A Matter of Balance

There is a myth being perpetuated that you canít be a competitive volleyball coach and raise a family. In this article, six successful coaching moms explain how to balance parenting and a coaching career at the highest levels of the game.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.

Coaching Management, 12.11, November 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1211/balance.htm

When JoyLynn Tracy, Head Coach at Wright State University, became pregnant, she was repeatedly asked a question that exasperated her: Are you going to stop coaching now?

"A lot of people asked me that question, which I thought was so ridiculous," she says, "because no one asked my husband if he was going to stop coaching. Why do people think women canít do both?"

Tracyís son Mattaus is now almost four, and she and her husband, Wright State Head Menís Soccer Coach Mike Tracy, both continue to be successful coaches. Tracy concedes that raising a family while holding down a demanding job is not always easy, but itís certainly doable.

"We need to give women credit," says Tracy. "I donít want women to think that if they want to coach, they canít have children, because itís not true. Not at all. Yes, the people around you have to be supportive of what youíre doing. But it can work."

How do you make it work? How do you juggle the demands of being a parent and a committed coach in a profession that is traditionally male-dominated? How do you find time to nurture both your own children and a team of a dozen young women?

Starting Right
The first step to balancing life as a head coach and mother, says Carrie Yerty, Head Coach at the University of Memphis, is to choose an athletic department that will support your decision to have children. "As youíre picking your institution, itís critical to find a place that provides a family-friendly environment," advises Yerty, whose sons are five and two years old. "Find a department thatís a good fit, with an athletic director who will allow you to do the things you need to do personally as well as athletically."

At the time she interviewed for the head coaching position at Memphis, Yerty was 25 years old and ready to start a family. As she came to campus, she looked for signs that other female coaches there had children, and was encouraged to see that the head womenís basketball coach and head womenís track coach were both raising families while directing highly successful, competitive programs.

To Yerty, it was an important sign that the department was supportive, and when she was asked about her goals, she chose to be completely honest. "I told them that I wanted to coach at a highly competitive level, raise a family, and share my family philosophy with my team," says Yerty. "And that was accepted very well.

"I think honesty is the best policy, right from the beginning," she continues. "Itís important that your administration is aware youíre planning to raise a family, because if theyíre looking for someone who is going to be all business, that department may not be the place for you."

Along with giving honest answers, Yerty encourages coaching candidates to ask questions to gauge an athletic directorís family-friendliness: What are the departmentís policies on maternity leave? What kind of schedule are coaches expected to work? Are practice hours flexible? Does the department allow coaches to travel with their children? What events does the university hold for children? Are there on-campus daycare facilities?

The answers she got were an important part of her decision to take the job, and eight seasons later, Yertyís philosophy of treating her team like family produced the best single-season winning percentage in school history. Within her first three years, she turned the team into a contender, and in the fourth, when her son WesLee was born, her Lady Tigers were the first visitors to come to the hospital.

"The women I coach are able to see that I can have a full-time job and raise a family at the same time," says Yerty. "Iíd like to think thatís a positive role model for them, whether theyíre planning to go into coaching or any other profession. And itís wonderful for my student-athletes to see that the administration supports it, too."

Planning The Details
While administrative support is critical, balancing work and family does require more attention to organizing your life. You need to plan thoroughly, manage your time well, and communicate as often as possible with people on both sides of your life.

Cindy Fredrick, Head Coach at the University of Iowa, and her husband, Associate Head Coach Mashallah Farokhmanesh, decided to have only one child, and to plan the birth for mid-April. "For us, breastfeeding was going to be an important part of bonding between mother and child," says Fredrick. "We thought that was crucial, and thatís why we had our baby in April, because we knew that would be toward the end of our spring season. By having the birth during the offseason, we got to spend more time with our newborn."

For Kathy Litzau, Head Coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who has four children under the age of seven, juggling work and home has necessitated learning how to manage her time more efficiently. "Since my children were born, Iíve become an incredible time manager," says Litzau. "I was pretty good before, but now every minute of my time is accounted foróand I love it. The key to managing your time effectively is to communicate with everyone in your family, on your staff, and on your team.

"For example, all my players have my cell phone number, and if they ever need to reach me, theyíre free to call," she continues. "And I meet with my players every two weeks during the offseason, just to talk, to make sure theyíre doing okay."

At home, Litzau and her husband maintain clear lines of communication, coordinating their schedules months in advance. To avoid conflicts, he plans his business trips during the spring and summer. When their children get sick during the volleyball season, he brings them home from school or daycare. When they get sick during the offseason, she picks them up. Around the house, they donít have specific duties. Whoever gets home first cooks dinner, and whoever has time to mow the lawn mows the lawn.

"We call it tag-team parenting, and it works extremely well for us," says Litzau. "My family is my team, my number one priority, and my husband and I make sure that family comes first. We just balance each other so well, and he just steps in wherever I leave off. Thatís why Iím able to be a coach and mother, and still be fairly stress-free. No matter where I go, my children know where I am and when Iím coming home. They know that mommy loves her job and mommy loves them."

