Oct 20, 2017
Words of the Wise

While there are many great volleyball coaches currently pacing the sidelines, Mary Wise is in a category of her own. Head Volleyball Coach at the University of Florida since 1991, she has compiled winning records every year with losses always in the single digits. She has led the Gators to seven NCAA Division I tournament semifinal appearances, and had a record of 848-158 entering this season.

In the following Q&A, she discusses her coaching philosophy, developing team chemistry, and how she makes difficult decisions.

What is your coaching philosophy, and has it changed over your career?

My general philosophy is that the person is always more important than the player, and that has not changed. In addition, I have always focused on teaching athletes to represent themselves and the university well.

But one thing I’ve gotten better at is understanding that we cannot define ourselves by a winning percentage. If we are helping players grow and they leave our program as better people, the winning will take care of itself. I believe that character drives the process and the process drives the results.

The expectation is to win, and our team is always trying to improve. The big picture goal is to bring home a national championship. But only one team wins it, and the other 334 are not failures.

What are your strategies for developing team chemistry and integrating new players each season?

It’s important for players to understand one another before they even step on the court. And to really get to know each other, they have to be willing to be vulnerable. We all have a story, and when we tell that story it helps those around us understand who we are.

I believe that under stress we all go back to the core of who we are. So when we get on the court, we have to know each others’ stories and what our teammates are all about.

Last season, when we left town for four days to train off campus, we dedicated time to getting to know one another. Everybody turned their cell phones off and there were no TVs or computers. We cooked our meals in groups and we spent a lot of time together. It was a great way to share stories, and most importantly, to learn about one another.

Another critical piece is making sure that every player understands her role and its value to the program. I always articulate this, and especially with new players, I work to help them accept that role. We celebrate everyone’s strengths and we understand that it’s the collective unit that makes us the best possible team.

How do you develop a great coaching staff?

When you start out as a coach, you’re not taught how to make great hires, yet it’s key to a team’s success. It’s very important to surround yourself with people who make you better. I try to take a close look at myself to thoroughly understand my strengths and weaknesses, and then I hire to my weaknesses. I want the people around me to challenge me and push me.

The staff also needs to be a functional unit that works towards what’s best for the players. One way we do this is by seeing our staff as a family. If I’m the matriarch, then perhaps the academic advisor is the aunt, and the athletic trainer has some motherly duties. Our assistant coach, Dave Boos, is like a step dad, and our other assistant coach, Shannon Wells, is the older sister. If we truly believe we’re a family, then we have to provide the family roles.

How do you work well with administrators?

As a coach, it’s important to have a good relationship with administrators, and my approach is no different from how I build relationships with athletes. I focus on communication, trust, and being proactive. You have to tell your athletic director what they need to know. I also choose my battles wisely. Coaches are always looking to better their programs, but understanding that certain battles are not winnable saves valuable time and energy. If you can win games and be low maintenance, that’s a pretty good place to be in your athletic department.

What are some of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make as a head coach?

The hardest situations are when our expectations of a player are higher than their expectations of themselves. One thing that can help in those situations is building up a level of trust beforehand. The more time you spend getting to know your players and their families, the more they are likely to accept what you have to say. I try to get to know players away from the gym, sometimes just by getting coffee off campus. It allows us to have genuine conversations that are not related to volleyball.

How did you handle work-life balance when your kids were young?

What was best for me is that when I was with our kids, I was with them, and when I was at work, I was at work. Trying to do both at the same time is very difficult. So that is my advice now to female coaches — and male coaches — with young kids. When you’re with them, put the phone away and give your kids your complete attention. When coaching, make that your total focus.

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