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“A Passion for People”: More than a Slogan for Kaija Gibson

At 24 years old, Kaija Gibson is a professional softball head coach.

Her team roster includes a plethora of players her own age, even some who are older. And she’s in charge of them all on the field.

As daunting as it seems, when the opportunity came along, Gibson was up for the challenge.


Native to the Pacific Northwest, Gibson grew up in Redmond, Washington. The daughter of a lawyer-turned-risk management administrator and a dentist, family time was always at the top of the Gibson’s priority list from the time Kaija (pronounced like “KAI-yah”) was a youngster.

“I’m really grateful for my family and how close we are,” said Kaija. “It’s so true; my family is extremely close and I value every single minute that I get to spend with them. I truly enjoy going home for the holidays because I know it’s going to be quality time that is spent with them that I don’t necessarily get otherwise. Moving away, it was time for me to spread my wings a little bit, but it just made me realize how much I value my family and appreciate them so much more.”

Diamond sports, whether softball or baseball or t-ball, came around at age five for young Kaija. With her father as her coach, the diamond became an opportunity for dad and daughter to become even closer. “Me starting to play baseball and softball was really because of the bonding time between my dad and I,” she noted. “And I really just thought it was so much fun. I really enjoyed it and thought I was pretty okay at it. And I just knew that I wanted to keep doing it.”

While growing up, there was always something going on for Kaija and the Gibson house. Gymnastics, soccer, basketball, even jazz and ballet dancing all were part of young Kaija’s activity calendar. In basketball, she recalls being on the court for her defense and to feed the ball to others; “I was not a great shooter, but I could assist pretty well and defend pretty well,” she says. But even with a full calendar of goings-on, softball was always at the top of the list.

“Softball was my favorite,” Kaija says now, looking back. “I’m really grateful for my whole athletic journey in all different types of sports and the connection that I was able to have with my dad growing up playing softball.”


Softball is a big part of Kaija Gibson’s life, to be sure, and has been for many years. Ask her what drives her every day, though, and the neon ball isn’t even part of the initial answer.

“A passion for people,” she said matter-of-factly. “Even though there are hard things every day, the good things, the people, and the relationships are what fuel me every day.”

Buzzwords aren’t a Kaija thing; what she says, she means. That passion for people manifests itself both in her coaching style and in everyday life:

“Inside of softball, I think it’s creating relationships with coaches, staff, athletes. I was impacted by so many growing up, so many people that helped me become who I am today. A relationship is definitely two-sided, whatever that looks like, and my passion for people inside of softball is definitely growing and learning from my boss, other staff, and the athletes as well.
"Outside of softball, it’s honestly a similar thing. I think people are so complex and interesting and everyone’s stories are different, but make them who they are. I get really curious about why people are the way that they are and I ask questions to try to figure out who they are, what’s important to them, and what makes them smile.
“I like making people smile, so whatever I can do to remember what they like and to try to make them smile throughout their day, that’s important to me. I get to explore relationships and help people become the best versions of themselves, while they’re also helping me grow and become the best version of myself in my everyday life. It’s so important to me and it helps drive me every single day to be the best version of myself.”

“Genuine” is one of the first adjectives that comes to mind when anyone describes Kaija. Take a look at her on the field and it’s rare to see her without a wide smile on her face. Even in intense moments of concentration, actual joy doesn’t take long to break through.

In fact, joy is another oft-used adjective from those in Gibson’s corner.

“Her joy in everything just radiates,” one former teammate said of Kaija. “From the moment I got to know her, I knew what an incredible coach she was going to be. And she has always been an amazing person.”

Teammates and peers may have seen the ‘coaching gene’ in Gibson, but she didn’t always see it in herself.


“I knew that I wanted to work with people in some type of way,” Kaija says now. “I just didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do until about my junior or senior year of college.”

She helped out at mom’s dentistry office and got to see dad in his element in a courtroom, but following in either of her parents’ footsteps wasn’t the path that Kaija was meant to take. A stint coaching some younger teams while still in college helped fuel some aspects of her that she realized would still be around once her days in uniform were over.

“I knew I was passionate about leadership, I knew that I wanted to stay in an extremely competitive environment, and I still wanted to compete for national championships,” Kaija said. “A mix of all of those is college athletics and I found myself here, coaching collegiately, and I’m really happy where I’m at now.

Even though she didn’t always plan to coach, once Gibson’s sights were set, it was full-speed-ahead.

