Tegan Cunningham played 156 WNBL games with Adelaide Lightning, Logan Thunder, Dandenong Rangers and Melbourne Boomers including one WNBL Championship. This followed 138 US college games with Seward County Community College and Oklahoma State University. In this article Tegan reflects on the qualities of her coaches that had the biggest impact on her as a player.
It’s a rare occurrence to find a coach who is willing to get to know a player away from the basketball court.
My first year of college basketball was mentally and physically exhausting. To begin with, I had moved across the globe, and entered a fishbowl-like environment, where I didn’t know a single person. I do remember my coach, Coach Wynn, telling me I must visit with him in his office every day for the next two weeks. The first visit I made was a slightly awkward experience. He asked me routine questions like “Are you enjoying your time here so far?” and “Are you over the jet lag yet?”
I started to wonder why we were scheduling these types of catch ups every day. It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth catch up that I started to see what he was doing. He was building a relationship with me away from the court and getting to know me for me – not just as Tegan, the Australian player on his team. Questions soon turned into conversations, and he got to know what makes me tick, what I’m afraid of, and most importantly who I was as a person. Trust is the first stage to any relationship, and it’s my time with Coach Wynn where I really was able to learn the true value and meaning of trusting a coach. Having earned my trust, I was willing to do whatever I could to get a win for him. This game is far more important than the X’s and O’s so many coaches worry about.
Heading into a new WNBL team – as a player or a coach – can be a very daunting task. My first year with the Dandenong Rangers in 2010/11 was confronting, simply because I found myself playing alongside many stars of the game. I would often receive a near perfect pass, only to fumble the ball. I didn’t even realise I was open, yet my teammates would somehow see a path, allowing the ball to end up in my hands. My coach at the time was Mark Wright, and he was in his second year as head coach of the team.
We had just passed the halfway point of the season, and were sitting towards the bottom end of the ladder. My team had the talent, there was absolutely no doubt about that, but we weren’t winning the games we should have been winning. Mark decided to hold a team meeting to analyse where we were at. All players and coaches would attend and were invited to speak freely about how they were feeling. Most of us had been involved in similar meetings before, and it’s quite common that during these meetings, the younger players feel intimidated and end up not offering any input.
Our meeting was heading in a similar direction. Mark stood up and said “I’m going to leave the room, with the coaching staff, and I want you all to talk among yourselves. When I return, I want you to tell me what I’m currently doing well, and what I can improve on to help get the best out of you all”.
No one would disagree that that it was a brave and bold move on his part! Once Mark left you’d be amazed at how the room shifted and everyone – even the youngest team members – started to voice their opinions. This automatically created a sense that all players felt like they were equal, even with the big-name stars on our team. Once Mark returned we began to discuss how we, the players, felt as a whole. He took everything we said on board and adjusted accordingly. This was the start of effective communication, in an environment where it’s not typically easy to do so, but we as players, all left that meeting feeling completely on the same page. There were no grey areas. No uncertainties. We didn’t lose a game for the rest of the season, and went on to become WNBL Champions that year.
I’m not saying that having that type of open forum is the key to success, but having that level of open communication certainly is. When you know how your teammates are feeling, you know how to help them overcome the problems that they and you will face together.