By Susie Magill
Today’s emerging female athlete is a new breed. Different than the generation before her, she’s noncommittal, untrusting and is far more likely to text message you than to interact personally. But this girl is also full of potential. STV investigates how—at both the college and high school levels—coaches today can draw out the phenomenal women in today’s generation.
Coach Felisha Legette-Jack’s Syracuse psychology degree is paying off. The current head women’s basketball coach at Indiana University, Legette-Jack has spent 15 years coaching at the Division I level. During that time, she has come to understand the female athlete in ways that remain hidden to most in her field. And in the current generation, she sees a collection of women desperately in need of love and truth from their coaches.
STV: What is one of the biggest needs of today’s collegiate female athlete?
FLJ: We need to help our young women become phenomenal women. Young women today wait for permission to be great. By the time you can get it across to them that they are worthy, they’ve graduated. The whole goal of most of these girls is either to go into the WNBA or become a wife and mother. You don’t hear them saying they want to be a CEO or a doctor or even a coach who can empower other women. I hardly hear that.
STV: What do you think keeps them from becoming phenomenal women and fulfilling their potential?
“If women don’t trust each other, you don’t have a shot, because the game of basketball is all mental and all about trust.”
FLJ: Lack of knowledge. We have to pour in the knowledge of, “Yes, you can. I believe in you.” You want to hit them with the positive. Our goal at Indiana is to build our girls up and overwhelm them with positive words. And now our players are looking up, they are walking taller and speaking differently. It’s fun to see this growth, and that is my main reason for being in this business.
STV: Why is it so important to believe in your athletes?
FLJ: I’ve been told “You can’t” many times, but growing up I came home every day to a mom who said, ‘You can do anything you want to as long as you have faith, confidence and strength. You can do all things with [God].” I want to make sure each of my players gets all that I’ve received, because that made me who I am.
STV: Are there any other issues that you feel prevent female athletes from reaching their potential?
FLJ: I think their lack of voice. All the doubt about themselves and the feedback that comes with speaking. We encourage the voice. “Be right or wrong, but be something,” is what we say. Women are so emotional; they’d rather not speak because the wrath they get back from their words might be too much for them to deal with. So, we are encouraging the power of the voice.
We try to make them feel that this game of basketball is a microcosm of life. What you learn and become in these four years is going to influence who you are going to be out in the big world of work. We have some fantastic students on our team, but my fear is this: you can be an “A” student, but will you speak up and say, “I matter?” That is the challenge.
STV: Within this culture, what has influenced women to become less vocal?
“I have noticed that in women, we don’t tell the truth, because the truth hurts. We are emotional, and if I hurt you, I also hurt me. So I would rather not tell you the whole truth...”
FLJ: Technology has allowed us to become dormant in our thought process, in our voice. You don’t have to speak anymore; you can just text a person or send a message through a computer. You don’t have to pick up the phone.
STV: Team dynamics play a huge part in being successful. What hinders women from developing as a team?
FLJ: I have noticed that, in women, we don’t tell the truth, because the truth hurts. We are emotional, and if I hurt you, I also hurt me. So I would rather not tell you the whole truth, because I don’t want you to feel bad so that I don’t have to feel bad.
Now, if we tell them their game was just awful today, and that they are better players than that and that we expect greatness from them tomorrow, they learn to handle the truth. They can understand that you tell them this because you love them and think they are very talented. And tomorrow they are going to get better because each day you can begin again.
Also, you see doubt. “I won’t shoot because I don’t know if you will get the rebound.” It is a challenge. If women don’t trust each other, you don’t have a shot, because the game of basketball is all mental and all about trust.
Coach Felisha Legette-Jack began her basketball coaching career at Westhill High School in Syracuse, New York, after graduating from Syracuse University. To this day, she remains the second-leading scorer and all-time leading rebounder in Syracuse history.
Before being named head women’s basketball coach at Hofstra (N.Y.) in 2001, Legette-Jack served as an assistant coach for Boston College, Syracuse University and Michigan State. She also helped coach two U.S.A. basketball teams to FIBA world championships. In 2006, Coach Legette-Jack was named the eighth women’s basketball coach at Indiana University.
STV: How does the Bible relate to this generation of female athletes?
FLJ: It is all they really have. This is a generation of privacy and technology. “Let me look cool because I have a phone in my ear and an iPod® on my left hip.” It creates this monster of a person when, really, they are empty inside. The only thing they can privately fill themselves up with is hope and the Word.
