Basketball was a game I loved the day I picked up a ball, and have been very fortunate that it has exposed me to many places, people, experiences, and opportunities.
However, the going was not easy, not by any measure of the word. As a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach and Certified Personal Trainer, I look back at the days of my young ignorance and think about all the things I could have done differently to be more successful.
Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but this is a big reason I love what I do now! Here's a bit about my story, and five lessons learned. My advice? Learn them and start actively working on them now, they make a tremendous impact not only as an athlete, but in your life.
The Imperfectly Perfect Journey
High school: Kodiak, Alaska
I was a long, lanky, average athlete, with no formal training to improve my athleticism, zero knowledge or experience with lifting weights, didn't have cable TV and YouTube wasn't a thing yet, so I didn't watch much basketball.
The one saving grace, is I was fortunate to come from a community (and state) that LOVES basketball and an outstanding high school coach who had played in college and professionally.
Not knowing how I was going to get recruited to college, I picked my best game, made a bunch of copies, packaged them up and mailed them off to coaches with personal letters.
Out of desperation, I also got on board with a recruiting service who helped get my name out to coaches. I thought I was D1 caliber, hilarious.
I fundraised to travel with my summer team, the Alaska Stars, and stayed with a family in Anchorage for the summer so I could practice with them. Now playing with some of the best talent in the state, I realized I was still a decent player, but had a ton to improve on.
I also still knew nothing about what it would really take to play at the next level, and would soon learn the hard way...
College: The University of Alaska Anchorage
I was fortunate to get picked up by my home state college, the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), who at the time was (and still is) a Division II powerhouse.
I soon learned that the jump from high school to college was substantial. Every practice felt like trying to scramble up that super steep wall on America Ninja Warrior.
For two years the top of that wall was unattainable, and some days it felt like my coaches were at the top pointing and laughing, telling me to just give up already.
I slowly began to believe that maybe that was the best option, that the weight and dread I felt with the mere thought of going to practice was stronger than my love for the game and desire to represent my hometown.
It was a merciless, daily battle. No one cared if you were sick, unless it was highly contagious.
No one cared if you were hurt, I specifically remember our coaches telling us we were not to go to the training room unless something was torn or broken.
And no one cared why you didn't do something the way it was asked of you, if it wasn't done right, you were getting yelled at.
I was put in my place real quick, ultimately spending that first year as a redshirt, meaning I was able to practice with the team, but not play in games and still have four years of eligibility.
It was not pretty, as oftentimes things worth fighting for aren't, and a lesson in what collegiate athleticism and expectation looked like and would cost to attain.
The Fuel That Sparked The Rise
At the end of my (second) freshman year, the assistant coach who had made my life hell for the last two years blatantly looked me in the eye and said "Alysa, you stay where you are right now and you're not going to play more than 5 minutes next year."
I was crushed.
I had worked every day as hard as I could in practice, spent extra time, usually at 6am or 10pm (the only time the gym was free), and did everything that was asked of me without complaint and silent anguish, oftentimes surfacing alone in tears of frustration.
As I drove to my dorm after hearing the most blunt, honest, and what felt unfair words I'd heard in my life, I became increasingly angry.
I took 3 days off. Enough time to pack up my stuff to head home for the summer and let that brutal statement really sink in.
Then it was time to get to work.
I ordered a weighted basketball and started googling drills to improve my athleticism and skills.
For that entire summer I was obsessed with improving, and more importantly, still angry. It was my fuel.
Everyday I didn't want to wake up to go play with a bunch of guys at 6am, I remembered what my coach had said, and got out of bed.
Everyday I felt too sore to get in another workout, I remembered how crappy it felt to sit at the end of the bench, and went to the gym.
Everyday I wanted to go to a party with my boyfriend and friends, I remembered getting last in sprints, and went to bed so I could wake up early for a track workout instead.
I'm not exaggerating, I was as all in as a player in a high stakes game of poker. It was so important to me I was willing to sacrifice things other people were not, and if it didn't work out this time, it wasn't meant to be. #NoSocialLife
The Pressure that led to the Fall
The next year was completely different. Suddenly I found myself starting, scoring more points in my first game than I had the entire last season combined.
I had finally made it to the top of that seemingly impossible Ninja wall.
