March 10, 2016
By Brad Muller | More Features
With three consecutive Southeastern Conference championships, winning is serious business for the South Carolina women’s basketball program, but winning in the classroom has long been a top priority for head coach Dawn Staley. That’s one of the reasons she creates academic teams within her own program.
“What I like most about it is that it’s competition,” Staley said. “When it’s all said and done, these players compete. We want them to compete no matter what they’re doing. Whether they’re on the court or academically. It’s all about trying to advance yourself, and the best way that we can relate to that as athletes is through competition. So we just try to create that intra-squad competition with the academic piece.”
“Dawn has always been really strong academically,” said assistant coach Fred Chmiel, who also worked with Staley during her days as Temple’s head coach. “She feels like they have to have great balance.”
The 14 Gamecocks are divided evenly between three coaches, so each could have a maximum of five student-athletes under their supervision. The teams are assigned so that those individuals who may need the most attention are not overwhelming the same coach.
“We’ll go over their academic plan, whatever their academic advisors and tutors have gone over with them, and we’ll double and triple check it so there are layers, just like our defense out on the floor,” Chmiel said. “If somebody gets beat with the dribble, there is always somebody there to catch them and help them out. It’s the same way in the classroom.”
“When I first came in I didn’t really like it,” said junior center Alaina Coates. “I thought we would just have study-halls and that would be it. Now, I like having the academic teams because it’s a necessary thing to make sure I’m keeping up with all that I have going on. They have all of my syllabi, so they know what I have coming up. I like it now because it keeps me more organized.”
“Coach Staley expects a lot out of us in the classroom,” said senior guard Khadijah Sessions. “She doesn’t like it if you’re late for class and things like that, so she’ll take basketball away and make you pay for it if you mess up in the classroom. We are student-athletes, so she wants us to sit in the first three rows of the classroom, and she wants us to go to our teachers’ offices and speak to them because communication is always the key, not just on the court.”
Coaches have a busy schedule with practices, travel, scouting and recruiting, but Chmiel said they all take pride in seeing the student-athletes achieve in the classroom. In the spirit of competition, individuals on the academic teams earn points each time they meet with their mentor or tutor, by accumulating any study hall hours beyond their designated study time, by completing extra credit assignments, and of course by increasing their grade point average from the previous semester. Being late for any meetings or unexcused absences results in a deduction of points. This leads to friendly competition off the court.
“There is a lot of competition because we’re coaches,” Chmiel said. “We’ll talk about how our group of kids are doing well, and have met all of their appointments. There is a different point scale for all of that. We’re very competitive. We want all of our kids to stay on track academically. If a kid had a ‘C’ average last semester, and they get an ‘A’ average this semester, it’s a big deal. So yeah, we talk a little bit of trash with each other.”
When it’s all said and done, these players compete. We want them to compete no matter what they’re doing. Whether they’re on the court or academically.
“Of course we’re competitive,” Sessions said. “Tiffany Mitchell, Asia Dozier and I have been on the same team all four years, and we have not lost (the academic competition) since we’ve been here. We don’t plan on losing this year. We take that seriously. To go undefeated in the classroom is a really big thing that we take a lot of pride in.”
“They’re very competitive, especially towards the end of the year when grades are finalized,” said academic advisor Xavier Shannon. “The kids know about it too. They’re competitive because they don’t want to let their academic coach down. So sometimes they throw it in each other’s faces for who is going to have the highest grade point average. That’s a good kind of trash talking.”
Having nearly lost a player due to an academic issue while coaching at Temple helped inspire Staley to develop additional measures focusing on the academic progress of her student-athletes. Fortunately, that student-athlete was able to rebound in the classroom and eventually graduate.
“It was important for me that in our office, whether we have an academic advisor or not, that nothing slips through the cracks,” Staley said. “So we take that very seriously. The same type of meetings they have with our academic advisor, Xavier Shannon, are the same type of meetings they’re going to have with their academic coaches. Then our academic coaches, Xavier and I can all meet once a week to go over everybody’s schedule. It’s really important for us to stay on top of things.”
