they gave me. I think there’s some great people there, both in players and staff and the whole coaching staff – not just in basketball but in all the different sports. The collection of coaches they have there is fantastic. To me, [the Western decision] was just being closer to friends and family.”
Back in Ontario, McKibbon’s Mustangs have enjoyed a lot of success on the court. He talks about their team culture, defence and enjoyment from the players. While he made friends in Calgary, the move gave him a chance to reconnect more frequently with friends and family in Ontario.
It’s helped him find more balance as well – to try to be a better coach in the process. He calls the moments where he gets to see long-time friends from the basketball community “recharging and energizing.”
Away from the court, he’s taken more time to himself to recharge.
“You got to make time for yourself to recharge,” McKibbon said. “Because if you’re not at your best, you’re not providing your athletes with the best version of yourself.”
As an introvert, McKibbon said he tries to take time to himself – to be alone, think, read and put his thoughts down on paper. Since he’s been back in Ontario, he’s also spent more time with his parents, watching movies or talking about different things with them.
“Sometimes you just need to shut off your brain,” he noted. “Sometimes you just need to lounge and watch Last Chance U on Netflix or something completely mindless that teaches us nothing about coaching.”
He’s become more conscious of not overworking himself. At Western, he’s gotten support with it. The team’s mental skills coach has been a tremendous help, according to McKibbon.
“Just reminding me like, ‘hey, you might not always get a vacation but it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes to do a little bit of a breathing exercise to make sure that you’re in the proper mindset walking into practice, not take any baggage that you’re carrying into the practice environment’,” he recalled.
The players at Western have also noticed McKibbon’s emphasis on balance. He’s talked with them about the importance of having and enjoying all three aspects of their university experience – school, basketball and social life.
He encourages players to attend other varsity games. When talking with players, he reflects on his own university experience in Toronto.
“You have to enjoy your experience,” McKibbon said. “I loved living in downtown Toronto. I loved the experience of university. They have to enjoy those experiences too. I don’t want them to give up every opportunity to enjoy the university experience just because we have athletic pursuits.”
He talks with players about being efficient with their time and work. This season, their team meetings are set at 30 minutes maximum. “The moment it goes over 30 minutes, they have full permission, in fact, they’re encouraged to stand up and walk out,” he said.
Leblanc said McKibbon does well in adding elements of fun into practices – whether through games or incentives. “He just wants to make sure that everyone’s having fun and making sure that we all want to be there,” Leblanc said.
Leblanc said she appreciates McKibbon’s understanding of how busy the student-athletes’ lives are and challenges of finding balance. It comes from his own experience as well – both in university and as a coach.
“I think it’s almost like good for players at the same time to understand, it’s not like your coach thinks he knows everything,” Leblanc added. “He can admit that yeah, he’s still trying to figure this out. I think that’s good to let the players know because it makes you more relatable.”
This past winter break, with the team sitting atop the OUA, McKibbon gave his players a full two weeks off. They still had training requirements back home but he wanted them to enjoy their time with friends and family.
“You can do it 100 different ways,” McKibbon said about holiday training schedules. “It doesn’t really affect performance one way or the other but give them time to give them time to go home and reconnect with their family.”
Meanwhile, he reconnected with his. McKibbon’s parents and sister visited him in London over the break, having a chance to stay at McKibbon’s new house.
Nowadays, he spends more time in Niagara than Hamilton because that’s where his parents live. Hamilton still has a special place in his heart though.
“I love going back,” McKibbon said. “There’s just something about driving over the Skyway Bridge or to see Westdale when you’re coming off the highway.”
He’s still in the process of finding the right balance in his coaching career.
“Oh, I’m in the infancy stages. It’s by no means something that I’m an expert at,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve necessarily found the proper balance. I know I still tend to put my head down and work hard but I’m more conscious of where my emotions are and how do I change those to make sure I’m not taking out anything on athletes or at the very least providing a positive experience for them.”
Through all those experiences – the wins and losses, the highs and lows – he remembers why he coaches. McKibbon said coaches usually only spent five to 15 percent of their day actually coaching, inside the lines. The feeling and joy of it is worth it though.
“All that other stuff, if I have to do that to get five to 15 percent of my day inside those lines coaching and doing good work, I’ll do it any day of the week,” he said.
That feeling drives who he is and who he wants to be as a coach – the hard work, the enjoyment, the teaching, the striving for balance to be better for his athletes and himself. It connects his past with his present and future.
“I think for me, standing in between those lines and coaching is the place that I always felt most comfortable,” McKibbon said. “That I always felt most confidence, that I always felt I could make the biggest difference in other people’s lives – and that never changed.”
– M. Sun