Coaches Corner: Dan Hughes
Note: This interview was conducted before the start of the 2020 WNBA season in Florida.
Helping the USA Basketball Women’s National Team win two gold medals as an assistant coach from 2018 through 2020, Dan Hughes led the Seattle Storm to the 2018 WNBA title.
In addition to being on the sideline as the USA won gold at the 2018 FIBA World Cup and 2019 FIBA AmeriCup, Hughes also served as a USA Basketball assistant coach for various exhibition games and training camps from 2018 to 2020, he was a member of the USA Basketball Women’s National Team Player Selection Committee form 2009 through 2016 and he will be on the U.S. sideline at the Tokyo Olympic Games next summer.
Prior to joining the Seattle Storm for the 2018 season, Hughes had 16 years of experience as a WNBA head coach. He began his career in the league as the Charlotte Sting head coach in 1999, served as the Cleveland Rockers head coach from 2000-03 and was at the helm of the San Antonio Stars from 2005-09 and 2011-16.
Hughes has directed squads to the playoffs 12 times and advanced to the 2008 WNBA Finals.
USA Basketball spoke with Hughes to gain his insight and perspective on coaching.
During this time, what type of coaching duties are you doing daily?
To me, it's kind of business as usual – It's just done from my home. I spend a great majority of the day involved in basketball one way or the other. I probably spent two or three hours working on things that have to do with my team – from the standpoint of offense, or cataloguing, defense, terminology, or putting together organizational things for when the season is established, or when we’re together. I've also done a lot of communication, basketball-wise, with all kinds of people. It's literally been amazing. There's hardly a day that goes by that I'm not having a basketball conversation. Either at a virtual clinic, a podcast or an individual conference with somebody, and that has been all over the coaching field, either a veteran or somebody maybe even beginning. That's been really interesting to me, because you stay on thinking about basketball, and you get input from people in different stages of coaching and you kind of have dialogue back and forth.
What is the most rewarding aspect of coaching for you?
I think the bottom line is the relationships that form. The reality is, if you’re working with players and you're working for a common goal, you establish some incredible memories of the relationships between the player and the coach and/or two people just wanting the same end result and working towards it. The thing that defines me as an older coach is how much I have valued the relationships that I have formed with players, assistant coaches and administrators. I feel very fortunate, because the trail is left with a lot of strong relationships from my career.
Is there an overarching principle or emphasis that you try to instill within all your teams?
I think you develop over the years. I was a head coach at 22 in 1978. Now, I'm 65. That's 43 years later, so you change. Maybe that's not true of everybody, but this coach has changed a lot through the years. And that journey has taught me a lot of things, like understanding selfless leadership, understanding how to empower others, understanding how to develop leaders, more so than being a leader. I think my thinking has gone almost exclusively to: how do I develop leaders? That empowerment has become something I continue to try to define. I'm learning if something's good or if something's not as good along the way.
What I learned was that we all look at ourselves and start from that point, and as a coach, you have a great opportunity with a player. I've always been a teacher at heart, and you have a motivated learning situation. But what I developed an understanding of was that the player-to-player leadership was probably stronger than the coach-to-player leadership. So, being effective in developing that communication in the art of teaching, as well as what I attempt to teach the players, then, all of a sudden, you have learning going on in multiple places and you’re reaching people in more ways. Now, you're effective at being on the same page with your team.
Is there a characteristic or trait that you would like others to associate or recognize within your team?
What I really love is when we have a very team-oriented look, and they’ll say the ball really moves well, or it's fun to watch your team play. My belief, especially offensively, has a lot to do with putting people in ownership positions where they're good. There's a certain freedom that I want expressed, and in our offensive play, what it kind of leads to is the ball moving quickly. It makes us hard to scout, because I'm not even sure sometimes what's happening until it happens. But, developing a trust with players in regard to that always pleases me.
Defensively, I've had different forms of defense through the years, but I always love the fact that people will say, ‘It's very difficult to play against you.’ Sometimes it's disruptive. Sometimes it's because they just can't get rid of us.
And the last one is great chemistry. It warms my heart when people say that they act like they really enjoy playing with each other and that they really want to be there. I think that's kind of our culture – empowering our athletes to be leaders for each other.