The power of passion
By Greg Bach
Nikki McCray-Penson’s love of basketball was kindled on a Sunday afternoon in a Memphis suburb during her eighth-grade year, courtesy of Big Mama.
McCray-Penson, the head coach of the Old Dominion University women’s basketball team, loved running track as a youngster and had designs on becoming the next Flo-Jo.
The script for her life flipped that Sunday afternoon though, when the family gathered after church at her grandmother’s house and the boys headed to the basketball court out back.
McCray-Penson was rejected when she asked to join the game.
“That didn’t sit well with me,” she says. “So I went into the house and told my Big Mama, we called my grandmother ‘Big Mama,’ that they wouldn’t let me play and she politely came out and said if I couldn’t play the game would be stopped. So, from then on I started playing, so basketball fell into my lap.”
She went on to star at Tennessee under the legendary Pat Summitt; she was a two-time Olympic gold medalist; a three-time WNBA All-Star; and she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
Big Mama got her on the court with a few influential words decades ago, and that power of communication has come full circle in her role now as a Division 1 head coach, where she motivates, teaches and leads. Plus, she welcomes giving back and sharing some of her experiences to help today’s volunteer coaches connect and inspire the kids under their care, too.
“What you tell kids is going to stick,” she says. “So make sure that it is pure and that it is said with a lot of enthusiasm.”
Kids want constant feedback on how they’re performing, how they can get better, and that their efforts are appreciated.
“You let them hear your passion,” McCray-Penson says of your interactions with young players. “You give them little nuggets – like things that they can work on or talking to them about their goals.”
It’s the essence of coaching – establishing those special relationships with every player, regardless of their skill level or what they contribute to the team.
“You start with the relationship,” says McCray-Penson. “It’s really communicating and building a relationship with them and then holding them accountable.”
“You start with the big picture,” she says of how you approach getting everyone on board with the team-first mindset. “You have to get them to buy into little things like passing the ball; and you have to get them to buy into creating opportunities with their defense.”
LEARNING FROM A LEGEND
When you have the good fortune to play for a legend like Pat Summitt, you take away incredible life lessons that you get to pass down to others, and McCray-Penson is doing exactly that.
“Pat was a great teacher and she was a great motivator,” she says. “But she was also a great listener. Coaches can learn so much from their players, as much as they are learning from you. When they come in and have conversations with you, and not just about basketball, you’re building that relationship with them.”
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