It’s a man’s world, as they often say. Karen Hoppa of the Auburn Tigers proves this wrong. A woman breaking into a world run mostly by men, Karen is an award-winning soccer coach with multiple achievements under her belt. She started as a student-athlete herself in more than one sport before moving on to become a soccer coach after graduating from college. Karen insists it’s more about the players and the coaches than it is about the game. Get to know Karen more and be empowered and inspired.
Listen to the podcast here:
Carolyn Rivera Show 8
I am excited for another great show. It has been a crazy week for me because I am moving in packing hell. If anyone out there has moved before, you know exactly what I am going through. I absolutely hate packing boxes, but soon it will be over and I am definitely looking towards the finish line ahead. Finding that end game is the key. We talked about negative thinking and we looked at ways to overcome those negative thoughts within ourselves and how to deal with people who maybe a little bit more skeptical than we are and what techniques we can use to help you through.
We are headed down a different path. We are going to be talking about how to break into a world that is run by men. We are talking about sports. I talked to you about my high school gymnastics story where I wanted to participate in the gymnastics team, but it was only for boys. I talked about how I didn’t let that stand in my way. Sports as we know of it nowadays, have come a long way in some respects, meaning there are far more sports to participate in now, but that doesn’t mean that she was over.
We’re going to talk about women in sports. I am excited because I have a fabulous guest on my show. I can’t believe I was able to get her on my show. I’m so excited. I have Karen Hoppa the Head Coach of Auburn soccer at Auburn University. She has had an impressive resume to date. Let me highlight a few of her accomplishments. Karen has been in Auburn since 1999. She holds an overall record of 289 wins, 191 losses and 46 ties. That is a 0.1593 record. She is the tenth Winningest Active Female Women’s Soccer Coach.
Her 289 wins ranks in the top 35 among head coaches among the entire NCAA. She holds the thirteenth highest win total among coaches who have also been coaching for 25 years or less. Karen has led her team to seven SEC Western Division Championships, one regular season title and one conference tournament crown. Her leadership has given her even more impressive statistics. She has coached 61 all SEC selections including three SEC player of the year choices and two SEC scholar athlete of the year choices. Her ability to recruit top players has given her national recognition. Karen coached fourteen all-Americans and 48 all-region honorees. It is clear that athletes want to play for coach Hoppa. I would, wouldn’t you? This is a glimpse of her coaching career.
As a player she also made a name for herself. She is listed as one of the goalkeepers in UCF history and NCAA history. She was a three-year starter at UCF, The University of Central Florida. She allowed only 30 goals in 48 career games and helped her team to a 43-13-7 record in college. During her four years, Central Florida made two NCAA appearances advancing to the final four and the quarter finals one time each. Her goals allowed and shutouts are still UCF records. As a senior she was named the 1990 Adidas/ISAA Goalkeeper of the year, the NCAA Goalkeeper of the year, and was a finalist for the Hermann Award. As a junior, she was named to the 1989 Soccer America MVP team. I want to welcome Karen Hoppa to the show. I am honored to have you as a guest, Karen. Welcome.
Thanks, Carolyn. It’s my honor. I am excited about this show. It’s great to talk to you. It’s been a while.
Before we get started talking about your amazing coaching career, I wanted to talk to you about your time as an elite player. There are so many girls that are interested in soccer. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds. I know you also played softball and basketball in high school and you were still able to excel to the highest level. There is such controversy over playing more than one sport. What is your opinion on that issue?
I loved basketball and softball. Frankly, probably like basketball truth be told, a little more than soccer. I was better at soccer so that’s what I did in college. It’s good to be a multi-sport athlete. The cross-training is great for the athlete. I can certainly see players excel in soccer after being at a high level in other sports. That’s from a personal opinion. It’s good for development. If I see in a recruiting form where an athlete is a good soccer player and also played another sport like basketball, it piques my interest. I know they’re developing all aspects of their athleticism. Also, they’re that committed of an athlete when they get to the next level and they focus on one sport. They have a chance to continue to grow in that one sport.
Even beyond that, we work with Dr. James Andrews. He’s one, if not the top orthopedic surgeon in the country. He’s phenomenal and I have read some articles he has published as an orthopedic surgeon bleeding in the young kids playing multiple sports. He thinks that it helps develop other muscle groups and when the young kids are only developing one muscle group it increases the risk of injury. All that being said in youth soccer these days, it’s hard to play multiple sports. It’s a balance because your body needs rest as well. It’s a personal decision, but I love it myself.
