371 Days and 14 Ugly Ducklings Later
by Amanda Butler with Janna Magette, Ph.D.
A year and six days ago I was hired. By Dan Radakovich. As the head women’s basketball coach of the Clemson Tigers. Last time I wrote you, my future was undetermined and I had just spent a year controlling what I could control. And today is no different. In fact, we celebrate everything from this year tonight at our banquet. This year was marked by freshness, excitement, gratitude, unpredictability, work, disappointment, and overwhelming achievement, including…
During and after our season, coaches and others have asked me what I and our staff did to create the turnaround at Clemson. Did we implement new basketball strategy and develop team culture? Did we develop individual skills and character? Did I use information and knowledge from my gap year with the NBA? Yes, to all of the above. But the true magic of this season does not lie with me or my staff, though my staff is amazing! It lies with the 14 women who chose to out-believe and out-work their former selves. It lies in their willingness to trust and love us and each other. They did not have to embrace us and our ideals, but they chose to…EVERYDAY! And our goal everyday was the same everyday…let’s just get a little bit better. Here are a few thoughts from the year of the UGLY DUCK:
Our program operates under two philosophies: TLC and HYBLAW. TLC stands for the program’s core values of trust, loyalty, and commitment. As you see, EVERYTHING (i.e. communication, practice effort, recruiting filter) we do is rooted in these three concepts. HYBLAW stands for Handle Your Business Like a Woman. When we are out on the town on a Friday night, when we get in late from a road trip and have an 8 a.m. class the next morning, or when we have played really hard but still lost... HYBLAW. This standard of operating was a reminder of our responsibilities as members of the Clemson team and community and all of the expectations that are attached to that distinction. Kobi Thornton, a now senior, reflects on what made Team 44 special, “Even when we faced adversity, it wasn’t a dreadful thing. We used it to our advantage. We learned from it, we had vulnerable moments together and I think that’s what really strengthened the trust between every player and every coach. Just to be involved with people who want to see you get better, grow, and have your best interest was a blessing."
Through TLC and HYBLAW, another identity began to emerge specific to Team 44. In a routine session with team sport psychologist, Dr. Katie Nichols, the team unknowingly hand picked who they wanted to be. Dr. Nichols recalls, “I asked the girls to each select a picture that embodied this team. One of these pictures was a group of baby ducklings following the mama duck. They described how this represented the trust they have for Coach Butler and the coaching staff, and how they’ve come to own the ugly style of basketball they play. In fact, another picture selected was fire, to represent how when they play this ugly duckling style of basketball, they can be quite dangerous to play.” Then senior point guard Dani Edwards echoed this mentality, “The uglier the game was the more in favor it was to us and we were committed to following our ugly duckling leader, AB, because we knew she was going to take us places we never been before.” Now you know the label of ugly duckling came from the team, not me. They selected it, brought it to life, and made it their super power.
From day one, there were two things the team knew they were going to get from me: trust and hard work. I also asked the same of them: show me I can trust you and show me how hard you work. Those two traits set the tone for our summer together. “I think we exceeded because we won in the summer. Our summer was very crucial to our success. We got to know each other on and off the court. We gained a sense of trust. We laid the foundation of what TLC truly means and most importantly we never got away from what made us special,” said then sophomore, Destiny Thomas.
In taking trust one step further, my team had a positive relationship with feedback. Team 44 wasn’t scared to hear the truth…ever. They embraced the truth about who they were and didn’t give energy to who they weren’t. Feedback that was hard to hear was used as information to improve and never perceived as a personal attack on ability or effort. There’s a timeless truth that we usually try to find flaw with those who are giving us feedback that we don’t want to hear. Team 44 chose to be elite at hearing and applying the truth.
When trust and truth exist in a room, the seeds of love have found their soil. Team 44 had “wins” everyday because of the way they loved each other and competed for each other. We asked them at the beginning of the year to answer one simple question as it related to being a great teammate. Then to try and apply the answer to that question in every scenario of the season. That question was and is…what does love require of me? If we strive to live within this framework, then our choices and responses will be rooted in relationship and the greater good. Kobi Thornton shares, “This season was by far the best since I’ve been at Clemson not only because we won games but because the relationships everyone had with each other off the court. I can honestly say that Clemson felt like my home away from home. The love the coaches have for us and that we have for each other, you noticed it every time we stepped on the court. From the bench energy to how tight our huddles were. Things were just ... fun.”
Throughout the course of a season, distractions come disguised in very cool packages like our phones and social media. Team 44 was picked 15th in the ACC in the pre-season polls. That’s last place, FYI. This served as a motivator for Thornton. “We loved being the underdog or less favored team going into each game. We felt as if we didn’t have anything to lose, so why not go out there and exhaust yourself. Also, being projected as the last team in the ACC was just fuel to the fire.” If any of us allowed the opinions of others to determine anything that we thought about ourselves, our chance to make the NCAA tournament, let alone the second round, would have been dead on arrival. Our greatest team strength this season was that we knew exactly who we were and we didn’t care about who we weren’t. We didn’t allow any voice, any article, any tweet, any weakness, or even any outcome to distract us from who we were. Dani Edwards explains this, “The loyalty piece was very apparent to me when we went through adversity. Through our rough times this year no one ever doubted our coaches or our teammates but we stayed loyal to each other to believing in each other and we were always resilient in tough situations.” We simply refused to give energy to things that weren’t our advantages. We had to discover WHO we were first though and make that identity the most important thing on the court no matter who the competition was and then we had a chance to compete.
We then had to create standards around WHO we were and WHO we wanted to become. One of these standards and another unique characteristic of Team 44 was that we had our own ideas about what it meant to be talented. Traditional definitions of talent didn’t matter to us. We shaped our own ideas about what it meant to be talented. Talent to us was toughness, resilience, fearlessness, ability to hear the truth no matter how difficult. Rising Senior Chyna Cotton added, “No one had to beg anyone to do extra. We wanted to. We were fierce.”
I mentioned one of our talents was our ability to hear the truth. That’s an idea worth going a little deeper into. The truth about my team was that we weren’t very good on offense. Sounds like a pretty limiting circumstance doesn’t it? Two things happened around that idea. First, there was a season long commitment to working on it. Second, very rarely did anyone ever do something on offense in a game that she hadn’t built confidence in outside of practice and that she then started applying in practice. We didn’t take shots that we weren’t good at…even when we were wide open! We didn’t get caught up in moments that didn’t match what made us good. We simply set out to make the next moment into something that was more about who we were.
The last time I wrote you I did it because I wanted to share. And that is true here again today. But the other reason is to salute Team 44, my ugly ducklings, and give credit where credit is due. Maybe you’ll read something in this post that you like and find helpful. But what I really hope for you is that at some point in your career, you’ll get to experience a group as special as the one I joined this season. Don’t get it wrong, they let me in. They made this season what it was. It will forever be a small part of their stories and a huge, historical part of Clemson’s and mine.