This week’s conversation is with Dawn Staley, the University of South Carolina Women’s Basketball Head Coach and Team USA Olympic Head Basketball coach for the Tokyo Olympics.

Catapulting South Carolina into the national spotlight, Dawn has made the Gamecocks a mainstay in the battle for SEC and national championships. 

Under her leadership, the Gamecocks have reached many firsts – National Championship, NCAA Final Fours, No. 1 rankings, SEC regular-season and tournament titles, SEC Player of the Year, National Player of the Year, WNBA No. 1 Draft pick and No. 1 recruiting classes – to name the most notable.

While her coaching career is in full bloom, Dawn is still recognized for her body of work as a one of the most decorated participants in United States women’s basketball history. 

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame solidified that legacy with her enshrinement as part of the Class of 2013.

I wanted to speak with Dawn to understand her leadership style and learn how we can all apply those same insights – inside and outside the world of sport.We discuss the qualities required to become resilient and agile when adversity strikes — and — why relationships are at the center of her coaching philosophy.

“I think I’m masterful when it comes to knowing certain things on the floor, but that doesn’t make me a great coach. What makes me a great coach is I know how to meet people where they are to take them where they need to go.”

In This Episode:

What was life like growing up?

I grew up in Philadelphia, north Philly specifically, in a housing projects called the Raymond Rosen Housing Projects. The housing projects, when I grew up, it was comprised of a circular row homes, and in the middle of that circle was a big field where it was big enough for a softball field, a baseball field. We created a track, and then it was a basketball court. It was a huge field and it was just space. But there was a fence for a baseball field and the basketball court, and then there was just wide open space. And then, looking out into the field were the start of some high rises. If you grew up in the projects and you lived in the row homes, we thought we lived in suburban America because the high rises were filled with some of everything. You could smell the urine as you get on the elevator or walk through the halls and get on the elevator. You can encounter anything in the high rises. In the row homes, we had three rooms, small kitchen, small living room, small dining area. But, it was like your own home. We had a lawn. Our block was the four block, and we had a block captain that … She did not let anybody not mow their lawn or plant flowers. It was beautifully done by everybody that lived in that house.

How would she describe the relationship with her mom?

My mom loved hard. Loved hard. There was an incredible balance of discipline and there was that other side of if you abide by her rules, you lived clean. You’re good. You live a happy life. She’ll love up on you, she’ll kiss you, she’ll hug you. She’ll take you for ice cream every Sunday. She will give you the shirt off her back. All of that if you just do what she tells you to do and abide by the rules of her house. That’s why I always say I do have a reputation as being a very disciplined coach, but people see game day. When you just look at game day and you just take game day as that’s who that person is, then you don’t really understand the dynamics of team, of teacher, of nurturer, of forging a relationship with your players that you can outwardly be who you are.

The importance of discipline in life

I’ve never strayed from living in the projects in north Philly, never strayed from the discipline that’s required to be successful. It is very simple. Discipline is being able to, in the moment, not do things that you want to do. Do things that created the habit for you to have the temptation not to. And, it’s a simple math-y life equation that I just try to teach our players. If you have a certain level of discipline … My favorite quote, and a quote that I live by, is the disciplined person can do anything.  A lot of the times, people don’t understand that you could be disciplined in something that’s positive and that can help you in your life. You can also be disciplined in something that’s negative and be as good that’s having a negative impact on your life, so I do have to be specific when I say those things because there’s a big difference that will take your life and your career one way or the other.

Why the mental facet of the game is critical

There’s not a whole lot of opportunity to strengthen someone’s mentality without failure. So when their minds and bodies match up, it will take them a lot further than just their bodies because everybody gets tired and fatigued. What happens when you get tired and fatigued? Something else has to kick in, and that’s your habits and your mentality. You have to be ment … I’m a firm believer in this, and a coach taught me this, and a coach taught her this which is … And, I think it’s a Bobby Knight quote. I believe Bobby Knight said mental is to physical as four is to one. It took me a while to really understand that. Just as an adult, it took me to understand for that because for so long growing up, I was better physically and skill wise, I was better than everybody else but when it was time for me to try out for 1992 Olympic team and some other more experienced players had something that I didn’t have, and I get cut, that’s when you start realizing it’s more than just the physical part of it. And if you get cut, you can’t be physical anymore. It’s mental. It’s mental to get over not being able to do something that you worked so hard for.

