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Coach Profile: Jennifer Neilson

“Self-reflect often - coaching is an incredible journey filled with many loops, barriers, and opportunities…”

It wasn’t that long ago that Jennifer Neilson was leading on the court, and now she’s leading from the sidelines.

Neilson’s coaching career began before she hung up her kneepads, acting as an assistant coach for Team BC’s U16 women’s team in 2013 and the Team Ontario U18 team in 2014. After graduating from the University of Toronto in 2015, she joined the University of Windsor as an assistant while she continued her education with a Master’s in human kinetics.

She’s since gone on to be the head coach of the Halton Region Volleyball Club, Team Ontario’s U16 women’s team, and with the Ontario Volleyball Association as a high-performance coordinator and apprentice coach. In 2018, she was named the head coach of the York University Lions.

In her playing days, Neilson was an Ontario University Association all-star three years in a row from 2013 to 2015 and a CIS national championship all-star in 2015. She was also a two-time academic all-Canadian and twice attended Volleyball Canada selection camps for the senior A team in 2014 and the FISU Games roster in 2015.

Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Neilson about her coaching career and some general thoughts on coaching in the sport.

Volleyball Canada: How did you transition into coaching?  Was it something that you always thought about?

Jennifer Neilson: Coaching is something I got involved in as a way to give back to the volleyball club that raised me and support my younger sister’s team needing an assistant coach. While I have always had a passion for the sport and raising the next generation of athletes, I cannot say I had the foresight into the major impact coaching would have on my life! It is awesome to see now all the mentorship programs that have started up and aim at supporting, educating, and raising more coaches.

I am pretty fortunate to have had some incredible coaches along the way that always guided me back to coaching, role modelled great coaching, and understood my passion for coaching before I even knew it! I distinctly remember my university coach, Kristine Drakich, always encouraging me to coach provincial team programs during our off season and to continue coaching as I left my playing days and entered my graduate program. She has been a huge influence on my transition into coaching!

VC: Who supported you in the journey? 

JN: My family and fiancé have been incredible supports and have always let me chase a new adventure at the drop of a hat, for them and their unwavering support I am so grateful.

There are also some incredible coaching colleagues that have been great mentors and leaders to me and countless others;

Kristine Drakich was my university coach at U of T, I am super grateful to have been coached by a female head coach in university, without seeing this and being part of it, I don’t know if I would have viewed coaching as a career path for myself. Kristine always asked the question about coaching and encouraged me every offseason to get involved with provincial programming or local clinics. She helped and guided me through my NCCP level 1 to get the ball rolling on my coaching education. Most importantly, she had role modelled many incredible traits that I carry with me now. She continues to support my coaching journey and I am grateful for her mentorship and support!

Bryan Gee was my high school coach, he pulled me away from the basketball hoop and said if you can run and layup you can run a step around! His positivity, creativity, and commitment are some of the many lessons I have pulled from my memory bank to apply to my coaching and leadership. He continues to inspire so many individuals at Riverside Secondary School and with the Ducks Volleyball Club, without his influence I cannot say I would have ever been introduced to this beautiful game or had the opportunity to play at a high level.

Merv Mosher, I met Merv one of my very first days on the job at York. What an incredible man! So much knowledge, understanding, empathy, the list goes on. He is someone I rely on often for ongoing guidance and advice. He was one of the greatest coaches in Ontario, Canada, and York’s history and there is a very good reason why! He is a great role model and I am honoured to have the opportunity to learn from him.

Lucas Hodgson, I first met Lucas across the net playing against the Lancers, I then was reconnected with him while given the opportunity to be an assistant coach with the University of Windsor while completing my Masters of Sport Management degree. Lucas was very open, honest, and collaborative in the coaching process, every day he wanted to ensure you knew you were valued as part of his staff and made the time and effort to allow me to learn as a coach and gain confidence and autonomy in the training environment. I am thankful for the opportunity he gave me at Windsor, I know those lessons carry forward into my setting today.

Lastly, I am thankful for the support of York University and our leaders within Athletics & Recreation, they took a chance on me and have supported and encouraged my development as a leader and coach ever since. Additionally, I am grateful and truly lucky to have two strong coaches alongside me at York University, Shanice Marcelle and Matthew Cheung, they have been incredible colleagues to learn from and grow with thus far.

