Coaching Culture

by Michael Grange

photography by Mike Ford

When done right, coaching is a calling. It’s not a job that gets left behind at the end of the day. It’s a lifestyle where goals and challenges are ever-present, and where powerful, long-lasting bonds often form, with lessons extending well beyond the field of play. 

But when first proposed to her as a possible career path, Christa Eniojukan (B.Ed. ’04) wanted nothing to do with it. 

It’s funny to reflect on that now, given that the Guelph, Ont., native has been coaching basketball since she graduated from the University following a decorated playing career with the York Lions women’s basketball team. The former guard played with the Lions for two seasons (2003-05), and was awarded most valuable player in her final year. 

Currently the head coach of York’s women’s basketball program, Eniojukan is today widely regarded as one of Canada’s most respected female coaches, after decades of success at the provincial and national team level. 

So it’s funny, but true: what has since become her life’s work was initially something she didn’t think she ever wanted to do.

The idea was planted by her former coach Stu Julius, who worked with her when she was an undergraduate at Wilfrid Laurier University pursuing a kinesiology degree. 

Having observed Eniojukan’s on-court passion and off-court people skills, Julius suggested she take a master’s in coaching and consider it as a future profession.

“And for some reason, I looked him dead in his face and I was like, ‘I’ll never coach,’” she recalls. “I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I’d seen everything he’d had to put up with, but I just told him: I’ll never coach. No, that’s not for me.”

I tell the girls on the team that it’s our job to serve and build the community in any way that we can

She quit teaching to devote herself to coaching full time after a string of high-profile successes on the court. She coached Ontario’s U17 provincial team from 2014 to 2017. In 2018, she was named the first University of Ontario Institute of Technology women’s basketball head coach. In 2021, she returned to York, where she is now in the midst of her third season with the Lions. Eniojukan has won six national medals as a provincial coach, including four golds and two silvers. This past summer, she served as head coach of Canada’s U23 women’s national team at the GLOBL JAM tournament in Toronto. Her team made it to the gold-medal finals, but narrowly lost to the U.S. in a spectacular game. 

Those who know Eniojukan best aren’t surprised about where she has landed. 

“I always knew she was going to do something in coaching, to be honest,” says York Lions hall-of-famer and former teammate Kim Gibbs (BSc ’07). “She was basically like a coach when she played … she had the ability to keep calm in high-pressure situations and she had a good connection with her teammates … she just had that extra edge or that extra vision on the court that not everybody else did.”

But Eniojukan wasn’t drawn to coaching for her love of the sport alone.

As a Black female coach and mother of two (her son Isaiah, 14, and daughter Zaria, 12, are aspiring players), Eniojukan has come to recognize that she has a unique platform to help empower women through sport, and serve as an example for how basketball can be a conduit for positive change personally, professionally and in the broader community. 

“I got into teaching in the first place to help young people grow and be the best version of themselves, and now coaching is an extension of that,” she says. “I’m always going to push and challenge people to be better, and it just so happens that basketball is the tool that I use. I tell the girls on the team that it’s our job to serve and build the community in any way that we can. I don’t even think they fully understand the power and what is in front of them.”

Eniojukan is definitely on to something. 

While the presence of basketball in general has grown in Toronto and Canada over the past 20 years, driven by the success of the Toronto Raptors and the way the sport has become intertwined with popular culture, women’s basketball in particular is having a moment.

Last April, the NCAA women’s final set ratings records and was reportedly the most widely streamed basketball event – men’s or women’s – ever on U.S. cable giant ESPN. The first WNBA exhibition game in Canada, held last May at Scotiabank Arena, sold out in minutes. This all bodes well for women basketball players in this country. The Canadian women’s national team – several members of which Eniojukan coached in the development leagues – is today ranked fourth in the world, and is poised to qualify for its fourth straight Olympic tournament. 

“The women’s basketball space is totally growing, especially in Canada,” says Tamara Tatham, a two-time Canadian Olympian, and friend of Eniojukan, who coaches at University of Toronto, York’s crosstown rival. “You can just kind of see it. It’s tremendous.”

This past October, Tatham joined forces with Eniojukan to help organize the Athlete Women Empowered Classic, a four-team U Sports women’s basketball tournament that took place at York’s Keele Campus. The other organizers were Concordia University’s women’s basketball head coach Tenicha Gittens, and Trinity Western University’s women’s basketball head coach Cheryl Jean-Paul – together representing the only four U Sports women’s basketball teams coached by Black women in Canada. 

It took me a while to understand the platform coaching could give me because … I never saw someone like me doing what I do

The five-game, pre-season tournament went beyond just playing ball. The event included workshops, panel discussions and networking sessions with coaches, athletes and industry leaders. The hope is that it will become an annual event that rotates across the four founding post-secondary institutions.

For Eniojukan, it’s come full circle.

She wanted to be a leader and to have an impact on her community, going back to her playing days at York, but didn’t initially realize those goals could be achieved through basketball and coaching. 

Her view now? 

Coaching women’s basketball at a school like York couldn’t be a better place for her to achieve those goals. 

“It took me a while to understand the platform coaching could give me because … I never saw someone like me doing what I do,” she says. “So maybe that’s why I never considered coaching initially, because there was nobody coaching that looked like me … then you layer it with [being a] Black female, but then you layer it with even being a mom … there’s barely anybody that has all those different facets. 

“Now I try to lead with that, and try to make sure that the people that I surround myself with also have the same heart. Our [York women’s] team motto is, ‘Build an emphatic winning culture,’ and that means not just winning games. It means emphatically caring for others, and that caring extends not just to your team, but to your community, too.” ■

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