Practicing uncomfortable conversations, with former NCAA Volleyball Head Coach Jen Fry

The Inclusive Language Handbook: A Guide to Better Communication and Transformational Leadership, by Jackie Ferguson and Roxanne Bellamy

As an NCAA volleyball 15-year head coach, Jen Fry has plenty of experience with uncomfortable conversations, seeing different cultures (and standing out), and understanding what it’s like to be a good teammate.  Although many questioned her decision, Jen’s experience made her career transition to DEI consulting a very natural fit.

Dr. Jen Fry is a 15 year NCAA volleyball coach turned keynote speaker and founder of Jen Fry Talks.



Jackie: Thank you everyone for listening. My guest today is Dr. Jen Fry. Jen, thank you so much for being on our show. Would you tell our guests a little about yourself?

Jen: Yeah. I always tell people I wanna intro myself because I feel like it’s a little easier to talk about yourself than reading off the bio., I feel like I have a little bit more little razzle dazzle if you must. I was a college volleyball player, college volleyball coach for about 15 years.

I’m from Arizona. So moved to Alabama for college, which really scared my white mom, right? I’m coming from five minutes from the Mexican border to a place where we hear about all of this civil rights turmoil. I had a phenomenal time at Montevallo, then decided there I wanted to be a coach and I was a coach for about 15 years.

Traveled all over the US, was able to play for a national championship when I was at Illinois, just had phenomenal, phenomenal experiences. When I went and moved to essentially the last school I decided to coach at, I started to see that there was kind of this space between race and sport that wasn’t talked about the way I wanted it to be talked about, nor the topic.

And so with that, I made the decision. I think, you know, the careers of 40 years in one place I think are gone. We’re not gonna see that, right? The person who gets the watch, who gets the chair, the whatever it is, the cloth, because they’ve that that’s gone, people are moving and doing different things, people are jumping careers, you know, before I thought I’d be a college coach for the rest of my life, I would be the person that retires at 60 years in the game. And I decided to make a career switch. And it was one of the best things I could have done. One of the scariest things. I mean, I think that a lot of times we don’t talk about how scary is to make a career switch, right.

To like jump and be like this thing I’ve only known, the people I’ve only known this, the, the support network I’ve only known, I am leaving all of that to like parachute out and hope my damn parachute even works.

Jen: Not even like get to the job, but the parachute works. And so I was so lucky and had. Such a phenomenally supportive group of friends and parents and, and family members. And so I went into this space of talking about DEI and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just knew it wasn’t done the way I wanted it to be done. And so I said, I wanted it to be done with nuance, with context, with uncomfortableness, with authenticity.

I wanna be myself and do it. I don’t want to go work for a company and have to do their thing that doesn’t fit who I am or talk about the topics the way I want to. So I decided to leave coaching, went and worked at Duke for a few years to kind of figure out what I wanted to do, and it was at that point, I decided that I wanted to both get my PhD as well as do my business full time.

So I just decided to leave kind, I guess my second career working academics, to then go start my company and get my PhD in geography at the best Big Ten school ever. Michigan state.

Jackie: Love that. And Jen, tell us, was there a specific situation or experience that said ‘I’m moving out of coaching and into consulting?’

Jen: No, you know, everyone asked me that it wasn’t like this aha moment. It was more of this gradual aspect of starting, cause I think as coaches, we don’t really check in with ourselves mentally and emotionally. We’re seeing that with like, with a lot of the mental health stuff happened around college athletics, but I was starting to feel very resentful of coaching.

I felt like I was leaving Thursday for a Saturday game and missing four days of life and my friends and doing things, and I was starting to feel resentful being there. College coaching is a grind, and with recruiting, if the recruit calls, it doesn’t matter where you’re at. You need to take that call.

And so you’re in situations where you’re out with your friend, your family, you’re on vacation. You have to take these calls and the calls might be an hour, two hours, if it’s a, it’s a recruit you want. And I felt like I was just missing now on life. And I think also what the situation was previously, the places I lived in, I didn’t really have a life cuz they were small towns.

All that I could do was coach. But when I moved to North Carolina, I now had this friend group and I had people and places I wanted to go. And it was like almost out of touch where I, people were telling me about the things I could drive to, but I just couldn’t go cause of my schedule. So I just was feeling really resentful of coaching.

And I also starting to learn more about myself, identity, kind of the spaces I maybe want to get into I’m reading, I’m going to webinars and I’m starting to think like, this is the thing I wanna do. And I didn’t, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know what I didn’t know, cause maybe I wouldn’t have jumped, but like I just, I, I, you know, for me it was like, I’m starting to get resentful of coaching. I love helping people and maybe it’s the time that I help people just in a different way, and my vehicle changes.

Jackie: Absolutely. Jen, well, let’s take a step back and talk about your experience as a collegiate athlete. Can you tell us, you know, what were some of the important lessons that you learned by playing at that level?

Full Episode Transcript

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