WNBA superstar Elena Delle Donne talks youth sports, and more
By Greg Bach
Growing up, Elena Delle Donne cherished playing for basketball coaches who continually challenged the team with action-packed practices that blended fun, competition and skill development.
“I loved when they challenged me in different ways,” says Delle Donne, the WNBA’s leading scorer and the top vote-getter for the upcoming WNBA All-Star Game. “I loved to be challenged and I loved to make mistakes because it meant we were learning and developing and getting better, so I think coaches need to make sure that they are always challenging their players and never getting complacent during practices.”
As the WNBA season rolls toward its halfway point, Delle Donne has established herself as the league’s premier player: a scoring genius with the ball in her hands and a rabid defender. Check out these numbers: Besides being the league’s No. 1 scorer at nearly 26 points per game she’s also second in blocked shots (more than a two a game); third in rebounds (nearly 10 a game) and third in free-throw shooting (a near-perfect 95 percent).
And by the way, she dropped 45 points on Atlanta earlier this season, which included a mind-boggling 19-for-19 effort from the free-throw line.
It’s been an impressive journey for the 25-year-old Chicago Sky forward, whose love for the game was forged early on the youth basketball courts growing up in Wilmington, Delaware, where she played for caring coaches – volunteers whose impact she hasn’t forgotten during her rise to stardom.
“I think coaches, especially when you are younger, have way more of an impact personally than even on the court,” she says. “They teach you how to be a good teammate; they teach you how to act; and they teach you what’s important. So I was fortunate to have some really incredible role models as my coaches. They taught me way more about life than the game of basketball.”
Delle Donne, who ranks fifth on the NCAA’s all-time women’s scoring list, spoke with SportingKid Live following a recent practice in Chicago. Here’s what the third-year pro had to say:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: You’ve spoken about your experiences being bullied as a youngster growing up and that no child should have to go through that. What can coaches do to help eliminate this problem?
DELLE DONNE: The best way to stop bullying is if you see it happening you have to pull the bully aside No. 1 and speak to them. Ask them “what’s going on? Why are you doing this? Why are you being mean?” Generally something is going on internally with them, and that’s why they are lashing out and have anger against others. And then you have to tell the people who are being bullied that “it’s not even about you, it’s about something going on with them. It may be that they’re self conscious about something so they are putting that on you.”
SPORTINGKID LIVE: In a sport like basketball players often have different roles, and not everyone can score 20 points a game. How important is it for coaches to make sure every player feels appreciated no matter what their contribution?
DELLE DONNE: The best coaches are the ones that are able to make every player feel just as important as the superstar on the team. You don’t win games unless everyone is playing a crucial role. And sometimes that role could be as small as cheering your teammates on from the sideline but that needs to be celebrated alongside someone scoring 25 points, so you really need to show everybody that their role is just as important as the person next to them.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: The special relationship you have with your older sister Lizzie, who was born without sight and hearing and has autism and cerebral palsy, is well documented. It highlights the fact that everyone is different and everyone is special – something that’s so important for coaches to remember while working with their players.
DELLE DONNE: I think the best way for coaches to help with that is never singling anyone out and also if you are singling people out you want to celebrate people’s differences. Uniqueness is such a great thing. That’s why teams are so incredible because you have 10 to 12 unique players that have to come together to make the team work so I think you have to really celebrate differences and that’s really important.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Being a good sport is important to you. What should coaches be doing to teach it to their young players?
DELLE DONNE: That’s everything; without sportsmanship you don’t have a good game and it just becomes sloppy and dangerous. I think you teach it by watching your practice and if you see something dirty going on you correct it immediately and don’t accept it – ever. During games you always encourage your players to go slap the other team’s hands. If you see something wrong you have to coach it immediately and fix it.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Why are you so committed to doing great work away from the basketball court to help others?
DELLE DONNE: I feel if you have a spotlight you should do something with it. What good would it be having a spotlight and only doing things for myself? The biggest thing is giving back to the community and knowing what it took to get here. I had other people really help me along the way and it’s so important to give back because I didn’t get here alone – it’s always the team aspect that gets you here and you have to give back in the end.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: You’re an incredibly efficient free-throw shooter who rarely misses. (As a high school player she set the national record for consecutive free throws made with 80.) What’s your secret that coaches can use to help their young players enjoy more success from the free-throw line?
DELLE DONNE: My key is simplifying the shot as much as I can. I try to take as much motion out of the shot as possible so things can’t go wrong, so it’s really just simplifying the shot. Basically all I do is make an “L” with my arm and lift and flick.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: You played other sports besides basketball growing up. How important was experiencing that variety in your athletic development?
DELLE DONNE: It just helps you with your footwork; it puts you in different scenarios where maybe you might be uncomfortable and you have to adapt. So that’s what I think is so great about playing a bunch of sports is you learn to adapt and you learn different footwork and it just makes you into a better all-around player.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Volunteer coaches deal with all types of different personalities. How can they connect with all these different types of kids and get the best out of them?
DELLE DONNE: Truthfully, in the end you have to be self-motivated and if the child or athlete doesn’t want it then they’re not going to want it. You can’t make somebody love the game, but I do think it’s important for coaches to know that every player is different and every player ticks in different ways so you may have one person on your team who reacts well to being yelled at but you might have someone else who really needs to be picked up and supported, so you kind of just have to know your personnel.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s your advice to today’s volunteer coaches?
DELLE DONNE: Remember it’s all for the kids and it’s not for yourself. Parents can sometimes be a little too pushy on the kids. You’ve got to make it fun in the end. Make sure it’s all about the kids and remember that always.
Jamie Clarke has climbed the tallest mountain on every continent and worked with elite athletes on the mental side of the game. Use his insights to elevate your leadership skills and take your young athletes on a journey they'll never forget
3-time Olympian Allison Baver overcame gruesome injuries throughout her career to excel on the world stage. Use her insight to help young athletes overcome fears lurking in their minds
Team USA’s Kendall Coyne cherished her childhood where her parents didn’t pressure and push. The result? Her love for hockey flourished, and is as strong as ever these days
Curt Tomasevicz, Olympic champion in the four-man bobsled and former football player at Nebraska, on helping young athletes conquer fears, stay focused, and perform at their best when the pressure rises