It’s funny because some of the coaches in soccer for the club teams, they don’t want you playing other sports. It’s a give and take. As a parent I know, I had my girls playing softball, but I pulled them out because of the commitment that soccer was taking. It was a struggle because they wanted to play both, but we didn’t have the capacity to do both. I know what people are going through as they look towards where we’re headed, it is something that they have to consider.
The other side is you can’t get overtrained and I see that a lot in the youth game where kids are overtrained a ton. Another option is to be in soccer. Maybe soccer and youth basketball or softball are too much of a time commitment for the kids, even just cross-training. In their off days, they go swimming and do things like CrossFit and that type of activity is good for the athletes as well.
CrossFit does give you that opportunity to train so many different muscles. Karen, you played multiple sports. Why did you choose soccer over other sports? Were there any specific influencers that made you chose soccer?
I grew up in the ‘70s. All I knew were all the traditional American sports played outside with all the kids in the neighborhood baseball, basketball and football. When I was eight years old, I apparently had a lot of energy as a kid so my mom thought this game of soccer would be good for me to run around. She signed me up and my dad showed me what soccer was on TV and I said, “That’s dumb. Why are they not using their hands? What a dumb game.” I go out to the field. I look at the big field, “I’m going to run over that?” The coaches were talking and I find out that there’s one position you’ve got to use your hands. I said, “I am in. I want to do that.” You only have to stay in this little box. You don’t use your feet, you get to use your hands.
At eight years old I started playing as the goalkeeper and I never looked back. That was my start to soccer. It didn’t start as a big passion or in the family or anything. I played fastpitch softball and basketball in high school and enjoyed those sports as well. It happens that I was the best in soccer. I had some opportunity for big development teams where I got seen a little bit by some coaches from around the country. I was recruited a bit in softball as well and I wanted to play both. I thought it would be great. I never got an off-season. At that time, I was graduating high school in the late ‘80s. I couldn’t find a program. I wanted to play top 25 soccer and nobody had softball and soccer. I was before the big Title IX push. Title IX was passed a long time before. It wasn’t enforced in college athletics until the mid-‘90s. That’s when those programs were added across the country so I didn’t have the opportunity, but I did have great college experience and played soccer. At least, I had that opportunity.
You excelled at it. You were the soccer American MVP team. In 1990, you were the NCAA Goalkeeper of the year with eleven shutouts. That’s pretty unbelievable. It’s clear that you definitely liked to use your hands. As a goalkeeper you picked the right position because you excelled in it. What was your secret?
I was blessed with athletic ability and I am super competitive. I loved it. It clicked for me as a kid. Sports clicked for me. I wanted to play basketball at recess every day in elementary school and it clicked. I was drawn to the team sport and I wanted to work hard for my teammates. As I got better and realized the significance of the goalkeeper position, my motivation every day was, “I didn’t want to let my teammates down.” I knew if I made a mistake, it was going to hurt our team. I worked my tail off. I had some great teammates. I was fortunate to play in good teams. That’s my motivation. There is no real secret. You have to put the work in to play at the highest level.You don’t know everything. At the end of the day, three heads are better than one. Click To Tweet
The goalkeeper job especially in those high-powered scenarios where you have PKs or anything like that, it’s all eyes on you. I can see the dedication, the motivation that competitiveness to excel in that position it’s nerve-racking at times. I remember watching them. I can’t imagine being there.
It made my mom a little nervous. Some of the contacts, sliding into someone’s foot and things like that. It’s a little bit of a crazy position, but I’m also a big perfectionist and that’s a position that fits that. It was always my goal to be perfect. You don’t necessarily have to be perfect to have a shutout, but that was the goal every day. When I would miss a save or something, I try to figure out how to get it the next time and that drove me a lot too.
I look around and I see all the athletes and one of the things that I loved most about working with you was the ability to maintain your academics as well as the importance placed on your soccer career. The question I wanted to ask you, Karen, is the balance between academics and the job of a college athlete is a tough one. What are your thoughts on that? How do you balance that?
It’s definitely a challenge for a student-athlete. When I look at my experience playing in the late ‘80s and graduating in ‘91 into what the difference is now. These student-athletes now have so much support with tutors, study tables, resources and those types of things. Back then I was fortunate that I was a good student, I didn’t need the support. I figured out time management. Now, our athletes have access to all kinds of support with an academic counselor that helps them and meets with them.
