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The Road Less Travelled

I was born with a dislocated hip. It went undiagnosed for eight months, and my life as an athlete almost ended before it began. I was placed in a half-body cast for ten weeks and told my parents that I would never be able to run correctly. In preschool, we also discovered my left eye was going blind. For the next eight years, I spent parts of each year with a patch over my stronger eye, so my weaker eye had a chance to strengthen.

Despite these challenges, I was a very active child. Instead of handling my situation with insecurity or trepidation, my parents fostered an environment that involved a healthy amount of movement and activity.

I participated in various sports throughout my youth, but badminton became my main focus. Or it was, until Grade 12, that I had the opportunity to play on a younger but more skilled and committed soccer team. The positive energy and organized structure the team’s manager and coaches provided was the perfect environment for success as a soccer player.

1998 U16 Girls National Championship Silver Medal Finish

Although I continued playing badminton at the national youth level, soccer played a more prominent and significant role in my life. Eventually, I had the opportunity to try out for the women’s national soccer team. However, as these opportunities within each sport grew, the coach from each team communicated that if I wanted to continue to compete, I would need to focus on only one sport.

At 18, I stood at the crossroads of my first big transitional life decision. So, what did I do? I chose neither and instead took some time away from sports altogether, going in a completely different direction.

I became a crew member and co-cook for the tall offshore ship, Pacific Swift. We travelled from Victoria, BC, to Mexico, Central America, through the Panama Canal, and into the Caribbean. I have to say that as a cook, it was an incredibly challenging time for me as a person.

image of Tall Ship named Pacific Swift
Portrait of the Pacific Swift by Don Gaynor

While anchored in the Dominican Republic, I rented a motorcycle with another crew member and explored. Unfortunately, we were in an accident on a back road between towns, leaving me with a deep gash from one side of my knee to the other. As a result of an eye-opening experience with the medical system there, I contracted gangrene when the doctor stitched up my knee with dirt and gravel still in the wound.

Lying in a hospital room in a foreign country, in a tremendous amount of pain, I had a crystal-clear realization; If I could recover from this situation, I would choose to pursue the sport of soccer. It made my heart sing, and I loved the challenge of coming together to follow an aim greater than an individual's.

It is incredible how moments of deep personal anguish can provide such clarity and insight. Or maybe I just ironically fell into soccer, literally by accident.

Canada's 4th Place Finish at the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup

I played with the Canadian Women's National Soccer Team for 18 years, with a peak high when we finished 4th at the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup. I finished my career as a captain and a player representative and earned 132 caps, the most international appearances for Canada – man or woman at the time. Although those years were a challenging pursuit in many ways, I felt I grew with the global development of women's soccer.

I feel so blessed to have ridden on the crest of that wave, to witness it and to feel and experience that growth.

In 2007 when I retired, I began to look at things from a deeper perspective to find greater meaning and direction. I asked myself, what had been the purpose of investing all this time and life energy in one activity? What did it teach me? What was I left with now that it was all done and over?

I spent quite some time in this reflection phase before attending a speech by General Romeo Dallaire, the former United Nations Force Commander. He witnessed and tried to mitigate the horrific 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Andrea Neil during her time as Assistant Coach for the Canadian Women's National Team and Canadian Olympic Medalist Christine Sinclair (2009)

This robust humanitarian response to a Q&A at the end of his talk - the healing of Rwanda through supporting the women of the country - helped me to decide that the next stage of my life would be to dedicate myself to coaching women's and girls' soccer. It helped me realize that sports can provide support and life lessons to all its participants through developing tangible and intangible skills. By kicking or throwing the ball, coaching others, and even developing skills as a referee, all participants can develop transformative life skills.

My intent in crossing over the sideline from the role of a national team player to national team assistant coach was to encourage a positive direction and support of the women's game in Canada. As a female soccer player, I had experienced what it felt like to be considered by others to be an afterthought compared to the men's program or that women's soccer was a second-class form of the game. I took the position genuinely thinking that I could help make substantial change.

However, I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes and how my ideals would soon be crushed.

Within a short timeframe, I brought forward several concerns that involved the behaviours of people in the organization attached to our program. Ones that I felt were breaches of both professional and ethical principles.

Little did I understand that the issues I had observed or experienced went well beyond the individual level; they were systemic and even cultural within the organization. In trying to do what I thought was right for the health of the women's program, it was quickly made clear that this ideological approach would not be tolerated. The message I received was not explicit but rather implicit; play along because if you're not one of us, we will make your life very difficult.

Life became dizzyingly tricky, and there were severe retributions for speaking up as a whistleblower.

When I began this process, I believed I could impact the women's game for the better and help care for and protect the women's program and players. I thought the most significant challenge would be competing against other national team programs. But, I had no idea that the primary opponent would be people tasked with helping to support the program itself.

This was not a sustainable position for me, and I felt I had to leave international soccer as a coach after two and a half years. I felt devastated and 'done' as a person and had become physically, energetically, mentally and emotionally unhealthy.

A year later, only partly recovered and against my intuition, I took another coaching role and quickly found myself in a similar situation to the one I had just left. I thought that by changing institutions, I would find a healthier sporting environment. But I quickly discovered that the environment around the team was also unhealthy and toxic.

Yet it was amid this experience that something extraordinary also happened to me. I gave birth to my son.

Despite significant challenges to his health after his birth, I returned to coach for the season. However, at the end of that year, I decided to leave coaching to care for myself in order to better support my most important role in life, being a mother.

This period led me to the most profound introspection I have ever experienced. As the Dalai Lama calls it, I began seeking "an education for the heart."

Through this ongoing process, I have realized the only domain I have control over is my capacity to transform myself through the connection with my heart. I have shifted my way of being and working in this world.

I decided, from that perspective, that if I was going to coach or be in the sporting world, I wanted it to have greater meaning and purpose. I wanted to develop and improve certain aspects of myself to better contribute to people in a positive way. I decided to exit these established, unhealthy soccer cultures and instead cultivate an alternative for athletes and coaches.

Guest coaching with Team Tibet at the 2017 Vancouver International Soccer Festival

Recognizing that the principles of leadership in sports apply to every aspect of society, I've dedicated myself to unearthing the inner development and the psychological principles that shape and create high-functioning leaders, teams and organizations. My interests lie in creating positive personal and social change and impacting the world through a more elevated leadership approach.

With my degree in Human Kinetics specializing in health, fitness, and psychology, and elite-level studies in coaching and leadership in Italy and Holland, I've continued my education to stay at the forefront of how to develop ourselves as leaders and people.

Through this ongoing learning, I've realized that more than focusing solely on technical skills or performance is needed to create a positive and sustainable impact. I created The Coaching Compass, a purpose-driven and heart-centred approach to leadership education. This program aims to guide individuals at all levels toward a new, healthier way of leading and creating impactful outcomes for themselves and those around them. I'm excited to continue sharing my knowledge and expertise to make a positive difference.

With sincere respect,

Photo by Ray Shum

Andrea Neil

Founder of Andrea Neil Coaching and

The Coaching Compass

Want to stay inspired? Please follow me on FACEBOOK , TWITTER , INSTAGRAM , LINKEDIN for more insights and updates. And to dive deeper, check out my latest TEDx talk, Sports Leadership - Are We Lost?

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