Finding the Right Support
Even if you donít have the kind of tag-team husband that Litzau has, there are other places to find support, which is critical. The first place to look is your athletic department staff. And the first thing to do is become a better delegator.

"Iíve learned that I canít do it all myself," says Cookie Stevens, Head Coach at Florida International University, whose two sons are now 20 and 17. "So Iíve found assistants who are strong in detail work, and weíve been able to balance each other out."

Tracy has also learned to delegate some of her administrative responsibilities to her associate head coach and the student assistants who work with the team. And sheís learned to identify the strengths of her co-workers in the department and find appropriate tasks to challenge them. "The smart thing is to ask yourself, ĎWhat one thing can the equipment manager do to help?í" she says. "ĎWhatís one thing sports information can do?í Instead of delegating everything to your assistant, find a way to divide the tasks.

"Sometimes, itís just a matter of finding people within your department who are willing to help," continues Tracy. "When you work with people for a while, you learn what gets them fired up. For example, if I need a T-shirt design for my tournament, and I know some people in the marketing office who never get a chance to do things like that, I ask them if theyíre interested. If they agree, thatís one more thing I can take off my list."

But often the most important task for a coaching mother to delegate is childcare. The problem is that finding childcare can be a little more difficult for a coach than for a parent who works nine to five.

Yerty has had success finding nannies among members of the teamís booster club. "Because my husband and I donít have any relatives in Memphis, weíve gotten a lot of support from the booster club, which has really adopted our family," says Yerty. "They sometimes pick up our children from school, bring them to the gym, or help us out on weekends. When we do bring our kids on the road, we have a nanny who travels with us, and itís generally a booster club member. Theyíve been there since we started our family, and have been a part of our lives ever since."

Sharon Clark, Head Coach at Butler University, has also learned the importance of creating a support system around her. "If you have an extended family of friends who understand a coaching lifestyle, balancing work and family is very doable," says Clark. "My husband and I have built an extended family of friends who can step in when weíre both traveling. My assistant coach also has a child, so our husbands coordinate quite a bit. Sometimes when we go on the road, my husband will pick up both kids and take care of them until we get back."

Clark also gets help from another source: athletes who have stayed in town after graduating from her program. "Former players are some of my best resources," says Clark. "Some of the athletes whoíve recently finished playing are still pretty attached to our kids, so theyíll fill in for us in a pinch. A couple of them are schoolteachers working close by, and they always offer to help us out."

Including the Family
Sometimes, the hardest part of being a parent and a coach is knowing when family and work can overlapóand when they canít. To get a good handle on making the right choices, itís best to have open communication with your athletic director, to start.

"To make things work, talk to your athletic director, and, if needed, encourage him or her to think outside the box," says Tracy. "Just because something has never been done before doesnít mean that it canít be done."

During her sonís first year, Tracyís athletic director gave her the flexibility to bring Mattaus to work, and encouraged her to take Mattaus on road trips with the team. He allowed her to maintain a flexible work schedule and spend more time working at home. He trusted Tracy to do her job as she saw fit, and Tracy responded by taking full responsibility for maintaining her sense of professionalism.

"The coach should be responsible for communicating her needs to the athletic director," says Tracy. "If youíre having problems, itís important to talk to your athletic director. But your family should never be an excuse if things arenít going well for your team. You canít use your family as a crutch, just because you were up with a fussy baby the night before. You have to maintain a professional relationship."

And even though Mattaus is now a preschooler, Tracy continues to mix work and family when needed. During the season, Tracy arrives at her office at around 9:30 in the morning and leaves at 5:30 to pick up Mattaus from preschool. Yet, if she has more to do than can fit in that eight-hour time span, she leaves it to do while at home with her family.

"If you can take work home with you, thereís no reason to sit in your office until 9 oíclock at night," says Tracy. "Being able to utilize the technology thatís available is really, really important. I can very efficiently call recruiting prospects and send e-mails from home, and even though Iím not 100 percent focused on my son while Iím doing it, Iím still with him and very accessible to him."

In Yertyís situation, after her son WesLee born, the athletic department made it possible for her to continue working at home, providing a laptop computer, fax machine, and additional telephone line. "I could do most of my work from my house, including recruiting and supervising my staff, and the only time I had to be at school was for practices," says Yerty. "Thatís a critical piece of support for any female who wants to raise a family and compete at a high level."

Then, when WesLee was old enough to come to work, Yerty set up a place for him in her office, which was quiet enough for feeding and napping. For those first four or five months, she brought WesLee to school every day, carrying him to practice and spending down time together in her office, all with the encouragement of her athletic director. "My administrationís attitude was, ĎIf you want to bring the baby to work, and itís not a distraction to you or the people around you, by all means, please bring him,í" says Yerty.

