Leadership and Talent Development with Tennessee Softball Coach Karen Weekly

November 17, 2023

Written by Katie Bahr

This is one of two posts based on sessions from the 2023 Fall Supply Chain Forum, which took place from November 7–9 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Attendees may download the full presentation from the session under Resources in the GSCI app.

At the spring forum, supply chain management department head John Bell led a lively discussion on leadership and talent development with Tennessee women’s basketball coach Kellie Harper. It proved to be one of the most popular sessions among attendees.

“Beyond Supply Chain” returned for the fall with a new guest: Tennessee head softball coach Karen Weekly, who has led the Lady Vols to eight Women’s College World Series appearances, six top-three national finishes, and more than 1,000 wins in her 23 years at the helm.

Bell opened the discussion by asking Weekly for her definition of leadership.

“I love Chancellor Plowman’s definition as the willingness to act, step out from the crowd and do something,” Weekly said. “But leadership alone isn’t always positive. Your character and drive have to be leading people in the right direction. On a team, it’s about identifying the people who are leaders and getting them to believe in a clear vision and clear goals.”

Bell asked whether Weekly’s methods for guiding her team have changed with time, particularly when managing Gen Z student-athletes. She noted that what’s different about working with 18- to 22-year-olds today are outside influences.

“At the end of the day, all young people want structure,” Weekly said.

“They want to know, ‘Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Are you going to catch me when I fall?’ Social media has changed the way we convey that, but so have the roles parents play. Twenty years ago, my job was to kick players in the rear, and they got unconditional love at home. Now, families have invested so much in their child becoming a softball player that they do the pushing. Players want to hear that I care about them, and once they do, they’ll run through a wall for you.”

The conversation shifted what Weekly looks for as differentiators in her athletes beyond their statistics and resumes.

“If the talent is there, then the separator for me is competitive pride,” Weekly said. “I want the ones that rally the team when it’s raining and they’re down by 10. The ones who put the team first. The ones that don’t hand their bag to Dad and let him carry it around for them.”

Bell asked Weekly how outside factors like Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) and the transfer portal have transformed the dynamics of her team. She said that her team is fortunate with its player pool and booster program. But she continues to urge players to focus on the importance of performance.

“They might have opportunities to do things for NIL, but I tell them, ‘They aren’t going to call you if you’re not performing.’” Weekly said. “Everything after performance is a byproduct.”

Before embarking on a coaching career, Weekly was a lawyer.  After four years of practicing law in Seattle, she became engaged to a softball coach who was hired at UT Chattanooga a month before their wedding. Weekly was offered a teaching role in the business school a year later. She taught for six years, taking advantage of the flexibility to help out with the college team.

“I would go on to be the best free coach my husband ever had,” Weekly said, laughing.

Eventually, University of Tennessee Women’s Athletics Director Joan Cronan called about the duo becoming co-head coaches in Knoxville. It was hard to leave her previous role, but they knew they could not pass up the opportunity to work at a peak athletic program.

“The great players are not going to choose UT Chattanooga,” Weekly said. “The hard part for me was giving up law. That was something that was mine. Coaching was my husband’s thing. Looking back, though, it’s been a great ride.”  

Weekly has since coached several players who have gone on to law school. Seeing athletes succeed beyond softball has been one of her greatest sources of pride. Unlike other programs that require strict practice schedules that conflict with students’ ability to choose demanding majors, she works with players and professors to ensure players can pursue any career after graduation.

“We’ve stuck to our philosophy and values when it comes to education,” Weekly said. “I went to a former player’s wedding recently, and the bridal party was full of former Lady Vols: a pharmacist, a law school student, a physical therapist, an X-ray tech, a physician assistant, and an environmental consultant. My best accomplishment is who they’ve become and the things they’re doing with their lives.”

As most sports calendars involve an offseason, Bell asked Weekly how she keeps her players motivated during lulls and prepares them for competition.

“That’s the danger: that they get relaxed,” Weekly said. “November and December are what stresses me. But you have to trust your culture and what you’ve built.”

As a parent to four daughters, Bell mentioned that each individual responds differently to parenting tactics. How does Weekly manage this challenge when it comes to a variety of backgrounds and personalities in a team sport?

“You can’t motivate one size fits all,” she said. “There are girls where I’ll say, ‘You need to put the team on your back,’ and that will inspire them. Others need to feel supported and like they have all their sisters around them. I’ve learned you need to spend more time with your people than your playbook. That’s hard for me because my brain loves strategy.”

Like any team manager or supervisor, she also deals with her fair share of conflict.

“Head on and out in the open,” said Weekly regarding her approach. “Peace and progress are incompatible. If we go into the spring and we don’t have any problems, we haven’t dug deep enough. We’ve avoided the things that are there. They’ll rear their heads at the worst times if you avoid them. We have to learn how to have those hard conversations and talk about things without judging or being judged.”

To develop leaders on the team, Weekly created a leadership council that meets once a week. During these meetings, they learn about different leadership styles and read books like The Twin Thieves: How Great Leaders Build Great Teams.

“I don’t have the magic answer for developing them,” Weekly said. “One of the big conversations is having them identify who on the team would follow them, who might, and who would not, and who might not be willing to follow anyone in the room.”

Bell described a map with the state of Oklahoma highlighted hanging in the Vols’ softball facility. “How important is that visualization of going to the Hall of Fame stadium in Oklahoma City to your culture?” he asked.

The visualization helps give Weekly and her team confidence in their strategy.   

“I’ve always believed in process over outcome,” she said. “But I don’t think I surrendered the outcome until last year. You can’t get caught up in one loss or one bad week. If you do that, you lack consistency. That’s something I had to buy into. Stick to who you are through the ups and downs.”

For his final question, Bell asked Weekly for her main advice to the students and young managers in the room.  

“Be true to yourself,” she said. “Do what you need to do to know who you are.”

Weekly shared that she read voraciously about culture, leadership, and building teams at the beginning of her career. She assumed she needed to adopt each writer’s philosophy. Over time, she’s realized taking a nugget from anything she learns is more beneficial.

“Surround yourself with great people,” Weekly added, referencing her time under the mentorship of Pat Summit. “I seek advice from my staff. I want to know their opinion. I trust them to do their thing, and they trust me to make the big decisions.”

“It’s not hard to get ahead in this world,” she said. “Everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. You just have to do those things consistently. You’ll be surprised how far you’ll go.”