Nike Enlists A’ja Wilson, Shalane Flanagan and Others to Talk the Impact Coaches Have on Girls in Sports

Nike’s efforts to make sports fun and welcoming for girls knows no bounds.

A month after releasing its Made to Play Coaching Girls Guide, which was geared toward giving coaches what they need to eliminate barriers specific to girls in sport, the athletic powerhouse continued its pro-girls initiative yesterday by gathering four women athletes who have made it to the top of their respective professions. Here, the group discussed the long-term impact great coaches have had on their careers.

For its Made to Play Coaching Girls athlete panel yesterday, Nike enlisted Olympic medalist long-distance runner Shalane Flanagan, decorated runner Marielle Hall, WNBA 2020 Most Valuable Player A’ja Wilson and National Women’s Soccer League star Sophia Smith. The 45-minute virtual discussion was moderated by Nike Inc. GM of social and community impact Caitlin Morris.

Below are standout quotes from the discussion from Flanagan, Hall, Wilson and Smith who shared stories about their favorite coaches and explained how the coaches’ leadership was critical in their future success.

Shalane Flanagan
Retired long-distance runner and current Nike Coach

“I’m in a very unique position. I work with very high end athletes that are extremely motivated, so in general I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of pushing on my end to have them reach their potential. If anything, I help them rein in their enthusiasm because they are extremely motivated. At the end of the day, I focus on the fundamentals of them as a human and cultivating just a really safe environment where they can feel like themselves and they feel happy because I feel like I have happy athletes they tend to exceed their potential in that capacity. I also try to make sure that they’re all-in in their commitment. And the attention to detail is what is going to differentiate them from making their Olympic team or being on an Olympic podium — if I were honing in with my athletes, it’s that. To draw out the best in them it’s just having them go all in on this unique opportunity that’s in front of them, knowing that at this elite level it’s really minute details that make the difference.”

Marielle Hall
Olympic long-distance runner

“This goes back to what I share with the 10-plus women that I train with in Portland. We all kind of gave up our comfort zones, our families, the familiarity of where we grew up and what we knew to move to Oregon and be in Portland because of the vision Shalane had when she was an athlete and now a coach — creating an environment for women to train at a really high level. In sport and through work there’s the idea that we can all work together and raise one another to new bounds and new platforms. I moved to Portland based on a phone call I had with Shalane when she was training for the New York Marathon. I moved because of the conversation and the comfort I felt with her as a person and what she believed would be possible not for me but for anyone who chose to put themselves in an environment where a lot was going to be asked of them and where they could really be challenged. That’s what I really appreciated about her as a coach. It’s not all tales of what you can do or what you can accomplish. As an athlete, what I appreciate is having the space and opportunity to come into my own with the support of just a really great person, aside from her achievements.”

A’ja Wilson
WNBA 2020 Most Valuable Player, Las Vegas Aces

“[Basketball] is a team sport and you feed off energy, you feed off the vibes around you and when there’s positive vibes you play well. I have to give that all to Coach Staley. Dawn Staley is someone that I say she’s my second mom because she’ll cuss me out about missing the rebound and at the same time talk about what I have going on and say I need to go change my shorts because they are too short. She has a motherly feeling and it made me, as a player, want to play for her. I knew that I wanted to be great and I knew I wanted to be good at what I do, but when you have someone like that, a coach that makes you feel comfortable and has your back, it makes you want to play for so much more and not really give up even though it may not be your day. There’s some times I was just out of it but I knew I wanted to play well and do well for her because it looked good on her end. Connecting with a coach is something major to me because it’s just a good feeling and I love the vibe that she brings — it’s just so welcoming. I can’t even express how much I’m like, ‘You know what? No matter what, I’m going to play for Coach Staley because she’s done so much.’ It’s one of the reasons why I chose South Carolina, because she’s someone that has done everything that I want to do. I was like, ‘I can’t go to another school because she’s been through it, she’s done what I want to do.’ And she is a black woman in the NCAA, a head coach, and that’s something that you don’t see a lot of. She’s turned programs around. That connection I have with her is what I love. It’s a love-hate relationship, not even going to lie, but our connection is something that is going to go further than the four years I played with [South Carolina].”

Sophia Smith
National Women’s Soccer League star, Portland Thorns FC

“I left college early to go play professionally, and that was something that I think I knew that maybe two other female athletes in soccer who have done that, so it’s not common. And it’s definitely hard as a female to put so much passion into your sport, because a lot of people think that that’s not what a female athlete does, essentially. There’s a lot of barriers that female athletes face that our male counterparts don’t have to face —a big one is people just don’t think [female] athletes are capable of achieving great things, they think that it doesn’t take the same amount of talent, it doesn’t take the same amount of hard work to achieve high things, even the same things that that male athletes are doing. Female athletes don’t get enough credit for what they do from what they’ve put their bodies through. It’s underestimating the work that goes into being a female athlete as opposed to a male athlete. A big thing is female athletes a lot of times feel like they can’t be passionate, that they can’t be athletic, a baller, they can’t have swag because they’re a female athlete. I think it’s getting better but there’s still a huge amount of disparities between female and male athletes that needs to be addressed, that needs to be fixed. And I think coaching can be a huge part of that. When a coach believes in you, whether it’s a male or female coach, and they have respect for you and respect for your game, that can put confidence in you and allow you to realize that who cares if I’m a female athlete? I love being a female athlete. I can achieve the same things that a male athlete can achieve and my gender isn’t going to stop me from doing that. The biggest thing for me is having that mutual respect, because if you don’t have respect for your coach, at the end of the day you’re probably not going to listen to them and trust that what they say is in your best interest, whether you you want to hear it or not. When I was younger, I would train with boys all the time. The first few times I went I kind of was intimidated, I felt like I couldn’t really be myself. I kind of had to lay back when I knew I was better than every single guy on that field but I didn’t want to, I just didn’t want to be too cocky. I remember my coach saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re out there to get better, who cares what all these guys think of you? At the end of the day, your training with them to be a better soccer player, and if that’s your goal, if that’s what you want to do, you just can’t care.'”

Access exclusive content