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Ability Over Gender: MHK Program Produces Dominant Female Head Coaches

by Shelby Johnston

Killed on their respective courts as well as the classroom, Master of Human Kinetics (MHK) students past and present, Jennifer Neilson and Emma Duinker, have blazed a trail. Not only as head coaches in U Sports, but also women in the sports management industry.

Duinker, a Nova Scotia native, is now the interim head coach of the University of Windsor Lancers women’s basketball team and currently completing the internship portion of her degree.

Neilson, who hails from British Columbia, is a recent graduate of the MHK program and is now the full-time head coach of the York University Lions women’s volleyball team.

Both head coaches are relatively new to the head coaching world – starting this past summer.  Faculty of Human Kinetics associate professor and graduate coordinator, Jess Dixon, attributes Neilson and Duinker’s success in acquiring coveted coaching roles to their knowledge learned in the classroom and experience as elite athletes.

Neilson was an outside hitter with the University of Toronto Varsity Blues while completing her undergraduate degree. She was a three-time Ontario University Association (OUA) all-star, competed on the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS, now known as U Sports) national championship all-star team, and was a two-time academic all-Canadian.

Duinker had an illustrious collegiate playing career with the Acadia University Axewomen that resulted in many highlights that included being named Atlantic University Sport (AUS) all-star, an all-Canadian, and also leading her team to an AUS championship. Duinker went on to play professional basketball in Europe for three years.

Though they come from different ends of the country and played different sports, both Duinker and Neilson made the journey to Windsor for graduate studies and interest in coaching.

Neilson states that her coach at the University of Toronto really sparked her interest in pursuing a career in coaching.

“She knew how much I cared about the development of young women not only on the court, but also as individuals, and I sort of fell in love with it.”

Duinker believes her passion for coaching has developed for two reasons.

“One is the ability to influence young people in a positive way and to help them think differently about the game and their life choices,” Duinker says. “And two, how much it pushes me (to develop) as a leader.”

Their University of Windsor experience allowed both Neilson and Duinker the chance to try their hands in athletic instruction as assistant coaches. Both acknowledge their style of coaching has been largely influenced by the coaches they have had during their playing and coaching journey.

“I encourage self-discovery,” explains Duinker. “I want to stimulate intrinsic motivation and the need (to play) to come from within.”

Similarly, Neilson passionately expresses that her goal as a coach is not to solely to win, but instead guide her players through the varsity experience and help them grow.

While Duinker and Neilson have experienced early success as coaches, there have also been some difficulties with being a female in a male dominant industry.

“I struggle with it,” says Duinker. “Although I never viewed myself as at a disadvantage.”

Both individuals are aware of the importance of their leadership roles. Duinker and Neilson strive to use their position of power as a way to inspire young females who want to pursue a job in a male-dominated field.

“I want to advocate for the new generation of coaches to get involved, so they are able to step into roles they should be considered for,” says Neilson.

Neilson, also a proud member of the Women & Girls in Leadership and Sports Conference, focuses on the celebration and empowerment of women leaders. As a member, she feels a responsibility to advocate for more opportunities for future female leaders.

“People (female leaders) have paved the road, now it is our job to widen it,” expresses Neilson.

Duinker believes that any female should pursue a job they are passionate about despite the difficulties.

“Barriers are socially constructed. You have to put yourself in the position to be willing to be uncomfortable, really advocate for yourself, and pursue what you want to do.”

Dixon trusts that with the increasing numbers of female role models, like Neilson and Duinker, there will be more female leaders to “break down barriers.”

Influential women like Duinker and Neilson have found themselves in leadership positions both on and off the court despite the long-held cultural views regarding women.

They have overcome this significant hurdle, optimistic to break it down for those who come after them.

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