By: Adam D’Angelo
Chantal Vallée is serious about winning and it shows.
Her University of Windsor women’s basketball program has won five straight national championships (2011-2015). In a male-dominated profession like coaching, however, she’s struggled to get others to take her seriously at times. It hasn’t been an easy road to the top of the hill.
Vallée was born in Kamloops, British Columbia, from French-Canadian parents hailing from Quebec. Her family moved west because her father found work at a paper mill. At the age of three, she moved to Joliette, Quebec, an artistic community northeast of Montreal, where she grew up.
Vallée was interested in sports at an early age but her parents had no intention of formally registering her. Vallée convinced them otherwise. She enjoyed playing soccer, at first, but her asthma was an obstacle. She also had a passion for karate, gymnastics, and many other sports.
In time, Vallée gained interest in hoops. One of the reasons she did not play university basketball was because, as a young woman, she did not speak English. At the time, no French speaking university offered basketball.
“I had a chance to go to Bishop’s University and spoke with the coach there, but I wanted to go to Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), things did not work out that way, so I decided to coach instead,” said Vallée.
Vallée is in a unique situation at the University of Windsor because she is the only female head coach. Although unique, she states it does not make her feel any different from her colleagues.
“Breaking into the coaching profession, I didn’t think my gender had anything to do with it, I just wanted to coach. That being said, throughout the years I did realize I was a minority and many of my colleagues are males,” Vallée explained.
She faces those same stereotypes when she leads basketball clinics or when she produces DVDs (Chantal Vallée: Defining the Characteristics of a Winning Coach). Old habits die hard.
“It’s rare to see women in the field of coaching and even in women’s sport,” Vallée stated. “But I did coach both men’s and women’s basketball as a high school coach. So for me, it never really bothered me.”
Despite being the only female, Vallée wants to believe that the athletic department is doing the best they can to promote female coaches. Projects like Quest for Gold, an Ontario Athletics coaching initiative, increase the apprenticeship for coaching positions in sport. It helps young aspiring coaches to build their coaching resume and gain valuable experience.
The university holds an athletic banquet at the conclusion of the athletic year. It’s a time to celebrate sporting achievement at the varsity level and hand out some awards to recognize excellence. It is at this time, when all of the varsity clubs gather together for the big evening that Vallée, a six-time coach of the year at the University of Windsor, feels most sad that she stands alone as the only female among the head coaching ranks.
Women coaches are an underrepresented group in university athletics and at the professional level. Even though Vallée is the winningest coach currently staffed, her prominence has not translated to the hiring of more female coaches.
“I guess to me, a female coach is another coach, they are another person performing the same task as males perform. So it’s sad we, the collective at the university are part of that and as are other institutions unable to attract more qualified female candidates to these positions,” Havey remarked.
Aside from her personal accolades and championship victories, Vallée’s other goal is to create champion women on and off the court. These are motivating factors that drive her success. She has a strong vision and has created a culture of winning. Her ability to win also aids in recruiting at a high level, and she is relentless in her pursuit of players.
These factors create a solid foundation for success.
“She does a great job setting high standards and does what she can to help us reach those. We are constantly striving to reach excellence through the standards that she sets. In saying that, it is also a very fast paced environment where she empowers us to work independently and get things done with our own creativity,” Assistant Coach Emma Duinker said.
Vallée stated that she gets excited when females approach her and tell her that they want to become coaches. She values that immensely, and over the course of her coaching career, she has had many female assistant coaches of hers move on to become head coaches elsewhere.
“I try to give back with Madeline and Emma as my assistant coaches, but it is still not a profession of choice for women,” Vallée confessed. “It is important to me to have female assistant coaches but I don’t do it at the expense of finding good coaches.”
Havey, in his role as athletic director had the same thought.
“First and foremost it’s about hiring qualified candidates. In recent hiring of other sports we have been unable to get qualified female candidates in the position. It’s certainly not that we are closed to that concept, we would welcome the opportunity to do so. The first job and priority is to give the athletes the best qualified coach that we can provide to them irrespective of gender or skin colour.”