The truth matters

I learned to speak the truth when you really start listening to your heart, because it’s heart driven. I don’t think I’m a great public speaker. Me, if I’m judging myself, but everybody I seem to talk to or when I’m giving a public speech, they walk away thinking … I get a lot of standing ovations and I don’t really get it. But, in some ways I do because I am speaking like me. I am unapologetic. I speak what I think my truth is, and I’m not judgmental. I just let people be who they are.

What’s she trying to figure out?

For me, I owe basketball a great deal. I feel like I’m forever indebted to the game for all the things that it’s given me, and I want to figure out each of my players. I want to figure out what’s inside of them and I want to help them find their niche in life. I hope its basketball because I’m pretty good at it. I’ve dedicated my entire life to it, but also, I also know that there’s more to life than basketball. It’s a big part of it and it’s been a big part of my life, so I understand that part of it, but I know that there’s only a certain percentage of women that’s going to be able to be pros. So I have to balance … I’m guilty of being a coach that coaches from the worst case scenario. Worst case. I try to put our players in a worst case scenario, whether it’s life or whether it’s on the court because anything outside of that creates advantages. If they can fight their way out of being in the worst situation, everything else is going to be quite simple to navigate.

What are the controllables she focuses on?

Attitude, that’s one. Communication is huge. Top of my list is to be able to communicate, and for me, communication is that some young people really don’t know how to communicate appropriately in different situations. I don’t care about that. Get it out. I like for people to express themselves and not hold back. I would say the caveat is you really can’t do it in front of a team. Don’t do it in front of the team. If you really have something to say, come speak to me one-on-one. Curse, scream, cry. Do whatever you need to do. We can work out appropriate delivery. We can work that out. That’s not an issue. We can’t always get to the young person expressing themselves and saying what’s on their minds and hearts. So, I have an open-mouth policy to say what you need to say, even sometimes in a team setting because we’ll use it as a lesson.

What separates her as a coach

I know people. I know my separation in coaching has a lot to do with my interaction and me forging relationships with people so that’s what I’m going to expound on. The X-ing and O-ing? It’s X-ing and O-ing. You can learn that. I think I have things that coaches can’t learn at this point of their careers because it is the very thing that I’ve built my career on, which is the person and figuring out how to deal with them and all the things that they’re thinking about and all the things that they want to achieve while not compromising the sanctity of the team.

On forging strong relationships

You have to forge that relationship with each and every player. You have to manage that, and again, I go back to my point guard skills. I know I’m the coach. I know I’m the coach. They know they’re the superstars. They know they’re the role players so what I would do is it’s just communicating. It’s frank conversations. You’ll figure out how they like to take in information because ultimately you want them to be who they are while respecting the whole sanctity of the team. I believe that success has a certain look, a certain sound and a certain feel. If something doesn’t look, sound or feel right, you’ve got to address it. You can’t not address it because you’re just allowing it to grow. When you allow it to grow, it starts seeping in and it becomes a bigger problem to overcome in a season. You’ll go through things that will take a five minute conversation, but yet it’s grown to a month to two months and now you’re not only just trying to win basketball games, you’re trying to dig yourself out of what’s happening with your team.

How does she help others see what’s possible for themselves?

I just have a real insatiable desire for the process. A desire to help people do their process. Do I see it? I don’t see it in all of them. They don’t show me. Everyone doesn’t show me it, but everybody has something inside of them. So, I don’t go in with preconceived … Again, I meet people where they are. That’s something that a lot of people don’t do. If I think somebody can be great, I don’t expect greatness today. It’s a journey. You got to lead them to the greatness. You tell them how good they are and how good they can be, but where are you today? And then, you have to stop. Where are you tomorrow? Where are you the next day? And, how does it measure up to where you’re trying to go?

It all comes down to…

Beating the odds

My vision is

Is to help as many people as possible.

Mastery is…

Mastery is having an understanding of the good, the bad, the ugly of a craft and being able to explain it to anyone.


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Dawn Staley is an American basketball Hall of Fame player and coach, who is currently the head coach for South Carolina, and The United States of America.