Personal accountability drives peak performance, Head Coach of the UMass Minutewomen Softball Program, Kristi Stefanoni
After a stellar playing career that included 4 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Kristi Stefanoni, Head Coach of the UMass Softball Program, has solidified her position as a stellar coach with another successful year and being rewarded with the title of 2018 Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year.
Coach Stefanoni led the Minutewomen to their 24th regular-season title in 2018 with a perfect 21-0 mark in league play. The title was the Minutewomen’s first since 2012. Stefanoni credits the program’s prenominal success to the Minutewomen’s consistent commitment to exceptionally high standards and a level of personal accountability that drives both student-athletes and coaches to deliver every day.
In this article, Coach Stefanoni gives us an insight into exactly how the Minutewomen returned to the top of the championship table and what distinguishes UMass athletes from other collegiate softballers. She talks about high pressure matches and the way she prepares the team for big games. Additionally, Stefanoni shares the challenges and triumphs of the journey which eventually led to a Head Coaching position and included a transition from student-athlete to Director of Operations and seasons of learning as an Assistant and Associate Coach.
With an enviable win/loss record, the Minutewomen have finished no lower than third in the A-10 standings over the past three seasons. In Stefanoni’s 13 seasons on the UMass staff, the Minutewomen have won six Atlantic 10 Championships and advanced to the NCAA Tournament five times. But, success has not been an automatic outcome for the Minutewomen, who have excellent facilities, skills development coaches and top level players. Stefanoni says that success has come as the result of implementing some very deliberate strategies after they analyzed what wasn’t working and rebuilt the program based on the results that they wanted to achieve.
With experience to evidence her knowledge, Stefanoni says, “productivity is never an accident. It is a result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning and focused effort.”
Specifically she says, “we had come to a point in our program where the only way to go forward was to do an honest evaluation and peel back the layers to get to the root of the issues which resulted in our fall from championship level. We needed a formula for success. Something that told us that each and every person can make a difference for the entire team in whatever their role. We defined a standard that we wanted everyone to work towards, adhere to and do on a consistent basis.”
“To implement such a formula, a greater investment in people was where we needed to start. We had the skills, strategies, technologies and even the facilities. However, to move forward we needed to be able to better connect and understand the people of our program. It was at this point, I knew I needed Bo and Athlete Assessments. His expertise in team dynamics and athlete profiling were exactly what we needed to grow as individuals so that collectively the team could move forward both on and off the field.”
Coach Stefanoni uses Athlete Assessment’s DISC Profiles within the Teams Program, to understand each player and coach’s behavioral profile, and is supported to devise strategies to build on the way team members combine and complement each other.
Stefanoni explained that, “Bo and Athlete Assessments guided us through the people side of the championship formula and the results are unmistakable. Bo inspired us and educated us that learning to understand the people in our program is the greatest advantage in guiding us back to a championship program.”
Additionally, she says, “Personal accountability is the foundation of all success. This is from the top down – the same holds true for the coaching staff, support staff and all of the athletes. It is about a group of individuals understanding their roles and simply doing their job well. It is about the personal accountability to get better each and every day – continue to grow as a person, athlete and softball player – it is about players and coaches asking themselves ‘How can I be my best today?’ If each person grows and does their job to the highest level collectively as a group we get stronger and we will be able to maintain sustained excellence.”
2019 will be Coach Stefanoni’s seventh-year as Head Coach of the Softball Program at UMass and her 18th overall with the Minutewomen as a student-athlete and member of the coaching team. We know that their commitment to excellence and outstanding results set every Minutewoman apart from their competitors, but we asked Stefanoni what attributes truly define a Minutewoman? She said, “the Minutewoman are true to their roots – ready and prepared to fight at a minute’s notice. They hold themselves in readiness for instant service. UMass is made up of blue-collar workers who are able and willing to do whatever it takes to individually get better and to always be better for their teammates to strive each and every day for excellence.”
This foundation perfectly prepares the Minutewomen for the rigors of training and tough regular competition, but championships, finals and big matches come with a unique intensity all of their own.
Sharing her experience in big matches as both a student-athlete and a coach who has contested NCAA championship matches and finals, Stefanoni explains how she prepares her teams for these events. She says, “I think there is a different level of difficulty, different levels of stress for players and coaches as you keep moving forward in the tournament. The stakes are a little higher simply because there is no tomorrow and all teams are so good that one miscue can be the difference, but it is still only a softball game that has been played over and over again – goal is to not make the game bigger than it is and focus on the execution of skills and strategies of the game. It is about keeping the emotions in check. Channeling the emotions and excitement of playing in a tournament game into positive thoughts and self-talk as opposed to letting those feelings slip over to the side of fear and failure. As a coach it is about assuring the players that they are prepared and have prepared the entire year each time they stepped on the field. This is what we have all been preparing for and competing for all season.”
Stefanoni‘s experience, passion, and focus anchor the Minutewomen’s success. These characteristics are exactly why the athletic department extended her contract and secured her as Head Coach of the Softball Program at UMass Amherst until 2021. Stefanoni says, “getting the contract extension shows support of me and my program as to the development and the progressions of the program. The contract extension shows me that the Athletic Department supports the direction of the program and feels that I am the right person to continue to lead it to where we all want it to go. It allows me to invest all of my energy and emotions into the team, recruiting, and the program development and not take any energy away from the Student-Athletes. It also allows the Student-Athletes to focus on their own growth and development both individually and as a team instead of taking energy to wonder if their coach is going to be here or not.”
Backtracking, Stefanoni became Head Coach of the Softball Program at UMass in 2014 where she played as a student athlete under her own Head Coach, professional and athletic mentor, Elaine Sortino, from 2003 to 2006. Of that transition process, Stefanoni says, “the toughest part was going from being their teammate to now their coach. Two totally different roles in many different ways. It was hard at first going through that transition, my best and closest friends were still on the team and now we had to create some boundaries and we had only a short summer to do that. All of them were absolutely amazing during the process and my head coach was a great leader for me at that time.”
Explaining the difficult and extremely tough journey which led to a Head Coaching position, Stefanoni says, “as an assistant, our Head Coach was terminally ill and she had built the program from the ground up. She was my mentor and my Head Coach. She continued to lead the program during this illness. During this time my role as Assistant greatly changed, to being a caregiver, to making the decisions of a Head Coach as an assistant. This is when I was wearing multiple hats and knew that I had the ability, passion and knowledge to become a leader of my own program.”
In 2006 Stefanoni graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology from the University of Massachusetts where she competed as a student-athlete from 2003-2006. In Stefanoni’s three years as a player, UMass went 151-64-1 (.701) with three A-10 Championships and four NCAA Tournament appearances, including a Super Regional berth in 2006. In 2007 she joined the Minutewomen coaching team becoming Director of Operations, that season the Minutewomen made the NCAA championship, achieving a 2-2 scorecard. In 2008 she was appointed Assistant Coach and in the next six years, the Minutewomen reached the NCAA regional finals four times and in 2014 she became Head Coach. By 2018 the Minutewomen took the elusive Regular Season title and look forward to continued success with Head Coach Kristi Stefanoni.