ESPN's STEFFI SORENSEN: Inspiring confidence in kids
By Greg Bach
ESPN college basketball analyst Steffi Sorensen vividly remembers the encouraging words coming from the sidelines of her AAU youth basketball games.
They were delivered by her coach, Sheila Pennick.
And they’ve had a life-long impact.
“She taught me a lot of different things but what I’ve always remembered was running down the court and maybe I had missed my last few shots and I would look over and she was always clapping and saying ‘the next one is yours,’” says Sorensen, who starred in basketball at the University of Florida and joined ESPN in 2011. “I’m 28 now and I was 13 or 14 at the time and I still remember that feeling.”
Think about those words the next time Game Day rolls around for your squad. Are you lifting your players up or chiseling away at their confidence with cutting comments?
“Coaches have such a direct impact on confidence,” says Sorensen. “It’s easy to tear somebody down but she was always so positive; but even more so just having that confidence in me. And that translated down the road to where I could always know that I had confidence in myself. That was a really fond memory that I have looking back at my progress in life.”
THE VALUE OF VARIETY
Sorensen’s journey began in Jacksonville, Fla., with a childhood filled with sports: Tennis, basketball, softball, flag football, golf, and more. “I played everything and enjoyed everything,” she says.
She’s a big proponent of kids embracing that diversity that punctuated her youth rather than latching onto one sport too early, which opens the door to burnout and overuse injuries.
“When I talk to younger kids that’s always been my go-to line: Don’t stop playing other sports,” she says. “That’s always been my philosophy to play as many sports as you can. It really rounds you out as an athlete and keeps you fresh.”
Sorensen stuck to that approach through high school, changing sports every few months.
And reaped the benefits of it.
“I played a lot of different sports and when I got to high school I was a three-sport athlete,” she says. “I played golf in the fall, basketball in the winter and tennis in the spring. Each sport built something different for me. Golf was mental training, that you had to be able to pull it together, and that also applied to basketball; and when I played tennis you really had to work hard on your footwork. So, all of these different sports led to becoming a better overall athlete.”
Participating in sports also helped her develop into a more confident person, enabling her to eventually take on broadcasting where she now shares her insights and conducts interviews at sporting events with the world’s eyes watching.
“Sports for me was my saving grace,” she shares. “Honestly, growing up I was always a little bit of a loner. I’ve got a really outgoing brother and sister and I was kind of an introvert so going through middle school and high school and getting teased and being kind of an outcast I could go open the door to the basketball gym and I was right at home. That’s what built my confidence. It was being in a situation where I was successful in sports and being in a gym with people who were relying on me day in and day out to deliver and be accountable and work hard. So, without sports I really wouldn’t be where I am today.”
All those hours in the gym did more than cultivate confidence, too. They also turned her into a prolific scorer, one opposing teams dreaded facing. She scored more than 2,000 points during her high school career and earned the prestigious Miss Florida Basketball award in 2006.
She began her collegiate journey at Florida Gulf Coast University, where she helped lead the team to a 34-1 record in the school’s final year in Division II; and she spent time at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville before transferring to the University of Florida, where she walked on to the basketball team.
And it was during the tryouts there that her confidence was put to the test right away.
“The very first day my name wasn’t even on the list at practice and my name didn’t get called when we were doing breakdowns,” she recalls. “So it would have been really easy to just kind of fold and be like, ‘OK, that’s kind of what they expect from me.’”
But that’s not what Sorensen expected of herself – thanks to adults who helped inspire confidence and a never-surrender attitude throughout her youth.
“Based on what had been instilled in me I was like, ‘OK, if that’s how it is I’m going to make sure you call my name tomorrow,’” she says. “And that was my mindset and I think that’s what put me in position to be a leader there.”
FLOURISHING AT FLORIDA
During her junior season she set the school’s single-season 3-point shooting percentage record by converting a sizzling 39.2 percent of her shots beyond the arc.
But beyond the numbers, she meant so much more to the team by being a tireless worker and outstanding teammate. She was named captain of the team her senior season, and capped off the year by also earning team MVP honors.
“When you experience a lot of different things in life you just become tough and resilient,” Sorensen says. “The world is not an easy place to navigate but when I have been through as many different environments and challenges and ups and downs that I have then you can handle it.”
A MESSAGE TO REMEMBER
Sorensen’s message is one all volunteer coaches should grab a hold of and remember every time they gather with their young athletes.
“I think it’s important when coaches are talking to kids and trying to motivate them to keep in mind that kids want to look over at their coach and know that their coach believes in them,” she says. “The fact that I can recall that story about my AAU coach, that’s something that I still think about when maybe I feel down or if I didn’t feel I had my best game for ESPN I remember that and know ‘I got this, I can do this.’”
Instilling confidence in young athletes is a big part of a volunteer coach’s job.
And it’s a responsibility that should never be taken lightly – because it’s an opportunity to change a young life.
“The underlying message for me when I talk to younger kids is don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do something – go do it,” she says. “That’s what I did. I was an average kid and I wasn’t super athletic, but I achieved what I did because I never wavered on my confidence in myself.”
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Dr. Christopher Ahmad, co-author of PLAY BALL and head team physician for the New York Yankees, on keeping kids out of operating rooms and on the field