The key to our athletes is two things to be successful at both. One is to manage their time. They have to make sacrifices that regular college students don’t have to make. They have to keep up with their studies and those things. They have to utilize the resources both within the athletic department and within the university. The university has a writing center and a math center, so they can get the help they need and to keep up with it. When they miss class, they need to keep up with it. They can’t let it pile up or they’re going to get overwhelmed. I’m lucky my student-athletes are tremendous. I have a high achieving academic group so they are motivated to do well. When it’s that first round of tests each semester, I can tell by the way they are at practice. I’m like, “You guys are crazy. You’ve got tests, don’t you?” They are conscientious about their academics and I’m lucky in that regard.
You are because I know that was one of the biggest concerns that I had having a student-athlete. Are they able to keep up? They’re on their own for the first time. I couldn’t give that extra little push. The resources available to them are fabulous. Auburn has fabulous resources in that respect. You spent a lot of time at UCF as a player, as a coach twelve years and then you transitioned over to Auburn. That in and of itself is a big transition. Auburn then put you in a much higher soccer conference. You’re the tenth Winningest Active Female Soccer Coach in college. How do you keep that up? What’s your coaching philosophy that you’re able to continue along those lines?
A coaching philosophy is a tricky question. It’s a vague question to be honest and people ask you all the time, “What’s your philosophy?” There are two parts in my mind. It’s my soccer philosophy of how I want my team to play in getting into the tactics of that. We’re a possession orient team and we’re going to build it out back and creativity in the task, that side of the philosophy. There’s the non-soccer specific philosophy. I consider myself and I try to be what people call a player’s coach. The older I get, the harder it is to keep that up. There’s one thing about this job. I get older every year, but my players stay the same age. The older ones graduate and that distance grows.
The most important thing for me in this job so far is that our student-athletes are well rounded. They grow as human beings from having been here. Hopefully, they are a little bit better because they were part of the Auburn Soccer Program. I care about them, they’re my girls. I care about them first and for most people and they know that. That helps them respond on the field to me. That philosophically is important. The student-athletes to me are part of my extended family. They’re not a means to try to get a win and for me, it’s the best part of the job. If I can make a small difference in somebody’s life, that’s way better than any win I’ve ever had.
When you think back you probably changed the lives of hundreds of girls along the way. It’s an important job. You put in a lot of time and effort to make it that successful. People want to come to Auburn. They’re probably knocking down your doors to that school. You should be excited about that because it all links back to you. Culture comes from the top. I feel like you should be excited about that. When I was doing the research for this interview, I found out which I didn’t know this at all, that soccer is one of the lowest female team sports for female coaches. One would think that it’s a female sport, you should have a lot of female coaches. The fact that it’s one of the lowest is incredible. How did you break into coaching especially where you are a specialized player? I don’t even know if that has an added difficulty to it. How did you break to it?
It was a different world. I didn’t see a college soccer game until I played in my first one. There wasn’t that much an opportunity. When I graduated in high school, there were 82 colleges that had women soccer that was D I and D II combined. I didn’t know that it was a career. When I started getting recruited in my senior year, I thought, “They have the coolest job in the world. I would love to do that.” It didn’t seem like a real career opportunity. In college in my junior and senior years, I coached a local high school team. It was a different season, that’s our fall season. I had a friend in high school and I coached a JV in my junior year. In my senior year, I got the opportunity to coach the varsity. We came out of nowhere unranked underdogs and we won the state championships. It was incredible.
I was the assistant coach. We had a dad that was the head coach. I was pretty young, I was 21 years old. When we won, I was hooked. I was like, “I’ve got to find a way to do this.” I beg our head coach at UCF to be the assistant. Finally, he hired me and I got paid a whopping $2,500 for the year to be the assistant coach of a top 25 women soccer team and all that happened. He resigned. I thought I would get out of it and then a female friend of mine in the department called me up saying, “You might get this job.” I met with the AD and he hired me. He said, “Do you know you’re the youngest head coach in Division I?” and I’m thinking, “Do you know that I’m the youngest head coach in Division I?” The rest is history.
Your first real coaching job, you win the state championship. It does open up a couple of doors. $2,500 a year, I don’t know. Karen, I have one last question for you from your coaching standpoint. When I think about leadership, it’s such a universal term. Not only have you been successful at developing players, but you are also focused on developing your coaches as well. I have seen a couple of your coaches that have worked with you that you’ve groomed to have them take on full-time head coaches elsewhere. What is your secret? What is your philosophy on that as well?
