Canada basketball
Holly MacKenzie

Black Female Coach Mentorship Program offers unique opportunity for Jean-Paul, Eniojukan and Alexander

When 2020 began, Kayla Alexander was thinking about basketball. Playing basketball, to be specific. After a lockdown during a global pandemic, a WNBA season played in a bubble in Florida, and then an extended break at home with family in Milton, Ontario, Alexander is still thinking about basketball, but this time she’s thinking about one day coaching it.

Fresh out of that summer spent in the WNBA bubble, Alexander began to see posts on Twitter and Instagram about the Black Female Coach Mentorship Program, or the BFCMP. Created by the Black Canadian Coach’s Association in partnership with the Coaching Association of Canada, the BFCMP is a pilot program in its first year that is aiming to provide black female coaches in Canada with mentorship and guidance.

Though Alexander went to school for education and spends much of her free time away from the court writing books for children as well as mentoring, she says she’d never seriously considered coaching as a next step for her, but something clicked during the early days of lockdown as her mentoring and speaking engagements turned into zoom calls and she realized that coaching is another form of teaching and teaching is what she’s most passionate about.

“I can't tell you how many times my family has said, ‘Kayla are you going to coach? Do you want to coach basketball?’ and I've always said, ‘Nope, not going to coach. I don't want to coach.’ When I was thinking about coaching, I was always thinking about coaching at the college level and when you coach at the college level, you don't have a life outside of basketball. Then I thought, ‘Kayla, you're so passionate about kids, you mentor kids already, you love doing different things with the youth, maybe you should consider going into coaching. You don't have to go into college, you could coach at the middle school, high school level.’ After seeing this, the worst thing that could happen is you apply and you’re denied, then you’re back where you started.”

When she received news that she was selected as one of the 17 mentees for the program, Alexander was shocked and elated. A six-year vet with Canada Basketball, 29-year-old Alexander also works with the National Basketball Youth Mentorship Program, mentoring four girls ranging in age from 9-15. Via zoom and phone calls, they discuss basketball as well as life, with Alexander giving advice and sharing her own experiences. Alexander is a natural choice applicant for a program geared around learning and giving back. Even if her humility meant she was surprised when she got the good news
“Kayla Alexander is a prime example of someone who has contributed to the game as an athlete, someone who has all of these skills that the game needs,” Cheryl Jean-Paul, head coach of women’s basketball at Trinity Western said. “She’s an amazing person, first and foremost, she has the ability to give back and has a desire to give back, which, if you can't give back, the coaching world in Canada is really not for you. She’s already in a role as a mentor, she has this platform, she has this beautiful spirit as well which just allows people to pay attention to what she’s saying.”

Jean-Paul is one of the coaches serving as a mentor in the program. She says the pilot was borne out of a desire to ensure younger or aspiring female coaches of colour have the support systems to encourage them as they are starting their coaching careers and learning the ups and downs.

In the spring of this year, with much of the world in lockdown and the sports world largely on pause as focus shifted to important issues surrounding social justice and systemic racism, Jean-Paul found herself on a zoom call with four other black female basketball coaches in Canada. It was during that convo that the need for a program like the BFCMP became clear. Jean-Paul is thrilled to be involved with the program, crediting the ideas and impact of Lee Anna Osei, head coach of women’s basketball at St. Francis Xavier University, on these calls with helping to get the pilot off the ground.

“Lee Anna Osei has been the catalyst for a lot of the ventures that have been started in the past few months,” Jean-Paul said. “[During those conversations] we realized what a special moment that we shared on a zoom call with the five of us. We had never really reached out to each other from that perspective and I think that call really triggered something in each of us where we’ve all been experiencing a lot of things within our coaching careers and within our basketball experiences that have been challenging from a coaching perspective that we just sort of bury a little bit and keep plowing ahead because we all have programs we’re running and lots of demands on our time and energy.”

Wanting to provide an opportunity for young female coaches to receive mentorship and guidance, while also being available for those open to the idea of entering coaching is key for Jean-Paul. With so few female head coaches in Canada, it’s crucial to show young women examples of women coaching that look like them. As with anything, representation matters.

“[In sports, sometimes] it’s who you know, it’s not always what you know,” Jean-Paul said. “We really want to provide some mentorship and guidance to young coaches who would otherwise maybe not have those opportunities. Looking at the apprenticeship programs for CCAA and youth sports, a lot of these athletes were former athletes for these programs or were part of a university program or college program that didn't have a female head coach.

“We want to support these young coaches before the path becomes too hard for them to handle on their own," she continued. "I think we want the mentorship program to be part of a solution that is much needed.”

Alexander has been paired with mentor Christa Eniojukan, head coach at Ontario Tech, for the program. In the conversations the two have had thus far, they’ve talked about goals, as well as what Alexander would like to learn and take from the program. Still very much in her playing career, Alexander says she’d like to learn more about how she could transition into coaching if it feels like a proper fit for her. In the very least, she’s eager to learn more about communication skills, something that will aid her whether her future features coaching or teaching.

“She’s been absolutely amazing,” Eniojukan said of Alexander. “Just so engaging, so detail-orientated. She has a special energy about her. She’s able to provide her knowledge of the game, and then with her charisma, her overall energy is so great and inspiring for the young ladies.”

