Reflections on 65 Years of Coaching: Conversation with Lou Lukanovich by Karen Lukanovich

Canada's Olympic Kayak Team in 1960. Lou Lukanovich is stern (middle of picture) with Mike Brown and Al McCleery.

Canada's Olympic Kayak Team in 1960. Lou Lukanovich is stern (middle of picture) with Mike Brown and Al McCleery.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Karen Lukanovich is a coach - and Olympian. Whilst she is a sportsperson, she's also a trained and certified coach.  Her focus is Personal Leadership & Performance Coaching for high achieving woman professionals, executives and athletes.

When I was invited to write something inspiring on the origins of coaching or similarities with sports coaching, I predictably googled "history of coaching." I was amazed at all the results. What could I write on the topic of coaching that was different and that would also be inspirational for other coaches?

Then it occurred to me. I've had the privilege of growing up with my father, Lou, now 90 years old, who was a Canadian Olympic athlete and coach. He was also my coach for many years and inspired me to be a coach and achieve many successes in sport and life.

Lou coached a variety of sports for over 65 years, from community sport clubs to Olympic teams and everything in between. Winning many national and international events in his sport of canoe/kayak sprint, he continued coaching skiers and paddlers well into his 80s and contributed to a number of coaching certification modules along the way.

I felt I had to interview Lou and get his perspectives on coaching. First, I was curious to see how he would answer my questions. And as a sports coach, would his key coaching principles, lessons learned and words of wisdom resonate with coaches across all disciplines? Lastly, I also wanted to know how his coaching skills contributed to his leadership style and approach to life.

Lou's Background

Lou Lukanovich was born in Croatia. At the age of 21 he immigrated to Canada after a year spent in a displaced persons camp in Austria in 1950. He spent five years working in the nickel mines of Sudbury in Ontario, Canada before saving enough money to go back to university. Lou completed his science degree, made the Olympic team and became a father all in the same year. I've always marvelled at his resiliency, determination and perseverance.

But Lou wasn't just a high-performance sport coach and athlete; he was also a successful tech entrepreneur. A pioneer in information technology, automation and robotics for manufacturing applications in the early 1970s, Lou was a leader in his industry. Both of these accomplishments would earn him an Order of Canada medal at 45 years old as well as many other distinguished awards.

Karen & Lou Lukanovich

Karen with her Dad, Lou

My conversation with Lou Lukanovich

An exceptional start in coaching

Karen: At what age and how did you get into sport coaching?

Lou: I started coaching at 17 years old, mainly due to my determination towards achieving my goals. At first it was in alpine skiing, mainly slalom. In 1948 Zagreb, Croatia (part of Yugoslavia at the time), six of us were excluded from the "official ski team" as we were not "party members" or "politically correct." This challenged me to organize our group, and we went to Slovenia to train at our own cost near the official team.

I offered myself as the group coach, and we practiced not far from the official team—who had the use of the T-bar, while we climbed and skied. We were also close enough to see what they were doing. We trained very hard, and at the Croatian championships later in the season we did better than the official group.

This was a very rewarding experience for me and set the foundation for my love of coaching.

Coaching principles

Karen: What a great story about how you changed an obstacle into an opportunity! You coached various sports at every level; how would you describe your key coaching principles?

Lou: In my coaching, reading and studying, I was always aware that our mind would make a difference in achieving our goals and winning performances. What I learned is that both science and art, creative approaches, are needed. The Romans knew the importance of mens sana in corpore sano, which means "a healthy mind in a healthy body."

I studied, I applied, I tried. I was creative, admitted my errors and, when I experimented, pulled back before it was too late (I hope). I was honest, shared with other coaches and tried to get the best out of my athletes. I never yelled at them, they could make demands of my time, we were loyal to each other and I loved them when they were racing and still do. I still have many relationships with former athletes and employees.

These are my core coaching principles I have developed over the years:

  • Coaching involves both science and art.
  • Coaching isn't a job, it's a vocation—a calling.
  • Keep your mind open and never stop learning.
  • Meditate or do other similar activities to ground yourself and reduce stress.
  • Learn from other coaches and athletes.
  • Coach the whole person, not just the athlete.
  • Maintain integrity and ethics at all times.
  • Lots of business and sport rules change and are changing, sometimes accidentally. Do not fight it, use it.

Karen: I see a universality in your coaching principles that can be applied to all coaching disciplines.

You also referenced how sport and business rules are changing, sometimes accidentally, and that it's better to use, and not fight, these changes. In fact, you were a pioneer of technology which drove huge paradigm shifts in the way global industries conducted operations and manufacturing, and created significant market disruption and corporate change.

Currently we're seeing huge paradigm shifts in industry, with COVID-19 and climate concerns driving major impacts, from science and technology to corporate and social change.

So as an entrepreneur and business owner, how did your coaching principles and experiences help you as a leader of your firm and industry during times of change?

Lou: I practised as a coach for many years, so no question, it defined my leadership style. As a leader you are in a position to improve the performance and life of other people as well as meet your corporate goals.

Yes, I'm goal and performance oriented. But as in sport, I also experimented, asked questions, learned and listened until we had a process that achieved our goals, motivated and engaged. This included such progressive ideas (at the time) as flexible time, an open-door policy, professional development and career opportunities, and sport and fitness benefits.