STV: What can high school coaches do to better prepare their athletes for college sports?
FLJ: Hug ‘em, love ‘em, and don’t judge ‘em. Don’t quit on them. Know that they have given a lot; and when you feel that you’ve pushed them too hard, push them a little more, because they are trying to find out when you are going to quit on them. And the day you quit on them is one day too soon. This would make our jobs at the college level that much more powerful.
I also hope coaches are sharing with young women that basketball will end one day; and while they are in that classroom called basketball, coaches are teaching our kids life lessons that will empower them at the end of the journey—not just as players or students, but as young women who are ready to tackle any obstacle.
From today’s developing culture, a new high school female athlete has merged—one that doesn’t always fit the mold of the wide-eyed young girl waiting to soak up instruction. This athlete is not sure her coach has her best interest at heart. She desires respect, but is not sure how to earn, much less give it to her teammates and coaches. She views relationships as transient—to be discarded when conflict arises—and she would rather spend time after practice texting friends than doing extra drills.
For this reason, many high school coaches stand frustrated. This generation differs so much from their own. Communication is challenging, relationships are rendered irreparable. What can coaches who truly want to make a difference in the lives of their female athletes do to change this standard?
“Coaches have to work harder to understand who their athletes are as individual girls and coach them accordingly,” says FCA’s Southern California Regional Camp Director Debbie Haliday, who has 24 years of experience coaching high school girls basketball.
“They are a lot more protective and guarded than they use to be. You have to figure out what they need, what will help them hear you.”
Not an easy task to accomplish.
Today’s female athlete has layers of past wounds that make up a protective emotional wall. There is a 50-percent chance she will come from a broken home, which alone provides its share of baggage. There also is the possibility that she has experienced abuse, either physical or verbal. Thus, it often takes more than just a friendly face for a young girl to open up and trust a coach.
Pastor John Burke of Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas, writes in his article “From Taking Hills to Hanging Out” that when managing and leading the next generation, authority figures need to be seen “as real, authentic, vulnerable people who are seeking to serve others out of their own brokenness, who don’t just value the product, but also the people and the relational process.”
Haliday couldn’t agree more. “Coaches shouldn’t only go after performance, but also see that their girls are valued,” she says. “Show them that you want them to succeed and experience success, not that you want them to perform for you. I think they will trust you when they see that.”
After trust is established, female athletes become willing to play their best, give more effort and pull together as a team. That is the mindset of Suzanne Baker, head girls basketball coach and FCA Huddle Coach at Capital Christian High School in Sacramento, Calif. “They might love the sport, but if they know that I care about them, they will want to play harder.”
“They are afraid of conflict and assume that if there is a problem, the relationship is over. I want to show them that you can have conflict and resolution—that the relationship can come back.”
Baker shows she cares by getting personal with her players. She takes them out for breakfast or dinner, spends one-on-one time with them, and gets real, asking questions about their family, friends and life at school. She makes it a priority to follow up with them daily. This reinforces just how important the girls are to her off the court.
But beyond developing personal relationships, coaches also must focus on creating opportunities for their athletes to get to know one another. To help generate team unity, both Haliday and Baker host team retreats, dinners and outings. Haliday also has instituted what she calls a “buddy system,” in which each underclassman is assigned a seasoned player as a mentor. This helps the younger athlete learn responsibility and also serves as an accountability system for both parties. For instance, if one buddy is late, both will run. Still, there is one issue of trust Haliday is still trying to figure out.
“These young females don’t see the full circle of reconciliation,” she says. “If someone betrays them, then they are done with them. So, one of the things I’m trying to figure out is how to teach them that you can forgive and rebuild trust—that it is a process you go through.
“Most marriages they have watched have experienced broken trust and then divorce, so they haven’t seen the full circle,” she continues. “They are afraid of conflict and assume that if there is a problem, the relationship is over. I want to show them that you can have conflict and resolution—that the relationship can come back.”
As coaches, Baker and Haliday have access to one of the best vehicles of providing such instruction.
“Sports offer such good life lessons, “ says Baker. “There are so many things that you can apply to life. They are teaching tools. And this is what God wants me to do for these girls—to use sports to help them figure out how to deal with adversity in their lives, not just on the court.”
“I think the biggest thing for coaches is to realize that God called them to coach, not that they happened to be a coach,” encourages Haliday. “So, if God called us, then He will equip us.
“And just as your team changes every season, you change what you are going to do. He wants us to coach the whole person, to teach them how to play the sport the way He wants them to and how to love each other as a team.”
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com