Coaches Corner: Jennifer Rizzotti
The head women’s basketball coach at George Washington University since 2016-17, Jennifer Rizzotti has been a member of eight USA Basketball coaching staffs, and she was named the 2011 USA Basketball National Coach of the Year.
Most recently, Rizzotti helped the USA National Team to gold medals as an assistant coach at the 2018 FIBA World Cup and the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup, and she is set to be on the sidelines for the U.S. women at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
She served as an advanced scout/court coach for the gold-medal winning U.S. squads at the 2016 Olympics and 2014 FIBA World Cup, she led three USA junior national teams to gold medals and as an athlete she won a gold medal at the 1996 R. William Jones Cup with a 9-0 record.
Prior to George Washington, Rizzotti spent 17 seasons as the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Hartford, and she was named the America East Conference Coach of the Year in 2006, 2007 and 2010.
USA Basketball spoke with Rizzotti to get her insight and perspective on coaching.
What things are important to accomplish during the first month of the season?
I think it's important to set the tone for the rest of the season. As the leader of the team, you look at what things you want to stress as far as on-court accomplishments, what things you want to stress as areas of improvement and then kind of your non-negotiables. Things like, ‘This is who I want us to be, and we're going to work to be that regardless of the outcome of the game or the score. We're going to utilize this first month as an opportunity to practice who we want to be by the end of the season.’
What is the most challenging aspect of coaching for you?
I think the fact that we have to spend a lot less time on basketball and a lot more time on everything else. It can be challenging, because so many of us, especially if you look at the women in coaching, we all played the game. We got into this because of our love for basketball, and in so many cases, our ability to influence young women. I think that's a really important part of the job. But whether it's with our current players, or with alumni or with recruiting, sometimes you get overwhelmed to the point where you wish you could just go out on the court and be a basketball coach. So, at times, that can be a little challenging, especially in quarantine when you can't be with your players and all you can do is the other stuff.
We’ve had a lot of Zoom calls, a lot of Face Times. I think finding creative ways to stay connected as a group and to not waste our time while we're apart, and to build on the things we want to build on for next season, so that when we come out of this, we feel like we're in a better place than when we started
It also takes the basketball hours out of the amount of time you're allowed with them. So, you ask, what is the biggest challenge? Well, I get eight hours a week with my team during the offseason. You feel like that's so little, and so you focus on basketball and strengthen conditioning, and then you want this extra time to meet about team chemistry, or culture or leadership and you've run out of time. So, these last couple months, we've just been able to focus on those off the court, intangible things that are really important to our program. They’ve done their workouts on their own and their basketball on their own, but as a team, we've had some really healthy conversations about who we want to be and how we want to represent ourselves. I think that wouldn't have happened if we weren't in quarantine.
What are what are the most important things that you consider in terms of developing relationships with your athletes?
I think from day one when I start recruiting them, it starts with the word, ‘trust.’ You want to be able to bring somebody into your program that trusts you with their basketball career, they trust you with their academic career and they trust you with their goals and their dreams. It's really important for you to understand who you're coaching and what they want out of their experience for college, because they're not professionals. If you're a professional coach, you are worried about your players winning championships, getting a paycheck and continuing to get better. But in college, a lot of these kids have aspirations that go beyond basketball, and you have to be really good about building a relationship based on trust, familiarity, care and making sure they know that you value them as a person, much more than what they can do for you as a basketball player.
When you see them every day, maybe be like, ‘Hey, how's your day going? How's your weekend?’ You rarely get deeper, because it's like they're on their way to a workout, or you're rebounding for them. Now, when I check in with them, it's like, ‘How's your family? What are you guys doing? What are your challenges?’ So, all of a sudden, you're having conversations that are very different, because they're not centered on their workout for the day. I think it's been really important. For our team, it has allowed us to make some pretty good connections, even with the challenges of being apart. So, we have tried to look at the positives of it. Our relationships have grown in the time that we've been away from each other, because we put the effort into it.
What made you pursue a career in coaching?
I actually never thought about being a coach. It just wasn't a real popular profession when I was coming out of college. I feel like I was focused on my playing career, and when the athletic director from Hartford called me about being the interim coach, it was really the very first time I thought about it. My initial reaction was, ‘No, I don't have time for this.’ Then the more I thought about it, I was 25, I'm like, ‘When am I ever going to get the opportunity to be asked to run a Division I program again?’ Maybe I should just see what this is all about. So, we agreed on a six-month interim situation, and when the season was over the athletic director asked if I wanted to continue and I was kind of hooked at that point. I think I realized during that season that it was probably what I was meant to do. That it was my way of being able to give back to the game of basketball after everything it had given me. The relationships I have with my teammates and coaches, was now something I could create for a whole group and a whole generation of other women. I really wanted a chance to do that. Other people should be able to experience college basketball the way that I did. It became very apparent to me that this was something I should be doing for as long as I can.