Work-life balance was always an important value for me, and as in sport, you have a whole person in your charge, not just an employee.

It was important that I had a happy, loyal and productive team of employees working for me. Our team felt confident we could handle any challenge that came up. We were successful, we worked hard and we had fun getting there.

Lou Lukanovich

The power of coaching

Karen: What has been the most rewarding aspect of coaching for you?

Lou: In my case, the most rewarding aspect of coaching was to witness the progress of those I coached relative to the beginning of their process. That my coaching improved their lives also! Here's a wonderful quote from a former athlete, now a doctor, in a note he sent me many years after he retired from competitive sport: "You were the best coach I ever had, in canoeing and in life."

Karen: What a lovely tribute. Could you describe in a sentence or two how being a coach impacted the way you lived your life?

Lou: Coaching brought me many opportunities and successes in my life, both in sport and in my professional journey. What became important to me was to model my values as a coach in the way I lived my life with enthusiasm, curiosity, openness and personal integrity.

Lessons learned and words of wisdom

Karen: Considering all your years of coaching experience, how would you describe your key lessons learned? What are your "words of wisdom" to coaches regardless of their discipline?

Lou: Along with the core principles I've already referred to, I would add:

  • Learn to use the correct feedback for performance improvement and confidence building.
  • You are not only a coach, you are an emotional resource person.
  • Maintain helpful relationships with your charges; listen and mentor beyond sport.
  • Never stop learning, and learn to listen well.
  • Learn from other coaches, as well as from your athletes or charges.
    • This is a good example—the "Fosbury Flop" in high jumping was not developed by a scientist or coach but by the athlete Fosbury himself. His method is still the best in the world.
  • Don't BS your charges (coachees); most of them are quite smart.
  • Don't place your charges (coachees) in your shoes. They aren't you and may react very differently.

Wrap-up from Karen

I realized while working on this article that part of my motivation was to shed more light onto the world of coaching in sport, and what a great coach in sport sounds like.

Since moving into personal and professional coaching, I've often heard how different it must be from sport coaching. But while it's true that every coaching discipline will have technical tools and skills required to develop their coaches, sport coaching is no different. Yes, it involves sport science and guidance for optimum technique and performance on the field or starting line. But athletes or not, we all coach in service of people's goals and their process.

The ICF beautifully defines coaching as "partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential. The process of coaching often unlocks previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership." And as Lou's journey as a coach demonstrates, I would add that it achieves these goals for ourselves as well as for others.

Lou and I wish you all the best in your coaching journey ahead!

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

And if you like this article from Karen, you may also like:

Karen Lukanovich Headshot

Contributing Author:

Karen Lukanovich, ACC, MBA, Olympian specializes in performance and leadership mindset coaching for female entrepreneurs and athletes. A former sales executive in STEM, Karen has launched successful manufacturing, consulting and coaching businesses. Drawing from her corporate and sport background she is passionate about supporting women to become the best leaders of themselves and others with renewed confidence and well-being.  It's all about the journey! Learn more at www.summit2summitcoaching.com and connect with Karen on Linkedin.

Learn more about Karen & see all their articles here >>

Image of Canada's Olympic Kayak Team in 1960. Lou Lukanovich is stern (middle of picture) with Mike Brown and Al McCleery. by Unknown via Cartierville Boating Club

17 Comments

  1. Lori

    Great writing and very interesting. Lots of info I did not know about your dad. Wonderful tribute. Xx

    Reply
  2. KRISTI

    What a wonderful article!
    Lou is amazing and inspirational.
    Thank you very much!

    Reply
    • Michela Phillips

      I agree, Kristi! He's a great inspiration!
      - Kindly, Michela

      Reply
    • Karen

      Thank you so much Kristi! I appreciate your kind words and will pass those along to Lou.

      Reply
  3. Michael Weddell

    Karen,
    What a great article you managed to capture the essentials of coaching simply and succinctly. Your dad's philosophy is so refreshing in what can be a cutthroat world.

    Reply
    • Karen

      Really appreciate your kind thoughts here Michael! Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your feedback, I will pass along to Lou 🙂

      Reply
  4. Paula Ruane

    great great story and the wealth of experience can only be created with time - there is no shortcut to experienced wisdom

    Reply
  5. Ray Cardinal

    As a K2 and K 4 partner with Lou in many Canmas events, I benefited from having a ‘teammate ‘ who was at the very top of his sport ....His starting the Viking canoe club gave so many of us the opportunity to continue to keep active and stay involved !

    Reply
    • Michela Phillips

      Amazing, thank you for sharing, Ray!
      - Kindly, Michela

      Reply
    • Karen

      Thanks for sharing that Ray! As we both know, Lou is a great motivator and we have been so lucky to enjoy his passions and enthusiasm for "active for life"!

      Reply
  6. Greg Graves

    It's great to see you reinforce the importance of the values of loyalty and integrity in leading and coaching. I also appreciate how mutual trust and learning from each other play a significant role in successful coaching. Thanks so much for sharing this conversation!

    Reply
    • Michela Phillips

      So glad you enjoyed the article, Greg!
      - Kindly, Michela

      Reply

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