Hiller followed her talent and passion to create a distinctive, successful sports career, a path usually reserved for men.
Hiller joined NU in 2001 and her first varsity squad of lacrosse recruits began their journey in 2002. After just four seasons of play, her team won the NCAA Championship. Under Hiller’s leadership, Northwestern has won the championship seven out of the last eight years—setting a new standard for the sport.
While a player at University of Maryland, Hiller was a four-time All-American, was twice named the NCAA Division 1 Player of the Year, and in 1996 was the ACC’s Female Athlete of the Year. Kelly played on the U.S. National team for more than a decade. She was inducted into the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame in 2012. Kelly knows how to win.
NU took a risk hiring such a young, first-time head coach. What qualities convinced them you were right for the job?
I had long talks with NU about my coaching philosophy. It’s very important for female athletes to have confidence. Players get that with a positive coaching style. With the drive, playing experience, and success that I had, NU knew that would translate to good things as a coach. They definitely did take a risk and I am glad they did.
How did your playing experience help develop your coaching philosophy?
Confidence again. I was a very confident athlete growing up. My parents were so positive. My Dad always believed in me. When I went to college, I was very hard on myself if I didn’t succeed, which is normal for female athletes. My collegiate coaches taught me how to turn failure into a positive.
What do you try to teach your girls about life through your coaching?
I try to teach them to have confidence in all aspects of their life—lacrosse, academics and social. They should stand up for themselves, each other, really support other females. I hope they will step off this campus and have the confidence to achieve anything they want to do.
What character traits do you look for in your recruits?
The biggest thing I look for is passion. I have a lot of passion for this sport, this game, this opportunity. You have to have that passion to come into this program and succeed. Passion will push you to work hard and to want things more. At this level, that’s what it’s all about. Unlike club lacrosse, you only get 17 (game) opportunities at the collegiate level. Every single game has to be the end-all-be-all. That passion is so important.
You took a brand new program to the highest level in a few years. What are the keys to that accomplishment?
In the beginning of the program, it was injecting them with a sense of belief. We were in situations where we were playing teams that had won championships and we had read about their talented players. To go up against a team with a storied history with players that are intimidating—you need a deep-rooted sense of belief that you can achieve. Every single day they got more confident. We went out there in that fourth year and did it. They had something to prove, and that was fun. It was all about making them believe in themselves.
Why is lacrosse becoming so popular?
It’s a game that is fan friendly, easy to watch, with a lot of scoring. The athleticism of the girls is incredible. Lacrosse has aspects similar to soccer, the speed of ice hockey and tactical aspects of basketball. As a player, it’s just fun to play. So girls are taking to it and it’s spreading quickly.
How do sports empower girls?
Girls learn how to succeed and to fail just like they will throughout their lives. Hopefully from successes they gain confidence; from failures, they learn to bounce back. Our program has been defined by how we bounce back. We have had failures, and they motivate us in a big way.
How are women empowered by sport?
General health is huge. Everyone is so busy. Sports make you feel healthy and better about yourself. Exercise gives me so much positive energy. Sports leagues, like women’s soccer, are a great way to get that camaraderie from team sports. It’s important to teach your kids to be active. They will learn that it is important to take time for yourself and take care of your own wellbeing.
What do you do to be a successful manager and empower your staff?
At this level, I can’t get into the nuts and bolts of everything. I have to empower my staff to make great decisions. I push them and show them what it’s going to take to be successful. I love that we have been able to hire young staff members and mentor them to be great coaches at the next level. We empower them to go out there and run with it. Sometimes their suggestions aren’t taken, but many times they are. When they do get that head job, they’ll be ready.
Careers in sports have traditionally been for men. Is that trend changing? Where are the opportunities for women?
Women can teach the principles of having fun, and pushing to get better, even if they didn’t play the game. There are so many opportunities for women, and they need to step up. Women can officiate, coach at all levels, manage and serve as athletic directors—the more women the better. It’s my goal to encourage women in the field and create opportunities.
As a working mom, how do you balance work and home?
It’s always a challenge. I want to be there for my kids. That’s my number one priority. I am very fortunate to have an incredibly supportive husband; that’s how we stay on top of things. We have good balance. Scott has a different voice and perspective, and he brings lacrosse experience to the table. He’s a huge asset.