Many professional athletes enter the coaching world after their playing days are done. But becoming a coach while still playing is uncommon.
Tell that to Kristi Toliver. She's currently preparing for her 11th WNBA season, and her third with the Washington Mystics. During the offseason, many WNBA players travel overseas, which is something Toliver did for much of her career. But this past fall, she decided to spend her time a little different.
During the Mystics media day on Monday, Toliver sat down with NBC Sports Washington's Chris Miller on the Wizards Talk podcast to discuss her time as a Wizards assistant coach.
“It was a great offseason because it allowed me to grow [by coaching with the Wizards] in ways that I might not have had if I was just being a player year round," Toliver said. "I feel mentally strong; I feel mentally fit."
Although the Wizards had their share of ups and downs during a 50-loss campaign, Toliver gained valuable experience in her first season as a full-time assistant.
"This winter with the Wizards was crazy. A lot of things happened," Toliver said. "A lot of ups and downs; wins and losses. I just got to sit back and have a completely different vantage point that I’d never had before. So I soaked a lot in. That’s what I did; I observed a lot. I was just kind of a sponge, wanting to learn and grow."
Toliver plans on taking plenty of things she learned with the Wizards and bringing them to her own team as she shifts back from coach mode to player mode.
"Now I feel like I’m in a place where I’ve seen a lot, I’ve heard a lot, I’ve said a lot, and now I’m ready to take all the things and lessons that I’ve learned in the offseason for the summer and to my team,” she said.
Looking back on her season with the Wizards, Toliver grew a newfound appreciation for the hard work and dedication it takes to coach at the highest level of basketball.
"It is kind of special," Toliver said on coaching in the NBA. "Not that I didn’t have respect for coaches before, because I always have. It’s just like a whole new level of respect for what they do and who they are, and how they are all trying to make us better every day.”
Besides the hard work it takes to be a coach in the NBA, Toliver emphasized how important preparation is in the league, and how much preparation each team does.
"Being a coach on the staff, I think I never really knew the amount of preparation that went into every single day," she said. "Whether it’s the player development side, before practice, after practice, all the drills, all the thoroughness you would have for each individual guy. Then you go up into the coaches meetings and just talk about the night before, talk about the next game, talking about ‘How can we get better in practice today? Who needs what?’"
Now, she plans on taking what she learned with the Wizards and bringing that back to the Mystics, a team eager to get the season started after losing in the WNBA Finals a season ago.
"It’s just a lot, and I think it’s going to help me this summer, with our team," Toliver said on the preparation. "I’m still very much in player mode, but I can still be in coach mode and help our coaches, help our players because I’ve been on both sides. But I think the biggest thing that I learned, and the biggest teaching thing that I had this offseason, was how hard you have to prepare and be ready for every single day because every single day is different.”
So, what was her favorite part of the job? The answer was easy for Toliver; she thoroughly enjoyed when it was her turn to create a scouting report for an opponent.
“[Being a scout] was amazing," she said. "I knew that’s what I was going to like most about coaching. Preparing for a game, presenting it to the team, it was awesome."
She then went on in detail about an individual scouting report she created for the San Antonio Spurs, and what it was like.
"So if I’m scouting San Antonio, you watch their past five, six games," Toliver said. "You break down all the film and personal tendencies that they do, offenses that they run frequently, especially special offensive situations, sideline, baseline, etc. You kind of chart it all together and write out the scouting report that everyone has. But the amount of work that went into it was insane. It was awesome because I knew their team like the back of my hand. I knew everyone top to bottom, even the guys that don’t really impact the game that much."
While creating the report may have been enjoyable for Toliver, actually presenting the report was a little different.
"When you get to presenting the [report] to the team, it’s a little nerve-racking," she explained. "I’m literally going to hear my voice and my voice alone for the next 10 minutes. That alone is kind of terrifying for me. But it was so natural, so easy, because obviously as a player, I’ve gone through a million scouts before on the other side. Still, just listening, knowing what the guys would want to hear. Personnel things to me are more important than plays because everybody runs the same stuff. You’re not going to see anything special. Just presenting it all was really fun."
The hardest part for Toliver?
When the actual game comes, and she's not on the court to stop the opponent she knows so well.
"[Once] you get to the game and it’s like, okay, here it is," she said. "Here’s the layout; here’s the blueprint. But it’s like, as a player, that was the hardest part about coaching. It’s like, ‘I want to be on the court,’ so I can actually change the game. While you’re on the sideline, it’s like ‘Okay, it’s up to you guys.’"
While coaching may be Toliver's future, she's back into player mode right now. The loss to the Seattle Storm in last year's WNBA Finals is still fresh in Toliver and all of the teammates' memory.
"I’m not over [it]," Toliver said on the loss. "All season long, while working with the Wizards and working out every day, [the loss] was in the back of my mind the whole time. I can’t wait to play them again, I can’t wait for the season to start. I’m excited that today is the opening day of practice. I’m looking forward to getting our group back together and hitting the right strides. We’re already 20 steps ahead than we were last year, so that’s encouraging. We’re all ready to get to work, and I’m definitely not over it.”
Having an important role both as the point guard of the Mystics and an assistant for the Wizards, Chris Miller playfully asked her whether he should refer to her as Kristi or Coach Kristi. Her response was golden.
“I think I’m always coach now. I mean that just is what it is," she said. "I think I’ve made that step. But you can call me ‘Coach Panda’ because I’m in player mode.”
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