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Sports

An Authentic Act

2.5.19

Kathy Delaney-Smith (shown here during the January 19 win over Dartmouth) has helped her players navigate many off-court challenges.

Kathy Delaney-Smith (shown here during the January 19 win over Dartmouth) has helped her players navigate many off-court challenges.

Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications


Kathy Delaney-Smith (shown here during the January 19 win over Dartmouth) has helped her players navigate many off-court challenges.

Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications

Anna Collins ’86, one of several former players who spoke at a reception celebrating the endowment of the women’s basketball head coaching position, reminded attendees of the symbolic significance of their support: “Words matter,” she said, “but money talks.”

Anna Collins ’86, one of several former players who spoke at a reception celebrating the endowment of the women’s basketball head coaching position, reminded attendees of the symbolic significance of their support: “Words matter,” she said, “but money talks.”

Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications


Anna Collins ’86, one of several former players who spoke at a reception celebrating the endowment of the women’s basketball head coaching position, reminded attendees of the symbolic significance of their support: “Words matter,” she said, “but money talks.”

Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications

Kelsey Bogdan '19 described participating in Crimson Madness this year as an emotional, historic event. This was the first time the women's team was included in the pre-season kickoff.

Kelsey Bogdan ’19 described participating in Crimson Madness this year as an emotional, historic event. This was the first time the women’s team was included in the pre-season kickoff.

Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications


Kelsey Bogdan ’19 described participating in Crimson Madness this year as an emotional, historic event. This was the first time the women’s team was included in the pre-season kickoff.

Photograph by Gil Talbot/Harvard Athletic Communications

It seemed an inconsequential moment on what had been a momentous day: late on a Saturday in mid January, women’s basketball coach Kathy Delaney-Smith (profiled here) stood outside her team’s locker room in Lavietes Pavilion with a basketball in her hands and a group of women in front of her, ready to receive it.

Earlier, Delaney-Smith had led her team to a 56-46 win over Dartmouth in its Ivy League opener. Then she and her squad had joined more than 100 alumnae, family, and friends celebrating the endowment of the women’s basketball head coaching position. In her thirty-seventh year at Harvard, Delaney-Smith would now be known as the Friends of Harvard coach, and after she retires, the position will be named in her honor. The endowment means more resources for the program—but it also sends a strong signal about Delaney-Smith’s importance to generations of alumnae. Anna Collins ’86, one of several former players who spoke at the event, reminded everyone: “Words matter, but money talks.”

After the reception, a few women returned to Lavietes for drinks and reminiscences with their former coach. As they sat in the lounge overlooking the court, where one former player’s daughter was swishing jumpers, they decided conversation wasn’t enough—they wanted to play. Out on the hardwood in dress clothes, they settled on a game of knockout and asked Delaney-Smith to get them the second ball they needed. And so the coach was standing outside the locker room, late on a snowy Saturday, holding a basketball. She flicked her wrist and smiled as the ball began rolling toward her players on the opposite side of the gym, together again on her basketball court.

This is what Delaney-Smith has been doing for nearly 50 years as a high-school and college coach. The banners hanging from the Lavietes rafters attest to one kind of success: Delaney-Smith has led the program to 11 Ivy championships and six NCAA tournament appearances. She is the winningest  basketball coach—male or female—in Ivy League history. Among her former players are Allison Feaster ’98, fifth pick in the 1998 WNBA draft, and Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey ’92, plus dozens of others who are leaders in their own fields, who are athletes, who are mothers.

But there is also this: every year, Delaney-Smith brings a group of young women together in a gym and uses the sport of basketball to get the ball rolling on a much more significant developmental process. “Kathy has a gift for being able to synchronize a team toward a common goal,” says Rachel Garlin ’96, “but she also helps each player get in sync with who they are.”

That second part, less tangible but no less real, has often been the hardest thing about the job. And it involves far bigger issues surrounding sports, gender, society, and, ultimately, how the coach and her players lead their lives.

 

Gender issues have always been a part of Delaney-Smith’s repertoire. She began her career 15 miles south of Cambridge at Westwood High School in 1971. The following year, Title IX was passed, bringing fundamental change to how women’s sports and athletes were treated. The law stipulated that educational institutions receiving federal financial support could not discriminate on the basis of sex; this meant that men’s and women’s sports would now receive equal funding. But the requirement was not always carried out in practice, including at Westwood. So, on the day she earned tenure, Delaney-Smith began filing anti-discrimination lawsuits seeking equal treatment for her players. None went to court, but in mediation she got much of what she wanted—better equipment, equal scouting money, and higher pay. That advocacy continued at Harvard, where last year she called attention to an Ivy League tournament schedule that she said favored the men’s games, and to the pay gap between male and female coaches.

