Being the coach of a division I volleyball program comes with both challenges and rewards, but when speaking with NDSU’s Head Volleyball Coach Kari Thompson, it is apparent that for Thompson the rewards have significantly outweighed the challenges. Having several years of experience in both high school, club and collegiate volleyball, Thompson has come to NDSU with the knowledge and passion that it takes to lead a D-1 program to greatness. Going into her seventh season as a part of the NDSU volleyball program, and her second season as the head coach, the Bison are sure to impress us again this fall under Thompson’s direction. Bison Illustrated sat down with Thompson to learn more about her journey to NDSU and how she spends her time.
BI: You’ve been involved with several different aspects of volleyball, explain some of the different roles that you have played in the sport of volleyball.
Thompson: First, I was a player. I played at Wisconsin-Green Bay, and then I was fortunate enough to be a student assistant my fifth year. I had the opportunity to see the other side. I went from being a player to seeing some of the coaching stuff, watching a lot more practices and kind of getting a different view of coaching. All through college I did coach club, and that same semester I coached a high school freshman team. So, I got both worlds of high school volleyball and college volleyball. I then decided that college volleyball was probably where I was best suited. I had about 20 freshman girls on one team, and it was just not me. It was just a little different level of dedication with where I was and where they were. I didn’t want to give up coaching yet, so I decided to do a grad assistant position. I went down to the University of Alabama, where I was a grad assistant with operations. I didn’t do any hands on coaching, but I got to do all of the travel stuff, all the operational day to day stuff. So, then I got another view of college athletics. I really got a lot of experience, and got to spend two years watching some high level volleyball. I got to watch how other coaches coach and see how players responded to them and different training stuff. Those two years I learned a ton. It impacted me and made me who I am today, as far as coaching. Then Eric [Hinterstocker] was offered the head coaching position up here, and he asked me to come along and be his assistant coach. So I came on up and I’ve been here ever since.
BI: Is there anybody that you modeled your coaching style after, and why?
Thompson: I don’t think so. I think every coach is different, and different things work for different coaches. I have a lot of coaches that I definitely admire and aspire to be like, but not necessarily someone in particular that I model my style off of. My high school coach was somebody that definitely inspired me into coaching volleyball. Something that I’ve learned from all the coaches that I’ve worked with is that it’s really important to know your student athletes— to find out ways to motivate them and get to them that way, versus being like, ‘this is who I am, and they need to fit my mold.’
BI: How do you spend your free-time, during the off season?
Thomson: (Laughs) What offseason? People always wonder, ‘What do you do in the off-season?’ We end in December, and I usually go to the coaches convention, which is wherever the final four is. This year it will be in Louisville, so I do that. I go so that I can figure out how to be a better coach. I usually take about a week off and go back to Wisconsin, where I’m from, to spend time with family over the holidays. That’s a big part of what I do in my down time—just getting to spend time with family and friends. I love to travel, so I always try to take one or two big trips every year. December is our down time, but when we come back in January we start training right away again. We also start recruiting the end of January through May. Mostly I like to spend time with family and friends though, that’s pretty important to me.
BI: You earned your degree in communications and the arts, how do apply the skills you attained from those areas of study to coaching?
Thompson: My degree is interesting. It was communication in the arts with an emphasis in environmental design, because I wanted to go the architecture route. I also had a math minor and an urban and regional studies minor. In grad school I went for advertising and public relations, so I was kind of across the board with everything, which I love. I think it has given me a very diverse background. I took ceramics, I took photography, but then I also took linear algebra, physics and drafting classes. I took pretty much anything that I was fascinated by. Basically anything besides the human body, which is really funny because I coach now and that has a lot to do with the mechanics of the body. I think what I did learn a lot was more of the creative side of problem solving. In my classes, I learned a different approach to solving problems and finding solutions. Sometimes we come up with different lineups that aren’t very traditional or designing a drill and things like that. All of it was definitely a benefit from my school and my classes.
BI: Do you have any superstitions or routines, that you do during the season or before a game?
Thompson: I’m not a big superstition person or routine person. I don’t know what it is, but before a seven o’clock game, I have to have a five o’clock coffee. I also warm up with the girls in sweats, and then I go back and change and we all come out together. That’s been a tradition that we do. We have a couple little team things that we do.
BI: How has your time at NDSU compared to your time at other universities?
Thompson: I’ve been here longer! (laughs) I can’t believe it. This will be my seventh season here. That’s crazy to me. I love it— I wouldn’t be here for that long, if I didn’t like it here. It very much fits my work ethic…how I am, how the people are very similar to what I grew up with in Wisconsin. So, I think that’s nice. Being at the University of Alabama, it was a great school and I loved it. FCC Athletics— that was exciting. Volleyball wasn’t necessarily as valued there. Obviously they had their football, but volleyball wasn’t a big thing there. It wasn’t valued, and that’s something that I like about NDSU and this community— they value it. They value women’s athletics a lot.