With the assistant coaches, to me, one of the important things that we do as a head coach is to hire the people that are going to more equip these student-athletes. They are going to be with our kids day in and day out. I’ve been lucky I have the former assistant head coach in Indiana at OMIS and USC at Southern California and that’s an incredible record. Everybody thinks, “What’s your secret?” My secret is I hire good people. I’m going to look at the person first. I want good people who are right by my kids, my student-athletes day in and day out.
We hire good people who want to be coaches and are passionate about making a difference in our young student-athletes’ lives. I give them the opportunity to do their job. I try not to micro-manage and hopefully they’ll say I don’t. I let them do their job and I give them the opportunity to coach. One of the best things I can think of as a head coach which is to remind myself that I don’t know everything. I absolutely don’t and three heads are better than one. I use them in every decision we make. I use them on the field where they’re coaching as much as I am. That gives them the opportunity to develop and to grow as coaches. Hire good people and let them do their job.
Hiring in the business world is similar. You have to look for the skills that you’re looking for not only for what you have, but to round out where you need it on the field. You’ve been successful on that part as well. People are wanting to know. A lot of people are probably looking to get into a Division I program. A large part of your job is recruiting so I suspect that it’s not always easy. What are the specific things? I know what it’s like to do it in the business world so I can’t imagine when you’re dealing with the girls. What do you look for?
I can’t even look at a resume and know what exactly the player is like. That’s the hard thing. Recruiting for soccer is an inexact science. There is no magic formula, there’s no step one, step two, step three. The key is finding the right people and the right players that are going to fit your program. It can’t be cookie cutters. First and foremost, I mention this to my assistant coaches, is the character. I want good kids that want to be in Auburn. There are too many soccer players to sacrifice character for a talented player. We look at that and from a recruit, we are looking for sure athleticism, those intangibles that I cannot teach. I’m always looking for that. I can’t teach somebody’s character. I can’t teach somebody to be fast, I can maximize their speed and maximize their fitness, but the things I can’t teach are important. Beyond that, from a soccer standpoint, a variety of things.Just because you are the best athlete does not mean the same when you are coaching. Click To Tweet
One of the things that I always tell young people, “Everybody’s a good soccer player. What sets you apart? What makes you different?” It could be an unbelievable pace. It can be someone who’s a pure goal scorer. A kid like that is not always good in the rest of everything we do, but he scores goals. I’ll take that all day long. He may be exceptional in the air. The best header on the field. What separates you from everybody else? You mentioned putting together an organization. I can’t have 25 players that are exactly the same because that’s not going to win your game. I need someone who can defend. I need someone to win headers. I need some to be fast. I need some to be creative. It’s finding a variety of differences in skill that somebody can excel in.
It’s important to have that balance. To be able to build the team based on the players that you have that are still with you, understanding the skills and competencies of everyone along the way, and building your team around that. It’s similar all over. It’s the same as building a team and an organization. You can’t only hire the people that look exactly like you and you like to talk to most. Let’s talk about coaching girls. You’re putting yourself in this box. You’re limiting your ability to be successful if you only look at one specific type of person.
I’m happy when my assistants are opposites of me. That’s important.
You’ve fully rounded the skillset of the team. It gives you exactly what you need. Let’s talk turkey. For those of you who don’t know, my oldest daughter Gabi went to Auburn and played for coach Hoppa. I was on the sidelines. I know the coaches have to deal with parents. Not as bad in college because there are rules you have to stick with them and I was one of those parents. I went to every single one of my daughter’s soccer games. She was an ODB player. It was funny because I remember Gabi first committed to UCF of all places, your alma mater.
In November that year she decided to uncommit and I thought I was going to have a heart attack. She gave up a full scholarship that to me, looked fabulous on paper and that January it was a gift. You guys got two additional scholarships last year. She knew Matt from the ODB Program. I remember that year you had twelve incoming freshmen that were added to the team. I’m not sure, but I think that was the highest incoming freshmen group that you had. I can’t even imagine as a coach with twelve incoming freshmen, you were basically rebuilding. That had to be tough.
It was crazy. We have had four great years culminating with the ‘04 season. We had some graduation, some injuries in ‘05. We struggled a bit. We knew we wanted a good class that year ‘06 which was what I believe was Gabi’s freshmen year. Those two additional scholarships were, “If we can get a player that can help us right away, we were willing to invest in it.” Luckily Gabi called Matt when she decommitted. It’s one of the things in early recruiting and it’s even worse now. Players are committing to colleges and in all sports and in freshmen and sophomore year. What you want as a freshman is not necessarily what you want in college as a senior. Luckily Gabi figured it out, and the timing was perfect and the rest is history as they say.
