OVIEDO, Fla. – If you go looking for the infield assistant baseball coach for the Oviedo Lions, you’re most likely not going to find who you expect.
“‘Is that a lady coach out there?’ and ‘Yeah, that’s a lady coach,’” said coach Karen Thompson, or KT, as she’s affectionately called, about the surprise she sometimes hears about when people realize there’s a female coaching baseball.
She said most of the time, people assume she’s a team mom or softball coach. That is, until they see her in action.
“I think it’s raised eyebrows but never that I’ve heard in a negative way,” Thompson said. “And the kids I’ve coached would always love at the end saying, ‘You just got beat by a lady coach.’”
Thompson has been coaching for more than 16 years, eight of them for Oviedo. But baseball was a part of her life from the very beginning.
“My father was a collegiate baseball player, I grew up with four brothers who all played baseball, so that was a no-brainer,” she said. “I was bat girl when I was really little, but the minute I got able to get on the softball field, tee ball, I think I was 5 years old, I was able to get out there and play myself, so it was great.”
Softball took her through high school and college at Princeton University, but it wasn’t until her son started playing that she started coaching.
“I got asked in the interview, ‘Well, how would you coach as a woman coach?’ And I thought it was such a peculiar question. I coach like any other coach, I’m coaching to teach skills, I’m coaching to teach character, team building, all of those things,” Thompson said. “So I never really thought of it as that. I think, obviously, there’s a little bit of trepidation when you’re trying to get in with somebody new, you don’t want to be thought of as a novelty or a PR stunt, you want to be taken, again, for the substance of what you can contribute.”
Head coach Andy Lyon said Thompson contributes quite a lot to the players. She’s become such a staple to the program that Thompson Grounds there even bears her name.
“I truly believe that there’s not a better coach in the area, period,” Lyon said. “They know she’s an expert in her field, they know she’s going to have their best interests at heart, which is all players really want. They want to know the coach cares, and once the coach cares, they want to take instruction and try to get better. That’s what she does, in a nutshell.”
“I like to be in the trenches, I like a bat in my hand, I like a ball in my hand, I like a glove in my hand, that’s what I like to do,” Thompson said. “I always joke, part of what I use as a coaching technique is, look, if a little 56-year-old lady can get down and field a ground ball, you can too.”
But it’s not just baseball she’s teaching these boys.
“The majority of what we teach has nothing to do with baseball, it’s about being a good person,” Thompson said.
And that’s where her other passion comes in.
“I have been a volunteer with Autism Speaks, this is my 19th year, I do it because I have a 26-year-old daughter who is on the autism spectrum,” Thompson said. “Recently we started having our guys be buddies at the Challenger League at the Oviedo Little League.”
That’s an adaptive league for players who have challenges, a league her daughter Jessica played for.
“When she had the opportunity to go play Challenger and I told her our guys are going to be your buddies, that’s when she changed her mind. She loves it and she thrives at it and I’m so happy to see my two worlds come together in one place,” Thompson said.
When it comes to being a female in a male-dominated sport, Thompson said it’s a sign of the changing times.
“You know, you see women now at high levels, in managerial positions, you see them in coaching positions, I just saw over the weekend the first woman D1 collegiate baseball player, she got a swing in there, put in a nice ground ball, so I mean, I think it’s coming. I think the acceptance is starting to get there and then it should hopefully flow pretty rapidly after that,” Thompson said. “I think it’s a matter of people just starting to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and see whether I can do it and see whether I get judged on my merit.’ You know, when I was a kid, people were referred to as lady doctors and lady lawyers and lady coaches, so hopefully now, we talk about doctors and lawyers and not about their genders, so again, are they qualified or are they not, can they do the job or can they not, hopefully that’s where we’re going.”
“Not only is she super successful, it sets the stage for the next group of young ladies that want to get involved in the game because there’s so much to bring to the table,” Lyon said. “She’s a perfect example of that, just by the way she handles herself on the field, off the field, her background, what she’s been able to accomplish outside of baseball, inside baseball, but more importantly, the person that she is, it’s just great for all women to be able to replicate.”
Thompson said some may say she’s lucky to have this rare position, but it’s just the result of hard work, that anyone else can work hard to get to, as well.
“Figure out what you’re passionate about, what you’re good at, figure out what you love and the realm of possibilities and then figure out how to pursue that in the best possible way,” she said. “And don’t let any perceived impediments and biases get in your way.”
And if you need her, you can catch her out on the field.
“Other than being with my own family, there’s nowhere on Earth I’d rather be than out here with these guys working with them.”
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