GAAQ Coaching Spotlight - Brian VanMierlo x Girls Basketball
COACHING SPOTLIGHT: Brian VanMierlo
A Hockey Player-Turned-Basketball Philosopher - GAAQ Parent Relations Executive Justin Hamza Tyler interviews Brian VanMierlo, a high school Social Social teacher and hockey enthusiast who is the engine behind the renaissance and transformation of GEMS American Academy Qatar’s once afterthought basketball program.
As a coach, what is the #1 thing that helps you drive progress and success on the basketball court?
Since I grew up in a time where coaches were more authoritarian (i.e., yell, scream, told sternly), I always played the game of hockey without the freedom, empowerment and support necessary to mess up and figure things out on-the-go. Thus, as a basketball coach, I used this childhood experience as a motivator and reminder not to put our student-athletes in this same situation.
The atmosphere and culture of our basketball program is to play take deep breathes, regain composure, give maximum effort and learn from mistakes as they happen. I make sure that our players do not lose the battle with their minds, because if their mental state is uneven, then I have lost their physical ability.
Please describe your coaching journey and the progress the basketball program(s) has made at GEMS American Academy Qatar.
Even though I was a competitive hockey player in my home country of Canada, I never transitioned into hockey coaching due to recurring injuries post-career and actual bitterness with the sport (I stopped playing for an entire decade). Once the bitterness subsided and felt the pull again to potentially coach, I soon discovered that a collegiate coaching position required advanced degrees and other qualifications to be hired. Therefore, my enthusiasm soon turned to dejection.
Once I moved to Qatar for a teaching position at GAAQ (GEMS American Academy Qatar) in 2015, I coached floor hockey for two years, but eventually, we did not have enough student participation to continue. So, I turned to the sport of basketball and began my journey as an assistant coach of the U16 and U19 boys basketball teams. This opportunity provided the foundation to “soften” as a coach and leader because I was able to connect more meaningfully with students and support their interests. In a strange way, they were teaching me the foundational concepts of basketball even though I was their coach.
In short, I became the head coach of the boys basketball team for the 2017 - 2018 season and spearheaded our first winning season in boys basketball history. For the 2022 - 2023 season, I was selected to coach our U16 and U19 girls basketball teams and we have been undefeated (25 - 0) since, defeating the U16 and U19 teams of American School of Doha (ASD) and the Qatar National Girls Team, respectively.
List your accomplishments with both the Boys and the Girls basketball programs in your tenure as a coach.
Before listing these accomplishments, I would like to first preface that I have been blessed with outstanding scholar-athletes, so when we say “my accomplishments,” they are not merely mine. Rather, they are shared collectively.
When I first took over the boys basketball program, we clinched our first winning season (4 -3) in a shortened season. In the following season, we built upon our momentum and improved our season record to 9 - 4. In fact, we advanced in the Qatar School Olympic Program (QSOP) tournament to the semifinal round. In Year 3 (during the COVID pandemic), we took it a step further in the QSOP tournament by advancing to the championship round, stifling offenses to 15 total points or less in each game. The team showed tenacity by overcoming a devastating injury one of our key players and earned the silver medal for their efforts. Unfortunately, the boys team failed to get back on track during and after COVID. However, the foundation and culture set in previous years led to the re-formation of our basketball program for the 2023 - 2024 season under the sound basketball mind of American coach, Weston Marquart.
In the 2022 - 2023 season, I coached the U16 and U19 girls basketball teams. After instilling the same foundation and culture of the boys basketball program, the girls program took off running! The U16 team won a QUESS tournament championship trophy and finished second overall in the QUESS league standings with a 15 - 3 record. The U19 team did not lose a game all season and had the best overall record in the QUESS league. By defeating high-quality teams such as ASD, we moved to playing exhibitions against club teams because it was difficult to schedule future games with other schools. As a result, we played against Qatar’s U19 National Team and defeated them, as well. I’m not sure if this has been done before or will be done in the near future, but these victories serve as a testament of our school’s core values of leadership, tenacity and purpose.