How is coaching my daughter? You can tell me.
Gabi has some of that fire that, “Yeah baby,” fire that you have. You can imagine it might create some challenges. She’s a wonderful athlete and a great kid. She was fun. I might have had kicked her in the rear a couple of times to keep her in line. Our girl Gabi likes to have her fun. She was a tremendous athlete. It was fun. That big class, twelve freshmen, it was crazy, but they were so talented and they were fun. They immediately brought personality to the team as you can imagine for your daughter and some of her friends. They were freshmen, they made a song about me and they would sing it at practice. I can’t remember what it is. I guarantee that Jenni Prescott remembers. It was a fun group and it was enjoyable to coach her.
It was fun watching also except for that one game in her freshman year. I was watching it with Auburn versus Tennessee. It was on TV and I was like, “It’s on the ESPN. We are going to be able to see it.” Gabi went down. I remember my heart sank because she didn’t get up. I got the call from you and I was like, “What?” She tore her ACL. Soccer is a tough sport for ACLs. I remember talking to you about it, getting her back on the field and making sure that they push through. I don’t know the number of ACL tears that you’ve had in the years that you’ve been coaching. It must be pretty tough getting an athlete back to health.
We’re fortunate at Auburn because we have an unbelievable medical staff so I don’t need to worry about it that much. We are much better educated now even before Gabi was in college as far as rehab and getting them back properly. It is part of our sport. I have seen studies that we have in soccer, there’s a higher rate for serious injuries than even in football on a percentage basis, not the number. People forget that soccer is a contact sport. Contact is legal in our game and it does happen. Gabi was tough. That first one wasn’t as bad as the second one for me and for Gabi. I cried with her because she did it again in her senior year with that injury. Injuries are always heartbreaking. Those ones are tough. We have good people to get them back healthy. That’s a key.
Dr. Andrews, we knew him. He put two knees back together for Gabi. You were pivotal in part of my daughter’s life. She played for you her entire college career, two ACL injuries and she came back to work for you where she completed her Master’s. During that time, she found the love of her life. I have to say thank you for bringing her back to Auburn to find true love. You can add that to your list of accomplishments. That’s what I am talking about.
Gabi worked for me for two years as a grad assistant and met the love of her life. That puts a smile on my face every time I see it. I got the Save the Date Card, it’s on my fridge and it makes me so happy to have played a part in getting them together.
We’ve talked about you as a player. We’ve talked about you as a coach. We’ve talked about you and how you are looking for a recruit. There’s the last thing I wanted to ask you, Karen. There are probably a lot of people reading who are trying to figure out how to break into the world of coaching. Where do they start? Is there any advice that you can give them one last time to help them through making their decision?
The first thing I’d say is, “Go for it.” If you’re interested in coaching, sure it’s time consuming and the hours are crazy and goofy, but the rewards are worth it. You get to wear cleats every day going to work. It’s a blast, a dream come true. If anybody is interested, go for it because now there are so many opportunities out there. You can start by coaching at a club. You can start as a graduate assistant and work your way up assisting college coaches. There’s an abundance of those jobs. There is a much better career path. Certainly, when I did it, I was 23 years old thrown into a head coaching position. Now, there is a more direct career path. The other thing I’d say in any sport as an athlete if you are interested in coaching, then you need to start coaching. Playing is not enough. Because you are the best athlete, that does not translate into coaching. Spend time in working camps network and coach club teams and individual training. Spend time on the field trying to teach players. It is way different than playing, but it is also a great career.
That’s a great insight to have. I want to thank you again for sharing your insight and your accomplishments. I know so many people were looking for those answers and they’re looking to be Division I coaches and to be in that competitive environment. You’ve achieved so much. Your resume is amazing and I know that everybody is going to continue to watch Auburn Soccer. I know I’ll do. I am wearing a soccer shirt, War Eagle. Thanks again for joining me.
Thank you, Carolyn. It was my pleasure. I enjoyed it and tell Gabi I said hello.
Karen has shared with us so much and the best thing about what she said was there are opportunities for you guys out there who are looking to break into that field. She went through a lot more turmoil in the times where women had a much more difficult part in breaking into coaching. You’ve got to be on the field, you’ve got to be coaching. If you want to be there, you’ve got to do it. Go ahead and take it. This show is about the audience. Follow me on Instagram @CarolynJRivera14 and share the topics you want to talk about.