Lindsey Yamasaki: The Art of Coaching

Start a basketball program from the ground up at a school that has never before fielded any intercollegiate athletic teams? The task seems daunting but former Stanford dual-sport luminary Lindsey Yamsaki is diving right into her new job as the first ever women's basketball coach at Academy of Art University.

Since graduating from Stanford with a bachelor's degree in Urban Studies: Architecture and Urban Design in 2002, Lindsey Yamsaki has played some professional basketball, coached a little volleyball, and even worked a non-sports job. Last February she embarked on a new and singular challenge – to bring to life the women's basketball program at Academy of Arts University in San Francisco as the first ever head coach. Coaches often try to resuscitate poorly performing programs, but Yamasaki has no template in place to guide her, no past to change. Every decision she makes lays the foundation of the nascent basketball program. The Academy of Art Urban Knights will compete in Division II and field eleven teams in 2008. They will offer athletic scholarships and they will join the Pacific West Conference full time in 2009 after one year as an independent. The visited Yamasaki in her office in downtown San Francisco to talk about her road to this unique opportunity, the issues facing her as a first-time head coach, and her Stanford past.

What has Yamsaki been doing since graduating from Stanford and playing for a time in the WNBA?

"I ‘retired' from basketball in 2006. I was kind of at the end of my rope with basketball. I just didn't feel after I tore my Achilles, actually tore it again, that I had the motivation anymore to really commit to basketball like I had. I told myself that I would try out for Seattle (the Seattle Storm of the WNBA) and if I made it then I'd play for the season and then finish. And if I didn't make it than that would be the end. It was a really sad time but fortunately some of my Stanford teammates were there, Cori Enghusen and Enjoli Izidor. More than anything I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be stable in one city, build a community, reconnect with people, and start a new career. I was probably more lost when I stopped playing than I was when I was twenty-two. I was really interested in a few other fields like event planning, but I didn't have a lot of experience to pull from. I landed a job after a couple of months and was there almost a year but ended up leaving. It just wasn't right for me."

Yamasaki began playing volleyball for fun and started doing some volleyball coaching. She also coached a young basketball team from San Francisco's Japanese Cultural and Community Center.

"It was so funny. The first couple of practices I coached them like they were WNBA players. One of the parents came up to me and said, ‘These girls are fourteen and fifteen. You know that, right?' And it had been so long and I'd come so far in my career, I just hadn't been around that level in so long. At that point I realized that I'm a professional basketball player and I have a professional basketball player's mind. I've studied the game for that long. I realized I had something to offer if I could dedicate myself to it."

Through connections she made while conducting clinics and giving individual lessons, Yamasaki was introduced to Academy of Arts Athletic Director, Dr. Jamie Williams. How did the offer to coach the Urban Knights arise?

"I had lunch with him and within twenty minutes he said, ‘Do you want to be my basketball coach?' It was almost as if I interviewed myself. I had to expose myself to him and say, ‘OK, I've never coached collegiate basketball. I've been a head coach at almost the high school level. I feel confident I can do it but are you sure?' I felt that I needed to make sure he understood what I was working with. He said, ‘I love your attitude. I love that you have kind of a jaded past, that you've had a rough professional career and you have something to prove. You're young. This is a great place for you to start.' I told him that if he was willing to give me the opportunity, I was willing to take it. Within weeks I decided I would be coach here."

"I took the job last February. It didn't take long for me to realize it was more than coaching. We're the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco. We're a large, privately owned art school and we've never had sports. We're building from scratch. It sounds astronomical. It sounds crazy. There were days especially early when I thought I could not do this. There are still days now that I say I cannot do this. And by that I mean I can't do this to the expectation I want to hold for my team, myself, and the university. Then there are other days when I think this is the most incredible job I think I'll ever have. For me, and I wasn't totally sure I wanted to be a college coach, to pay my dues and go be that fourth assistant in the middle of Wyoming for two years, this is an opportunity to learn what it means to be a head coach and truly build a program. And not just within an athletic department. We're trying to convince the university that this is a good thing."

Yamasaki has been holding open tryouts and recruiting hard to fill out her roster. She started with two scholarship players who had chosen the university knowing there was a basketball program on the horizon. Yamasaki is pitching a very unique institution.

"When I talk with people I start to condition their minds that there are kids that are thrilled to learn that they can do a Motion Picture/Television major, for example. We have an incredible rate of students that graduate with jobs. It's a very unique style of teaching and learning. It's very intense. Athletics is a great way to get the word out about the possibilities here academically. Overall with regards to recruiting, it's been mixed reviews. I don't get an overwhelmingly positive response, but there are people out there jumping out of their seats for it."

What are Yamasaki's expectations for her team in this inaugural season?