Hopefully, our community is proud of our sports success as we arguably have the best girls basketball team in Qatar (U19). Ajla Numic, a GAAQ teacher with an accomplished basketball background as a player and in leadership, is another excellent basketball mind that will only help elevate our programs.
How does our unique Advanced High School Sport Performance program tie into our basketball program? If so, how?
Our interest and success in basketball led to a small group of coaches and senior leaders creating a one-of-a-kind course designed for the development of selected athletes in football, basketball and track and field. In the Advanced High School Sport Performance program, students will develop advanced techniques, strategies and game intelligence to excel in their respective sport while building the core tenets of teamwork, leadership and sportsmanship skills.
At the highest level, every athletes knows how to perform the basic-to-advanced movements in their sport, but the difference between an average and elite athlete often boils down to the small details of eating, sleeping, dieting, training, resting, stretching recovery game analysis and mindset, for example.
Therefore, our Advanced High School Sport Performance program plays an immeasurable part in our students mastering sport-specific skills, advancing game strategy, enhancing fitness, performing analysis, cultivating competition readiness and developing leadership and teamwork.
Considering time constraints and the busy schedules of high school students, how do you train and prepare your team for success on and off the court?
Interestingly enough, balancing time constraints with the busy schedules of our high school students is a constant dilemma. For example, we are asking students to commit time afterschool for sports and find time for basketball between their clubs, family and homework. Additionally, I must balance the requirements of my school, coaching, life and family.
As a result, I expect our students to be 100% present and attentive during the times we are together as a team. In practice, there are days when we are building team systems and concepts through walk-throughs. Other times, we are more physical with high-intensity, on-court sessions and conditioning. We expect advance notice (as reasonably possible) when players cannot make practice or games.
To be honest, our students are constantly asking me for more gym time during lunch and/or afterschool. Thus, I do my best to be more creative and flexible to carve out the time we need to be successful. During practice, we work on drills while fine tuning technique and skill development. We place our players in high-pressure scenarios so they are exposed to competitive, game-like situations. We discuss strategy and execution during the school day. We divide practice activities based on things we need to develop individually and as a team. As a whole, we maximize the use of our facilities and time in respect to the well-being and safety of our students.
You are a big hockey enthusiast. So, why basketball?
Since I am a hockey dude coaching basketball, I am not an expert tactician at the x’s and o’s of the game. Actually, I encourage my players to give me feedback in practice and in the games to incorporate our ideas. It’s open and equal communication between both player and coach. The top-down coaching approach is significantly minimized to emphasize the power of creativity, problem-solving and responsiveness within our team.
Since we have transitioned to a more open communication approach, we have witnessed greater success on the basketball court. I have noticed that in order for an athlete to reach their top level of performance, it is less about skill and more about mentality, leadership and remaining calm in stressful situations. Many of our players get elite training and coaching from their club teams, so I concentrate more on the philosophical side of things to help develop more trust, respect and support to boost team morale and motivation - with all of the roads leading to the formation of a winning program.
Why would a student-athlete want to play basketball at GEMS American Academy Qatar?
Recently, we had a student, Bianca De Negreiros (Brazil), who joined our school and basketball program during the 2017 - 2018 school year. She played club basketball, surrounded by great coaches and leaders inside and outside of the school and was an academically-gifted scholar-athlete. Her personality and approach to life helped push girls basketball forward in our community. Therefore, she set the bar high for girls’ sports and basketball at GAAQ. Students emulated how she trained and modeled their behavior after her. She served as a living, breathing example of being an extension of the head coach on the basketball coach, served as the standard for scholar-athlete etiquette and challenged other players to improve. As a result of her exposure in the school as well as her connections with basketball stakeholders within the country, she received a scholarship to play high school basketball at Mount Zion Christian Academy.
Bianca’s story is a great example of how a community of coaches in Qatar were a contributing part of her basketball journey. As Qatar further positions itself on the global stage through, GEMS American Academy Qatar is doing its part to invest in sports and become a haven for gifted student-athletes to transfer and take part in our school programs under expert coaching. Moreover, we are reviewing several proposals for international coaching, training and tournament opportunities to increase the global profile of our basketball program.