According to Vallée, back in the 1970s or around that era, women sports were only coached by women. Through history, because of different government rulings to promote female athletics, sports gained an audience. And because of that, more males became interested and understood that through coaching female sports they could earn a reasonable living.
“I know it can be challenging working in an environment where you are the only female and hopefully in the near future there will be a change in that department,” Duinker said.
In Ontario University Athletics (OUA), there are seventeen teams with women’s basketball programs. Seven of those teams have female coaches.
“I don’t stop and think about the underrepresentation or feel anything about it, I am passionate about my job and I love it. I am fortunate to be successful, gender for me doesn’t matter. Do I wish more women would go into coaching? Yes. In the past, UQAM’s men’s team was coached by a woman and the volleyball team at Queen’s as well. Both women had success bringing their teams to nationals several times,” Vallée said with conviction. “Coaching is coaching, you don’t have to use your muscles or height. You have to use your brain and leadership skills and whether you’re a man or woman it shouldn’t matter.”
As a female head coach, there are times when Vallée does feel disrespected and disgusted from comments made by male colleagues and referees.
Comments that she’s a “B-word,” making fun of her outfits, and walking past her to ask her male assistant coach if he’s the head coach, knowing very well Vallée is, has been part of the experience. She also recalls referees asking her out for a beer during the game.
The lack of women in “hegemonic male roles” in sport are effecting women constantly. Team sports, male and female, are dominated by male coaches. In society, we are taught that we live amongst cultures that value diversity and are accepting of others. The truth is hard to swallow.
The evaluation of hiring a coach for a vacant position is a critical process according to Havey.
“We go through a thorough selection process with members of a selection panel defined by our collective bargaining agreement, and we use a rating scale on competence and also other considerations that are involved in the process. I’ve been involved in the process of coach selection since 1985. There are points assigned for someone who might be a member of a visible minority or from a different ethnic group. It becomes a factor in the hiring practices of the University of Windsor.”
Vallée believes the issue surrounding a lack of women in coaching roles begins at the grassroots level and there isn’t enough women being mentored and invested in to become coaches. Therefore, you only get a select few of qualified female coaches to select from.
“Most of the female employees are office workers, not managers in authority, not leaders, not coaches. Unfortunately, coaching as a profession is not a leadership field promoted to women, hopefully this changes in the future. Sport in university, in this country, is still very white male dominated, that’s just the way it is; especially management and leadership roles,” Vallée pointed out.
Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport (CAAWS), announces its yearly most influential women’s list, and Vallée was a recipient of this award in the coach’s category, in 2016. Awards and recognitions like CAAWS, Quest for Gold, and others, showcase the influence that women have in sport, whether it is coaching or playing.
There is no overnight fix to the inclusion of hiring more women coaches in sport.
Havey cautioned, “I am not in support of hiring women just because of their gender, I don’t think that it serves our student athletes or clients well. Our first job is to make the best decision we can for our athletes. Irrespective of gender, that can’t be the guiding factor. To think we can solve this quickly, is us dreaming in technicolour.”
If young women witness people like Vallée being highly successful as a coach, they might say, “That could be me someday.” Creating more opportunities for women at the grassroots level, is something Vallée and Havey both agree on.
It’s game day in Windsor and fall has arrived. The weather is cooler and the crisp colours of the leaves are blowing in the wind.
Vallée is waking up early in the morning, calls for her dogs, and sets out for a bike ride. When she returns home she showers, eats breakfast, and then arrives at the St. Denis Centre for a shoot-around at 11am. If it’s back-to-back games she will watch video first. At the team meeting, she gets organized and rehearses the game plan with her players. Afterwards, she goes home, applies makeup, and does her hair for the game. She arrives an hour and half before tip-off fully focused on her craft.
Joliette, Quebec, a city that’s home to a breathtaking art museum, whose works of art captivate many, resembles the very nature of Vallée’s artistic work on the court.
She’s prepared, she’s ready to win, and she’s a champion role model to women everywhere.
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