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Coaches Corner: Sue Phillips

  • Date:
    Apr 25, 2021

Sue Phillips is a long-time girls basketball head coach at Archbishop Mitty High School in California and a program director and coach with the San Jose Cagers, an AAU program she founded.

Phillips led the 2013 USA U16 National Team to gold at the 2013 FIBA Americas U16 Championship and the 2014 USA U17 World Cup Team to gold at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Cup in the following summer.

Entering her 28th year as the girls basketball coach and math teacher at Archbishop Mitty, she owns an amazing 719-132 career record (as of May 1, 2021) and has won six California Interscholastic Federation state championships. In 1999, she led her team to a 31-0 record a state title and was named Student Sports Magazine National Coach of the Year.

In 2019-20, Phillips and Archbishop Mitty had won the NorCal Championship and was set to compete in the CIF Open Division state finals before the COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to their season.

She also was an assistant coach at the University of California in 2000.

USA Basketball spoke with Phillips to get her insight and perspective on coaching.

How has COVID-19 impacted your program and what things have you done to adapt to the situation?
About six weeks ago, we got the green light from the California Department of Public Health. If we were able to test, we could do live basketball. So my club team, we went out and bought, so incredibly pricey, but some rapid tests, and we've been able to do some live basketball for a little while now. It's just been really rough. State finals got canceled. That was March 15, so it's been like a year.

I mean, think about what Stanford had to go through. So, we live in the same county as Stanford, and we were the first county to go into that stay-at-home order last March, and so our counties are all kind of operating under their own set of rules.

This is how crazy it is – our league is comprised of two different counties (Santa Clara and San Francisco), but because we have San Mateo County, splitting Santa Clara County and San Francisco County, we weren't allowed to play San Francisco County schools, because we have a county splitting us. So now, they're getting rid of the adjunct county rule, but the Department of San Francisco Public Health is saying, ‘We're not sure we want to play Santa Clara County yet.’ So, I'm just happy we get to have the balls bouncing.

Now that you're starting to be able to practice again, what's that like getting into the gym?
Well, it's been amazing to be able to get into a gym, because we've been relegated to outdoor play, and it had been comprised of social distancing – lots of individual skill work and shooting. And so now, we're able with testing to get into the gym and incorporate live play. There's just a wonderful sense of joy and gratitude. The atmosphere in the gym is fantastic. Kids are so happy to be playing, so are the coaches, doing what they love.

How do you try and bring out the best in an athlete? What things do you do to help them reach their potential?
I think potential is a word oftentimes that can be restrictive and also offers a source of freedom as well, right? Because if we tell a player your potential is XYZ, I think it can be limiting. But if you view it from the standpoint of your potential is limitless, then I think they can embrace it with a kind of a different perspective.

So take, for example, Haley Jones, who just played for Stanford, and she was a high school player for me at Archbishop Mitty. And when Haley came in as a freshman, it was very clear that she would be able to play all five positions. And so, when we talk about Haley reaching her potential, we have to take a very pragmatic approach to it and saying, ‘Okay, if you truly can play all five positions, then we need to approach it that way.’ So instead of spending your freshman year working with the guards, we're going to actually rotate days, so some days, you're going to work with the wings, some days you're going to work with the point guards and then some days you're going to work with posts with your back to the basket.

And so, keep in mind, your development might be a little bit slower in a particular area, but over the course of four years, you're going have a much more holistic approach to the game and a well-rounded toolbox as a basketball player.

Coming out of Mitty her senior year, she was the top recruit in the country, and to her credit, she really bought into that formula and that philosophy about allowing a player to reach their potential. If we talk about it being limitless, then we are going to build a basketball player that continues to complement their current skill set and yet is broad in what they can do on the basketball floor.

Where do you look for help when you are trying to figure out the best approach to a challenge, or even for new ideas for on the court?
Oh, geez, I think with the internet nowadays, it's limitless. Being able to access USA Basketball’s multiple resources, the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) has a wonderful library. And I think we can't forget that we can get information from anyone. I learn from the field hockey coach. I learn from the volleyball coach. I learn from a math colleague on how to better communicate or teach a particular concept. I think it's really important to be open minded about who we get information from and that we remain a lifelong learner – that we continue to evolve, not just in our ability to teach, not just in our knowledge, but also in our ability to communicate with today's youth. I think we have to continue to evolve.

I got my master's in performance psychology, and that was one of the things that really motivated me – this idea of how can I be a better communicator to my staff, my players and parents? How can I be better at motivating? Because I grew up in an era where there was the carrot and there was the stick, right? And we really can't implement the stick. It's not appropriate anymore. I mean, there's consequences and there's holding kids accountable, but truly, when we talk about it being motivational, we never want to create a divisive tactic to make that happen.

I think I go to all corners, all walks of life, all different types of fields of study and different professions, in terms of just being able to get better and evolve as a coach and a teacher.

Is it true that some of the old ways of coaching are no longer acceptable?
I think there's a distinction between being intense, and there's a distinction between yelling. I think we have to understand that you can be intense and you can be loud, but you should never be demeaning.

Are there general principles you rely on in terms of how to deal with parents and guardians?
So, I also run a nonprofit for grades four through 11 – the San Jose Cagers. It’s a club program. It's an AAU program. I learned a long time ago that I needed parents to help me operate this club at a high level. And so, I was making sure that I was addressing the needs of the parents.

I now have started to come from a collaborative approach that we are working in conjunction to help their daughters reach their goals. When I was a young coach, I tried to stay in my box and tried to keep very clear boundaries. And of course, there are certain things that you don't discuss, but on the other hand, I think they also need to get to know you. And, I do think that there are a lot of opportunities to be collaborative, and to understand that we should communicate and have open lines of communication.

For example, when I'm choosing whether a student-athlete should be on varsity or JV, I actually do meet with the students as well as their parents and we talk about the pros and cons. Because when you find that there is some ownership in the decision, there tends to be more ownership in the process. The tail is not wagging the dog, and they're not making the decision, but I do think it's important that everybody dialogues about what are the pros and cons about a kid playing JV versus a kid playing varsity, or freshman for that matter.

Truly, this idea of open lines of communication and taking more of a collaborative approach with parents has gone a long way for me. I think as a younger coach, I was really concerned about establishing those boundaries, and I do think it is a process. Now that I'm almost 30 years here and doing this a long time and the reputation precedes itself and the expectation, the rules are kind of established, I now have that confidence and that freedom to communicate with parents a little more openly about the set of expectations and get a feel for how their daughter's doing, what their experience has been thus far, what are their dreams? What are their goals? I think it is great to have this conversation with the parents but also the kid to make sure that they're aligned, because sometimes a parent's goals and expectations don't necessarily align with the kid’s, and you have to make sure that they are somewhat one in the same.

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