Q&A with Kris Herman

Williams College

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.9, October 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1209/qaherman.htm

Kris Herman has been a softball coach since the day she graduated from Tufts University in 1986. Starting her career as an assistant coach at her alma mater, she moved up to the head coaching position for the Division III Jumbos in 1988. Between 1988 and 2003, Herman posted a record of 339-164-3, winning three consecutive New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) titles, and earning NESCAC Coach of the Year honors in 2001, 2002, and 2003.

In 2004, Herman moved from Tufts to league rival Williams College. In her first season, she led the Ephs to a 29-8 record and their first NESCAC championshipóan accomplishment that earned her a fourth consecutive NESCAC Coach of the Year award.

Herman has taken an active role in the international softball scene, spending summers overseas coaching the Croatian National Team in the European championships and holding clinics for emerging coaches. She also coached a New England high school delegation during a goodwill trip to Cuba in 2000.

In this interview, Herman talks about the keys to her successful transition from Tufts to Williams, her experiences overseas, and the benefits of coaching in Division III.

CM: What were the keys to your successful first year at Williams?

Herman: Experience played a big role. I already knew the team, because weíre in the same conference as Tufts. So I came in with some pretty firm ideas of what I wanted to do. I wasnít overbearing, but I said, "This is the way weíre going to do it. This is what I expect from you and this is what you can expect from me."

Strategy-wise, I told them that I thought they were very talented physically and that all I wanted from them was a good attitude and a positive work ethic, with greater effort than they had ever given before. I told them, "If you buy into this, and if you believe in me, I know that itís going to work out well." And it did.

I didnít present my program as something new and different. I focused on the really basic stuff that wonít ever change. Ten years down the road here at Williams Iíll still be doing things very much the same as I am now.

What were the teamís greatest accomplishments?

Off the field, we actively talked about what we wanted to be like as a team, and we really followed through. We all just took a deep breath in the beginning and said, "Weíre not going to worry about what weíre not. Weíre not going to worry about what anybody else is." We set out to just do the best we could, and Iím proud of that. Iím proud that we developed leadership skills in all our players, not just our upperclassmen.

How is your approach at Williams different from your approach at Tufts?

I donít think itís different at all. As a coach, I think itís really important to figure out how you want to beóhow you best operateóand then do it that way. Itís an evolutionary process. Certainly, you want to be flexible, but you also have to know what works for you and not second-guess yourself just because you are in a new situation. You have to be confident and comfortable in your own skin.

What is your coaching philosophy?

I try to be very direct. I donít think it works to sugarcoat things. If a kidís main role is to be a batting practice catcher, she needs to know that. I donít think itís fair to have her thinking she might play shortstop for half the games. It may not be easy to say something negative, but it works out better in the long run.

In terms of strategy and technique, I keep things very simple. If we play perfect defense, weíre going to have a good chance of winning ball games. Itís that straightforward. Iím not into fancy drills. My philosophy is that if we need to be better at fielding ground balls, thatís what weíll do. If we need to become a better hitting team, weíll take more swings, get on the tee, and break it down on video.

How has your coaching style evolved?

As Iíve gotten older and more experienced, I no longer have a problem asking an 18-year-old kid, "What do you think? How do you feel? How can I help you get better?" The best way to find out what somebody is feeling is to ask them, so I do a lot of that. Iíve learned that for us to be successful, itís very important for players to feel ownership of their own development.

Iíve learned to be more comfortable making mistakes, on and off the field, and Iíve gotten more comfortable with players making mistakes. Iím still a pretty intense person, so I have high expectations all the time. But I understand that everything is not going to work out perfectly all the time and Iím able to regroup without having players feeling so bad that they canít come back effectively.

What are the challenges of coaching in Division III?

There is a myth that if an athlete is not one of the best in her area, she wonít be good enough to play in college. People need to know that there is tough, competitive softball at our level. At the top Division II and Division III schools, the level of play is often just as good as at a lot of the scholarship programs. We need to keep ourselves on the radar so kids who truly love the game will have enough confidence to seek out a place where they can play.

What have you learned as an assistant volleyball coach that has helped your softball coaching?

The more you interact with players and coaches, the more you learn. I have a ton of respect for our head volleyball coach. We have very different styles, so I learn a lot from her. In specific situationsóeverything from dealing with players off the court to the best way to run a drillóI know in my head what I would do, and sheíll do something different, and I try to learn from that.

Our entire coaching staff here at Williams is pretty close, and almost all of us eat lunch together every day. We spend a lot of time talking about coaching and teaching methods, comparing notes on conditioning and nutrition. It creates a great environment, and itís one of the biggest reasons why I will stay in Division III. That opportunity to interact with other coaches keeps me learning and jazzed about my job.

What was it like coaching the Croatian National Team?

It was crazy and it was a lot of fun. Croatia is a very athletic nation, but softball was almost a non-entity. They were just getting started in the 1990s, and there was very little equipment to be found in the entire country. If you took a bunch of Americans over there, they probably would have panicked, but those kids said, "Hey, this is what weíve got, letís make the most of it."

I coached the team through the European championships in 1999 and 2001. They really bought in, worked hard, and trusted me from the get-go. They had to make a lot of sacrifices to be able to play. They had jobs and school and just seeing them get really excited about playing was a lot of fun.

What did you learn from taking the New England delegation to Cuba?

The biggest lessons came from seeing the hardships that the Cuban youngsters have to deal with, and seeing their love of the game. We played the cream of the cropóthis was their Junior Olympic teamóbut the fields were still not at the level weíre used to here. Basic things that we take for grantedóshampoo, toilet paper, and soapóare just not available there. The organizers of the trip had our kids bring toiletries for the Cuban players, and they were so gratefulóand these are middle class, well-educated Cubans. So the biggest lesson was how hard people all over the world have to work for the little things.

What advice can you offer about building a coaching career?

I started coaching in 1987, when softball was relatively new in college. I walked in to the athletic directorís office and said, "The head coach needs help and I need a job. Hire me." And they did. Then when the head coach left, I went back in and said, "You need a coach. Iíll work cheap. Hire me."

Itís very different for a young coach today. There are a lot more opportunities, but there are also a lot more people interested in doing it.

My best advice for people starting out now is just to jump in with both feet. If thereís an opportunity and you feel like it might work, do it. Learn as much as you can every day. Go to clinics. Sit in the stands with other coaches and pick their brains. Make as many connections as you canónot just for job opportunities but for improving yourself. Read everything you can get your hands on about leadership. Understand that being a good coach has as much to do with interpersonal relationships as it does with skills.

The bottom line is that you have to love coaching. If you donít love getting up and doing it every day, itís not for you. It takes too much of an emotional commitment to do it well. You canít treat this like a job. You really have to live it alongside your athletes. Youíre asking them to make a huge commitment, and you have to be willing to do the same.