The Gold Standard
U.S. Women’s Olympic Basketball Coach Anne Donovan
As one of the most highly decorated women’s basketball players in U.S. history, Hall of Famer Anne Donovan will lead the charge at the Beijing Olympic Games.COACH: You were born and raised in Ridgewood, NJ, and attended Paramus (NJ) Catholic High School, where you enjoyed stellar basketball success, becoming the most sought after recruit in the country as the 1979 National High School Player of the Year. What was your childhood like? How were you able to handle and cope with all of the accolades, acclaim, and pressures on your time as a young student-athlete?
DONOVAN: When you’re the youngest of eight kids from a family that struggled to make ends meet, it’s really easy to stay humble and grounded. Especially when you had a great family support group as I did. And older brothers and sisters to remind me that I was the youngest and that they were in charge. So I was very blessed to come from the family that I did.
We were a really close-knit family, so a lot of my time was spent at home. I tried my hand at volleyball and high-jumping, and, fortunately, found out pretty early on that I wasn’t very good at either one of them. But that did provide some outlets to keep my mind off of basketball every day of the week.
COACH: At Old Dominion University you were a three-time All-American and a Naismith Award winner as the premier player in the country. Tell us what it was like to play women’s collegiate basketball during that era, before widespread television coverage and the popularity of the modern Women’s Final Four?
DONOVAN: The thing that really strikes me is that there were great rivalries, even back then. Old Dominion and Tennessee were some of the best rivalries in women’s basketball. So you still had contests that were well attended but not near the numbers you get now for the Top 10 or Top 20 programs. Of course, it culminated in the Final Four where we always drew a great crowd but never had a national TV audience. It’s just a different game we’re talking of today. But I want to stress that we did have a great following, it was just in smaller pockets of the country.
COACH: Upon your retirement as a professional player in Japan and Italy, you became an assistant coach at your alma mater, ODU, from 1989-95. You then took over as the head coach at East Carolina, where you led the Lady Pirates for three seasons (1995-97). At what point did you start to consider coaching as a vocation? What did you learn about yourself during your formative coaching years?
DONOVAN: As a player, I didn’t expect to be a coach. At the end of my playing career, which ended pretty abruptly, for health reasons, Wendy Larry offered me a position at Old Dominion as a volunteer coach. I quickly became enchanted with the profession and just the impact that I felt I could have on the younger players. Staying involved with the game was obviously something that attracted me as well. It was my early years at Old Dominion that I decided this was a career that I really did aspire to. It fueled my passion. Not just to stay involved in the game but to help people, which is something I really enjoy doing.
COACH: What was it like to make that transition from player to coach? How were you able to gain the respect of the players, many of whom grew up watching you play and may have been in awe?
DONOVAN: Fortunately I had played six years of pro ball, so I was six years older than the players in college. It took me a while to get the hang of it. It was so much easier as a player to just do it. To show people how to do it and not necessarily articulate a philosophy or fundamental, it took me a while before I got better and more skilled at it. But I think because I had the six year stretch there where I was out of the college game, it was easy for those players to adjust to me as a coach. It was more my adjustment into being a coach that was probably the biggest challenge.
COACH: What were some of the things that you struggled with early on? How were you able to adapt to the coaching lifestyle, not only helping with practices and in-game situations, but dealing with external issues as well?
DONOVAN: As an assistant coach you are always chomping at the bit after a couple of years to get your own program, to get your own experiences. I had great training under Wendy Larry at Old Dominion and then many of the coaches with the U.S. Women’s National team. My training as a coach came in handy by playing for so many years. But once you get into the driver’s seat and you are six inches over and you’re making decisions, not just game time decisions, but everyday decisions – whether it’s academics or the well being of your student-athletes – it takes on a whole new meaning. Then, you feel like you are prepared, but you are never fully prepared until you actually step into that role.
COACH: Aside from Wendy Larry, who are some of the other coaches who have influenced your coaching philosophy?
DONOVAN: My philosophy really has been built on all of the coaches I have had and picking and choosing the things I thought worked as a player and things I didn’t think worked. All of those different people and all of those experiences helped mold me. Without a doubt, Marianne Stanley, who was my college coach, had a big impact and today remains one of my biggest mentors. Rose Battaglia, my high school coach, was the one who instilled in me and my sister, the importance of fundamentals. That has to be the gauge for everything that you achieve later on. Dr. Battaglia remains one of my mentors.
Then, working under Kate Yow, Pat Summitt, just some of the greatest coaches in the game, was so valuable. They taught me so much as a player as how to look at the game differently and approach it tactically.
COACH: One of the most common coaching mistakes is to provide inaccurate feedback and advice on how to correct errors. Good coaches can recognize when their players make two types of errors: learning errors and performance errors. What is your approach when it comes to detecting and correcting errors?
DONOVAN: That was definitely something I had to learn. I remember my first couple of seasons at East Carolina, when I was a first-time head coach; I was pretty hard on the players when I took that program over. It’s a technique and a skill where you have to encourage as you teach and not be too hard on the players, particularly considering the level of players I had at East Carolina. For me it was trial by fire. I learned that what I was doing initially wasn’t necessarily motivating. I had to find a fine balance of how to motivate, teach, and encourage that would benefit all of us – the student-athlete as well as our program.