South Carolina student-athletes have regular meetings with academic advisors, with the women’s basketball program falling under the supervision of Shannon. Part of his job is to educate the student-athletes in areas that extend beyond academics
“Our staff is here to teach them the dos and don’ts” Shannon said. “We educate them about building relationships on campus, with their advisor, with professors, with other student-athletes and other people they come in contact with while they’re here. We help them attain their lifelong goals. The ultimate thing is graduation.”
The academic coaches meet with their team members individually each week, take notes on how they are doing, and report that to Staley. This extra layer of academic support is somewhat unique and can help identify problems an individual may be having, making it easier for the academic advisors to do their job as well.
“I may meet with a student in the morning, and we’ll talk about what’s going on in class,” Shannon said. “Their academic coach may see them at three o’clock and ask for the same information. So they might get certain information before I do, or vice versa. It’s a checks and balances thing. That’s the best part about it.”
“Being that we have so many sources to go to with academics, it’s a big help,” Sessions said. “Having more people involved is a good thing. I know sometimes Xavier might be busy helping someone else, so I can go to my (academic) coach to talk about something.”
“If there are any red flags, we talk to Xavier immediately, and he is communicating with instructors and professors to make sure the student-athletes are doing what they’re supposed to do,” Chmiel said. “Xavier plans out their week. He is really thorough. We meet with him once per week. All of our academic coaches meet once per week with Coach Staley, which is unusual that a head coach will take that block of time out of their day every week to meet with academic advisors and academic coaches. It helps. She can take a kid that maybe didn’t do as well in high school in the classroom, and we can help them through the process and coach them up outside of the basketball court.”
These additional checks and balances help identify any potential problems before they are allowed to grow or fester into something bigger.
“Kids feel connections with certain people, and they don’t feel connections with other people,” Chmiel said. “If I can bring a kid in here, and she can tell me she’s having a hard time understanding a professor, and they don’t want to tell their advisor, or vice versa, there are enough layers in place. It’s a big enough safety net where we can catch things and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”
"To go undefeated in the classroom is a really big thing that we take a lot of pride in."
Recognizing that an athletic playing career will eventually end, whether it’s after college or after a professional career for those who are able, the end goal is to have the student-athletes making progress toward earning their degree. In addition to that, another rationale for the academic teams is to make sure the student-athletes realize that they’re not in this all by themselves.
“You always want to make sure that they don’t feel overwhelmed, or that they are alone, or can’t ask for help,” Chmiel said. “Coach Staley and this school are great about providing everything they need to have a chance to succeed academically.
“I can tell if a player comes into practice and her head is down, and I’ll know it’s because maybe she didn’t do so well on a test or maybe she stayed up all night studying for that test. Or maybe she has three tests that week and a paper due. It’s important to know each facet of their life and understand it. So this helps.”
When it’s all said and done, the team concept off the court translates into better knowledge of what’s happening in the lives of the Gamecocks on a daily basis beyond grades and basketball.
“It’s not just about academics,” Chmiel said. “It’s about bringing a kid in and making sure they are taken care of and not overwhelmed with not only academics and basketball, but with life in general. It’s more than just an academic meeting. We want to make sure they leave here with more than basketball. Dawn is really serious about academics. She will take basketball away if the academic needs aren’t being met.”
“Academics is very important to Coach Staley,” Shannon said. “When I first started working with the team, she told me that academics trumps all. We meet every week, and we speak daily. Academics is a big deal with the team. We’ve done study halls on Thanksgiving in the Bahamas while at a tournament, and we’ve done study halls on the mornings of the Final Four. It just shows that academics are really important."
“They do it for our best interests,” Coates said. “They want us to be successful in life. So you can’t help but appreciate the things they do for us in order for us to be successful in life.”
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