Coaches Corner: Natasha Adair
A three-time USA Basketball coach, Natasha Adair most recently helped the USA women to a gold medal at the 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup. She also helped the USA women to gold at the 2018 FIBA Americas U18 Championship, served as a court coach at the 2017 USA Women’s U19 World Cup Team trials and spoke at the 2018 USA Basketball Las Vegas Coach Academy.
Adair is in her fourth season at the University of Delaware (2017-18 to present).
Prior to Delaware, Adair was an assistant coach at Georgetown University (1998-99 to 2003-04) and at Wake Forest University (2004-05 to 2006-07) and an associate head coach at Wake Forest (2007-08 to 2011-12); and she was a head coach at College of Charleston (2012-13 and 2013-14) and at Georgetown (2014-15 to 2016-17).
USA Basketball spoke with Adair to get her insight and perspective on coaching.
What things do you try to accomplish in the first part of the season as compared to later on in the season?
I think early on you have to start with the team identity and who we are. For the University of Delaware, everything we do, we talk about the UD way. No different than for USA Basketball, which is a gold standard. It's just how you approach everything. We talk a lot about culture, and that takes precedence, obviously, a little in the recruiting process, but it's ‘we not me,’ and everything we do to make sure the locker room is healthy. And then, the chemistry on and off the court. I will tell you, I know you're talking about the beginning of the season, but even now in these unprecedented times, we've really done a lot of team building, and it's been weird a little bit via Zoom. But, we do things like play games, and we just kind of learn more about each other. We do this thing called the hot seat, and I got it out of a book I was reading. Basically, you talk about a hero, a highlight, a hardship, just different ways we can learn more about each other. And for me that builds trust, that builds that camaraderie. The beginning stages, it’s that identity, that culture, that chemistry and building that that bond of trust and just sisterly love.
Then, we go over roles and really identify each important part of the puzzle, so there's no confusion. Sometimes early on you may have two players in the same position, and you want to make sure everyone knows their ‘why.’ I think if you establish that early, you won't have a lot of issues with them not understanding their role or what I expect of them. I try to answer all of those questions early and just build that trust within the team, within the players and the staff. As the head coach, everything trickles down from me.
The final component is history. Who came before you? You know when you put on a USA jersey, the blood sweat and tears that came before you, and it's an honor. Here at the university, we have so many greats that have come before each class. We want to make sure they know the history and then pay it forward. How are you in your effort, in your work and as ambassadors of the university in the community, how are you going to pay it forward?
In addition to what we're dealing with within the pandemic, we have really grabbed on to social injustices and using our voice and empowering them to do so. Delaware is a very small state, so we have the resources and the ability to really reach out and touch local government officials. We have support, obviously, from our administration and higher ups, so our players have been on the forefront of actually effecting change. Delaware got an executive order written on banning the choke hold, and that doesn't happen everywhere. We weren’t focusing on not being in the gym. We were focusing on using our voice as young people and as the next generation. I really want to empower them and inspire them to be leaders on and off the court and in their community. I've been very, very proud of watching them grow and really come together. In a lot of instances, we've had to have courageous conversations. Racism is a difficult topic when you're talking about it, and then talking via Zoom.
A lot of what we're talking about is not necessarily political party and all of that. It's more humanitarian, stability and human rights and doing what your gut tells you is the right thing to do. I have sat back and watched these young people grow. And as a coach, we may not have been bouncing a ball, but we were definitely winning. And winning is measured in so many different ways for me, so we're just using this opportunity to be better.
What is the most important characteristic you work to develop in your athletes?
What I see in women is their confidence. They all come in knowing they have talent, they have skill, but making sure as young women that they're confident and know that they're rock stars, that they know they're powerful beyond measure. For them to understand their ‘why.’ There are so many people that are playing this sport for different reasons. It could be for different people. I tell our players, you don't have to be playing this game for the same reason your teammate is, but you do have to respect it. Getting them to delve into their ‘why’ and really understand their purpose.
It’s a process, but letting them know they can dig inside and discover so many amazing things about themselves and empowering them to use their voice. I think this is such an amazing time right now for young leaders. It's not the time to be quiet, but it is the time to educate and empower yourself. So that's the thing with us; We want to make sure we are no different being on the court than we are off the court. You want to know what it is you're speaking about and what it is you're passionate about. So, do the research, do the background work.
