How One Coach Champions Grassroots School Sports for Indigenous Youth

  • September 27, 2023

CAO’s Empowering Stories from Behind the Bench: Truth & Reconciliation Edition

“(Coaching) was very rewarding – especially knowing that I was teaching kids about life-long skills outside of the normal classroom.”

By David Grossman

It was not one of those charming times in his life that Jarod Milko recalls being discouraged and baffled.

That was when, as an exuberant 11-year-old competing in sport, things just weren’t working out the way most youngsters would have predicted.

For Milko, he was losing – one judo match after another.

His parents, very supportive in getting their sons active in physical activity, had introduced him to the sport because they knew he needed something stimulating in the down time outside of school.

Milko liked baseball, soccer, and volleyball, but judo would turn out to be the perfect fit providing a combination of mental and physical challenges.

“I started judo at eight years of age and lost all of my matches for the next three years,” recalled Milko. “I wanted to quit. I’ll never forget the time when my parents and judo coaches encouraged me to just keep working hard and good times would come.”

They were right – and he would see it.

That frustration would change when after three years of Milko struggling to find the winners podium, Milko started winning over and over. The confidence and success became infectious. His first win came on a vinyl-covered foam mat at the popular J & M Judo Club in Kenora. It may have just been an eye-opener to what would become a remarkable personal journey through life.

“There was a period of not doing very well in judo to working hard and becoming extremely successful,” said Milko. “I owe a great deal to my parents, and coaches, for their huge contribution in giving me the tenacity and assurance to work hard and never give up.”

Making a difference can be huge.

Milko was born, raised and resides in Kenora – a city of some 15,000 people in the stunning beauty of the Lake of the Woods area of northwestern Ontario. It’s about 200 kilometres east of Winnipeg.

He is of Métis ancestry. Métis are people of mixed European and Indigenous genealogy, and one of the three recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Some people know Milko by the nickname – “Milkman”. It’s a moniker given during his rewarding professional and amateur career in mixed martial arts. Others know him for 11 years in the school classrooms as a teacher, coach, and advocate for the development of physical literacy for all young people.

He’s also a role model proving that education – including 11 years of post-secondary studies – amounted to more than just knowledge and prosperity. For him, it was that anything is possible with a strong and focussed work ethic.

After his student elementary and secondary school days, Milko earned bachelor’s and master’s Degrees at the University of Lethbridge and the University of Winnipeg, respectively. Tack on the Doctorate from the University of Western Ontario in London. His teaching certification was at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

Yes, you can call him by his formal title – Dr. Jarod Milko.

A multi-sport high school athlete in his younger years, his focus on judo came outside of school time. As for career time, he would go on to teach, for eight years, at Beaver Brae Senior Elementary – the school he once attended.

“Tenacity applies to everything in my life,” said Milko. “The ability to persevere in all challenges goes back to those early days in judo. You can be exhausted, but you can also dig deep, don’t ever give up. In life, the rewards come in many ways.”

These days, Milko pivoted from the formal classroom to tackle a variety of personal interests and challenges. He has his own company and works in software, enjoys landscaping, still finds time to teach, coach his two daughters as well as research and write in the field of developing physical literacy in young people.

For relaxation, you’ll likely locate him golfing, hunting and scuba diving.

“I’m a busy guy, but always available to help,” said Milko, now 36 years old and eight years into retirement as a competitive athlete, where he twice finished in the top three in Canada and had an overall mixed martial arts record of 18-6. Breaking it down, 9-3 as an amateur and the same record as a professional.

He has his prized possessions – the medals, trophies, and championship belts. But for him, coaching was special. That first job as a mentor started in his rookie year of teaching.

“(Coaching) was very rewarding – especially knowing that I was teaching kids about life-long skills outside of the normal classroom,” he said. “I had wanted to coach because I saw what it did for me. Coaches were extremely influential in my life.

“They were very important to my development, and I know that sport is a great way to get through to young people. When I taught physical education and coached school sports, I saw it firsthand. Every kid is different. The growth in their self-confidence and leadership both inside and outside of the classroom is what stands out most.”

Milko is a huge advocate for grassroots programming in schools.

“The 11-13-year-olds age range is really important to focus on when it comes to providing opportunities in sport and encouraging kids to participate,” said Milko, quoting data from ParticipACTION. “This is when we see the greatest dropout rate of kids quitting sport. By 16 years of age, one of every three girls have dropped out of sport compared to just one in 10 boys.”

Milko said it was “amazing to see our programs flourishing with enthusiastic middle school students and all it really took was providing opportunities along with great coaching”.

“Getting young people involved early is critical,” he said. “There are kids not sure of sports – but they need to be involved. It’s important for them to build confidence early and realize that they, too, can be successful.”

September 30 is National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.

“Talking about youth sport is really appropriate for this day as both Indigenous and non-Indigenous coaches can provide a platform for coaching young people to play, compete, learn and grow through sport together,” added Milko. “We can all be part of the solution and supporting young people in sport. This is certainly a key component highlighted in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.”

It’s also learning about the rich and diverse cultures, voices, experiences and histories of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. It’s a day for all Canadians to commemorate the history and legacy of the residential school system. A time to honor the resilience, dignity and strength of survivors and remember the children who never came home.

“For parents, one more nudge for their child. You never know what that will lead to. Winning in sport is the small picture, the bigger one is we’re building character development, skills and doing it through sports.”

The Coaches Association of Ontario strives to share the stories of Indigenous coaches and sport leaders – and encourages all levels of government, in collaboration with Aboriginal peoples, sports halls of fame, and other relevant organizations, to provide public education that tells the national story of Aboriginal athletes in history.


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.

Winning in sport is the small picture, the bigger one is we’re building character development, skills and doing it through sports.”