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  • Andrea Neil

The Road Less Travelled

Updated: 1 day ago

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 my parents were told that I would never be able to run properly. In preschool, we also discovered my left eye was going blind. For the next 8 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 and, 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 a variety of different sports throughout my youth, but badminton became my main focus. Or it was, until Grade 12 when 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 my future success as a soccer player.


1998 U16 Girls National Championship Silver Medal Finish

Although I continued playing badminton at the youth national level, soccer began to take a larger and larger role in my life. Eventually I was given the opportunity to try out for the Women’s National Soccer Team. However, as my success in each sport grew, the coach from each team communicated to me 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 off in a completely different direction.


I became a crew member and co-cook for the offshore tall 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.


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 went exploring. On a backroad somewhere between towns we were in an accident, which left 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 ended up contracting 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 simply made my heart sing and I loved the challenge of coming together as a group of people to pursue an aim greater than that of an individual.


It is amazing how moments of deep personal anguish, can provide us with 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 went on to play 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, a player representative, and having 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 in the hopes of finding 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 really 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 I happened to attend a speech being given by General Romeo Dallaire, the former United Nations Force Commander, who 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 powerful humanitarian's 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 realized that within the development of tangible and intangible skills, sport can provide support and life lessons to all its participants. Through the act of kicking or throwing the ball, coaching others, and even developing skills as a referee, all participants have the possibility to 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, we brought forward several concerns to the establishment at Canada Soccer that involved behaviours of people in the organization that were attached to our program. Ones that I felt were breaches of both professional and ethical principles.


Little did I understand that the issues we experienced went well beyond the individual level; they were systemic and even cultural in nature within the organization. In trying to do what we thought was right for the health of the overall women’s program, it was quickly made clear to us our idealistic approach would not be tolerated. The message was implicit, but clear, play along, because if you’re not one of us, then we’re going to make your life very difficult.


Life became dizzyingly difficult and there were indeed serious retributions for speaking up.


I had taken the position believing I could impact the women’s game for the better, that I could help care for and protect the women’s team. I thought the greatest challenges we would face would be on the field against other national team programs. I had no idea that a main opponent would be people tasked with helping to support the program itself.


For me, this was not a sustainable position and I felt I had to leave the program after just two and a half years. I was devastated and ‘done'; physically, energetically, and psychologically 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 had come in thinking I could enact change and found the environment in and around the team and administration unhealthy and toxic.


Yet it was in the midst of all of that, that something very beautiful, but very difficult happened to me. I gave birth to my son.


Despite serious challenges to his health (which thankfully resolved themselves), I returned to coach for the season. However, at the end of that year I decided to exit coaching to care for myself, so I could better approach and support the greatest, most important role of my life, being a mother.


This period set me on a course towards the deepest introspection I have ever experienced. I began the process, as the Dalai Lama calls it, of seeking an "education of the heart."


Through this I realized the only domain I have control over is my capacity to transform myself through the connection with my heart and, through this ongoing process, I have been able to shift my way of being and working in this world. If I was going to coach or be in the sporting world, I wanted it to be with greater meaning and purpose. I wanted to improve certain aspects of myself so I could better contribute to people in a positive way. I made a clear choice to exit 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

Players also want to improve, to become better at passing, develop better dribbling skills, and shoot with more power and precision. They want to make better decisions on the field, and they want direction on how to do so. Ultimately, players want to contribute to the team’s performance by improving theirs.


Coaches want the same things. They want to help the team and players within their program improve. They want more tools within their toolbox to help with this process and direction and clarity to influence the team in a more positive way.


But what is often lacking is that people don’t have a roadmap of 'how-tos' to improve their effectiveness and efficiency.


I have spent many years synthesizing my life learnings, education, experiences, and development in sport into the creation of on and off-field mentorship programs for both players and coaches, to solve these types of development issues. These programs provide a pathway and roadmap for personal development with the aim of embarking on a process of broadening and deepening your capabilities as a player or coach.


My intention is to support the growth of players and coaches with the hopes of creating more clarity, competence, and confidence for themselves. This “how-to” methodology centres around cultivating every person’s capacity to learn, improve, and develop. It is built off of the principles of caring for, respecting, valuing, and supporting the holistic person through their process of learning and practicing how to become better.


Presenting at Alberta Soccer's 2018 Women in Soccer Conference

Sport is an immensely powerful tool that has the power to impact us and the world in a positive and healthy way. Sport can be a force of good in this world if we approach it in the appropriate way. It is through the act of passing, dribbling, shooting, or coaching, the ‘how-to’ of these qualities, that we have the potential to become better, happier, fitter, and more impactful people for ourselves and our communities.


Please join me in the movement of becoming better through sport.


If you feel inspired to do so, please join my email list to receive future blog entries, information on upcoming player and coach mentorship webinars, and course offerings. If you are interested in online, in-person individual, or small-group coaching mentorship sessions, then please contact me directly.


And if this resonates with you, I’d like to invite you to join my mailing list through www.andreaneil.ca or join my FACEBOOK , TWITTER , INSTAGRAM , LINKEDIN communities. If you'd like to hear about any upcoming offerings or sessions, then please don’t hesitate to reach out for more information below.



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