Photo by Michigan Athletics

You Don’t Have to Know with Kim Barnes Arico

Spending time with Kim Barnes Arico, the head coach of The University of Michigan’s women’s basketball team, was eye-opening. Throughout our lives, it can be challenging to keep the fire in your heart alive to want something more, to be something more. But with Kim, we were shown an intimate look into what it actually takes—mainly, a desire to be the best version of yourself. The exciting thing about Kim’s story is that while she didn’t know how amazingly fulfilling her career would become, her commitment to hard work and following her passion guaranteed success, no matter what she did or where she went. Her desire to be the best she can be gives her an automatic advantage in every area of her life, and in everything she commits to in this lifetime. Kim’s story shows us that we don’t always have to know the answer to get it right.

Photo by Heidi McClelland

Kim Barnes Arico

The phone call that started it all

If I’m being completely honest, I never thought I’d be here. It just wasn’t something I’d planned on or had in mind as a goal. When I went to school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do; I thought about being a teacher. I just knew that I really loved to play basketball, I was competitive, and I was always looking for a game. One of the hardest things I ever did was to stop playing basketball when I was younger. When my college career came to an end, I still wanted to be involved somehow, so I continued to play in all the “old lady leagues” and tried to stay as active as possible.

But I still had that drive and that competitive spirit, and I knew that I liked to be around people who were also driven and wanted to compete. They pushed me to be my best self. Eventually, I found coaching, and started at the high school level. At the time, I taught health, physical education, and driver’s education, and I coached pretty much everything from field hockey to tennis. A new passion began to awaken in me; I started to think, “Oh man, I really enjoy this.” I loved helping them get better, helping them reach their goals and be successful. 

Then something happened that I didn’t see coming. My old college coach heard that a local division three school needed an emergency replacement coach for their women’s basketball team. The team needed to start practice in two weeks. It was only two miles from where I taught high school. My coach called me and put me in touch with the school, and that’s how I got started coaching at the collegiate level. This was perfect for me—I hadn’t planned on it, but it ended up being something I loved and felt like I needed to do. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. 

Even though I had tenure in a great school district, I left. My parents said things like, “What are you doing? Are you going to have any stability in this kind of profession? You’re leaving for less money than you’re making as a teacher.” But I really enjoyed it. I couldn’t think about anything else. All I wanted to do was be the best for the team, and get them to be their best.

It’s been twenty years since I made that transition, and I haven’t regretted a single moment.

Didn’t know I wanted it—now I can’t live without it!

A large portion of what I love about coaching is the people. It’s the people I get to be with every day—my staff, the people at the University of Michigan, and my players. Being surrounded by people who are so passionate, so driven, and who want to excel is great. 

One of the things that pulled me to Michigan is being surrounded everywhere by people who want to be excellent in everything they do. So for me, it might be athletics, basketball, and coaching; but in this university, in all different capacities, people are so dedicated and so driven by many different things.

The second thing I love about coaching here is that because people are so motivated, I have the ability to change people’s lives in a positive way and help them thrive. I love that I get to do this both on the court and off; I get to see how I impact people’s lives. The women I coach have shown me that they’re learning skills they need to score in everything they do for the rest of their lives. 

The thing that probably makes me smile the most is when players come back and talk about how being part of our culture and our program has changed their lives. I had one former player tell me, “Coach, it used to drive me crazy how you got on me about being on time. You’d always say that ‘on time means ten minutes early.’ You’d drill it home—ten minutes early, ten minutes early, ten minutes early! Now I see why it’s so important in my life.”

I had another student who’s now a doctor. She told me that at first she didn’t think she’d get into medical school, because during undergrad she had had a lot on her plate. Once she got in, she thought it might be a lot harder than it was, but she said, “It’s so easy for me because of everything that I was doing with the team. I was so prepared for it all.” 

These become the stories we tell when we recruit our players. Our team becomes a second family—we spend that much time together. I become second mom to a lot of the players, and the life lessons they learn in our program make it possible for them to prosper once they leave. The kind of bonds and foundations we’re building are intentionally meant to last the next forty years. We say “four for forty;” being with this team is the kind of bond where we plan to be at each other’s weddings, births, and other milestones.

I love seeing their growth, especially given where the team starts. I’ve had very talented kids come into my office during their first month of school and cry their eyes out. “I just took my first college test. I didn’t get an A.” Many of them have been accustomed to being successful their whole lives. I have to remind them that no one is going to put their GPA on their diploma, and that it’s going to be okay; no one is going to know what they got on their first college exam. 

The downside of being so driven

I remember when I came home the very first time my firstborn was sick. He was probably two months old, and my husband already had him in the car seat when I came home because we had to bring them to the doctor right away. He had a fever. I walked in and I started crying and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t control myself. My husband just wanted to help; he said, “What’s the matter? I’ll take him, I’ll come home from work early tomorrow, I’ll do this, I’ll do that.”