VC: What has been the biggest hurdle for you in your coaching career and how did you get through it?

JN: I have been a huge hurdle to myself along my journey. Finding your confidence and own style is difficult at times, when we see so many ways of doing around us. I am growing each year and each blip and success allows me to learn something about myself and who I continually want to be as a leader in this profession. Always a work in progress, but progressing.

VC: You aren’t too far removed from being a player yourself in the OUA, how do you think being a recent player helps you as a coach?

JN: I think transitioning from playing to coaching and not being too far removed is an incredible strength in my coaching. Understanding what our athletes are going through having lived in their shoes so recently is an incredible asset to have to support the great young women in our program. I also firmly believe having played the game at this level I can rely on my experience over a variety of dimensions to best drive our program forward.

VC: I know you’ve also done a great deal of developing and managing programming and recruitment for OVA, what’s that process like?

JN: I loved my role within the OVA, it was filled with many incredible learning opportunities that have contributed to my transition into coaching at the U Sport level. I have a passion for developing young women not only on the court but as humans and this role allowed me to create holistic programs to help guide OVA athletes forward on their athletic journey. The recruiting piece I have always loved and carry that passion into my role now. In the OVA context, it was such a unique experience working with both the men’s and women’s sides and seeing how much talent our province has. We always wanted to make sure we captured as much as we could and keep an eye on developing talent too. I am so proud to see many more programs come to fruition since have left the OVA that can help even more athletes develop and grow.

VC: Do you have any particular interests outside of volleyball and coaching and if so, how do you find the balance between that interest and volleyball?

JN: It is super important to me that I spend time outside of volleyball and coaching, I absolutely love the outdoors. Being a BC native, I love hiking, water sports, time at the beach, anything to keep me outside.  I also have a passion for travelling and exploring, I have a particular soft spot for Europe and hope to continue planning a trip when it is safe to do so.

VC: How does coaching differ from playing for you?

JN: Great question! In both circumstances you are in it, you’re in the culture, in the game, but from very different vantage and focal points. As a coach, I see the whole group, larger picture, the fine details, whereas in the role of an athlete I was more focused on executing my individual role to support the team’s function. Another similarity carrying on from my playing days into coaching is still that feeling of walking into the gym to get better, passion, and relentless effort.

VC: What are you most proud of in your coaching career?

JN: I am most proud of the role I am so grateful and honoured to represent right now as the head coach of the Lions Women’s Volleyball program. Having the opportunity each day to grow and learn alongside some driven, comedic, and talented young women and coaches is truly special. Further, I love this role because I have the chance to watch these incredible women grow holistically in their 4-5 years as a Lion and then go out be leaders and impact the world in various ways. It’s amazing to be part of their journey and watch their growth as students, athletes, and remarkable young women.

VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?

JN: I want to continue to grow and learn always, I know what I know and am hungry to learn and master my craft. I would love the opportunity to grow within the national team coaching stream and grow my knowledge with the international game. Being in a gym with Shannon Winzer, Tom Black and Scott Koskie I have realized the passion that lies there for me to want to be better and learn more!

VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?

JN: Get out there!

Find yourself an incredible support system, the people that truly believe in you and your growth. The best people for you to learn from, and they can learn from you too.

Self-reflect often, coaching is an incredible journey filled with many loops, barriers, and opportunities, note how you handle situations, where you want to grow, and where you have grown.

Be a sponge, listen, read, be in a gym with the best, and then decide what fits your values, style, and journey.

Lastly, I am reaching out to the many young women across the country that have played the game and are curious: Please consider coaching. There are very few female coaches in our sport at the next level, and I would love to see it grow. There are many young women that need incredible role models like yourselves to look up to, learn from, and share their experience with. I really hope after your club, provincial, national, or pro careers you will consider sharing your expertise, knowledge and character. Our sport will greatly benefit from it.

VC: What do you wish you had – advice, support, education, etc. - when you started?

JN: As you can gather from all my other answers I have had incredible support and opportunities throughout my journey thus far! I would encourage you if you are looking to coach or take your coaching to the next level to start building that support system, ask questions, and seek opportunities that align with your values and style! 

Interview by Josh Bell.  Photo: Jojo Yanjiao Qian/York Lions