Olympic-qualifying WNBA basketball player Kayla Alexander talks about her road to success as a professional basketball player and her thoughts on the sports industry and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Inspired by her grade one teacher, Canadian women’s national team star Kayla Alexander actually grew up wanting to be an art teacher. In fact, she even pursued a college degree in education at Syracuse University. But life, as always, is full of surprises. Today, she’s a professional basketball player for the Minnesota Lynx of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and was set to debut in her first Olympics this year on the back of not one, but two serious knee injuries.
But then, the coronavirus happened, and the whole world went into shut down – even the Tokyo Olympic Games, which has now been postponed to 2021. Disappointed but not disheartened, Kayla has taken advantage of this extra time on her hands to further pursue her passion for art and education by joining the National Youth Basketball Mentorship Programme (NYBMP) as both program mentor and coach.
Last year, the elite athlete even published her own children’s book titled The Magic of Basketball, a story that’s written in rhyme and follows a young girl’s discovery that there’s more to basketball than what happens on the court and that anything is possible, so long as you work hard. Here, she talks Hive Life through the ups and downs of her career as a professional basketball player, her work with youths, and her thoughts on the sports industry and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
What’s it like being a professional basketball player?
It’s a lot of pressure. But for me, when I’m playing well, I’m in the zone and I’m not thinking. I just play the game, react off instinct, and let the game flow and come naturally. When I’m overthinking about what to do next or thinking about what I did wrong in the last game, the pressure gets to me. You also need to make quick decisions – learn how to adapt quickly, how to pivot, and how to react.
How did you succeed as a basketball player?
You have to set goals – when I first started playing basketball, one simple goal of mine was learning how to do a layup. It takes a lot of time, hard work, and sacrifice. But if you spread out your goal, say “I’m going to practise this for 10 minutes” every day, you will succeed at the end. These are skills that you can apply to your everyday life too, whether it’s your academics, personal life, or future business goals.
You need to be resilient too. I had been trying to get into the women’s national team for six or seven years. I got cut the first two times and was devastated because I wanted to represent Canada. After I finally made the team, I hurt my knee after barely a week with the team so I was eventually unable to compete at the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup with them. After that, I suffered another serious knee injury. In times of adversity, you stick through it and maintain a positive mindset. Last February, I qualified for the Olympics – it shows that when you persevere and keep trying, things pay off.
How do you interact with the youth?
I’m very passionate about the youth and giving back to my community because of how much it has helped me. I had teachers, coaches, and mentors who helped me build my career and they all had such a positive impact in my life. I am currently a mentor at the NYBMP – I inspire kids to dream big and believe in the greatness of their dreams. I also show them how to create smart goals to help them work effectively to make their dreams come true. I love this organisation because of their holistic approach – it’s not just about developing great athletes who are great at sports, it’s also about developing kids who are confident, academically strong, and spiritually active. This makes them successful and confident adults.
What changes need to be made in the sports industry?
Visibility. Female athletes receive only four percent of all media coverage that goes to sports. That’s crazy! Women deserve to get that same recognition as men. At the end of the day, we’re all athletes, we perform the same thing, and we put our blood and sweat into sport. With more visibility of female athletes, young girls will have someone they can look up to, which could change their mindset and inspire them to do the same. As a black woman, I’m trying to be that example for little black girls who look like me, come from my neighbourhood, and may not always have people who look like them to look up to.
Thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement?
I’m glad that people are becoming more educated on these issues – you can’t deny anymore that there’s both systematic and systemic racism in the world we live in. It’s important for people to start making actionable changes, whether it’s registering to vote, petitioning for policy change, or asking to amend certain bylaws. Conversation is also important. People are starting to have uncomfortable conversations with their friends and families about racism: what it is, what it looks like, why can’t you say this, and why can’t you act in a certain way. These sorts of conversations lead to education, tolerance, and inclusivity. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings and we all want to be treated fairly with respect and dignity. This is essentially what the Black Lives Matter movement is about – all lives can’t matter until black lives matter too.