Collegiate coaching can sometimes be an all-consuming career, making it difficult to balance the rigors of work and a personal life. Athletics does not only involve the strategy of Xs and Os, but there can be weeks when it seems like you’re living out of a suitcase, and spending an awful lot of time away from your family to attend games or recruit players.
Adding the needs of a newborn to a coach’s schedule can make life even more hectic. Sometimes, just weeks after childbirth, a new mother is back on the sidelines calling plays and timeouts, while she tries to figure out the complexities of being a mother and a coach.
It is not very often that a head coach steps back, and takes the time to enjoy the new addition to her family in those first few precious months of life.
But San Diego head volleyball coach Jen Petrie has found a way to put her family first.
Knowing she was due with her third child days before the preseason was set to begin in August, Petrie decided it would be best to take leave for entire season, and hand the reins over to associate head coach Brent Hilliard for the second time in the last six years. Hilliard also served as the interim head coach in 2006 when Petrie gave birth to her second child.
“It goes by so fast, and I think anyone in coaching realizes, especially women, how difficult it is to have a newborn and function and travel and leave your family,” Petrie said. “It is difficult to balance them both and knowing that I had such great support from the university and my athletics director, I was also to spend some time to be a mom.
“It doesn’t happen very often that coaches get to do that and focus on what’s important at that time. It is a short time — it goes by so fast. I’m very fortunate to spend time with my baby that I’ll never get back.”
While the decision to take extended leave is uncommon in the coaching profession, Petrie saw it work first-hand when she was a player at William & Mary. The Tribe’s head coach Debbie Pill took Petrie’s freshman season off for maternity leave.
“We still saw her and she still came to the gym and supported us at matches, and I thought it was great she was able to balance the two,” Petrie said. “Especially if you’re going to be in the position for a long period of time, and make it career. [Pill] coached there almost 30 years — if you look at in that perspective, it’s such a short blip on the radar screen of your career.”
“I’ve run into quite a few female head coaches that we’ve played against and they tell me how great it is,” Hilliard said. “They’ve told me how they’ve had two weeks or five days off and they were back doing something related to volleyball. It’s the right thing to do, and it is unfortunate that other people have not had the opportunity to feel comfortable enough to take time off and know you’re going to be right back where you finished when you return.”
Petrie has been with the program since 1997, taking over as head coach in 1999. The Toreros have advanced to the NCAA tournament in all but one year since she was promoted. Hilliard has served on the San Diego staff since 2001, and in 2006, he led the Toreros to a West Coast Conference title and to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament while Petrie was on leave.
“I’m in a very fortunate situation that Brent and I have worked together for a long time now,” Petrie said. “It’s been a lot of work in progress. We’ve had the opportunity to really meld our philosophies and strategies and our expectations. Our coaching has really become pretty seamless. You don’t find that everywhere. Often, assistants are moving on or coaching staffs are changing, and we’ve been fortunate we’ve had consistency.”
“She gives me a lot of responsibilities when she is here with training and game-time decisions, so as far as handing over X’s and O’s nothing really changed,” Hilliard said. “Our philosophies are so similar and even if they’re not in certain areas, we’ve kind of melded them where they are pretty close.”
That confidence and faith in one another on the coaching staff spills over to the players, making the change in leadership easier for everyone.
“I think a lot of teams would be nervous, but we trust Brent and so that makes it an easy transition,” sophomore middle hitter Chloe Ferrari said. “I think that takes a lot of pressure off of Jen as well because she can leave and know we’re in good hands.”
While Petrie and her family enjoy valuable time together, Hilliard also has the chance to test his skills as a head coach.
“I think both Jen and the administration would love to give me an opportunity,” Hilliard said. “They feel like I’ve spent my time here and earned it. It kind of goes both ways on who will be most fortunate from this experience — Jen has an employer that understands her situation, and I’m lucky to get a chance to be a head coach while not having to move out of town and uproot my young family. It is the best of both worlds.”
The No. 18 Toreros are off to their best start in program history with a 14-1 record despite not having one senior on the squad. And while Petrie attends as many practices and matches as possible, it is strictly in a supporting role rather than a decision-making role. But while she sits in the stands during matches with her children, but Petrie’s mind is never completely off coaching.
“You’re constantly thinking about subs or timeouts or strategy, but I think it strengthens my desire to want to continue to coach,” Petrie said. “I’ve been lucky to have a little time to gain some perspective, and know that I miss it and I enjoy it. This is a unique profession in a lot of ways, and it is neat to be able to see that from the outside.”