A world-class coach honored
October 21, 2010 · Updated 7:03 PM
Tamiko ‘Tami’ Tommila has spent a long time coaching kids in lacrosse and getting to know who they are on and off the field.
Her success at that has led to success on the field as the head coach of the Bainbridge girls’ lacrosse team, leading them to four state Division I championships and seven straight championship appearances, not to mention the constant appearance of a Spartan player on the All-State team or as an All-American.
Tommila also coaches numerous club teams and all-star teams as she spreads her knowledge and love of lacrosse around the Puget Sound.
Her work has been rewarded with a Coach of the Year honor in 2005 and a nomination into this year’s class of the Washington State Lacrosse Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony is Saturday at the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle.
She is the third islander and the fifth from Kitsap County to be honored.
Girls’ lacrosse founder Laurie Usher was nominated in the inaugural class of 2006, while boys’ lacrosse co-founder Samuel ‘Trip’ Goodall was nominated in 2008.
Everet “Smitty” Smith Sr. of Poulsbo was honored in 2006 (his son Erik, who resides on Bainbridge, is the founder of the Washington Lacrosse Officials Association) while Rob Hawley of Poulsbo was nominated in 2008 thanks to his work at Lakeside and Klahowya.
While Tommila said the recognition is nice, she said she doesn’t coach for the accolades.
“I was surprised when I got the phone call,” she said. “I had no idea I’d been nominated. It certainly isn’t part of my expectation coaching here – these extra accolades.”
Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, Tommila grew up in a family that loved lacrosse. Her older brother played and her father coached as well.
It was watching her older brother that got Tommila, then 3 years old, interested in lacrosse.
“It’s our national sport in summer, so that’s what you do – you play hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the summer,” Tommila said. “If you have an older sibling, you usually follow in their footsteps. So since he played lacrosse, I played lacrosse.”
She grew up playing every sport there was, including volleyball, where she was a standout.
But it was lacrosse that she made her mark.
Tommila started at 9 with box lacrosse, a version of lacrosse that is highly popular in Canada, playing with other boys.
She moved to field lacrosse at 16, but said she hated it and couldn’t play with a women’s stick, which doesn’t have a deep pocket like a men’s stick.
“I told the coach at the end of the first practice that this wasn’t for me, and he said to come back next week and he’d get me a different stick,” Tommila said. “What he did was he gave me his stick but he tightened it a little bit every week and I didn’t notice until I got a women’s stick.
“I guess I wasn’t that smart as a kid, but he was smart and he got me to stick with field lacrosse,” she continued.
She also said playing with members of the Canadian national team helped inspire her love of lacrosse.
Tommila used her excellent hand-eye coordination and speed to excel at lacrosse, culminating in a spot on the Canadian national women’s team and their entry in the World Cup tournament in 1986 in Philadelphia. They took fourth.
But after her three-year commitment to the team was up, she stepped away from lacrosse because there were many people who were interested in having her play lacrosse in college in the U.S. So, Tommila found a job and in her words, “ate a lot of donuts.”
“I didn’t appreciate what was handed to me,” she said. “I had a really hard time with the stress of it all, because I was so young. I was just so overwhelmed by being pulled this way and that way. So I just hung my stick up and said, ‘This isn’t for me.”
She was pulled back to the team in 1990, but now 30 pounds heavier, Tommila struggled to play at the level she once did.
Her teammates were frustrated, but she didn’t care. Tommila was planning to give it up again.
That’s when her old national coach stepped up and not only gave her the talk that changed her life, but also planted the bug of how a coach can really change a person’s life.
“She said, ‘You can be one of the best players in the world, but you don’t push yourself,’” she said. “I was like, whatever, but she kept pushing me to challenge myself. She didn’t have to encourage me, but she challenged me and it really clicked with me.”
After his talk, Tommila rededicated herself to the sport, losing the weight she gained and earning a place on the national team for the 1993 World Cup in Edinburgh, Scotland. There, the team took fourth.
Upon her return, she attended college and began working with the Bainbridge program after meeting Usher through a friend, who wanted her to coach.
So she began by coaching what was then known as the C team in 1996 and getting an introduction into the world that is coaching high school sports in the U.S.
“It’s a different mentality here than in Canada,” she said. “We’re not as external and I had to get used to this ‘rah-rah’ mentality. I didn’t understand the label of varsity and what it meant and how important it was. I had never coached before, so I had to learn from Laurie and the other coaches in the league on how to teach the game of lacrosse.”
In her first meeting with them, she said the kids didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, but both sides soon learned how to communicate with each other. Tommila said she had a “blast” coaching them and is especially proud that all the girls she coached on that team stuck with lacrosse through high school.
When Usher left the team and Tommila was named as the successor in 1997, she coached the team for part of the season. She left when the national team went to Edogawa, Japan for the World Cup, where they took a disappointing fifth because of a shorter training time together.
It was an experience that was both good and bad for Tommila.
She was named captain of the team for the tournament. Since she is part-Japanese, her mother accompanied her to Japan, where both were blown away by the generosity and hospitality of the Japanese. They were also followed by a large pack of media interested in Tommila and her background.
But the constant presence of the Japanese media led to an embarrassing moment, when during a television interview at the home she was staying at she had to stop because she was going to throw up. The smell of sukiyaki the mother was cooking at the time had set off her stomach.
“I’m trying to find the bathroom and none of the family can speak English and I can’t speak Japanese to save my life,” she said. “I must have been vomiting for like 10 minutes and everyone can hear it in this little apartment.”
It was her last experience as a player, as she returned to Bainbridge, started a family and became the full-time coach of the program.
It’s a job that has seen plenty of highs and lows on the field, but Tommila said she gets more out of getting to know who the kids are inside and out.
She was inspired to take that route when as the C team coach, Tommila had to deal with a freshman who would curse frequently during practice and was confrontational to Tommila. The player’s father was also a constant thorn in her side, calling and e-mailing her to share his opinion of what her daughter should be doing.
It wasn’t until she was invited to dinner by the father that Tommila got a first-hand account of what the player was going through at home. Both parents were alcoholics and with two adopted younger brothers, it was a chaotic family life for the player.
“I saw this poor kid sitting across from me crumbling inside,” Tommila said. “I never would have got (to) her if I didn’t see what was going on in her home.”
From there, she began talking with her and helping her work through her problems at home. That, in turn, helped Tommila become someone that players could go to when they struggled with an issue in their life.
“I’ve dealt with pregnancy, I’ve dealt with alcoholism, I’ve dealt with abusive boyfriends,” she said. “The best thing that anybody who coaches can offer kids is unconditional love and support. That’s in the game and away from the game.
“I want to know that player as a complete player: who they are, what makes them tick, what their family situation is, what their goals and dreams are,” Tommila continued. “I want them to know that they can make mistakes in life and that I’m still going to support them and help them make changes. I look at my job as so much more than just what you do in a practice or a game. The most rewarding things are the behind the scenes (situations) that aren’t on your job description.”