Coaches Corner: Cori Close
UCLA women’s basketball head coach Cori Close has been on the sideline of two gold-medal winning USA Basketball teams and one training camp.
In her third and most recent USA Basketball coaching assignment, Close helped the USA to a gold medal as an assistant coach for the 2019 USA women's team that tallied a 7-0 record at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup in Bangkok, Thailand. Prior to that, she served as an assistant coach for the 2018 USA Women's U18 National Team, which she helped lead to a 6-0 record and a gold medal at the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship, and she was a court coach at the 2017 USA Women’s U23 National Team Training Camp.
USA Basketball spoke to Close to gain some insight and perspective on coaching.
During this time, what type of coaching duties are you doing daily?
Coaching-wise, at first, our players were just ending the season. So, we gave them space, and we really didn’t make them think about basketball. They were pretty much grieving the NCAA Tournament being cancelled. But now, in the past two weeks, we have started to ramp back up. One of the things we have been doing is sending them some film study. They’ve been looking at film and saying, ‘Okay, here is what we can learn from this particular situation.’ We have been doing team building and life-skills stuff through Zoom.
The other thing we have been focusing on is their visualization. For every player we do personalized visualization films. So, just challenging them to continue to watch those and train their minds to see themselves doing it right. The films are about the things they need to get better on.
I heard another team sent a link out to their players from the Pac-12 Tournament finals. The players had to watch the game ahead of time, and then they had a discussion once they came to a Zoom call.
We’ve been doing things like that. We are only a few weeks into dealing with basketball. And, we have really involved our players in how they want to continue to grow during this time.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your coaching career?
I think the most important lesson for me as a coach is that when you coach from the heart, or the inside-out, you are a better teacher of the game. I think when I lose sight of that, I am not as effective of an actual tactical teacher and the improvement is short-lived. If my mission is to be an elite basketball program that teaches, mentors and equips young women for life beyond UCLA – and most of them want to play in the WNBA or professionally -- if I lose track of really teaching character and habits and really teaching from the inside out, as soon as they are gone from my supervision, they are not equipped. And so, my goal is to really keep track of the idea that it really needs to come from the heart and work its way onto the court. I think that is how you are able to push them harder, and that is how they take skills and refine them themselves after they are gone from your teaching.
Is there one overall defensive principle you think is most important?
Probably the people that watch us, they would say the word that really grounds our defense is pressure. In the Pacific-12 Conference, that has been our advantage. We have been athletic, and long and versatile, so we have decided that in order for us to play to our strengths with our personnel, we have to start with pressure on defense. Different years, depending on our personnel, that may come more out of zone, or more out of player-to-player defense. I tend to want to play man more than zone. But this year for instance, we played a lot of full-court defense, and it all started with pressure – trying to not allow teams to run their pretty little offenses and to have to make them think about our pressure more than they can think about the reads of what they are trying to accomplish offensively.
What is the most challenging aspect of coaching for you?
I don’t think we have enough time for this question (laughing). I think why I’ve been doing it for 27 years and why I love coaching is that every year is a little bit different. You never stop learning. So, I think the challenge, if you are really and competitive and driven like I am, is maintaining a balanced perspective – to not let your pendulum swing too far one way or the other. To always remind yourself of the purpose of why you are doing it. To not have your identity wrapped up in it, but to truly stay focused on your purpose. I fail at that all the time, but that is my compass. That is my center point. It’s okay to be really competitive and really driven. You are trying to coach to win. You want to run the race so that you might win the prize. That is your perspective. But at the same time, that isn’t my overall purpose. My purpose in being a coach is to use basketball to teach, mentor and to equip and to teach life lessons. I always say to the players that the only two things that are going to stay with you for the rest of your life from these four years – they are not raising banners and they are not rings. Those collect dust and hang in gyms. The only two things that will truly be with you for the rest of your life from this experience are who you become and who you impact. That you can take with you forever and apply to every area of your life. The challenge is to master your craft and be the best coach and competitor you can be, and at the same time really focus on who they are becoming and who they are impacting, because I know that will have the most long-lasting gain.