Coaches Corner: Vanessa Nygaard
The head girls basketball coach at Windward in Los Angeles, Vanessa Nygaard helped USA Basketball to gold medals as an assistant coach for the 2017 FIBA Americas U16 Championship and the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup and she was a court coach at the 2013 USA Women’s U16 National Team Trials.
She has an extensive resume as a basketball player and coach.
Currently entering her ninth season at Windward (2012-13 to present), Nygaard has led Windward to a striking 210-40 record during her time there.
In 2019-20, Nygaard guided her team to a 27-6 record and a runner-up finish in the CIF Southern Section Open Division and CIF Southern Regional Open Division playoffs, and she was named the 2020 Cal-Hi Sports State Coach of the Year for girls basketball.
She played at Stanford University for legendary coach Tara VanDerveer and helped the team to a 113-14 record during her time, including three Final Four appearances.
Nygaard also played six seasons in the WNBA after being in the 1998 WNBA Draft. She suited up for the Cleveland Rockers (1999), the Portland Fire (2000 and 2001), the Miami Sol (2002), the Charlotte Sting (2003) and the Los Angeles Sparks (2003) during her professional career. Additionally, she played professionally in Germany (2001), Spain (1999) and Italy (1998).
In 2003, she became an assistant women’s basketball coach at Cal State Long Beach and in 2004 was hired as an assistant coach at Pepperdine University. She also was an assistant coach for the Washington Mystics in 2009.
USA Basketball spoke with Nygaard to gain her insight and perspective on coaching.
As you embark on a season over maybe the first month or so, what is the focus during that time?
So, there are regular years, but not this year.
This year is really unique. Our season actually has been moved to start in March. So, our practices will start in January or February, and I think there are some things to be addressed, some trauma that everyone has gone through over the break. I think that is going to be a really important thing. To get into the season and address that.
In a regular year, I think what we would look to accomplish at the start of the season as a coaching staff would be first to build trust. There will be new players, and there will be returning players. And so, get them to understand where we’re coming from and start to really understand them, and to set a tone of: we’re together on a journey. Here's where we're going, and we need you. This is how we get there, and this is what I need you to do. Being very clear with them and putting in that time and investment. That means having individual conversations early in the year with the players to build that trust. The second thing I think would be to set some standards for the non-negotiables in our program, which is things that every coach in America knows – show up with a great attitude, have a great effort, be a great teammate. If you can't do those things, you have to go home. And occasionally, a kid does sit out of practice or is sent to the locker room because they can't do one of those. And you just have to do that once or twice, and I think that that sends that message. That's important early on. And then I think, especially as a youth coach and a high school coach, keeping it fun and interesting, because I want them to get a love of the game. I want them to want to come to practice, and I want them to love basketball. As a high school coach, you can really build that passion. You have to think about how you can make it fun every day and how you can keep it interesting. You can't just do the same drills. It should be lots of playing. They all play basketball, because they want to play.
You mentioned in this year, you will need to address some of the trauma from this past year or so. How will you begin to try and do that?
I'm fortunate to work at a school where they continue to educate us about these traumas and things, and we talk about trauma-informed coaching and trying to help kids deal with it, and the coaches as well. If you haven't dealt with things, it's hard to help other people around you. But giving them space to talk about it and acknowledging that it's there, and not pretending like it's not there. ‘Oh, wow, this is really hard. How did that affect you?’ And giving them a chance to say, ‘Hey, if they want to do something together, what can we do together to address this?’ So, it's really great to be working at a school, because we do have counselors who are constantly giving us new information.
What's one of the most important characteristics you work to develop in your athletes?
You hope that they learn a lot of things that are going to help them in life. But, I would say number one for us is just toughness. I think sometimes people get caught up in being competitive, but I really want the players to learn to be tough, both physically and mentally. And to us, I think it means being resilient and persistent through whatever adversity and challenges come their way. Those are controllable in a game of basketball, right? You know, you have the turnovers, things like that, but a lot of things happen in life that are hard to control, and so having that toughness to stay optimistic through great challenge. And what a great opportunity to work on that right now. We get to work on that every single day we wake up during the pandemic. So really, we want to cultivate toughness. It goes into every single thing that is important for our program.
What are some factors in terms of developing relationships with your athletes?
It's trust, trust, trust, trust, right? You have to establish that with everyone in your life, especially your players, and I think I have to earn that and that's with consistency every single day. I have to come with the things that I ask of them. I have to be consistently positive, and I have to be clear about expectations and clear about as a team holding everybody accountable. I can't let one kid slide, because they're talented or something like that. I have to make sure that those things are consistent. And then, we really emphasize just communicating. The more that we communicate, the more that we talk, the better we'll understand. So, the longer I've been a head coach, the more meetings I have with the players. And it can be exhausting as a coach, but we need it. Before the season I meet with the players and their parents, and I meet individually with the players before the season. I meet with the players like three different times for a sit-down meeting during the season. The more that we talk, and they can understand what we need from them, and they can express their frustrations or their challenges. And also, I think it's important to let them express who on the team needs support, to help us with the team. So, it's a constant conversation. The other thing I have developed over time is just real empathy for them as young people and the challenges they have, and then just curiosity. I used to be mad if a kid was late. And now, I'm like, I wonder why that kid was late? I think it's more of an approach. So just having real curiosity about how I can help them. I keep that in the front of my mind. That helps me to understand them better and their challenges.
In your coaching career, is there a most important lesson that has really hit home for you?
I was a player, and I love basketball. I love going to basketball practice. And so I thought, what better job than going to basketball practice? I want to win, like everyone else, and so I thought I'd be a coach. I thought my job would be coaching basketball, and I think what I've learned is that my real job is not coaching basketball. My real job is helping people, and solving problems and leading with intention. I have to set a tone. I try to keep those ideas in my head – that my real job is to help people, and my real job is to work on problems, because everyday problems come. I get to solve them. I don't have to solve them. I get to solve them, and that I have to lead, and I have to set that tone constantly. And yeah, that can be exhausting, but that's why you're a coach. I learned that those things are more important than the basketball things. I say to my players all the time, ‘if you want to improve the team, improve yourself,’ and that applies to coaches, too. If you want a better team, you got to be a better coach. You have to just constantly be bought into the idea of growth. I have to keep getting better. Oh, and you need to rebound. If you don't rebound, you'll never win.