The Pressure of Playing for UConn Women’s Basketball

Last week, UConn women’s basketball player Samarie Walker transferred to Kentucky. Since her transfer, some negative things have been written about Walker, while others have questioned UConn, as Walker is far from the first high-profile player to leave.

In the Hartford Courant, Geno-Auriemma apologist John Altavilla wrote “Some Players Find They Can’t Handle Being Part of UConn Women’s Basketball,” which has a pro-UConn viewpoint, but an interesting perspective on high-level women’s basketball.

Former UConn player Courtney Gaine described her experience and sheds some light on the problems inherent in our youth basketball culture.

“When you arrive in Storrs, it’s undeniably a shock to the system. That’s true for all freshmen in college, but when you go there to play basketball, you come from a world where you rarely failed into a situation where you will fail every day — and someone’s going to let you know that.

I have a hard time believing that Auriemma is the only coach who seeks perfection or stresses excellence. I am going to assume that most players face these struggles when they enter college. Auriemma may be more demanding than some, but every player faces this transition to college.

The problem is the bolded statement: how can a player enter college without having failed? Sure, UConn recruits players like Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Maya Moore who are undeniably among the best to play the game. Ever.

However, if youth coaches, trainers, high school coaches and AAU coaches never challenge these athletes or help these athletes develop the right mindset, they are setting up these players for difficulties at the next level.

Recently, many questioned the rash of freshmen transfers in men’s basketball. The transfers result from the same issue. Players leave high school with a Fixed Mindset and struggle to adjust to the more competitive, more failure-inducing college level.

When a player possesses a Fixed Mindset (a concept developed by Dr. Carol Dweck in Mindset), they react poorly to difficulties or challenges. A person with a Fixed Mindset believes that talent is innate – therefore, any struggle is indicative of a lack of talent, and their ego often forces the player to find an excuse, not try as hard or find a less competitive situation which reaffirms one’s belief in his talent.

When a high school superstar leaves high school virtually unchallenged, and enters an atmosphere at UConn or another high profile program filled with similarly talented players, the Fixed Mindset can be debilitating. Rather than working harder to maintain one’s position or fight for playing time, players with the Fixed Mindset will find excuses for their lack of performance. If the player has to work hard, it is a sign of lack of talent. If one believes talent is innate, and therefore beyond one’s control, the realization that others are just as talented can be de-motivating. For a player with a Growth Mindset who believes that talent develops through hard work and practice, an environment with equally competitive teammates creates a positive challenge and motivates the player to work harder.

The players with a Fixed Mindset are ill-equipped mentally to handle the more competitive situations because they were not prepared for challenges while in their formative years. Many players, especially the elite female players, progress without many challenges or difficulties. When I tried out for my freshmen high school basketball team, 100 boys tried out. Last year, for our girls’ team, every girl who tried out made the team, and half of the J.V. team was comprised of freshmen, one who had never played basketball on a team. Similarly, even on the elite AAU teams, very few elite players struggle for playing time or to get shots, and most high school teams feature only 1-2 potential college players.

Players seek out trainers to improve their skills, but most training sessions are built for success not failure – how many players return to a trainer if they do not feel like they improved during that session even though improvement and learning is a long-term process?

Trainers, AAU coaches and high school coaches see a prodigious talent like Maya Moore or Bria Hartley and know that the player can help them make their reputation. Rather than push these players, and risk losing the player to another team, school or trainer, many praise them constantly – they never fail, so they never learn to cope with failure.

Bria Hartley trains with Jerry Powell, a friend of mine. I know Hartley felt failure before she traveled to Storrs. Jerry ensures it. It is part of his workouts. He wants his elite players to struggle. I have watched her work out. She was prepared mentally to deal with Auriemma’s demands because Jerry applies the same type of competition and mental demands. Consequently, she has adapted well as a freshman.

Geno Auriemma describes the environment:

“Everyone wants to play here, and sometimes we [the coaches] think they can,” Auriemma said. “But when they get here we find out that they can’t because they struggle. You have to be super competitive just to survive because it’s not good enough to just try hard. You need to be result-oriented.”

I disagree. I think it is more than competitiveness. In women’s basketball, I think we easily get away with citing a lack of toughness or competitiveness, because they are girls or women and toughness and competitiveness are not the first traits associated with women.

Not every issue can be explained by toughness or competitiveness. As Gaine implied, to succeed in the highly competitive environment, you have to be competitive, but you have to have the right mindset. Auriemma seeks perfection, but there are two types of perfectionists. Maladaptive perfectionists fear criticism, worry about making mistakes and desire admiration. One can see how a maladaptive perfectionist, despite her desire for perfection which is the same as Auriemma’s goal, would not handle Auriemma’s coaching well.

Adaptive perfectionists view perfection with more of a Growth Mindset. They constantly strive for improvement because they know improvement is possible and within their control. They strive for goals that are attainable – for UConn, winning a national championship is a very attainable goal.

Auriemma expresses this difference:

“It’s about doing it in a way that can’t be done any better,” Auriemma said. “That is the goal every day. Accepting a Division I scholarship means you sign a contract. You will do everything in your power to be the best and we will do everything in our power to help you.”

When said in this way, what’s the problem? A coach’s goal should be to maximize each player’s and the team’s performance. However, Auriemma is clearly an adaptive perfectionist. He sets high, but attainable goals and works hard every day to achieve those goals because he knows the result is within their control.

Unfortunately, in recruiting, he likely recruits players who are maladaptive perfectionists or recruits who have a Fixed Mindset. Rather than dismissing these players as uncompetitive, when they find themselves in this situation, whether at UConn or elsewhere as I believe many if not most college students and athletes have difficulty with this transition, these players need mental skills training or a sports psychology consultant or a knowledgeable coach who can work with the player on changing his or her mindset.

Players with the right mindset and coping skills obviously thrive under Auriemma (and other similar coaches). However, as he says, he is not for everyone. Rather than dismissing the others, as is the tone of the article, we need to examine the way we develop players and develop the mental skills to accompany the physical gifts. Helping players to develop a Growth Mindset or adaptive perfectionism will help with the adjustment to college, the more competitive playing field and more demanding coaches.

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