Sports coach focus

Jen Williams talks team culture, a coach’s life

In this second and final segment of ‘Coach Focus’, softball head coach Jen Williams talks about efforts made by her coaching staff to build team culture, challenges faced by coaches at MIT, and how to evaluate success in a process-driven program.

The Tech: Team culture was a big part of the the softball team’s success in 2016. This is what starting pitcher Alexandra Marshall ’16 had to say about culture.

“[It is] like I got your back and I am going to pull you through this game if you need. It is also knowing that the team has my back as well and that allows me to do well. We have such a great relationship on and off the field that if I don’t come through on a day, nothing is going to happen. It is just a game in the end. We all support each other that way. When we play as a team, we play the best. Our coaches have developed this program so we can play together as a team and have fun together.

What was your role in making it happen?

Jen Williams: It is about trying to recruit players who buy into a family philosophy and a positive culture. Then you have to hold them accountable to being a productive member of that culture at all times. We the coaches provide the foundation and the continuity from year to year, and the players determine what structure they are going to build from the foundation.

The Tech: In the field of education, people often argue over whether or not intelligence can be taught. In a similar vein, do you think team chemistry can be engineered or fostered?

Williams: A lot of [chemistry] is based on trust. Teammates have to decide to trust each other, and then continue to earn it from each other. You cannot make them do this, but as a facilitator you can put them in situations where trust can be developed. We have a positive and tight-knit culture because they make the time for each other.

We allow and encourage them to be vulnerable around each other. We have honest discussions about hard topics.

Then you set expectations where the team keeps investing in each other. We tell them during the offseason you have to make time to have meals together, for study groups, to reach out to each other, and make your teammates a priority.

The Tech: Given that the softball program is so process-driven, how do you evaluate success? How much of it is subjective?

Williams: When you are evaluating a process-based program, you cannot look at individual games. It is a constant process of how you can make the program better. If I am having the same type of discussions about focus or hustle at the begin of the year that I am having at the end of the year, then that tells me there hasn’t been as much evolution throughout the season. Part of it is definitely subjective. There are objective parts to it, but you have to put it in context.

For example, when we had double-digit wins in back-to-back seasons (2012 and 2013) for the first time [in nearly three decades], we won 19 games and had an Academic All-American on our roster for the first time in a while. Now compared to 2016 when we won more than 30 games, it is not objectively as successful but in context of the program at that time, that was a great season.

The Tech: What is the most challenging part of the job?

Williams: There are two things that I think are most challenging. One of them is recruiting. MIT can be intimidating for prospective student athletes. So giving them the assurance that MIT is full of real, normal people is important.

The other part of recruiting is our evolving relationship with the admissions office. I think we work well with them but compared to other schools that we compete against, our [recruiting] process is more restrictive.

The other challenging thing is helping students athletes navigate their MIT experience with self confidence intact. This is a difficult place to go to school. These are students who are used to being very good at what they do. So we need to guide them through their first real challenges both as academics and as athletes, and the significant emotional impact that can result.

The Tech: What do you like most about MIT?

Williams: The people. The student athletes, assistants, support staff, administrators, and fellow coaches I interact with on a daily basis are great, and the student athletes themselves make every challenge faced worthwhile.

What I like most about MIT itself is its ability to offer a combination of unique things. MIT is going to offer a world class education and a championship-level Division III athletic experience. Being part of the vehicle that allows student-athletes to experience that is a privilege.

It is also a responsibility for me to impress upon the student-athletes how much it is a privilege for them to have access to this educational and athletic experience, and the responsibility they take on when they graduate from this institution. Particularly for women, I feel sometimes they live in little bit of a bubble here. We try to help them understand that going into the real world in STEM fields is going to be different than it is at MIT. We try to give them the tools and confidence to navigate that with integrity and a sense of empowerment.

The Tech: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, and all the best for the upcoming season.

Williams: Thanks!