Then with leadership, I always ask them ,‘Who will follow you and why?’ And then, ‘Where are you leading them?’ I'm one of those coaches that makes you think, not one that always wants to hear herself talk. I want to know what my players think, and I coach from that same premise. They come to me and say, ‘Coach, they're switching. I can isolate.’ Great, tell me what you're thinking.
Even film sessions that some people think are brutal, right? I tell them, ‘This is class. This is conversation.’ We have interactive film where they go up, and I may even give them the clicker, and tell me what they were thinking. I don't want them to take those questions to mean they were wrong. I want to know what's inside your brain, because then that's going to make me understand and help you if there is a better option, or then I see what they were trying to do. Then we see how we can talk about this scenario. I never want to put them in a position where they're afraid to try or they're afraid to ask questions for fear of embarrassment or being wrong. So, I think getting them to just be so confident in who they are.
Another thing that is really is important is perseverance. No time better than the present to work on fighting through adversity and understanding other sides to the story. I'm a big, ‘What is the message?’ type of person. There's always a message, so what can we learn from this and how can we be better?
What is a characteristic or trait that you want others to associate within your team?
We are tough, and we are prepared. That's first and foremost. We are ready. We often joke that we know more about the opponent than the opponent probably knows about themselves. We take pride in that. We want to outwork our opponent. We're that blue collar team. We're not afraid to get dirty. We're not afraid to roll up our sleeves. We want to be that first team on that 50/50 ball, but we also want to be the first team to pick up a teammate. I want them to see the togetherness and the energy of our team, but I also want them to see us in the moment, respecting the game and respecting the opportunity.
When you look to your left, and you look to your right, and you pick your teammate up that day, it doesn't ever feel like you're alone.
Then the final thing is fun. I want to have fun, whether we have a lot of 3x3 tournaments and short games, where it's not so mundane. For practice, we try to get in, get to work, and I tell them beforehand the plan. Nothing is a secret. Let's get in. Let's get better. Let's get out. It gives them ownership. I respect them, and I want them to know that and I'm going to push them and I'm going to encourage them, but I want them to know they matter, that their voice matters. I want people to see us and know they have their work cut out for them.
We're just that team that wants to keep their foot on the gas and not let up. Give it everything, and don't wait for it to come to you. We want to make that winning play. We want to make that extra effort play.
What made you pursue a career in coaching?
Early on, I played at the University of South Florida, and I was called, ‘Grandma,’ the mother bear. I just made sure everybody was okay. And when I graduated, I ended up working at the university in the fundraising and development department. I did a little marketing, too, but I kept going back in the gym, because half of my teammates were still on the team. I just wanted to hang with them. But I had to realize I was an adult now, so I couldn't do that all the time. But I wanted to help out. It is just weird how it happened. I'm from D.C., so I came home to see my cousin play an AAU tournament at American University. I ran into the head coach at the time at Georgetown who recruited me in high school, and we caught up. I told him what I was doing and he said, ‘How long are you going to be in town?’ I said another week. He said, ‘Come by my office.’ And at his office he asked if I wanted to coach. I said, I don't know. But it was Georgetown. I'm from D.C. Who turns that down?
So, I went home, and I talked to my parents. Long story short, I said yes. What I learned early on was my love for the game. It was competitive. I was such a baller – ball is life, and it was everything for me just being able to be in the gym and teach. Developing them on the court, and also off the court, I think was my biggest joy.
And so, my big sister role actually turned into mother figure over time. As a head coach, I'm chasing that trophy, and I want to hang more trophies on my shelf, but all of my former players, they're my living trophies. They literally get to eat, sleep and drink moments of things that we've developed over time.
It started with my love for the game and competitive edge, and then it evolved into teaching, being in that role of mentorship and just coaching life lessons, one-on-one on and off the court.
I want to make sure that shows up, and that the right person gets credit for living trophies. His name is Kevin Sutton, and he is the assistant coach at Rhode Island. We became really close when he was the assistant at Georgetown when I was the head coach there. I call him a mentor. He talked to me about living trophies.I get giddy and really excited talking about it. You’d be like, ‘Coach, you've been coaching for 23 years, and it sounds like you just started.’ The players give me life, and it’s different every year.