The Secret

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Dawn Staley, Contributor - The Players' Tribune

I live by two mottos:

A disciplined person can do anything.

Dare to do what you don’t want to get what you do want.

I never wanted to be a coach. But sometimes you think you know what you want, and then life happens.

I was a baller — a (relatively) short but determined girl from Philly with an intense passion for the game. Basketball was — is — my life. Collegiate. Professional. National. Throughout my career, I helped lead my teams to league championships, national championships, gold medals.

Dawn Staley

I wanted to win. I wanted to stretch myself. I wanted to challenge and be challenged.

That’s how coaching lured me in.

In 2000, I accepted the position as women’s basketball head coach at Temple University. I was still playing in the WNBA, but I was drawn to the difficulties and opportunities of turning a struggling basketball program around. Every coach will tell you that any coaching job is a huge challenge, no matter the program.

It was the best decision I could’ve made.

Coaching — teaching the game — came relatively easy. I connected extremely well with the players. I was still one of them; I was still close to the game. I spoke their language. I approached the game my first year as a coach the same way I approached the game as a player. I found quickly that when you have a connection and a shared belief with your team — when you share a vision — you can accomplish a lot together. That was the beauty of those Temple years.

University of Missouri vs University of South Carolina

In 2008, I sought another challenge: head coach of the women’s basketball team at the University of South Carolina. The program hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in five years. Schools like UConn, Tennessee, Stanford, Baylor and Notre Dame were dominating the game. The top recruits in the country were looking elsewhere on signing day. That needed to change.

Challenge accepted. But first, I had to change my approach.

I was further from the game since retiring a couple of years earlier, and, to be honest, the gap between my age and the players’ ages had widened. It gets more and more difficult to reach the players as quickly as before. Fifteen years ago, it was instant — I could make an immediate connection with a player in no time at all. Five years go by, and it gets harder. Now, 15 years later … it’s a good thing I like challenges. My goal is always to decrease the amount of time it takes for us to make a connection, because that’s where it all starts.

University of South Carolina vs Florida State University, 2015 NCAA Women's Greensboro Regional Finals

If there were ever a secret to being a great coach, that’s it: the connection.

I need to have a personal relationship with each player. I, just like they do, have to be invested. Something other than basketball has to draw me to them. Basketball is the immediate common ground between us, of course, but I’m talking about a personal level. I like to have something more.

If there were ever a secret to being a great coach, that’s it: the connection.

I’ll give you an example.

Bianca Cuevas, who was a freshman guard this past season, is from the Bronx. She’s had a lot of strife in her life. We both grew up in similar circumstances in the inner city. I get it when Bianca is hesitant, because I was the same way. She’s the type of person who needs to trust you before she lets you in. She doesn’t let her guard down very often. I’m drawn to that — to helping her understand how to take the tragedies in her life and use them in a way that will elevate her instead of hindering her. The better the relationship we have, the better she’s going to perform and the better we are going to be as a team.

South Carolina v Notre Dame

I didn’t have someone like that in my life. I never let my guard down enough to let anyone into that space.

When I got to South Carolina, I didn’t know anybody except the people who I came to work with. I didn’t recruit most of the players that were there when I arrived. Culturally, South Carolina was different. My guard? Immediately up.

But after seven years and after building personal relationships with these players — relationships that require reciprocal trust and vulnerability — that guard is down. They’re seeing more of me — who I really am — than any other place I’ve been. I’m more myself now. That feeling of letting my guard down allows me to give my all. I credit our players for allowing me to coach the way I do — I don’t have to censor anything. I don’t have to put on airs. I feel what I feel when I feel it, and then I express it. That’s what the people and players of South Carolina have done: help me be myself.

You can’t ask a player to let you in if you don’t do the same.

You can’t ask a player to let you in if you don’t do the same.

At the collegiate level, there are many things the players need to learn, and they can’t learn everything at once. It’s too much for them to grasp. It starts with instilling the discipline to work hard and to find balance — to time manage. Everybody wants to be an Olympian, but not everyone is willing to put the work in every day. Everybody wants to graduate, but they don’t want to do their homework.

I have to make these players believe that my vision is good for them. It’s going to hurt, it’s going to be uncomfortable, but it’s good for you.

Everybody gets the same treatment — whether they have WNBA potential or not. We focus on their mental development as well as physical. Basketball IQ. Conditioning. Court vision. Fundamentals. Decision-making. We push them to push themselves.

As you see the potential for a player to play at the next level, we have conversations about expectations and the realities of the transition from the collegiate game to the professional game. You have to be faster, stronger, smarter. If you want to play with the best, you have to be at your best. That takes the ultimate discipline.

2007 WNBA All-Star Skills Competition And 3-Point Shootout

We also have conversations about how to handle your life off the court. We have a mentoring program where a number of women from different professions mentor our players across several areas, like law or contract negotiations or financial management. I want to arm every player with all of the information and experts they need in order to be successful.

This isn’t just about the four years they spend with me. This is bigger than being their coach.

This is about their whole lives.

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Every year, we get better. In the 2014-15 season, South Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time ever. We won the SEC Championship and reached the Final Four.

I have a lot of hopes for these young women. I hope for national championships. I hope the lessons they learn under my guidance stay with them for the rest of their years. I hope for them success. But more than anything, I just hope they have a passion for something — that they find their passion and live it. That they work every day for something they love.

I’m an example for living for what you love. And it brought me to them.

 

Photographs By Getty Images

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