Queens of Queen’s: Part 3

Coaches discuss gender equality on 125th anniversary of women in sport

These messages need to come from the top down.
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Strategizing, recruiting, optimizing—a coach’s role is manifold. Another responsibility should be addressing the gender gap within sports.

The Journal interviewed three women’s varsity coaches to hear about their perception of the gender disparity in sports.

The first, Matthew Holmberg, is currently fulfilling his eleventh year as the head coach of the Queen’s women’s hockey team.

He’s been awarded two OUA Coach of the Year awards, the most recent being for the 2017-2018 season. He’s coached the Gaels to two OUA Championships, a CIS bronze, and playoff appearances in every season he’s served as head coach.

Holmberg’s philosophy is simple: “The benefits of sport are the same for both genders. That is, learning to push yourself to be better, learning to face adversity, being part of a team, [and gaining] leadership skills, [to name] just a few.”

Even so, he doesn’t turn a blind eye to the clear differences that separates his athletes from their male counterparts.

“Males continue to dominate the sporting world from a financial and visibility perspective, making it very difficult for females to have a career in sport and, just as importantly, to be pervasive role models for younger girls.”

But Holmberg recognizes that there’s hope, and he’s seen it right here in the heart of Kingston.

“Just [in January], 3,400 Kingston area fans showed up for an exhibition game among some of the best female hockey players in the world” he recounted. “There were hundreds of young girls lined up to get autographs and, of note, there were also many young boys lined up as well.”

“‘Athlete’ is taking over from ‘male athlete’,” Holmberg observed.

Most recently, Holmberg gained the 200th win of his Queen’s coaching career, but on-ice accomplishments like this aren’t what he holds closest to his heart. 

“The moments that resonate the most with me are when our athletes give their precious spare time to act as mentors and role models, which includes time with my own six-year-old daughter,” he said. “Even if some those girls don’t grow up to play hockey, they’ve all had an opportunity to learn from confident and successful females, which would not have been possible if not for sport.”

Holmberg said what draws him to coaching women is that “there is no monetary incentive,” referencing the frequent difficulty for female athletes to find liveable wages in professional athletics.

“The only reason these athletes are dedicating so much time and energy is because they love the game. That inspires me to do everything I can for them every day.”

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Ryan Ratushniak is the head coach of the women’s volleyball team, and he’s just finished his third year at the helm of the Tricolour. In that time, he’s led the Gaels to a cumulative 0.633 winning percentage.

His background and fresh eyes on Queen’s courts are shared by his first-year assistant coach, Natasha Spaling.

Spaling comes to Queen’s with a pedigree, having won two U SPORTS silvers as assistant coach of the University of Alberta Pandas, and an Ontario Collegiate Athletic Association silver as head coach of Niagara College.

The pair didn’t shy away from expressing their gratitude for the efforts and initiatives for gender equality made by Queen’s and U SPORTS in general.

 “It’s a bit of a generalization, but I feel really good about coaching the athletes we coach here. These are really great people, high-achieving, [with] interesting things that they are currently doing.”

“It’s come a long way,” Spaling added. “Scholarships are now equal between men and women, and I think that athletic departments have really started to make strides to make sure that there is equality between genders.”

Ratushniak did note barriers, however. “I still feel like there’s obstacles such as equality in funding and resources, exposure in the media at times, [and] just getting recognized for achievements.”

He says his most sincere pride stems from the accomplishments of his athletes, and one of his most sincere regrets is that he’s one of the only people to see it. “Sometimes, the women’s sports aren’t as high-profile, and as a result, the athletes aren’t recognized as much as in men’s sports.”

"We have amazing female athletes here who are doing amazing things, and no one even knows about them.”

“For me,” Spaling said, “it’s just the ability to connect with so many amazing women that you don’t get to see in media. They’re such incredible athletes, how dedicated they are, how hard they work […] and not everybody gets to see that because they’re not talked about all that much.”

Her addition to the coaching staff puts her with the likes of fellow female assistant coaches, including Mallory McQueen (soccer), Lauren McEwen (rugby), Katie Bruggeling (rowing), Morgan McHaffie (hockey), and Nicole Barnard (basketball), to name a few.

Queen’s currently has female representation on every women’s varsity team’s coaching staff.

Notably, Barnard made her OUA head coaching debut after Head Coach James Bambury was stalled from the game due to weather conditions.

However, after the retirement of long-time men’s volleyball Head Coach Brenda Willis, there are currently no female head coaches for any varsity team at Queen’s. And, strikingly, there’s not a single woman on any men’s varsity team’s coaching staff. 

“We need more women showing other women that it’s okay to be in roles like that,” Spaling said. “To show them it doesn’t matter what type of industry you’re in, you can be successful.”

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