Volleyball Canada


Coach Profile: Joely Christian-MacFarlane

"The current focus on what is happening in the Black community is a giant step in the right direction, but there are still millions of steps to take to get to a resolution."

Before coaching volleyball at every level and being a pioneer in the sport, Joely Christian-MacFarlane was a successful player for the University of Regina, earning two bronze CIS medals and All-Canadian Honours. She played on the Junior National Team, helping earn a silver medal at the Junior NORCECA Championship and a berth to the Junior World Championships. She was also a member of the Senior National Team.

Transitioning into coaching in 2003, Christian-MacFarlane was the assistant coach at the University of Toronto and took the helm of Team Ontario at the Canada Games in 2005, going undefeated and leading the team to the first-ever gold medal. For that run, she was named Female Coach of the Year and then in 2006, she was honoured as the Ontario Volleyball Association Coach of the Year.

She took over as head coach at Queen’s University in 2007, leading the Gaels to two Final Four Championships and their first and only OUA Championship in 2011-12. After seven years, she moved to take over the women’s program at the Royal Military College, where she remains today. She has also been coaching the CISM Military Women’s National Team, helping the program to a fourth-place finish at the 2018 World Championships and sixth place at the 2020 World Military Games.

Volleyball Canada recently had a chance to talk with Christian-MacFarlane 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?

Joely Christian-MacFarlane: I always enjoyed coaching volleyball camps and skills clinics when I was in university. It was great working with young athletes and sharing with them my love for the game.  When I lived in Vancouver after finishing my playing career at the University of Manitoba, students at the high school I worked at asked me to coach their team. I knew they wouldn’t have a season without a coach so I agreed to help. What started out as me coaching the boy’s team, transitioned to me coaching the girl’s team the following year.

When I moved back to Ontario, a friend asked me to take over a club team that was to be disbanded if they didn’t find a coach. They were all in their graduating year with goals of going to college or university and I felt it was important that I bridge that gap for the year so that they could achieve their goals. This was the catalyst that pushed me into continuing to coach, to help young athletes pursue their goals through volleyball.  From renowned photographer Samantha Clarke to Olympians Kristina Valjas and Heather Bansley. It is incredible how many amazing young athletes have come through my gym at the club level and gone on to incredible professional and sport careers.

Coaching was not something I had desired to do, it was completely accidental. I like any competitive athlete hoped to compete at the highest levels for as long as I could. Injuries changed the trajectory of my playing career and fate moved me into the coaching side of the game. I have to say though that I really love and place a high value on the lessons I learned from my earliest coaches, and hope I share those lessons with the athletes I now coach.

VC: Who supported you in the journey?  Do you have any mentors?

JCM: I have always had incredible support from my family who have travelled this journey with me. My coaching journey has had its share of twists and turns and through each phase, I have always been able to turn to my family to hold me up when I needed it the most. My mom, dad, sister and husband really stepped up at the start of my university coaching career. I had a newborn baby and our young family packed up and moved to Kingston so that I could coach at Queen's. They have been there and with me every step of the way and continue to be there for me today.

I have been blessed with opportunities to learn from many great coaches and mentors. Sometimes our greatest lessons come from people who don’t even realize they are teaching us. I would count my earliest coaches as some of my greatest mentors. Larry Griffith, Bill Seto, Bill Sloan and Frank Sulatycki all instilled in me a love for the game and a passion for teaching and providing opportunities for young athletes. Marge Holman and Donna Baydock who coached me at the Provincial Team and Junior National Team levels respectively were the first female coaches I had ever played for and were role models for me as I started coaching. At the time I started to consider coaching as a career, I was fortunate to have Laurie Eisler, Diane Scott, Kristine Drakich and Linda Melnick as examples of female coaches at the university level. Laurie Eisler and Linda Melnick helped me see that I could navigate being a mother and coach.

The coaches that have and continue to play a significant role in my life as mentors are Kristine Drakich and Leslie Irie. They are coaches who I trust and look to for guidance and support. I also consider Beth Barz from Team Canada Rugby as one of my most influential mentors, she is an invaluable resource to me and gives me very different perspectives on the volleyball challenges I sometimes face.

Brenda Willis has played a huge role in my coaching journey. Brenda was my NCCP coaching mentor and helped me developed as a coach. She encouraged me to pursue coaching at the university level and provided a lot of support in my early coaching years.

VC: Coming from Queen’s to coach at RMC, how did these two schools differ? I imagine there’s quite a difference coaching at a civilian school and on the base.

JCM: There are many differences and yet so many similarities. I believe that because of our record that many do not see beyond that. However, my RMC athletes want to succeed just as much as my Queen’s athletes did. They want to train as hard, they want to make playoffs they want to be the best volleyball players they can possibly be.

Where we differ is that the priorities off the court for our athletes can create conflicts with those previously stated goals. Our athletes hone their military and career skills when they are away from the court, while Queen’s athletes can focus on continued volleyball development.  The decision to commit to RMC is the decision to make a lifelong career choice at the age of 17. The goal isn’t to make the national team or go play professional volleyball at the completion of a varsity career. The goal is to serve our country as a member of the Canadian Forces. As a result, the pool of athletes who would consider RMC is much smaller.

One of the greatest opportunities that has come out of my transition to RMC is the opportunity to take what I have learned from our National Team program and coach at the international level as the head coach of the Military National Team. That is not something I could ever have done at Queen’s. I now spend my off-season coaching against Olympic calibre athletes and coaches and get to compete at World Championships and our version of the Olympic Games. It has been a tremendous opportunity that very few coaches get the privilege to do.

