Joely Christian-Macfarlane weathers eye opening first season looks to future success
By CLAUDE SCILLEY
She readily admits it.
“I’m a sucker for challenges,” says Joely Christian-Macfarlane.
Boy, did she come to the right place.
There is probably no other school in the land where the challenge of establishing a successful athletic program is greater than Royal Military College.
“I knew the lay of the land,” said Christian-Macfarlane, coach of the Paladins women’s volleyball team who had been recruited to come to Queen’s University to turn their women’s program around eight years ago. “This was a challenge that was worth taking on.”
When she arrived at RMC in the fall, Christian-Macfarlane discovered there were similarities with coaching at a civilian university, but also some differences—and what differences they were. “The responsibilities of a student-athlete here are very complicated,” she said. “I have a new appreciation for what ‘a hard-working student athlete’ means.
Coming from Queen’s, Christian-Macfarlane is used to working with athletes who have high academic demands, but she said it’s nothing like the military college. “(At Queen’s), once you’re out of the classroom, you’re OK,” she said. “Once you’re out of the gym, you’re OK.
“Here, there’s a sense of responsibility that goes beyond the classroom, with parades and being a part of different leadership roles within the college. There’s so much more that our student-athletes are responsible for.
“It was mind boggling for me just how much the student-athletes here truly take on, outside of sports and academics.”
As a coach, that takes some getting used to.
“The biggest adaptation was recognizing the priorities,” Christian-Macfarlane said, and for her that meant throwing out the notion that sport might be the most important thing for her athletes.
“As much as I’d like to say it’s academics above all, often, as a coach, it’s sport,” she said. “Here, sports really couldn’t be above all else. I (had to learn) how to take that, and give the girls the opportunity to excel in their sport, but still excel as a cadet.
“Individual training time was a big thing at Queen’s. Different times of the day I would spend time with different athletes. That doesn’t exist here, because they’re scheduled from 8:30 in the morning until practice starts at 4:30. Those opportunities just don’t exist, unless you’re fortunate to have a kid who’s bilingual already. If they’re bilingual, that’s great. They have that one block of time. If not, they have that one extra class every day.
“There were nights where some of the girls couldn’t come because they had different responsibilities with their wing or squadron, so I had to say, ‘OK I won’t see you.’ It’s very different.”
Just because it’s different, Christian-Macfarlane said, does not makes it a bad thing. “The opportunity here is to take all those things and turn it into a successful program. It’s figuring out how to do that.
“The things that they’re being taught as cadets can translate into high performance athletics, if allowed. Right now I don’t think we have found a way to balance it in a way that allows them to be as successful on the field of play as we’d like them to be.”
The biggest challenge in addressing that, she says, is recruiting. At a civilian university, there are two essential elements: Do we convince you to come? Do you have the requisite marks? Two affirmative answers and the next thing you know, you’re at practice.
It’s never going to be that simple at RMC, she discovered.
“People have to want to be in the Forces,” she said. “All the other elements aside, that’s the biggest part of it, but even when they want to be here, they still have to get through the applications and the interviews. There’s so many more levels of acceptance toward admission than at any other institution in the country.
“Here it’s, ‘You want to come here?’ Great. ‘Do you have the marks?’ Great. Now you have to pass the aptitude test. Great, you did. Now you have to pass the medical. The layers are a lot thicker to get to success here, so teams that are successful, you have to really respect how they’ve been able to find success, knowing the layers that exist to get there.”
Even through a conversation about the difficulties she faces, Christian-Macfarlane’s enthusiasm for the task bubbles through. Undaunted by a 2-17 season, she says she’s glad to have undertaken the job.
“You know, I believe my job as a coach is as an advocate, as a teacher, as a mentor, but also as a soft place to land,” she said. “These girls need a soft place to land sometimes. I really found my niche with this group of young women. I love being here. I really do.”
Christian-Macfarlane grew up in Toronto, playing volleyball in club programs. She played on the provincial team and joined the national junior women’s team right out of high school, and she enrolled at the University of Regina, where she was named all-Canadian. After third year, she transferred to the University of Manitoba, where she won two national bronze medals.
When injuries forced her to retire from competitive volleyball, she did social work in Vancouver, largely with special-needs children. “I’m about people,” she said, and foremost among them are her husband and daughter.
“I love it here,” she said. “I love the family environment.”