COACH: Although you had a big advantage playing at 6-foot-8 during your scholastic, collegiate, and professional careers, you were an exceptional rebounder and shot blocker. While a height advantage is certainly a plus, what specific things can a coach instruct his or her players on in order to become a defensive force?
DONOVAN: With defense, it helps to be tall, it helps to be athletic, and it helps to have instinct. But the No. 1 thing is just the heart of the player and the desire to play defense. No glory is to be gained at the defensive end of the floor. It’s all about the commitment to play it for the betterment of the team. There’s no individual accolade that comes with that end of the floor. To me, it’s about finding the right players that want to buy into the system that you preach as a coach. And then cultivating the team atmosphere to promote that end of the floor.
COACH: Some coaches are wary of disciplinary action fearing it may have an adverse effect. What is your approach? How can a coach use discipline to his or her advantage?
DONOVAN: Discipline all comes down to respect. The core of what we do is respect for the athlete and it’s respect for the coach in return. It’s something that you can’t demand. You have to gain and earn it through how you teach and your consistency. I think discipline is a necessary tool in that regard – setting some guidelines and making sure that you are not afraid to toe the line if the consequence needs to be played out. It’s challenging. But I think the key element is having mutual respect and then having consistency.
COACH: You were a member of 12 U.S. national teams as a player and served as an assistant to Van Chancellor on the 2002 World Championship and 2004 Olympic gold medal squads. How does that experience both as a player and coach help in not only building a successful team but dealing with all of the peripheral issues?
DONOVAN: My experiences as both a player and as an assistant coach have really set me up for what I am doing now. Working with some many different people you learn primarily that there’s no one way to do anything. Almost every personality – every coach or teammate – that I have worked with had a different style and way of approaching the game. You have to be flexible and you have to adapt but, No. 1, you have to stay true to you and what your philosophies are.
COACH: How has being an Olympic assistant helped prepare you as a head coach in international competition? How will that affect your coaching style, if any? What is the greatest difference between coaching in the WNBA game and the Olympics?
DONOVAN: I think the No. 1 advantage of being an Olympic assistant was just getting a feel for what’s out there and being involved, all the way through Athens, and seeing how much the rest of the world was catching up to us. And feeling that sense of urgency that we had work to do in order to stay on top. The primary difference between the WNBA and the Olympics is the schedule. For instance, this past fall we went to Chile, Russia, we played a string of college games – eight cities in 15 days. The demands of the international schedule can take its toll. So you’re constantly looking ahead and looking at the big picture whereas in the WNBA every day is the big picture and every day there is a sense of urgency. With the international game, you have to continually remind the players that this is translating, hopefully, into a gold medal in Beijing this summer.
COACH: Based on the development of the USA Women’s National Team, how would you assess the strengths and weaknesses of the squad heading into the Beijing Games? Which countries present the biggest challenges en route to the gold medal?
DONOVAN: I think that there is no doubt we will field the most talented team in the Olympics. We have the most talent and probably the deepest team of any country that will be represented in Beijing. Our biggest challenge is the short-term training that we have with the 10-12 players that will represent us in Beijing. We’ve trained a ton of players over the last two years but the final squad that will go to Beijing will be very different. So developing that chemistry over a short time will be crucial. The greatest competition for us will definitely be Australia and Russia. I think China will do well as the host country but there’s no arguing that Australia, Russia, and the United States are the three premier teams in the world.
COACH: You were a member of three U.S. Olympic teams (1980, 1984, and 1988). Since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the U.S. women have gone 39-1 in Olympic competition, having won three straight gold medals and five of the last six (the U.S. won a bronze in 1992). When you look at the current landscape of international teams and players, do you foresee a not too distant time where our U.S. women will encounter the same fate our U.S. men have as far as the rest of the world catching up and passing us? Is it inevitable?
DONOVAN: I hope not. I know right now the Executive Committee and the people who run U.S.A. Basketball are trying desperately to make sure that the women’s program doesn’t follow the same route as the men’s. The continuity of their players and program over the years has had a lot to do with why they lost the gold medal. With the women’s program, we are trying very hard to get our players to show up for training and we’ve got new challenges because the foreign leagues are presenting such great financial gains for our players. We are really pressing them to commit to our training vs the salaries they are making overseas. I really feel like we can stay ahead, but this summer in Beijing is going to be the key. We’ve piecemealed our training over the last two years and hopefully it will pay off when we get to China.
COACH: As a pioneer and figurehead for the women’s game, what is your take on the current state of women’s basketball and the opportunities that are currently available for female players and coaches on every level?
DONOVAN: I am just in awe. I feel so good about the opportunities that are out there now for girls and for female coaches. Girls are growing up with much better coaching. It’s happening at the grassroots level. Not just when they get to certain high school programs or a premier college program. I don’t think I ever dreamed that we would have a league like the WNBA in my lifetime. So not only to see it happening and flourishing and still developing, but to be a part of that process has been extremely fulfilling. I lead a very blessed life.
COACH: What kind of advice would you give to a young female coach who is obviously bent on making a career out of basketball? What trials and tribulations can she look forward to? And what can she do to stay the course?
DONOVAN: Stay true to yourself. It’s about understanding who you are and what your philosophies are and acquiring as many different experiences as you can to build those philosophies. You will be successful as long as you stay true to yourself.
About the Author
Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.