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Lisa Fernandez On Her Legendary Playing, Coaching Career

lisa fernandez Photo by Mary DeCicco_MLB Photos via Getty Images.jpg
(Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Lisa Fernandez is arguably the greatest softball player to ever take the field.

As a four-time First-Team All-American at UCLA, three-time Olympic gold medalist with Team USA and winner of the Honda Cup, her impact on the game is unprecedented. Fernandez continues to influence the game decades after she first made a name for herself as a player. She is now the associate head softball coach at UCLA and a softball ambassador everywhere she goes.

Softball America caught up with the former superstar to discuss her illustrious journey playing the sport of softball and how she continues to impact the game as a coach.

Softball America: At what age did you know you wanted to play softball beyond high school?

Lisa Fernandez: I think I saw my first game on TV when I was 11. It was the Women’s College World Series and I want to say it was UCLA vs. Texas A&M, and that’s when I realized, “wow, I can do something with this game beyond just playing in high school.”

SA: You were told when you were young that you didn’t have what it took to be a pitcher. How did you overcome that?

LF: I think the main thing about that story is I was told that my arms weren’t long enough and that I wasn’t tall enough, which are characteristics that I had no control over. And thank God my mom focused on, yeah, I may have those limitations, but I could figure out a way to outwork (others) and be the best version of myself even if those things weren’t in my favor.

I learned early on how valuable work ethic is, and that there’s more than just a physicality to the game. There’s a mentality that allows athletes to be successful. So, as far as being told what I couldn’t do, I think my success epitomizes strong will, strong work ethic and the mentality that it’s not always the most physically gifted who are the most successful.

So, as far as the experience with that coach, every day when I would wake up, it motivated me, and I used a negative situation to motivate me to do things I wasn’t sure I could do. But when I needed to find a reason to wake up in the morning, that voice came into my head telling me I couldn’t do it.

SA: From a coach’s perspective, how do you balance being realistic and honest with your athletes, but also allowing them to dream big?

LF: I think it’s not my place to ever limit any athlete. My goal is to be able to help athletes achieve their goals and to set them up in a situation for improvement. Whether they actually achieve their dreams, it’s about the process as to how they’re going about it that you want to be most proud of. And that’s all we can control, we can’t control the outcome. So, with athletes, honesty is always the best policy.

If you want to be an All-American, that’s awesome, but what are you going to do to become an All-American. And I can’t have 30 kids who are All-Americans, but for every single one of them, I’m going to treat them as if they were potential All-Americans.

In order to accomplish that, a relationship has to be built with each athlete in order for there to be trust. And that to me is where coaching is not just about Xs and Os, but it’s relationship-based. The greatest coaches are the ones who have those relationships with their players so they can have those difficult conversations and know that those assessments are made with love and care, and with the best interest of those athletes (in mind).

SA: Has being a mom changed your approach to coaching?

LF: Yes, definitely. I think being a mom is definitely an added value. It’s helped me realize that some athletes, they’re truly a blank slate, and it’s about being able to teach. Everyone has their own story, and not everyone is raised the same, so being able to be patient and understand that there are people and athletes who just don’t know any better is extremely important. Being a mom has taught me how to be patient, how to communicate, the value of developing those relationships and that trust. But probably patience is the biggest thing.

There’s also psychological aspects, things I didn’t get as an athlete but I do as a mom, like understanding what it means to have pressure, to have fear and how those things can affect a person’s judgment.

SA: Did you ever get nervous in big at-bats and situations you were in as a player?

LF: Yes. There wasn’t a game that I competed in that I didn’t get nervous. Nerves are one part of caring, if you care about something you’re going to be nervous. And that’s part of the game, and it's so important to be able to handle those situations and still be able to perform.

Were there times when I was scared? Of course, because fear is the unknown and you’re not guaranteed an outcome. The difference is how you manage that situation and that emotion.

SA: What advice would you give to aspiring collegiate or Olympic softball players?

LF: Play freely. You only live once, and you never know what you can accomplish until you actually open up your imagination. Only you can determine how high you will go. A lot of kids will hit a limit and think, I can only achieve this, and I’m always like, what proof do you have that you can’t keep going? Never limit yourself and what you believe you're capable of.

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