Dawn Staley on the pressure of Tokyo Games: ‘I’ve had feelings that I’ve never had before as a head coach’
As the U.S women’s Olympic team prepares for the knockout round, Staley shares the challenges that come with the quest for a gold medal
After going an undefeated 3-0 in group play, the U.S. women’s national basketball team has reached the knockout stage in Tokyo as it continues its run for a seventh consecutive Olympic gold medal. As the team prepares for its quarterfinal matchup against Australia on Wednesday, Dawn Staley, the first Black head coach in U.S. women’s basketball Olympic team history, shares a candid look at the challenges that come with the quest for a historic gold medal.
During this experience, I’ve had feelings that I’ve never had before as a head coach. This feeling, it’s a lot different than any that I have experienced.
Being in this position, you feel the pressure of having to succeed. What does that look like? It looks like a lot less sleep. It looks like your mind is constantly thinking about the worst-case scenario and how do you prepare for that.
Carol Callan, the women’s national team director for USA Basketball, previously shared with me stories of her experiencing those moments with other Olympic head coaches. She said it’s a lonely place when you’re the head coach. It’s an incredibly lonely place. It’s so isolating because it’s on you. This thing goes wrong, it’s on you. When she said that to me, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m feeling.’ When we dropped two exhibition games in Vegas, to the WNBA All-Stars and the Australian national team, I felt the weight of the world. It wasn’t even the Olympics. I did not sleep from when we lost to Australia to when we played Nigeria – no sleep in between. I didn’t know what it was. It was a weird feeling for me. My mind was just churning. And I just was like this is the moment, this is the moment Carol was talking about. It is a lonely place.
You’ve got a staff. We’ve got a staff made up of incredibly great basketball minds who will do what they need to do to put us in a great position. But it still falls on me. You don’t want to overcoach and you don’t want to get in the way of what these players are doing, feeling or thinking. So being the head coach, it takes on a different challenge.
Sometimes I do talk to the players, just to get a pulse of the team. I know where their hearts are, their minds are, because they want to win. They only want to win. Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi – they both want to be five-time gold medalists. That’s a heavy weight for them, too. Being the coach of those two, you have to create a balance of allowing them to lead, you getting out of the way to you getting in the way a little bit when there’s some uncertainty. You have to feel that as a coach. You can’t overcoach those moments. You have to give them what they need, when they need it, otherwise get out of the way. That’s hard sometimes for a head coach, because you feel the pressure and you want to do something.
A lot of times it’s intuition, a feeling. For me, I’m a ‘feel’ coach. Less is more for me. You feel those moments of what’s needed, and for me, I’ve been pretty good in those moments and not allowing us to get ahead of anything. We stay in the moment.
I exercise a lot so I can put that nervous energy somewhere and not allow what I’m feeling to be put onto our players because it could be – it could be disastrous. So I handle it, internally.
I’ll call up my really close friend, Renee Brown, and I will talk to her. I don’t even talk, I listen. She talks about the moment. She’s just got that intuition of knowing what I’m going through. She’ll be the first one to text after the game and say great win. It’s good to get a feel from somebody who is not in the room. She was the chairwoman of the committee that picked the Olympic team and coach in 2012 and 2016. She understands what’s happening here. She’s a good person to talk to in these moments and she doesn’t overdo it. Then we talk about other stuff, what’s going on in her life. I need that balance of getting away from it so I can clear my head and come back to it, see it a little bit differently.
It feels great that we’re finally here in Tokyo after the journey we’ve been on to get to this point. But now that we’re here, you don’t really think about it in those terms as far as it finally being here because you’re engrossed in the moment. You’re just trying to get to the next opponent. You’re just trying to win the next game. It’s how do we beat Japan and the feelings that go into how to beat them. We beat Japan and we’re like, ‘OK, France is up,’ so we dive into France. Now that we’ve beat France, it’s on to the quarterfinals.
For me, it is important to stay in the present, stay in the moment. It really is, because you can’t get too far ahead or else something will impede your ability to get ahead. I don’t even like to talk about the gold medal game because there’s so much that has to be done before you get there that I don’t want to miss out on any steps that need to happen in the moment. But to stay in the moment, it’s hard, because I know what’s at stake this week and next. You have to take on a different mentality of prepping for the broader experience.