But the gender issues that Delaney-Smith has grappled with most assiduously as a coach are more complex than simple equity. In her experience, she says, female basketball players are more likely than their male counterparts to encounter eating disorders and body-image issues, mental-health problems (especially depression), and questions about their gender and sexual identity. During her long career, she’s found that these are among the issues that have consistently affected her players’ performance—and their well-being. Coaching her teams has meant guiding players through profoundly difficult and complicated experiences.

The year before Delaney-Smith arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1982, the players had been struggling on and off the court. They had finished 4-21 the previous season and, as she soon discovered, “There was a homophobic war on my team”—within and among the players. “It was horrifying.”

Nancy Boutilier ’83 played on that team. Now an English teacher and basketball coach at Concord Academy, Boutilier has published poetry about discovering her lesbian identity and struggling with an eating disorder. The homophobia on the team reflected attitudes in society as a whole and women’s sports in particular. “If you went across the country, women’s sports were struggling,” she says. “I think part of the fear of women playing sports was fear of lesbianism.”

It was not immediately clear to Delaney-Smith what to do, or how to change the environment so that all her players felt safe. She’d grown up a devout Catholic—in a tradition that, as she describes it, “doesn’t allow you to be free to be you.” At one point, she’d considered becoming a nun. She had studied physical education in college, learning only in retrospect that many of her classmates were gay. Confronted with the homophobia on the Harvard squad, she says, “I had no education as to how to deal with it, other than I knew it was wrong, and I thought, ‘We’re just going to be transparent, and we’re going to try to not judge one another.’” She vowed to be judgment-free.

The difficulties of that approach quickly became apparent. On the recruiting trail, parents frequently asked: “How many gays do you have on your team?” Delaney-Smith’s response was direct: “Why are you asking that question?” (The fact that she had a husband and a son helped assuage the concerns of some recruits’ parents, Delaney-Smith recalls. Now divorced, she has a new partner; he often attends games and supports the team.)

Creating a sense of openness among the team was also hard. She brought in counselors recommended by the University and the whole squad took part in role-playing exercises. None of it did much to bridge the gap. “I think it was a new frontier,” she says, “of everybody trying to deal with this wave of sexuality that probably had existed forever but [was now] more public than ever.”

There were real consequences for players’ well-being. Healey, a star point guard for Harvard who in 2015 became the country’s first openly gay state attorney general, did not come out until after college. “There was so much homophobia associated with my sport that I just hid it,” she says. “I just repressed things. It actually wasn’t until I went overseas after graduating from college, went 3,000 miles away from home. I happened to be playing basketball in Europe at the time, but it wasn’t until then that I think I actually felt the freedom to come out and really confront my own identity.”

Still, Delaney-Smith kept pushing her players, even when it felt uncomfortable. Melissa Johnson ’00 recalls an early-morning conversation on the bus ride to a team-building exercise. The coach had arranged a visit to the home of a former player who had a female partner, and piloting a 16-passenger van, she asked the players: “Okay, so what does everyone think about gay marriage?”

For Johnson, and some of the others, it was the first time they’d been confronted so directly. “I just remember being so young and naïve and not really ever having had to engage with those kinds of issues in my life before,” she says. “And I remember we had this great conversation and a wonderful weekend. Kathy always wanted to go beyond that, to transcend basketball and get into the conversation to understand what it all meant.”

Over the years, Delaney-Smith has sought guidance from outside experts at professional-development programs led by the Women’s College Basketball Association. She has talked at length with former players like Healey and Boutilier, who grappled with these issues. “She has worked to be a better coach all along the way,” Boutilier says.

In regular one-on-one meetings with players, Delaney-Smith encourages them to open up about their lives beyond the court. One recent graduate recalled coming out during the spring of her junior year, a decision she’d made with the help of the LGBTQ tutor in her House community. When she shared her news with Delaney-Smith, she fully trusted the coach’s response. “It was like a trust fall,” the player said, “and I knew that Kathy would catch me.”

 

Delaney-Smith has also acknowledged her own vulnerabilities. This is key. Her coaching mantra, “Act as if”—which calls on players to see their challenges as surmountable and their goals as attainable—is partly informed, she has come to realize, by her own deep-set insecurities going back to her teenage years. Like many of her players, she says, she has questioned her capacity and wondered whether she belonged.

She has also seen tragedy in her own life, and trauma. In 1999, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, at a time when the disease was stigmatized. Back then, Delaney-Smith says, “No one talked about it.” Because it was a forbidden topic, she knew very little. “In my head, I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m going to be one of those bald people, and I’m going to die.’ Because I had no context whatsoever.”

The coach brought her team into the experience, made it a conversation. Her players cut her hair as a group before she went into chemotherapy; they participated in fundraising walks for a cancer cure. And as they stuck with her, she stuck with them: Delaney-Smith continued coaching full time through her treatment. All this helped create a sense of safety to discuss an entire range of difficult topics. Laura Barnard ’02 was a player the year Delaney-Smith was diagnosed. After college, Barnard came out as gay. “It wasn’t comfortable,” she says. “It was about, ‘It’s OK to be uncomfortable.’ A lot of times there’s a lot of uncomfortable things with cancer and with people with eating disorders or with coming out.”

