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Kathy DeBoer: A New Game Plan

By: Ami Williams, Editor
By: Ami Williams, Editor

There are times in life when we choose a new beginning—college, a wedding, starting a family, a new career. There are other times when a new beginning chooses us. That’s what happened to Kathy DeBoer.

DeBoer was a natural fit for a career in intercollegiate athletics. She played basketball at Michigan State University and competed in the Women’s Basketball League, one of the first professional leagues for women in the United States. During her nine seasons as head volleyball coach at the University of Kentucky, the Wildcats won three Southeastern Conference Championships and made four NCAA tournament appearances.

DeBoer’s experience reached beyond the NCAA—she also served as an advisor to the USA Women’s National Team from 1988 to 1996, and was part of the coaching staff for three Olympics Sports Festivals teams and the 1998 World University Games Team. She also had a hand in the 1993 Grand Prix, the 1994 World Championships, and the 1996 Olympic Games.

She turned her attention to administration at the University of Kentucky where she served for nine years and rose to the position of Senior Associate Athletic Director. In this role she directed a $30 million capital campaign and created an endowment seat that raised $3.5 million for student athlete scholarships. She also instituted the “Eruption Zone” at Rupp Arena, a section that has increased student access and participation at home basketball games.

Then, after nearly twenty-four years in intercollegiate athletics, DeBoer found herself in the market for a new job after she was let go from UK. Being familiar with the politics of a college campus, DeBoer was not completely surprised by the move. “When a new administration comes in, they want their people in key positions,” said DeBoer.

She took the change in stride, even feeling enthusiastic about what the future held. “Before I even knew what I would be doing, I was really excited about what it might be,” said DeBoer. And even though most of her career experience was in intercollegiate athletics, she felt prepared for a new challenge outside of that realm.

“The biggest shock was that I was in intercollegiate athletics for almost 25 years and I thought I would end my career working in intercollegiate athletics,” DeBoer said. “But with the experience I had in athletics, where I was changing roles every few years, I was more comfortable changing positions.”

DeBoer went from the University of Kentucky to serve as the Commissioner of General Services for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. Though she was prepared with her management and administrative experience, she still faced a learning curve when it came to daily operations in a government position.

“Managerial challenges in government are very different from intercollegiate athletics,” said DeBoer. “In athletics, the scoreboard keeps people motivated. In government, like many other jobs, it can be difficult to evaluate whether you’ve won or lost at the end of the day.”

“There were many things about government I didn’t know, but I brought transferable skills like management, getting along with people, and a sense of humor,” said DeBoer. “I had to learn a new paradigm to get things done, but now it’s fascinating.”

And with a new year comes a new challenge for DeBoer. She has just been named executive director of the American Volleyball Association. Yet history has revealed her proficiency with smooth transitions thanks to her positive attitude, sense of adventure, and love for learning. It’s a lesson we can all benefit from, because you never know what your future holds.

DeBoer’s Game Plan for a Smooth and Successful Transition:
Here are some of DeBoer’s secrets to a successful new beginning—whether you choose it or it chooses you.
1: Don’t let fear be a factor.
“The hard thing is when you’re afraid,” said DeBoer. “You think ‘I don’t have a job’ or ‘I’m going into something I don’t know anything about.’ The challenge is keeping fear at bay in times of transition.” DeBoer suggests thinking through the worst-case scenario to bring you back to reality. When you envision the worst thing that can happen you usually realize things aren’t so bad.

2: Accept that some things are out of our control... and some aren’t.
As in DeBoer’s case, we don’t always choose a new beginning or a change. There are many examples in life when we have to roll with the punches to survive. “We can’t always control what happens to us,” DeBoer said. “The only thing we can control is how we respond to what happens to us.”

3: The Friendship Connection.
“Stay connected with people in your world who have been through transitions,” suggested DeBoer. “Sometimes when we lose a job we have a tendency to pull into ourselves. I made myself call someone to have lunch and I came back positive and energized even though I still didn’t know what I would be doing. It was exciting to visit with people who reinvented themselves, either voluntarily or involuntarily.”

4: See a new beginning as a blessing.
Choose to look at a transition as a change for the better. Whether you consider it a fresh start or a new challenge, chances are there is a positive side to the change. DeBoer discovered she was ready for a change and she didn’t even know it. “I was burned out and didn’t recognize it. It was like a weight lifted from my shoulders and my mind.”

5: Be prepared in advance.
Although she didn’t plan for it, DeBoer’s career path in athletics prepared her for a variety of positions outside the athletic field. That’s a lesson she now gives as advice: “Take on a variety of tasks and projects to grow your skills and you will find you have a very transferable skill set to take to a new position.”

If you’re facing a transition in your personal or professional life, remember to make the most of it. We have a choice: we can fight it until we have to face its inevitability, or we can accept it and embrace its power to help us grow.


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