VC: Kristine Drakich was the first coach we profiled in this series and she mentioned your name as someone to highlight. She mentioned that you may be the only Black head coach in U SPORT volleyball and may be the longest-serving female, Black coach in university sport history with all sports. Do you happen to know if this is true?

JCM: I am currently the only Black head coach in U SPORT Volleyball and have been at it for 13 years. I may have to agree with Kristine in that I may be the longest-serving female Black coach in university sport history. I actually tried to look it up and the information is pretty scarce but from what I could see it looks like she may be right. As far as Black coaches in U SPORT go, I have another year to tie the longest-serving black coach in U SPORT Volleyball, Jean-Pierre Chancey, who was a pioneer for Black coaches in the sport. He spent 14 seasons at the University of Montreal.

VC: As one of the few female, Black head coaches at a high level of volleyball in Canada, have you seen growth in the diversity of the sport? Both in regards to women and BIPOC?

JCM: I believe we still have a long way to go in respect to diversity in sport. Women continue to be under-represented in coaching positions at the grassroots, provincial and national team coaching levels. Individuals of colour regardless of gender are not visible in positions of leadership in our sport or in organizations that support sport.

In the last 10 years, I have watched the sport become more expensive and as such not accessible to many communities. Volleyball has become a sport of the privileged. Accessible to the athletes and families that can afford to pay high club fees, hire personal trainers and pay to participate in our provincial and national team programs. We as a volleyball community need to find a way to engage community facilities and school boards to support our vision the way they have supported the basketball vision across this country in recent years. Encouraging them to lower if not eliminate the cost associated with rental of space for community groups. We also need to do a better job at engaging communities that are more diverse and create opportunities that don’t rely on money to be accessible.

VC: What could the volleyball community do better to attract women to coaching at all levels, and specifically at the college/university level?

JCM: Coaching is a tough gig. To pursue coaching whether as a volunteer or as a career option there are so many things to consider. Whether you are discussing coaching or any career opportunity childcare and family have to be as big a part of the discussion as does fair and equal financial compensation and career development. Women have to know they can have a family and be supported through what that may look like. What does maternity leave look like when you are a two-term sport vs a one-term sport? Can they bring their baby/young children to work? When they spend the whole weekend on the road with the team, is there understanding that they will want to give back some of that time to their families on a weekday. Can they travel with their children? These are all things to be considered when hiring a female coach, but also when a female coach is considering a career in sport. There are sacrifices and compromises that feel less so when other supports are there.

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

JCM: I would have difficulty stating I have had one bigger hurdle over another. For me, there are two challenges that I have had to face more than any other that have impacted my coaching career.  The first would be learning to balance my life as a mother, wife and coach. I have been fortunate that my husband and daughter have been amazing and supportive with what I do. What has helped me with this balance has been working with an incredibly supportive Athletic Director. He has completely supported the trajectory of my coaching career by providing me with the flexibility that I need to balance my life in all three roles.

The second challenge I have faced is dealing with racism. I can’t express the number of times I have experienced racism as a coach. The overt racism is easy to deal with it because it can be addressed in the moment. The racism that is most difficult to deal with is the microaggressions and the institutional racism. It is difficult to address people’s unconscious biases and perceptions. The current focus on what is happening in the Black community is a giant step in the right direction, but there are still millions of steps to take to get to a resolution.

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?

JCM: I love to spending time with my family, DIY’ing and reading. My family is important to me and I spend so much of my season away from them that when I get the time to be with them it is sacred time. From a DIY perspective, I enjoy taking old items and upcycling them or taking something that I find at a garage sale or IKEA and turning it into something new or creating different uses for it. In respect to my reading, I am an eclectic reader and enjoy a good novel. I’m currently reading “The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett. I have learned on this journey that it is important for me to make time for the non-volleyball aspects of my life. I schedule my non-volleyball days to support participation in my interests.

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

JCM: I would have to say that the chance to coach and meet so many incredible young women makes me the most proud of my coaching career. When I talk to them now and hear who they have become as young women – phenomenal mothers, coaches, lawyers, doctors and teachers to name a few. I feel proud that our program influenced them in some way. That we were a part of their lives during a time when they were figuring out who they are as women.

VC: What is your ultimate goal in coaching?

JCM: My ultimate goal is to continue to grow and learn as a coach so that I can be the best possible coach and mentor I can be to others. As I start my newest journey as a coach mentor with the Black Coaches Association, I would like that I provide my mentee with the support they need to pursue their passion as a coach. I want to leave the game knowing I helped my athletes and the coaches I worked with achieve their own goals in the game or the game of their choice.

VC: Do you have any advice for new coaches?

JCM: My advice is to surround yourself with good people and people you can trust. It is hard to be a coach and knowing that the people beside you will always have your best interest at heart is invaluable. Never stop learning, be open to new opportunities when they present themselves. Trust your instincts.

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

JCM: I’ve been very fortunate in respect to the support I received when I was starting out. I had incredible mentors that pushed me and challenged my thought processes. If I had a wish or advice for my early coaching self, it would be that it is okay to be proud of what you accomplish. I have been guilty of minimizing the things I have accomplished as both an athlete and a coach and that is something that I deeply regret after 20 years of coaching at all levels.  The quote by Oprah Winfrey that really shifted my thinking in the last few years is: “When you undervalue what you do, the world will undervalue who you are.”


Interview by Josh Bell.