When Olympic gold medalist and Canadian soccer legend Christine Sinclair thinks back to her early days in the sport, she recalls fluorescent lighting. The pitch lights of the recreational centre in South Burnaby, British Columbia, where eight-year-old Sinclair would practice with her team throughout the day and scrimmage with her brothers after hours, always seemed to be lit up for her no matter the time or day.
“I remember us having free license of that place, with my parents coaching,” Sinclair says. “There was no stress, no pressure, no dreams of making the national team back then. I just loved playing with my friends a couple of days a week.”
Today, her relationship to the game and the culture surrounding it is far less simple. Sinclair has four Olympic appearances and holds five FIFA Women’s World Cups under her belt as the most accomplished soccer player in Canadian history.
While the athlete’s diverse list of achievements is impressive (from receiving a FIFA Special Award for an Outstanding Career Achievement to being awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law degree), Sinclair’s personal experiences throughout her life make for a fascinating retelling throughout our interview with the Canadian soccer veteran.
Over the years, Sinclair has begun offering the public further insights into the influences and experiences that shaped her storied playing career, insights that she’s long held back from the public eye.
“I’m still a very private person, that’s never going to change,” she explains. “But I want fans to have a little sense of me and my life as a female athlete.”
Throughout our interview, the origins of her love affair with the sport begin to unfold, from growing up on the west coast to being named captain of both the women’s national team and the Portland Thorns Football Club, which she says was revelatory to the leadership style that she exhibits today. She speaks thoughtfully and humbly, the way she’s always been known to through 20 seasons with Canada’s senior national team. But now, telling her own story holds a different meaning. Today, Sinclair is hoping to offer a blueprint to the women athletes of tomorrow that might not demand the spotlight the way stereotypical leaders are expected to do.
A large part of that effort is told through her upcoming memoir, Playing the Long Game, which releases November 1 and further details aspects of her career she’s long withheld from the public eye, from the people and coaches who have shaped her into the person she is today, to the sometimes harsh realities of the women’s sports industry. But despite our interview and the memoir’s impending release, Sinclair’s leadership technique remains the same as it’s always been: actions over words.
“When I was first named captain of the national team, I thought I had to change from being a quiet person to that loud, vocal leader that people often associate with a captain,” she says. “But I realized that I lead by example.”
Sinclair tries to foster a “leaderful” team culture where she “speaks up when needed” and gives a voice to novice players, ensuring that they feel valued on the team.
“We’re not going to be the best until everyone feels like they belong, so that’s the type of leader I try to be,” she says before cracking a smile. “I’m also the type that’s really good at coin tosses, which is very important in soccer.”
As we talk, Sinclair also unpacks the relationships that she’s formed throughout her career and how they’ve influenced her character on and off the field. Eventually, we discuss one of the most formative leadership figures to impact her career: Clive Charles, the beloved former head coach of Portland University’s women’s soccer team and Sinclair’s coach during the Women’s College Cup in the early 2000s.
“The thing about coaches like Clive and John Herdman is that they transcend the sport. They care about you more as a person than as an athlete,” she says. “Clive prided himself not on the superstars that he was able to bring to the university, but on seeing the last person on the roster come in as a freshman, and then helping to develop them into the person and player that they became by the time they left.”
Like Charles, Sinclair is a strong advocate for women in soccer and investing in high-level development from youth to adulthood.
“To any young girl in soccer, or even just in life: be okay with having crazy dreams and then working for it,” she says, explaining that when she was younger she wanted to play in Major League Baseball despite there being no women for her to look up to.
“We need a professional environment in Canada for women to play soccer, where young girls can watch their women’s team play every week,” she urges.
Sinclair adds that even the national team is rarely on television, “So I think, yeah, my goal would be to help bring professional women’s soccer to Canada.”
In the shorter term though, the athlete has another goal, a message that she hopes young women around the world can internalize the more they learn about her career.
“It’s important for people to see that I’ve had just as many heartbreaks as I’ve had successes. It’s about rebounding from them,” Sinclair says. “I’m very fortunate for the career I’ve had, but it’s important for athletes, especially young kids, to know that defeats happen to everyone and that they can still succeed, despite their losses.”
Like all great leaders, the successes that this next chapter might offer are less dependent on scoring records and international accolades, but rather on the next generation of leaders that she hopes to inspire.