How can sport help remove barriers for inner city youth? Just ask rugby coach Spencer Robinson.

  • October 19, 2022

CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench – October 2022

Coaching is like life. It’s what you put into it and make of it. Life always throws a few curveballs, so you’re learning all the time.

By David Grossman

Life can regularly have its challenges and often when confronted with imperfections.

There are always dazzling success stories in the world of sport that are focussed on the celebrity, the Olympic gold medalist, the un-expected contenders, along with the dominance of athleticism and the raging competitive fire that goes with it.

They are what some would portray as “glimpses of stardom” in one event after another. Yet, what is often missing, are the years of countless stories involving athletes, many who move on to become coaches who impact the lives of others in a positive and conclusive way.

It can mean a great deal more than a medal or trophy.

Spencer (Spence) Robinson, Toronto-born and who has lived in Guyana, was an athlete who benefitted from mentors and educators. He’s been a coach, too. That is what has allowed him to use his experience and knowledge to provide individuals with the same kind of advice and tutoring that he benefitted from as a youngster.

Now, the university-educated Robinson is embarking on an audacious project.

As the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coach of Youth Rugby and Belonging with the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF), his mission is to change attitudes and cultural relationships. The goal is to help diversify the sport of rugby for the communities who embrace it.

TIRF is the acronym for the community development organization that strengthens involvement by promoting opportunities for those in under-served and low-income neighbourhoods in the largest city in Canada.

Robinson has faced challenges before – and each one ended in a realization of accomplishment and triumph.

“Cooperation and understanding are very important in life and sports, like rugby, is a vehicle that I have used to help young people build character,” he said. “It’s something that I believe will sustain them beyond their playing years. Building self-esteem is crucial for a young person and that also is true towards coaching.”

Robinson grew up in Pickering, a community just east of Toronto and in Durham Region. His introduction to rugby came as a student at Dunbarton High School, whose teams were traditionally strong and often took rugby tours to the British Isles. A 5-foot-7, 150-pound youngster back then, Robinson had speed, agility and strength in a sport that also had lots of physical contact.

“My parents were shocked that as a kid with a Caribbean background, I was interested in rugby more than cricket and soccer,” Spencer recalled. “For me, good coaching and patience were the keys, and I could also learn from other guys of which several were National and Provincial team members.”

Big things happened for Robinson after playing at York University for two years before moving to the West coast to attend the University of Victoria and play for that school team. At age 23, his career goal of teaching had shifted to a different kind of contact – that of firefighting and repelling from helicopters to tackle fires often on the sides of mountains.

Coaching entered his life while a student at York, and around the time he was playing for the Ajax Wanderers Rugby Club. There was interest from girls to start a club team and Robinson was all for it. He even remembers winning his first game as a coach.

The coaching bug would hit him again in British Columbia where, in 1991, he was involved in the start-up of a women’s program at the University of Victoria.

“It’s just part of my makeup and an opportunity to help people,” said Robinson, who said he combined playing experience with natural instincts, good mentors, and studies in the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). “Coaching is like life. It’s what you put into it and make of it. Life always throws a few curveballs, so you’re learning all the time.”

Thirty-six years as a coach and 25 as a municipal firefighter, Robinson recently retired as Captain at the Esquimalt Fire Department located in a township on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It was a job he did, not for rewards – but to save lives.

Having returned to Ontario, Robinson’s next objective may very well be his most arduous and energetic. For the former Canadian national men’s and women’s rugby team coach, with experience involving both seven and 15-player squads, it amounts to doing what he can to remove barriers for inner city youth. Robinson’s plan is to start with rugby and education.

“My role is to put words into action and get more diverse coaches and players involved in the sport,” he said. “You start somewhere, so why not with the bigger challenge in a city like Toronto, where there’s so much to go after.

“I want to make a huge difference and not for me, but for the lives of others. It’s time to light a spark and change attitudes, mindset, and develop a cultural relationship.”

Now taking on a major initiative, one that will see TIRF assistance greatly reduce the financial, geographical, and cultural barriers, Robinson believes positive results will happen.

With more than 30 years coaching experience, Robinson led a variety of rugby sevens programs at local, regional, provincial, and national team levels in both the men’s and women’s game. Now, he’s confident about what lies ahead.

“With me it’s never ability, it’s effort and we’re looking for top-level effort,” he said. “Coaching is everything to me and it can also take place off the field. I now have a huge opportunity to help with Canada’s cultural mosaic.”


David Grossman is a veteran multi award-winning Journalist and Broadcaster with some of Canada’s major media, including the Toronto Star and SPORTSNET 590 THE FAN, and a Public Relations professional for 45+ years in Canadian sports and Government relations.

Building self-esteem is crucial for a young person and that also is true towards coaching.