Ivan Tam speaks with athlete Nicole Ostertag. Photo by Louis Christ.

For Ivan Tam, coaching is always fun

Ivan Tam got his first taste of coaching in the late 1970s when he was a high school student at Nutana Collegiate. The Saskatchewan Legion was looking for volunteers to help with its annual youth track and field camp so Tam, who was a talented track athlete himself, put up his hand. He enjoyed the experience so much that he went back the following year — and every summer for the next two decades.

Between camps in those early years, Tam attended the University of Saskatchewan, where he had a successful track career as a sprinter and hurdler, notably being part of the 1984 men’s 4x200m relay team that finished second at university nationals. The following season, he became an assistant coach with the Huskies and continued to seek out other opportunities. In the 45 years since that first Legion camp, Tam has coached athletes across a range of ages and abilities, including during his 22 years as a high school teacher in Saskatoon and North Battleford. Today, at age 62, he’s head coach of Saskatoon Track and Field Club and an assistant coach with the University of Saskatchewan track and field team.

There have certainly been changes in technology over the last four-plus decades — being able to use cellphones to film sessions and analyze technique in near realtime is a welcome improvement over relying on fuzzy VHS tapes — but Tam says the role of coach has largely stayed constant. “There are quite a few kids where I worked with their parents and now I’m working with their kids and it’s good to see that kids are pretty much the same,” Tam says. “They all just want to get better and that’s why they’re there.”

Ivan Tam and an athlete analyze video from a workout. Photo by Louis Christ.
Ivan Tam and an athlete analyze video from a workout. Photo by Louis Christ.

Tam’s commitment to the sport was recognized last year when he was inducted into the Saskatoon Sports Hall of Fame as a builder. The nomination came as a surprise — “you don’t really think about these things when you’re doing it, you just do it because you love it,” he says — but Tam has heard from athletes about the lasting impact he’s had on their lives and is humbled by it.

“You may think your coaching and friendship during my track years was nothing special, but I want you to know it made a huge difference to me,” one athlete wrote to Tam after the induction ceremony. “Not only did you help me learn how to win, you helped me gain strong confidence in myself that has taken me far in life. You helped me to know I could withstand hard work and discipline.”

Ivan Tam (centre) with other coaches of the Saskatchewan Legion's annual youth track and field camp.
Ivan Tam (centre) with other coaches of the Saskatchewan Legion’s annual youth track and field camp.

Tam has had a hand coaching many athletes who’ve gone on to represent Canada at the international stage including bobsledder Graeme Rinholm, heptathlete Nicole Ostertag and hurdler Michelle Harrison. Some athletes may only work with Tam for a short time — something Tam accepts as part of the sport. “It’s important to understand your limits as a coach and allowing athletes to move on,” he says. And while having athletes perform at the highest level is exciting, Tam finds joy working with athletes at all levels. “As long as they want to improve, it doesn’t really matter,” he says.

For Tam, the most rewarding moments of coaching come from watching athletes get the most out of themselves. He loves seeing athletes run personal bests and is proud of those who give back to the sport by officiating, forming track teams or coaching. He also loves seeing the sport grow.

One notable example is the explosion of the PR Athletics Tykes Program, which Tam founded as a way to expose his two kids to track and field when they were young. That first event saw about 12 kids — including Tam’s own and those of his teaching colleagues — run a hurdle race over foam obstacles during the PR Athletics First Chance Meet. Today, roughly 80 kids participate in the Tykes Program, which involves two practice sessions and a Tyke track meet before the First Chance Meet.

Ivan Tam (left) with members of the University of Alberta Pandas hockey team. Tam coached a speed camp for the group.
Ivan Tam (left) with members of the University of Alberta Pandas hockey team. Tam coached a speed camp for the group.

“I’ve received videos from other parents that show their kids practicing in the hallways, with their three year olds running over boxes of Kleenex,” Tam says. “The kids are super cute and the parents love it, I love it, and the kids enjoy it. I hear a lot of the kids say ‘When can we do this again?'” Some Tykes athletes — including Tam’s son — have gone on to run with the Huskies.

Tam is also excited to be overseeing the incredible growth of the Saskatoon Track and Field Club. There are now more than 400 athletes affiliated with the club, up from closer to 150 when he stepped into the head coach position four years ago, a year after he retired from teaching. It’s creating more opportunities for athletes and Tam is at the forefront of minimizing growing pains, including by making sure there is suitable track time for all athletes and enough coaches on staff.

“It’s definitely long days,” he says. “But if you’re passionate about something, it’s always fun.”