Once the group stage ends at the Olympics, things start to change a bit. Seeing as though I’ve been a part of the Olympics as both a player and as assistant coach, and now as the head coach, what I’ve seen is you have to understand what’s at stake and you have to own the moment. You can’t get too high or too low. You just have to maintain. We know we’ve been in these situations before and it’s familiar to us. We just can’t put the cart before the horse. Again, we have to stay in the moment.
And we know that we won’t have as much time to prepare for the knockout stages as we did in pool play, so that’s a little scary as well. We’re one of probably the older teams here, and we’ve played basically a more experienced roster, the most experienced on our roster, we played them for the majority of the game. Some of the first-timers haven’t really experienced playing and we don’t know if that’s going to be the case moving forward.
In a tournament setting like this one, there’s so much that’s unknown, meaning who we’re going to face and what we’re going to face. So as a coach, I’ve leaned towards sticking with the known. The known are these six players that have been on this level. For some of the young ones, they’re going to have to think about a way to break through, and if that’s a small pocket of time that they’re given to be out there on the floor and expand that, or else we have to go with the players who have done it before. And that’s a hard place to be because you want to prepare some other youngsters to get an opportunity to just get their feet wet so when the next coach and team come together in 2024, you’re not bringing in a totally new Olympic team without any experience.
They haven’t played at this level. Your role on this team is a lot different than it is on your respective teams. For the most part, they are doing OK. I think it comes with time. Sue and Diana, they weren’t great when they started their Olympic journeys. But once they got experience doing it, they’re great now.
I think as a team, we’ve found ourselves focusing so much on our opponents that we sometimes forget about who we are, and what our strength is, and what teams have to do to prepare for us.
We’ve got to make sure that we understand who’s in our locker room and what we’re capable of and believe in that.
I think sometimes, with this particular team, we think about how we started three weeks ago in Vegas. They don’t like that. They don’t like to lose. They don’t like feeling like they’re going to lose, and that fuels us to play better, to make better decisions. But we’re starting to play a lot better than we started.
Us continuing to work and trust ourselves as a team I think is just one part of the equation. The other part – international competition has greatly improved. Some of our other coaches read about what some of the basketball experts are saying about our team, and they’re like, ‘Really? Do they really not know what the world of women’s basketball has come to all over the world?’ On the men’s side, it’s the same thing. If we don’t blow teams out by 30, and 40 and 50 points, something must seriously be wrong with this team. That’s what’s out there.
The 30-, 40- and 50-point blowouts are over. They’re over. That used to be the norm. It’s a rarity now that a team gets blown out by any country, including us, because we’re good. People have been investing in women’s basketball all over the world, so everybody’s a lot better than they were four years ago, eight years ago. That’s what we’re up against.
And then, I know people want to talk about the sharpness of our team, whatever. We’re a team. Our 12-woman roster, we’ve been together now for four weeks, 3½ weeks, of this roster. I know we’ve had pockets of training camp here and there, but this roster is made up of six experienced players and six inexperienced players who haven’t really played at this level, and you as a coach have to balance all of that with how to get those youngsters in the game.
One player that has adjusted quite well in her first Olympics is A’ja [Wilson]. With A’ja, I don’t want to get in the way. A’ja and I, we understand each other. She knows what’s at stake. She’s not that type of player that you have to remind. She wants to win. She wants to help me win a gold medal. She’s already voiced that. She’s just putting it into action. I’m very comfortable with A’ja. She gives me the familiarity that I need to coach this team. There are some players that you look at, you feel – I can look at her and she’ll know what I’m talking about.
This is what A’ja does. She is a lot different than our other post players that are here. Her youthfulness is actually what we need. We need a shot in the arm from some young legs. I think she’s fortunate that she’s playing with other great players that just allow her to be great at what she does. She’s not forcing anything, she’s just flowing with whoever she’s out there playing with. You can only be proud.
Make no mistake about it. Our expectation is to win a gold medal. If we don’t do that, we’ve failed. Do we feel good about it? Yes. We have enough on our roster to win a gold medal. We’ve got to play. We have to really play in order for us to continue the success that we have had in past Olympic Games.
We’re here to win a gold medal. It’s a business trip for us. There is not one person or player, coach or anyone that flew over here to Tokyo that doesn’t think we’re going to win. That’s us being singularly focused on that, without getting ahead of ourselves.