"The entire group of girls I have took this challenge for a reason. They came knowing that they're going to be the first ever. They're going to make history, make the legacy and the records. And because I have such great girls in that regard, we're going to attack things full force. Yes, I'm going to be realistic with the style of play when I play against teams like USF, but first there is Menlo College. I don't know Division II like I know Division I. I'm going to have to study. Our schedule is absurd. We play a full season between November and February. It's a matter of making it through the season with heads held high and with pride and dignity, and hopefully if we continue to improve at the rate we are now, we will get wins, based on effort alone."

How would she describe her coaching style?

"I'll be honest and say that I'm not one thing yet. If I had to pick I would say I'm a ‘players coach' only because I'm constantly speaking from experience, I'm constantly showing through the way I did it and the way I learned it. I can give them a visual a lot of times. I can empathize with what they are going through because it wasn't that long ago for me. I'm trying to come into my own when it comes to being authoritative and a disciplinarian. That doesn't come naturally to me."

She had several excellent coaches in both basketball and volleyball during her career. What has she taken from them that she utilizes now?

"I just went through training at Stanford what, five years ago? I'll run conditioning very similar to the way Tara (VanDerveer) ran it for us. I remember those things. Why was this hard? Why did she do that then? I'm looking at it from a completely different perspective. It's interesting. I have already run into Tara on the recruiting trail, which was so funny and is a whole ‘nother beast on its own. I'm there sitting with all those coaches, just looking around, and whereas at one time I was the player trying to impress them, now I'm the one trying to learn from them and talking to everyone I can to get suggestions. I definitely draw from every coach I've had. I'm constantly writing notes. I'm constantly remembering drills, quotes, sayings, and situations. My dad also coaches so he's a great person to talk with on a daily basis. I've contacted almost every coach I had. I'm constantly calling my high school coach for everything from, ‘What was that one play?' to, ‘I have a player that is this way.' It can be really overwhelming."

Yamasaki can also look back and laugh about some of her own foibles as a young player.

"What's crazy is that this is the perfect opportunity, because it is the Stanford Bootleg, to reach out to all those coaches that I had and apologize! I don't regret my behavior ever. I feel I did the best I could all the time, but now I have new perspective. Like I just said to my assistant coach today, coaching is more than coaching skill; it is coaching personalities, understanding personalities and how they mesh with other personalities, and managing them. That is the hardest thing I've found so far. I have players that luckily are really hard workers but I have to manage their emotions. I can only imagine how difficult it was to manage mine. I respect my coaches more now than I ever have. I think that's natural. It was within days that I felt that way. I wanted to write a letter to all my coaches and say, ‘Thank you so much for everything you've done, for hanging in there with me and making me a better person.' It's not easy and I know that."

We could not let Yamasaki escape without asking a nostalgia question or two. What were her fondest memories from both basketball and volleyball at Stanford?

"I played in two volleyball Final Fours, two championship games, which were not the fondest of memories (Stanford lost those championship games in 1999 and 2002.), but those teams were some of the most fun and most talented teams that I've ever played on in both sports. How about for volleyball less of a nostalgia thing but more about what I love about being a Stanford alum? I love the fact that I can turn on the television at any given moment and see Stanford athletes that I spent time with at school, whether they were on my teams or they were in my classes or we were passing friends, and I can see these Olympians kicking butt and being so successful. Kerri Walsh is incredible. She was one of my teammates and is still one of the most humble people I've ever met. Logan Tom, Ogonna Nnamani, all these players that I played with that I can't believe how successful they are. That's one of the things I love about Stanford, that you always hear our name in big events like the Olympics. There is always that Stanford pride. And that is one thing I value so much. I'm proud to say I went to Stanford."

"For basketball, my senior year was tough but probably the most fun I've had at sports. I had appendicitis right before the Pac-10 tournament. It was just such bad luck. But that was probably the best year that I had. The other years building up to that…I had a rough career, I felt. At least we didn't do as well as we should have. But we kind of rode high my senior season and held the #2 ranking for most of the season. Although Nicole Powell and I were not the best of friends, she had an amazing season and I had a very good season that year. If things had broken a little differently (Stanford lost to Colorado in the Sweet 16 in 2002.), we could have been there."

Does Yamasaki feel attached to recent editions of the Cardinal? Did she follow their progress in the Final Four in Tampa last season?

"I was so excited watching that! I definitely watched and got choked up. I was glued to the television. It's hard to pinpoint one perfect Stanford memory, but there's not a day that goes by that I'm not proud that I went to Stanford. I still spend tons of time with Stanford people. I feel very connected to the university still. I've been back to help and volunteer. I've worked a little bit with the Alumni Association. I'm Stanford's #1 advocate!"

Many fans retain very fond memories of Lindsey Yamasaki as a Cardinal basketball and volleyball star. If any of those fans want to enjoy following Coach Yamasaki's challenge to build her Academy of Art Urban Knights into a competitive Division II team, they can journey to Kezar Pavilion at 755 Stanyan Street in San Francisco for games this fall. A link to the Urban Knights' Schedule is HERE. The Bootleg wishes her the best of luck.

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