“Continuing coaching and exploring the different parts of what a coaching role would look like,” Kaija said, recalling the first order of business once she decided on what she wanted her profession to be. “I started asking more questions, sitting in on some meetings with [Washington head coach Heather Tarr] and the staff, and I was in a Master’s program tailored towards college coaching. That helped me a lot with figuring out what the next years ahead of me were going to look like.”

Last summer, Gibson took a position as volunteer assistant coach at UCF. She’ll enter her second season in that role in 2023, and she credits “Coach Bear” – that’s Cindy Ball-Malone, the Knights’ head coach – and her leadership style with playing a major role in her professional growth in a short period of time.

“Honestly, the best thing that helped me prepare was just getting thrown into it,” Kaija said with a chuckle. “[Ball-Malone] has done a really good job of holding me accountable right along with the rest of the staff and acting like I’ve done this for a long time, and I appreciate that kind of leadership. She has confidence knowing that I can do what I’m asked and that I’m going to be able to accomplish whatever needs to be done. So being thrown into it, in the best way possible, has been the best preparation in learning, growing, and being willing to figure things out along the way.”


It might be a bit heavy-handed, but you could say that Kaija Gibson is feeling the vibe these days.

She was fresh off her “super senior” year at Washington when she accepted the volunteer assistant job at UCF. It was, quite literally, all the way across the country, some 3,000 miles from home. Despite the distance, the position had potential and would allow her to begin her coaching career at a college program with a lot of promise.

“I didn’t necessarily like the idea of moving to the complete opposite corner of the country,” Kaija said. “Because that’s the furthest that I could possibly go, but I believe there’s a reason for everything, there’s a place for me, and I believe God brought me here for a reason. I’ve grown a lot and met a lot of great people along the way here in Florida; yes, it was a hard decision because of my family but also probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”

That there are innumerable softball connections in the Sunshine State was an added bonus, but even Gibson couldn’t have predicted how quickly those connections would make a difference for her.

When Ryan Moore – the founder and president of the Florida Vibe professional organization – set out to find a head coach for his squad, there were some qualities that he prioritized in the team’s eventual leader. He wanted someone who could lead, someone who could represent his program well, and someone who was a rising star in the coaching profession and the softball world in general.

Kaija Gibson checked every box that Moore was looking for. When the initial phone call came in, though, Gibson’s reaction was momentary bewilderment followed by total investment.

“My initial thought was ‘Why is he calling me?!'” Gibson recounted. “‘I am 24 years old and I will be coaching 28-year-old women. This is crazy.'”

After the initial moment of question, though – and in true Kaija Gibson fashion – she was all-in. A fast process followed, from the time she accepted the role to jumping on board to help grow the pro organization from the ground up. She had nerves, she admits, but there wasn’t really fear. The dominant emotion, as she says now, was a lot of excitement. The role as Vibe head coach would also only require her on-field presence during the summer months, meaning she could balance it with her current role at UCF.

With the lines on her business card quickly filling up, one thing was for sure: mere months into her coaching career, Gibson could add “head coach” after her name.


As the summer season dawned, began, and rolled on, it didn’t take long for Gibson to settle into her role. She took to the head coaching chair with ease and her penchant for relationship-building

“My life has been changed by the relationships that I’ve built through softball, and even without softball as well,” Kaija said. “Building relationships and digging in and knowing the heart of somebody is what makes it so special. And honestly, what gets me through every day is knowing that, if I’m struggling and I’ve built a relationship with somebody who’s also struggling, I know I’m not alone. And then I also know that I can help somebody else along the way by communicating and building a relationship with them as well. So I think, through building relationships, you start to see trends and commonalities in personality types or just people in general, figuring out who’s similar to you and you can help or be helped by others that you connect with.”

To be sure, coaching a professional team is a very different task from coaching a college squad.  Today’s professional softball landscape underscores those differences. Wins and losses take a backseat, at times, to other more lastingly-impactful priorities.

“It became very apparent to me that regardless of wins and losses on the field, we have the opportunity to impact so many people. Softball is growing,” Gibson said. “And the women on our team and on the other professional softball teams are just the start of something that can be so great. When I saw some youth fans come and hug our players and then start crying because they were so excited to finally meet them, that was like a life changer for me. There was a girl who came up and saw Jana Johns for the first time and absolutely lost it. And she did not stop crying like it was the best day of her life. It’s so much bigger than the wins and losses and the little struggles that you go through on a normal day basis.”


When her cleats first touched the dirt of the diamond at age five, Kaija knew she had found her happy place. “I found joy in the game immediately,” she says now. From playing college softball to coaching at both the college and professional levels, that same joy that she found at five years old has never left.


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