College basketball great on the power of practice

College basketball great on the power of practice


By Greg Bach

Ruth Riley, one of the greatest players in NCAA women’s basketball history, loved practicing.

It’s where she honed skills.

Developed lethal moves.

And cherished the steps along the journey to improvement.

“At every level I always loved practice, which is probably not the norm,” says Riley, an Olympic gold medalist, NCAA champion, 2-time WNBA champ and currently the general manager of the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars. “Every day was an opportunity to accomplish goals and strive to get better and that’s measured in the different drills and it’s measured in ways that are different than the outcome of a game.”

Think about those words when you’re gathering with your youth teams, regardless of the sport.

They’re powerful.

So, as you’re working with youngsters consider how much they would enjoy participating – and how much their skills would flourish – if you’re running practices they can’t wait to get to.

And put all their energy into.

After all, wouldn’t it be great if all your players loved practicing just like Riley did during her youth sports participation?

“You can work on other aspects of your game where you might not have that flexibility when the pressure is on in a game,” Riley says. “So I always enjoyed adding different dimensions to my game and working on different aspects.”

And talk to kids about the purpose of practice. Help them see it is a golden time to work on their games and try new skills, and emphasize that mistakes and struggles are all part of the process.

Riley embraced the process. She accepted that not every day was going to be easy or go her way. But she knew that sticking with it would pay off.

And it did – in a big way, too.


During the 2001 national championship game Riley’s Notre Dame team trailed Purdue 66-64 late in the contest.

And she would not be denied.

She scored the tying basket and then, with less than six seconds remaining in the game, she was fouled and went to the free-throw line.

All that practice, mixed in with the confidence to execute in the most pressure-filled of situations, resulted in two makes and the Fighting Irish’s first-ever national championship in women’s basketball.

“I’ve always been an athlete that got my confidence from my preparation,” Riley says. “And so whether I’m at the free-throw line shooting two free throws to secure a national championship or trying to make a defensive stop in the WNBA Finals, knowing that I was prepared for the moment and knowing that I did the best I could in preparing for that moment gave me my confidence.”


Growing up in Indiana “it’s hard not to fall in love with the sport of basketball,” Riley says, though her childhood was filled with lots of other sports, like volleyball, softball and track.

“I just really enjoyed being active,” she says.

And looking back, she sees the value those other sports provided in her development.

So you can add her name to the list of accomplished athletes who frown on specialization that has swarmed today’s youth sports landscape, leaving a trail of burned out and injured young athletes in its wake.

“It gave me the chance to work on different skills and coordination,” she says of playing multiple sports. “And by not playing the same sport year-round I didn’t deal with any burnout or fatigue and that made me excited for basketball season to come around every year.”

That involvement in sports did more than hone athletic skills, too. Playing for coaches who cared, and embracing the team atmosphere, impacted her in so many other ways as well.

Raised by a single mom, her coaches had a tremendous impact on her life.

“My AAU coaches were instrumental in being a father figure to me as well as a coach and support system,” she says. “They really believed in not only myself but our entire team and they instilled confidence as much as skills in us.”


Riley’s career on the court is remarkable: the championships, the awards and the accolades are far too numerous to mention.

And the same goes with what she’s done away from the court.

Heavily involved in many charities and initiatives, her efforts in these areas have been equally impressive.

“It’s gratitude for what so many people have done for me,” she explains of her ongoing efforts to make a difference in the lives of others. “I realize that success isn’t an individual accomplishment and what I’ve been able to achieve in life I’m incredibly grateful for and know was largely due to people investing in me and now I want to make sure that I’m investing in this next generation.”

Ruth Riley Basketball Practice Confidence

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