Coach Dawn Staley Teaches Leadership and People Skills

Dawn Staley is a special kind of leader in basketball, being a five-time WNBA All-Star who has won six Olympic gold medals. Now she is the coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, the three-time NCAA Division 1 champion team that won their last title in April. She also was the head coach for the U.S. women’s basketball team in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Staley sat down with NBCU Academy to share how her aim is not to create basketball stars, but to help train the leaders of tomorrow.   

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“I don’t look at basketball principles,” Staley said. “I look at people principles, because once you have that, the basketball is the easy part.”   

Watch our video with Dawn Staley above and read more of her leadership insights below.

What’s your approach to coaching a basketball team?

I’m a discipline coach, an old-school coach, with the ability to meet young people where they are. When I played, I was a point guard. It was my job to get those four other people [on the court] playing together and thinking they’re going to get the next shot. You’ve got to value their contributions, because if you make them feel good, they’re going to do their job at a really high [level].   

I’ve taken that into coaching, except I got an entire team. From the five starters to the last five people coming in off the bench, you have to make them feel valued in some way. It may not be through scoring points, things they like to do. The next best thing is making somebody feel good about their contribution. I try to keep that at the center, because they’re young people that are super competitive. They want to be successful, to win on their terms, and if they don’t have that outlet, they can ruin a basketball team. They can get [other teammates thinking], “You’re not playing, I’m not playing. Why do we have to work as hard as everybody else?” You don’t want that at all. Make sure that you avoid that type of talk by making them feel good about the role that they play.   

I tell my players, “I’m going to show you how to be consistent in how you deal with people. When you treat people good, they treat you better.” I hope they understand that mantra because it goes beyond the basketball court, beyond our team.

What’s your top advice for up-and-coming leaders?

You have to know who you are. It takes a while. I’m 50, so I know how to navigate through this world, how to deal with people. But when you’re young, in your 20s, you don’t even know who you are. You’re just going by how you feel, how somebody makes you feel. Somebody can make you feel good momentarily, but it’s not the best for you.   

Do as much as you can, gather as much information as you can. The younger you are, the less experiences that you have, the smaller sample you have to say what is right for you.  

I want [my players] to create life lessons that they can call on in their darkest moments, to fight their way out.

Gallery: Dawn Staley on the Court