But itís also important to know when your child should be watched by someone else. "During his first year, I used to travel with my son, but I would always bring a nanny to take care of him, to make sure he wouldnít take my attention away from the team," says Tracy. "The people around you need to see that when youíre at a match, your team comes first. It wouldnít be appropriate for Mattaus to sit on the bench with me. Coaching is my job, so I always bring someone to watch him on the road. When weíre in the gym, Iím the coach, and when weíve finished playing and weíre back in the hotel, Iím his mother.

"Coaching is my career, and I donít think itís fair to my athletes to have my son with us all the time," she continues. "My team has always been very supportive, because Iím respectful of them. When itís time to play or practice, I want to be able to focus completely on my team."

When children get older, however, sometimes they can be an asset at practices. While coaching at Miami-Dade Community College, Stevens brought her sons to practice as soon as they were interested. "When they got big enough, they then started training with my team," says Stevens. "As a result, theyíve become really good players."

Her older son, now 20 years old, plays for Ohio State University, and her younger son, now 17, has been a member of the youth national team for USA Volleyball. They started practicing with her teams when they were in fifth and sixth grades, and kept going until they reached high school, when they had grown too tall to provide realistic competition.

"The boys learned discipline and commitment, and developed a really strong work ethic," says Stevens. "At the beginning, when guys typically learn a lot about hitting, my sons learned about passing and defense. And the girls on my teams always appreciated them coming in because they presented a new challenge, with bigger blocks and stronger hitting."

But even while they are young, the interactions with the team can prove meaningful. "Coaching is such a unique opportunity, because your players and your staff become intermixed with your family," says Yerty. "As they go through the program, my athletes get very attached to my children, and my children get very attached to my athletes. Itís truly become a family environment."

Time For Yourself
As much as the mother-coach role takes planning, finding support, and understanding the balance, it also requires one more critical component: time for recharging. "As women coaches, we try to take care of everyone else around us and we forget about ourselves," says Stevens. "Weíre the last person we think about, and in hindsightóIíve been doing this for over 20 yearsóit probably would have been better for me if I had taken time for myself, even if it was only three hours in the middle of the week, to give myself a chance to recharge. Thatís what I do nowóby taking walks and listening to musicóand it really makes a difference."

"A lot of women coaches never get any alone time," agrees Fredrick, who relaxes with regularly scheduled massages. "Itís important for coaches to remember to take time for themselves, and that means time away from family and away from everybody. If you do occasional things just for yourself, it makes a huge difference. You become a better parent and a better coach."

Itís also important to realize that working more hours doesnít always bring more success. "Some coaches get pretty excited about working long days," says Tracy. "And when you start coaching, itís easy to think that way: ĎIf Iím going to beat this other coach, I need to spend more time in the office.í But itís all in the way you look at it. If someone works in the office 80 hours a week, does that make them a better coach than me? Of course not. Weíre different types of coaches, and that kind of schedule may work for some people, but it wouldnít work for me. I need a life outside coaching in order to be a happy, well-rounded individual.

"Thereís a difference between working hard and working smart," continues Tracy. "And the key to balancing your family and your job is to figure out how to work smart."

Motherhood hasnít just enriched JoyLynn Tracyís life. Itís improved her coaching. Like many others who balance the roles, she finds the patience and perspective gained in parenting make her a better leader of athletes.

"Being a mother has taught me to let go of things with my athletes, to relax a little bit more," says Tracy, Head Coach at Wright State University, whose son Mattaus is almost four years old. "Before Mattaus was born, I used to carry losses around with me. A lot. When we lost, it would take me a long time to get over it. Iím still not wild about losing, but after a loss, I can go home and play with my child. He doesnít care whether Iíve won or lostóhe just wants his mom. He wants to play and smile and laugh, and that helps me move on much quicker. Itís impossible to keep that coachís scowl on my face when Iíve got a three-year old dancing in front of me.

"When I go to work the next day, it helps my team," continues Tracy. "I donít overwork them to make up for how they played the night before. We learn from our mistakes and move on. We get better as a team because we can stay positive, instead of carrying around the negatives."

Motherhood has made Cindy Fredrick feel more responsive to her players and their parentsóespecially now that her son Ali is almost ready for college. "Being a mother has made me a better coach," says Fredrick, Head Coach at the University of Iowa. "Because I understand how Iíd like my child to be treated, I can better take care of other peopleís children. Itís helped me to stop and listen a little bit more, to really hear what my student-athletes are telling me."

With four children under seven years old, Kathy Litzau agrees that motherhood has made her more sympathetic to her athletes. "Being a mother has definitely made me a more patient coach," says Litzau, Head Coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "Itís helped me really understand the concept of being part of a team, made me more aware of issues outside the game itself. Itís given me a greater awareness of my athletes as individuals, because I now look at them as somebodyís daughter, instead of just my players.

"My goal as a coach has always been to teach my athletes life skills, but since Iíve had children, thatís really solidified," Litzau continues. "Yes, theyíre here to play volleyball. But theyíre also here to grow as people, and one of the things that Iím most proud of in 12 seasons at UWM is that I have never had a recruited player transfer from my program. That shows me that weíre teaching more than volleyball. Our athletes are growing as people and feeling like a part of this program."