I told him, “No you don’t understand. It’s my job. I want to be the best basketball coach and I want to be the best mom.” 

The hardest thing about being so driven is feeling like I have to be the best at everything all the time. But I’ve had a lot of people through the years remind me that I just have to be present where I am. This has been one of my most important lessons. When I’m at home with my kids, I focus on making it quality time, not quantity time. 

Another important lesson I’ve learned, and try to pass on to the team, is that I’m surrounded by great people and I can’t do it alone. I had to learn to be okay with this fact. It took me a while to realize I wasn’t going to be perfect; I had to let the idea go. 

But I know I’m fortunate. Back on the East Coast, my family was there, they could help a lot when the kids were younger. Now that we’re here in Michigan, I have my family down the hallway in the office; we support one another. I’m very lucky that my place of work is supportive of what I need to do with my family. I’m also very conscious of developing trust with my colleagues and the university, given how much work I put in all year round. When an emergency pops up, they’re understanding. I’m always aware that it’s a balancing act. 

A lot of times I think as a mom, one of the hardest things is to feel like someone or something is always suffering. There’s a constant nagging inside: “I can do better here, I could be better there.” The thing I’m learning is that I have to continue to show the young women in my profession that they can have the career and they can have the family. We have talented women leaving all the time—and I’m sure this happens in any profession—but I see them leave because they don’t believe they can have this kind of a career and be successful and have a family. The truth is you can—you’re just going to do it differently than other generations have done it. It will be different. Your family life won’t be the picture that we have been fed since 1950. But that’s okay. Get creative. 

The creativity of being so driven

Part of getting creative is being willing to make bold choices and force yourself to get outside of your comfort zone—even if you’re not sure you’ll succeed. I stress this with my players and with my children. I always feel like I have to try, and I want them to try too. This way they don’t have regrets. I want to be able to look back and see that something didn’t work out because it wasn’t supposed to—or even because I failed—not because I didn’t have the courage to try. 

For me, one of those choices was the choice to come to Michigan. Do I keep the job I have, and maybe have more of the traditional family life, or do I reach for the stars? This was the question on my mind at every intersection in my career. I always had a choice. I would have always had some regret in my life if I didn’t take the chances. As a mom of three children, two of them girls, and a mentor to fifteen young women on my team every year, I always say to them: “You can and you will.” I tell them to reach for the stars. If I’m going to preach that, then I have to be willing to do it myself. I have to be willing to take risks and take chances. 

I had a very comfortable life on the East Coast with my family so nearby. Was I going to stay there, or was I going to come to the University of Michigan because I believed in this university and what it stood for? There are probably only a couple of institutions you could say that about around the world. I knew this was a perfect fit for me given who I am. But I also had to weigh the fact that I’d uproot my children, my husband, and leave my family behind. This was a huge risk for me to take. 

I look back on how I picked up and moved our family across the country, and I remember how my son struggled; that was a really tough time in our lives. We talk about it sometimes now, how his life might be different, better or worse; we don’t know. I know for a fact that the move took him outside of his comfort zone, and I think that will help prepare him for challenges later in his life.

This among many other things are lessons I have had to make peace with. The things we don’t make peace with end up tearing us up. 

Why I push so hard

I’ve always been driven and competitive, that’s just who I am. But now that I’m in the place I’m in in my life, I can see that the drive to be the best, to have the best, is more than that. When it comes to resources for the team, their time, their needs, our budget, any of it—I’m committed to being an advocate for these women. I teach my daughters this as well—we have got to be a voice for ourselves. We’ve got to be advocates. It’s our responsibility for the players in our program, for the future of our program. I have to keep making sure that the advocacy for equity and equality doesn’t stop. I think we owe that to the players and we owe that to the world. Especially in the state of Michigan where I’m raising my family, I want to make sure that we’re leading the forefront on female equity and equality. I don’t want us to be at the rear, or behind the rest of the country, or the rest of the world in terms of how we’re taking care of our young girls.

For this reason, I’m thrilled about the Task Force on Women’s Sports that was created in June of this year by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, which is chaired by our Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. This task force—the first of its kind at a state government level—brings together local and national leaders to develop strategies that promote opportunities in Michigan for girls and women in sports. I love that Michigan is one of the first states to make sure that women’s sports are properly resourced so that young girls have the chance to learn about teamwork and leadership. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we are getting the same resources and the same safety standards as men do.

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Kim’s drive and competitive nature were an inspiration to us at The Brick. She absolutely radiates the kind of commitment to passion that we love to showcase, and the kind of heart and grit it takes to make dreams real. We’re excited for the Wolverines’ season this year, and are cheering for the women they are becoming under Kim’s mentorship.