Woman Coach Wednesday: Heidi Carlson

I believe Gustavus has done a great job hiring strong women to lead their athletic teams. I realize that isn’t the case for all women in sports.
Posted on January 27th, 2021 by

By Heidi Carlson 

Gustavus has been a huge part of my life for over 30 years. Which reminds me, I am old. As a high school senior I visited, I decided on the spot (cancelled all other college visits), I attended, I graduated, and I never left. Like, actually!

Being a student-athlete here was an incredible experience. I learned what it meant to be a good teammate, how to work hard, how to time manage, how to study, and how to have fun (I think all Gusties would agree on that one). It should go without saying that I learned a lot from my classes and wonderful professors while getting my education degree at Gustavus. WAY more than how to just put together a good lesson plan. 

Looking back on how lucky I was to have come here (thank you, mom and dad for saying yep, let’s figure it out!), then having the opportunity to stay here and coach- I am so grateful! Gustavus and the women’s tennis program did more for me than I could ever put into words. From my time as a student, followed by the 28 years of working here, I have made so many life-long friends. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else! 

Are there struggles with being a woman in the coaching world? Absolutely. Have I felt any? Nope. Maybe coaching tennis is just different. I’m a woman coaching young women and being a good role model/mentor for these student-athletes is something all women coaches can be, no matter what sport. I haven’t been affected with any adversities (maybe I’m clueless) because I’m a woman, and feel great about my relationships with colleagues here and coaches from other schools. I am fortunate to have several female colleagues and believe Gustavus has done a great job hiring stellar, strong women to lead their respective athletic teams. That being said, I realize that isn’t the case for many women in the sports world. I feel extremely lucky to have a staff and department that support me. 

So… onto the actual “coaching” part of this segment. I have been the assistant women’s tennis coach here at Gustavus since 1993 (my graduation year… I told you I never left)! When you think of the “norms” as far as what being a female coach entails, I may have a few that maybe don’t happen that often. Fun fact: the first one being that I coach with my spouse… and we are still married!

I also have had the joy and anxiety of coaching two of our daughters. Gustavus tennis is literally a family affair at my house (sorry Grace, you had to endure so much tennis talk).

Coaching with my husband Jon has been quite a trip. Think of the dinner table discussions you have with your family. Now picture ours…

They’re mainly about coaching (our poor kids growing up): 

“So-and-so hit so well (or not) today.”

“That drill worked, but I think we should go 2.5 minutes instead of 2.”

“They crushed sprints!”

“Let’s do this practice tomorrow for sure….”

“Our overheads were terrible!”

“So-and-so needs to work on such-and-such.”

“How does each position (there are 10 in tennis) match up against (insert any opponent here)? Let’s go through them and work specifics.”

I could go on and on and on and on. Twenty-eight years worth or rehashing matches – one of our favorite pastimes, practices, team meetings, long weekends, and constantly coming up with strategies to use against different opponents. Jon and I are different in a lot of ways, surely, but as the years have gone by we have realized that we have the same philosophies for most things in terms of tennis. Thank goodness. 

I think for any coach male or female, working with their head or assistant coach (married or not), one of the most important things is to be receptive to new ideas and strategies. Our student-athletes are forever changing. They’re ALWAYS 18-22 year-olds but we don’t stray at all from WHAT we teach: work hard, be kind, be strong and independent, be positive, take care of your teammates, smile a lot… add in everything pertaining to tennis on top of it.

However, the HOW we coach can sometimes change. Different methods work on different athletes. As each season comes and goes, we are always growing as coaches. I’d say that is true across the board… all sports, all genders (hopefully, right?)

So, the final question I hear often. Coaching your kids. It’s quite a bit different than watching them when they’re little, or volunteering as a t-ball coach. Who gets worked up if you don’t win a third grade soccer game? If you do, you shouldn’t. Coaching your own kid in college is a whole different beast. Change-overs tend to be interesting. Mom or coach? Coach or mom? Let’s send dad over! Jon is much better with this, so he usually takes that court. But thank God we coach together. 

It has been one of the great honors of my life to be able to coach the hundreds of other peoples’ kids. Young, eager, first-time-away-from-home student-athletes. Watching how they grow and mature over their four years here is pretty cool. Jon and I get to do that over and over. It’s quite a thing to experience, actually. I feel a lot of pride as they fly out of our little nest here on the hill and go make a difference in the world! It’s the beauty of a small, liberal arts college and I’m so lucky to be a part of it.

Wife, mom, coach. Three of my favorite things to be! 



  1. Gerry Lucht says:

    What a great article, Heidi Carlson! Thank you for sharing your personal experience about the life and responsibilities that a women’s coach has. Well done!

  2. Terri Vander Jeugdt says:

    What an amazing article to read! Congratulations for all of your success. Thank you also for being a phenomenal role model for all female sports ( past, present and future). The Gusties are so blessed to have you and the whole Carlson family. A well deserved article!

  3. Drew Fernelius says:

    Great article about a great lady! Congrats (and Jon as well!) on all your successes, well deserved! And best of luck in the future, except against Bethel! lol