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Dawn Staley explains how Lindsay Whalen can be a WNBA player and college basketball coach at the same time

Whalen is in for a busy year. Nobody knows that better than Dawn Staley.

Mississippi State v South Carolina Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

“I don’t like to sleep,” Dawn Staley says. “I’ve never liked to sleep.”

That’s a good thing because the head coach of Team USA women’s basketball and the South Carolina Gamecocks hardly has time for it. She never really has.

Staley isn’t known just for 11 seasons as a professional player or for her national championship as a coach at South Carolina. She’s also known for playing professionally AND coaching a college team at the same time.

The WNBA point guard legend is in the Hall of Fame as a six-time all-star. She earned five of those selections while simultaneously coaching Temple women’s basketball to six NCAA tournament appearances.

Staley blazed her own trail. Now Lindsay Whalen, a legend in Minnesota, will try to follow in her footsteps. The University of Minnesota announced April 12 that Whalen would return to her alma mater to be the women’s team’s new head coach.

“She’s got to get her workout in first thing in the morning,” Staley told reporters during a recent conference call. “Because if you don’t, your whole day becomes about somebody else.”

Whalen — the WNBA’s third all-time leader in assists and all-time leader in wins — isn’t done playing just yet though. She’s got her eye on title No. 5 with the Minnesota Lynx, and what could be her first back-to-back.

The timing of it all seems impossible. Whalen will report to training camp in the final week of April, just more than three weeks before the WNBA season begins. For four months, while the rest of the nation’s coaches will be resting, preparing for their next season, and recruiting for the one after, Whalen will run the point for the title-favorite Lynx. Her playing season will minimally last 34 games through August, but in all likelihood she’ll play in the postseason which ends in mid-September.

College basketball tips off in the second week of November.

“As a coach, you have to sacrifice you to give to your staff, your players and your program,” Staley said.

In a conversation with reporters after Whalen landed her coaching gig, Staley answered questions about the challenges of playing while coaching, shared advice for Whalen, and talked about how she was able to succeed.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

What advice would you give to Lindsay as she tries to juggle all these responsibilities in her first year?

Staley: My advice is just to compartmentalize your life. I told Lindsay today that she needs to be a player as long as she can. It is great satisfaction to be on both sides of the whistle. And mentally, it’s a little bit different, it’s a breath of fresh air for her to play for the next four or five months and then get into the swing of things of coaching a college basketball team.

She’s got to get her workout in first thing in the morning. Because if you don’t, your whole day becomes about somebody else. As a coach, you have to sacrifice you to give to your staff, your players, and your program.

Were there things you learned in the first couple of years about what you needed to do and how to prioritize things?

Staley: The first thing I learned is ‘Thank God I don’t have to do this full-time.’ The second thing is, as someone doing both, you’re kind of just getting a taste of what it’s like to be a coach. The good thing about it is you can decide whether you like it, love it, or you don’t.

You always have the game to take your mind of off it as a player. I learned to organize a lot better, compartmentalize a lot better, I learned how to just manage my time a lot better. There’s room to have a social life, there’s room to be a player, there’s room to be a coach as long as you know where you know where need to give your energy to at any given time.

Compare Lindsay Whalen and you both being WNBA players and coaching:

Staley: I think in Lindsay’s case, taking over your alma mater adds a little bit of pressure to the equation. But when you have built-in excitement, it kind of takes the pressure off. You know you’re going to be supported. Now it’s time to just get some experience under your belt and do what naturally comes to you. I don’t think Lindsay Whalen should try to be a coach. I think she should try to be her and do what she does on the floor in leading the Minnesota Lynx to many, many championships. The coaching thing will come later.

Who did you first go to for advice at Temple, and when you coached Lindsay did you see her becoming a coach one day?

Staley: I’m not afraid to ask for help, but I like to try things on my own first. Just because I want to shape it myself. I did have coaching friends, Lisa Boyer was a coaching friend for me. The first two years I ran everything by her because she was a really good friend of mine and I valued her thought process. She wasn’t telling me what to do, she was just kind of guiding me. Once I figured out I need someone like her, I started recruiting her from the WNBA. I was sharpening my recruiting skills on her, because when you come into this business, you need people who have your back.