Getting to have a mentor that is also a black female in Canada -- and one who has worked with Canada Basketball as a member of the Women’s High Performance coaching pool who has also been involved as a guest coach at various age-group camps -- is new for Alexander.

“I’m really big on representation,” she said. “When I was going through basketball, Team Ontario, coming up in Canada, playing basketball, I only remember having one female coach that was black and it was my first year playing for Team Ontario. I don't think I had another black coach until I was in college.”

Alexander’s experience is precisely why Jean-Paul says this pilot is needed. It’s why the program, in its first year, looks as though it will expand the number of mentees in the next year.
Jean-Paul got involved with the program as a mentor because she felt she had knowledge and experience she could give back while sharing what she’s learned over her own coaching career. What she didn’t know when she signed up is just how much she would benefit from the program herself.

“I think for me as a mentor, there’s growth I will encounter as well,” Jean-Paul said. “Helping someone else through their circumstances, sometimes their struggles will reveal something you haven’t dealt with or [show you], that’s the next step I have to take. I'm challenging this young coach to pursue her academics or pursue the next level. I have to make sure I'm doing that as well.”

Eniojukan has found the same to be true. After her conversations with Alexander, she’s found herself personally reflecting on her own coaching career and goals as well as the advice she has just passed along. Similarly to Alexander’s experience, Eniojukan said she never had a female coach in her own playing career period. It is now, through joining the mentorship program as a mentor that Eniojukan has found her own support system.

“We get together once a month [on zoom], the mentors, and then I’ve also established some closer relationships, especially with some of the basketball coaches that are in the program and we just casually talk every few weeks,” Eniojukan said. “I'm just learning so much from them as well.”

Similarly to Alexander’s experience, Eniojukan said she never had a female coach in her own playing career. Shortly after the first zoom call between the two, Eniojukan and Alexander held a zoom session with Eniojukan’s young daughter’s basketball team. She knew coming into the call that Alexander was going to be a great mentee, but seeing how she prepared for the call, taking questions enthusiastically, then presenting her own video clips to break down with the girls, sealed how beneficial a program like this will be for young and aspiring coaches.

“[For the girls on that team], they were like, ‘A 6-foot-4 female, that is so amazing and she plays in the WNBA, and she’s going to the Olympics.’ I had to cut them off, they wouldn’t stop talking. I was like, ‘Guys, guys, I have to end this. I have a team call. I’m so sorry,’ but they just had so many questions for her. They were so inspired by her.”
Alexander is just beginning to explore the coaching world to see if it may be something that suits her, but says she is thankful that such a program exists and that she gets to be part of it in its first season.

“In certain spaces, it’s not impossible to dream of being there, but when you actually see it, it makes your dream more valid and more real,” Alexander said about the importance of representation. “Like, this is something I can actually attain instead of a far off dream that I'm hoping for but isn’t realistic. I’m always going to be a huge person who speaks on representation, having people of a variety of different ways in different spaces. I think that’s important for our youth to see.”

While the program is only in its first year, and there’s still much that needs to be done in the coaching world, Jean-Paul is glad to take another step forward. After talking about all of the things that need to be pushed forward this year, getting to actually make a difference is key.

“We're always looking ahead as coaches,” Jean-Paul said. “We’re thinking about the next weekend, the next semester, the playoffs, the next season with recruits, so this has been a self-reflection time for coaches that we normally don't have.

“I've been very humbled by young black women who are in the coaching world that are so excited about what they’re doing in basketball now because they know that the glass ceiling is starting to crack, she continued. “We want young black women to see the coaching world as something to be excited about when their playing careers are over. I’m not sure that’s been the history of their experience. If I'm a young black woman playing basketball and I've never seen someone that looks like me within a coaching perspective why would I ever consider that as a career option? We really want to change that.”

Like Eniojukan, Jean-Paul is also involved with Canada Basketball, coaching Canada’s FIBA U16 Women’s Basketball team. Through her role with the program she’s had a front-row seat to observe the way Canada Basketball, in particular with its the women’s program, is shaping and changing ideals for young girls growing up with hoop dreams in Canada.

“With Kayla especially, Canada Basketball has done a great job of having senior women’s athletes come into our cadet camps and speak into the athletes lives and help them understand that they’ve been where these athletes are just starting to step into,” Jean-Paul said. “Kayla, Tamara [Tatham] is another example, athletes have this platform that a coach can never have and for someone who has that already to then move into coaching is really exciting for the game of basketball in general. The game is changing very quickly, the world of sport is changing really quickly and it’s exciting to be part of that change.”

Jean-Paul says getting to work with Canada Basketball has been a significant step in her own coaching career. In addition to what she’s been able to learn and take from it, she also says it was the beginning of her being able to help other young coaches start to follow the same pathway.

“There’s high-level conversations happening right now within Canada Basketball that are so encouraging because they’re looking within and willing to put their hand up and say we need to work on these things, we need to pursue this,” Jean-Paul said. “I'm excited to see what the future of Canada Basketball looks like.”

Jean-Paul is also excited to see what the future looks like for Alexander.

“I think Kayla, with her [books], illustrations, her mentorship and her time with NBA in Africa, you’re seeing the face of someone who can change the world,” Jean-Paul said. “Really. That’s who we want to mentor. I’m excited to see how she grows.”