Wednesday, April 17

South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley Shines Light On Bench Players

So many of us think that successful coaches or business leaders are those who are able to recruit the greatest talent to their team. We think of the classic scene of Nick Saban sitting on the couch in the family room of some High School All-American, rattling off the reasons why the gifted athlete should come to Alabama over some other campuses.

In Sunday’s national championship game, South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley certainly showed up with a great team that included the nation’s best player in Aliyah Boston and some other high-marquee talent in the likes of Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, and Destanni Henderson: players who have every reason to believe they will play professionally someday—and probably sooner rather than later.

But she didn’t just show up with her stars, as she made dramatically evident in the moments after her South Carolina Gamecocks won the championship by beating UConn 64-49. She showed up with a team—16 players in all. And before she left the victory stand, she made sure that the names of all 16 were etched in the country’s collective consciousness.

“Our path was divinely ordered, and the order was for us to be national champions on this day,” Staley began, her voice reduced to a hoarse croak from two hours of yelling. Few who have watched Staley develop as a leader would deny that, at the very least, she had given God an awesome assist.

Next, before acknowledging a single one of her starters, she did something rarely done by deciding to shine the spotlight on her team’s unheralded players. “I have to give a real good shout-out to the players who don’t get into the game a lot. We have 16 players, and a lot of them, probably seven or eight, who prepared us for UConn, prepared us for Louisville, prepared us for Creighton, never got to shine. So I’m going to give them a shine right now.”

I’m going to give them a shine right now.

And then, one by one, she recited the name of each player, many of whom never got to enjoy hearing their names called out over the loudspeakers during the tournament—and rarely during the regular season, either. But their teammates knew who they were and welcomed them to the celebration upon the victory stand as the country watched and smiled along with them.

A three-time Olympic gold medalist and Hall of Famer player, Staley is known for her fiercely competitive drive. When she got the chance to lead at South Carolina, she took her program into the elite category of teams that have won multiple national titles in NCAA women’s basketball history. The team they beat this year, UConn, set the standard for winning with 11 Championships.

Even more impressive is that South Carolina hasn’t taken anything remotely like the easy route to success. On the contrary, the Gamecocks managed to go 14-0 against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 this season. In other words, like any great leader in sports or business, Staley set the bar as high as she could and expected her players to rise to the level of competition.

But here’s the main point: she did it not only by attracting the most talented people but also by creating a culture that develops every player regardless of talent—that rewards teamwork or, as Boston termed it, “sisterhood.”

By whatever name you call it, South Carolina emphasizes improvement as a team over the exploits of a few stars. Yes, Staley fully grasps that teams need stars—those who demonstrate exceptional talent in areas that determine who wins or loses—but she never sacrificed team unity to individual egos. She understands that none of her marquee players could score all those points and get all those assists without the buy-in of players eight through 16.

You know who she means: the ones who also had to get up at six in the morning to lift weights, go to classes, do their homework, and then report to practice and work incredibly hard to prepare their teammates to succeed when the lights went on, crowds showed up, and the cameras started rolling, all without any prospect of fame or even a future playing basketball like their teammates.

All because they contributed they knew they would be developed to their fullest potential, which could mean minutes in the limelight or years of relative obscurity, but definitely meant becoming better versions of themselves.

On Sunday, Coach Staley taught us that where we shine our light becomes the focus of what matters to us as teammates. It’s worth asking yourself, “Where am I shining the light in my organization?”

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