Queen’s only female varsity coach to retire this spring

Brenda Willis wraps up 31 years at Queen’s, 44-year-long coaching career

Brenda Willis (centre) has a 315-145 record as a Queen’s head coach.
Supplied by Brenda Willis

As of March 2018, men’s volleyball head coach Brenda Willis will be retiring from Queen’s after 31 years with the school. Her decision effectively leaves the university with no full-time female head coaches on its staff directory.

Willis came to Queen’s in 1987 after a pair of coaching stints at the University of Guelph and Wilfred Laurier University, beginning her coaching career as late as 1973 — taking only a short break when her children were born in the early 80s.

Over her 31 years in Kingston, Willis has seen her program grow and evolve. Looking back on when she first arrived as the head coach, Willis said it was a “10-year battle,” to book equal practice and game times in the PEC’s Bartlett Gym.

“Now it’s … the complete opposite. We’re very much a high performance program and all of the 13 [varsity] teams are treated very equally — no more battles,” Willis said of the program’s standing within the Queen’s Athletics department.

With the opening of the Innovation and Wellness Centre scheduled for this spring, Willis added that she expects the team’s access to courts and practice time to become only more accessible. 

“I’ll be gone by then, but I think it’ll be much better for the athletes … It’s short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Looking back on her career, Willis said a few seasons in particular stand out as exceptional. These include the 1999-2000 season — when she won the first OUA championship of her career — and the 2011-12 season, when Queen’s hosted the CIS championship, as something she wouldn’t forget. It was a major milestone for the school as well, as it was the first time the University hosted a national championship event for an indoor sport.

During her time as head coach, the team also only experienced two losing seasons. 

After winning five OUA Coach of the Year awards, Willis reflected on some of the hurdles she faced in being one of very few female coaches at the university level in Canada.

“Being the only female coach in the entire country at this level, that was a hurdle in itself,” Willis said. She added that during her early years in coaching, some athletes came to Queen’s and tested her capabilities as a coach. 

“Over my 31 years in volleyball, there’s been two other [women in Canada] that were assigned to a team at one point or another. They lasted only a few years… For the last decade or so, I’ve been the only one.”

Willis said she’s not sure why there’s a lack of women coaching at the university level.

“We’re having trouble getting women to coach at the elite level, even coaching women’s  [teams],” she said. “There’s only, I think, four or five females on the female side of the game at the university level.”

“The life of a varsity coach is evenings, weekends, a fair bit of pressure to win, and keep[ing] a team of guys motivated and driven … and that’s not necessarily in most women’s comfort zone,” she continued. “We’re socialized to share and be nice — I’ve always been very competitive and a straight shooter, and that’s better received in men than women.”

After her retirement in March, Willis is aware that Queen’s will likely be left with an all-male coaching staff.

“And that’s sad,” Willis responded to the idea that varsity teams’ head coaches will be without a woman. “I know our athletic director is committed to gender equity, but the women have to be applying and they have to be applying with resumes that can compete reasonably with the male applicants … you want to get the best coach you can.”

According to Willis, a recent search for a women’s volleyball coach yielded only about five per cent female applications.

To combat this, Willis is currently involved in a program with the Coaches Association of Ontario called “Changing the Game, Changing the Conversation.” Here, she works as a female mentor to women coaching in an effort to develop their confidence and expertise.

Her work mentoring female coaches and supporting the men’s volleyball team will continue following her retirement — but she knows it’s time for her 44-year coaching career to come to an end.

“You kind of know when it’s time, and I can look back and think that I accomplished the things I set out to,” Willis said.


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