Healey puts it another way: “When somebody is vulnerable with you, that makes it easier for you to be vulnerable with them.”

 

Even as social attitudes about gender identity and sexual orientation have shifted dramatically toward openness in the nearly five decades since Delaney-Smith began coaching, mental-health issues on college campuses have risen sharply in recent years. That change, too, is reflected in her team. Among athletes and non-athletes, rates of anxiety and depression are increasing. The coach sees social media as a large contributing factor, “this less-than-real-world people portray” that “causes you to be sad about your world not being as perfect or as fun or as pretty.”

Lindsay Hallion Miller ’08 agrees. A former star player and assistant coach, Hallion Miller is now studying for a master’s degree in sports psychology and clinical counseling. “It’s very hard,” she says, “not to be in a comparative culture.”

Social media can have particularly pernicious consequences for female student-athletes, especially as it relates to body image. Several former women’s basketball players note the tension between society’s idealized vision of an attractive woman—which usually means slim—and the more muscular frame that female players must develop to succeed on the court. By contrast, male athletes who lift weights to build muscle are often developing the idealized male body. 

The ubiquity of social media can exacerbate these challenges. Nicole LaVoi, the co-director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, explains, “Women in our society face much more body scrutiny [and are] just bombarded with many more media images about the sexualization of women that also transcends into sport. Female athletes have to deal with that more so than their male peers.” (Men also experience body image issues, LaVoi adds—an important reminder that issues of gender, sexuality, and mental health can affect men, too. When asked about whether he has encountered players struggling with these issues, Stemberg men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker says, “We’ve had circumstances where we’ve had to deal with kids certainly with mental-health care.” It is important, he adds, for all students to know, “You’re not being judged. You’re being accepted and welcomed in the community and family in a place that’s safe and allows you to be who you are.”)

For the women’s team, Delaney-Smith works to provide a support structure that ensures her players access to resources. She asks her assistant coaches to pay attention—and to refer players who may be struggling to her. One recent graduate describes sinking into a depression so severe that she stopped attending classes. She shared her problems with an assistant coach, who involved Delaney-Smith. After a long talk with the player, the coach referred her to the University’s mental-health services. It helped. Too often, as young women in American society, “you’re not taught to love yourselves,” says the former player, who also was dealing with body issues. Coaches at another program might give up on a player who was not producing on the court, as she wasn’t, the former player says, and she came to appreciate that Delaney-Smith cared for her more as a person than a player.

 

Amid all this—indeed, as part of it—Delaney-Smith and her squad are playing, and winning, basketball games. This year’s team, which is 10-7 overall and 3-1 in Ivy League play, has been on a tear lately, winning six of its last seven games. The most impressive was an 85-79 win over then-fourteenth ranked California on December 30, the first time Harvard has beaten a ranked team since the sixteenth-seeded Crimson surprised top-seeded Stanford in one of the greatest upsets in NCAA Tournament history in 1998. Senior guard Kelsey Bogdan recalls that just before she and her teammates took the court against the Golden Bears, associate head coach Mike Roux told the group they were “due for a big win” after a series of close defeats to top-flight teams earlier in the season: a last-second loss to Purdue, a double-overtime defeat at home against Quinnipiac, and a close loss to Rutgers, traditionally one of the best programs in women’s basketball.

And they did win. Bogdan, who wrote a course paper about Delaney-Smith’s anti-discrimination lawsuits at Westwood, remembers feeling emotional last fall, standing on the court during the national anthem for Crimson Madness, the pre-season tipoff event. It was the first year that the women’s team was allowed into the event, and Bogdan said that it felt like being part of history.

Though some wonder whether Delaney-Smith may soon retire, Kyle Dalton Gray ’07, after seeing the coach at the endowment reception, found her to be “as sharp, witty, and passionate as ever.” The coach “lives in the moment,” Dalton Gray says. Others suggest she is intent on winning one more Ivy League title. (The Crimson last captured the crown in 2008, and Bogdan notes that the team has been in the running every year. “It’s our time,” she says, echoing Roux’s Cal-game remarks. “We’re due.”)

In any case, Delaney-Smith already has a legacy that transcends championships, accomplished alumnae, and social progress. Quinnipiac head coach Tricia Fabbri has said that what stands out most about Delaney-Smith is her authenticity. “Kathy has been uniquely herself, [having] fun, and never changed from that.

The point is this: the young women she coaches—and anyone else for that matter—may benefit from acting confident in athletic competitions, even when they are scared; but when it comes to their personalities, they need not “act as if” at all.

Much like their coach, they can simply be themselves.

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