PERHAPS AS MUCH as her program, Dawn Staley has matured as a coach during her six-year run as the South Carolina women’s basketball coach. During her team’s climb from SEC also-ran to championship contender, Staley has better learned how to communicate with her players.
The message is the same. Staley expects perfection and demands the same kind of hard play and intensity from her team that she displayed as a college and professional player.
It is her delivery that has changed.
“To me, that’s the sign of a good coach, someone who is willing to bend and to figure another way around the problem to a solution,” says Lisa Boyer, who has been by Staley’s side all six seasons as the associate head coach. “Dawn has done that. In fairness to Dawn, I think she is a lot happier. She’s calmer, and the kids are getting (the message).”
Staley’s transformation has been rocky at times. There was the figurative head-butting with one of her first recruits that ultimately led to personal soul-searching about her teaching methods, followed by the stunning transfer of the nation’s second-rated recruit that spurred annual team-building sessions.
“I changed, so the delivery of my message is calmer,” Staley says. “The most important thing through it all is to make sure your message is heard. ... It’s helped me be a lot more observant and see the faces and the type of expressions I see and the reactions to see what’s needed.”
In reflection, Staley realizes her message was not reaching her players during her first two seasons, not coincidentally years that ended with 10-18 and 14-15 records. She admits to having turned off her players, who in turn occasionally walked on their own, sometimes with defiance in their step.
Some of the acrimony could be attributed to the unknown element of Staley and her staff working with players they inherited from the previous staff, but not in the case of Ieasia Walker. She joined the team for the 2009-10 season as a Staley recruit, and the coach fully expected Walker to run the team from her point guard position.
Instead, Walker was beaten out for the starting position by junior Samone Kennedy. Staley says she was particularly hard on Walker, mostly because the coach did not believe the player was reaching either the staff’s expectations or her potential.
Not until Walker’s junior season did the player and coach foster a better relationship, and Walker was instrumental in leading USC to NCAA tournament appearances each of the past two seasons.
“I eased up when I came to the realization that she is the one responsible for the rest of the team,” Staley says. “She was the coach out there on the floor.”
Following that same 2009-10 season, more signs appeared that told Staley that the communication lines between the coaching staff and players were frayed. The team’s chemistry was, in Staley’s description, “awful.” Then center Kelsey Bone, the nation’s No. 2 recruit coming out of high school, announced she was transferring after one season at USC.
“Dawn could see it. She could feel it,” Boyer says. “You’ve got to figure out another way to do it because it came to a head in the second year that they’re not getting it, and we’re going to have to change. We’re going to have to.”
The staff realized that it was not only failing to communicate its message to the players, but they did not have a pulse on the inner-workings of the team, on or off the court. Part of it, Boyer says, is recognizing that many players today communicate less verbally and more and more through social media.
“To keep up in this profession, you have to ebb and flow with everything else that’s around you, not just offenses and defenses, but also different kids’ personalities,” Boyer says. “Kids respond to different things differently than they did 15 to 20 years ago.”
Staley sought help outside the program and the athletics department. She called in team-building experts from Charlotte. At the beginning of each of the next three seasons, the staff and the players engaged in what amounted to people-skills training as a way to better communicate with one another.
Because the team seemed to bond well this past offseason, Staley opted to forego the team-building exercises this time. Then, with a week without games in early February, Staley called in the experts to work with the staff and team again, even though USC was 22-2 overall and leading the SEC.
One of the exercises during that session was for each person to describe themselves as an animal. Without hesitation, Staley said she was a lion. Presumably, she had downgraded herself from once being a ferocious tiger.