Lindsay decided to do this because she wants to coach and make her mark on young people. I hope I can be that person for her. We’ve made it an easy task to do because we were organized and we had all the right people in the right places guiding me the six years I did both.

Were there any sacrifices you had to make as a player when you started coaching?

Staley: If you’re in the offseason, as a pro athlete you do sleep in. You say ‘I’ll get my workout done later in the day.’ As a coach, you can’t do that. For me, I had to get up and get it done early well before our practice and coaches meeting. Or else, that entire your day, your job gets ahold of you and you lose sight of time. Then it’s 8 o’clock. A workout at 8 o’clock a.m. and p.m. is a lot different. I sacrificed sleeping in.

For me, I never really had a social life, so I wasn’t sacrificing that. I just sacrificed my “Me Time,” because it was filled with 18 to 22 year olds. But I didn’t mind. I had them over my house a lot. They wanted to be around me, so they’re in the office and you can’t get half of the office (work) you need to get done, done. Because they’re sitting in your office talking to you. But that’s part of it. That’s part of forging a relationship with the players who are there because they don’t know you on a coach-to-player relationship. The more time you have players in your office, the more you know you’re doing something right.

When did you ever have time to sleep?

Staley: I don’t like to sleep. I’ve never liked to sleep. Sleep half the time just knocks me out. I think Lindsay is a nap-taker during game day. I don’t think her routine changes as a pro athlete, because you’ve got to compartmentalize. If you want to take a nap, you’ve got to organize things around your nap.

What were your WNBA teammates thinking at the time when you decided to coach. Was anyone skeptical that you were too focused on coaching rather than playing?

Staley: No. No. No. No. No. For me. I’m where my heart is. I loved playing when it was time to play. When it’s time to coach, I loved coaching. I was able to really love where I was at the time.

I will say that I knew I was getting older and my time was up when I was playing and I wanted to devote all my time to coaching is when the locker room talk changed when we lost. It was no longer feeling a loss. It was more like ‘Where are we going to eat?’

Maybe the players thought I was dedicating my time to coaching, but I thought the people in the locker room, and they were sort of young, didn’t take losing as hard as I took losing. I think I was more into it than anybody else because maybe I was at the end of my career. But I didn’t have an issue with people thinking I was distracted by anything.

With so much of the offseason spent recruiting, how did you find time to recruit while playing?

Staley: It becomes fairly simple when you’re able to prioritize. Your day has to be incredibly organized. Once you get into a groove and a routine it’s easy. ‘I’ve got to call X, Y, Z.’ half the time they’re not home anyway or won’t answer the phone. If you have three phone calls to make, you’ve got to add six on the list because somebody’s not going to be available to you.

I think it’s really important that you have somebody back at the office that’s reminding you of what you need to do. When you’re playing, things come upon throughout your day. ‘Hey come visit a community center here. Can you talk to a sponsor at this time?’ And you automatically say yes without thinking, ‘Hey i’ve got these phone calls i can make.’ Knowing that if you’re calling a kid on the West Coast or the East Coast, you’re taking advantage of the hours that you have. Putting those West Coast calls a little later and not having them be the first call. Making sure people know the nuance of what it is to recruit.

It’s much easier to recruit now than it was 18 years ago where there wasn’t a whole lot of text messages. Now you can hit them up, text message them, see what time is a good time for them to call. The communication is a lot better and you have a lot more access to them.

Was there a transition for you in realizing the players out here aren’t my WNBA teammates?

Staley: As a point guard, it’s a little bit easier because we need other people to do their jobs, and do their jobs well to make us look good. And that doesn’t stop. We just don’t have the ball in our hands.

I talked to Lindsay today, and she said ‘Once of the first workouts we did was reading the pick-and-roll. The next things we’re probably going to do is pindowns, and I have to remember that it’s not Seimone Augustus coming off of that pindown.’ Those are the things she has to say to herself after every drill.

Figuring out what it is that those players do do well, players need positive reinforcement. If you’re going to get on them, get on them. But if you get on them, you’ve gotta come out with the same energy if they did something positive. I like the way her thought process is. I like the approach that she’s taking with players. It’s gonna be fun. She’s going to laugh a lot because they’re gonna ask great questions, silly questions, stuff that’s like second nature to her.

The good thing about being a point guard is we figure out what buttons we need to push and when we need to give or take in any situation.