Yet, this wasn't even close to the start of a happy ending as I would soon learn there is a price with success and it's adversity's distant cousin, pressure.
My junior year I didn't know how to handle the pressure, I was at risk of losing my starting spot to a junior college transfer and literally made myself sick with stress, missing our first road trip because I was stuck in the Emergency Room with painful abdominal cramping. I was ashamed and shocked that my body had quit on me.
I never reclaimed my starting spot that entire year, but we went on to Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament, a trade off I would make every time! #TeamFirst, baby.
Adversity strikes again
Another high led to another low, and soon after our NCAA Tournament run we found out that our coach had been up to some shady things and was forcibly resigning.
The immediate disappointment shook all of us, so much so that many of the better players didn't return and we had NO recruiting class going into my senior year.
The stress was starting to come back, but this time I was thankfully more prepared.
Our new coach, who remains as the current coach for the UAA women's team, had to go to intramural games to find us a couple more players so we could even practice 5 on 5.
Expectations were drastically different than the year prior to preform, as we were so young and undermanned that if either the Point Guard or myself had a bad game, we would not win, and that's not to sound cocky at all, it was the unfortunate truth.
Thus, with every game came a family reunion of pressure and adversity, because winning was and will always be more important - regardless of who you are or if you actually think this - than individual success or accolades.
Against all odds, we somehow managed to have a winning season (17-10), which was a record I felt more proud of than any year previous because it required excellence on every level from many people. A true team effort, and perhaps another story for another time!
Professional Career: Germany And Australia
Finally, after years of dreaming, setting goals, and working relentlessly towards them, I was fortunate enough to finally live my ultimate dream of playing professional basketball.
My journey after college took me overseas to Germany, where I played one year for a club called TSV Viernheim and then returned the following year to play for another club, the GiroLive Panthers of Osnabrück.
After nine months abroad my second year, I immediately flew 16 hours from Germany to Australia and played out the last four months of my career for the Logan Thunder in Brisbane.
Five Key Lessons Learned
This is one of thousands of student athlete experiences in one sport, and it is my only wish by sharing my story that it helps young student athletes overcome their own Ninja Warrior walls in sports and in life.
I will tell you right now, those experiences were hard at the time, but have had immense impact on how I handle things in my now, daily "adulting" life.
There are five major take aways from this story:
Choose your circle wisely
Who you surround yourself with has a tremendous influence on who you will become and is reflective of who you are.
These will be the people who are either going to the gym with you to get up extra shots or the ones egging you on to come to a party with them. They'll be the ones who are skipping class or getting an extra hour of study hall with you.
Bottom line: do they make you better or do they bring you down?
Seek the Truth
It takes a person of high character to actively seek out information (particularly about themselves) that they may not want to hear, but need to hear.
This is where your circle comes in to play. Surround yourself with people who care about you so much they are willing to tell you something you need to hear in order to help you, and are willing to say it even if it makes you mad or upset.
Remember, it's never easy to hear those types of things. After all, the saying "the truth hurts" exists for a reason, but it will ultimately make you better.
No matter how much or how little success you are having at this moment, do not stop working. You have to believe in your ability to reach your goals and that hard work will pay off, it always does.
Now, there is a massive difference between believing in yourself and being entitled to an outcome because you think you've worked hard for it. This goes back to having solid people you trust to be honest with you.
Here's the kicker though, you must be receptive to what they say and at all costs avoid shooting the messenger!
You are enlisting the help of someone to give you a different perception than your own, which is absolutely critical for your growth as a player and person.
Have Selective Hearing
The one voice you need to be listening to, even if you are not religious, is the voice of faith. Faith, or believing in yourself, is the voice that will tell the critiques and fans to be silent, because they don't know your process.
They don't know the sweat, blood, and tears that you put in; they don't know what you are working towards; and really, they don't know you.
Trust the process
If you haven't noticed already, the four lessons before this are all interwoven in some way.
Ultimately, these all constitute your process, and when you are confident that you are doing things the right way, which is in accordance with your values and vision, then you must trust that with persistent action and work, you will get to where you want to go.
There will undoubtedly be times you are tested on this, and your tests may come at times when you aren't ready for them, that's why it is so important to have good people in your circle you can lean on and to help you through.
They are there not only to tell you what you need to hear, but to be positive with you when you are having a hard time doing that for yourself.