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Coaching for Empathy: Coach Alex Simmons is Shaping Ole Miss Players into Leaders

Photo by Ellen O'Nan/Ole Miss Athletics


by Catherine Brinkman

A few weeks ago I was in Chicago’s O’Hare airport and was looking for a plug to charge my phone. All of a sudden this woman pointed to an outlet and said it should work.  I plugged my phone in and it was then that I realized I was surrounded by the entire Ole Miss basketball team; Men’s and Women’s.  It was pretty incredible.

I grew up going to Stanford basketball games and while attending UCLA I might have camped out overnight to make sure that I got a floor seat for the UCLA/ University of Arizona game.  People also know that March Madness almost beats out Christmas time for me.

But let’s go back to the lady that helped me charge my phone.  She was part of the Rebel entourage.  We started to talk  and I asked what she was studying.  Turns out she was Assistant Coach Alex Simmons for the women’s team and not a student. We spoke briefly about the male players from UCLA who got caught stealing in China a few days before.

It was from her tone and the words she used, I knew Coach Simmons was coaching her players to be respectful, empathetic and aware both on the court and off.  I’ve been around enough high stakes collegiate games to know some schools see their players like machines.   Not Coach Simmons.  She sees leaders.

Simmons started out playing softball growing up in Shelbyville, Tennessee.  Because she was usually the tallest in the group she ended up playing basketball too.  Due to the Insell family, basketball took on a life of its own.  Tom Insell worked with Simmons from a young age and had her practicing with high school players while she was in middle school.  Simmons played on a travel team coached by Rick Insell, Tom’s father.  The travel team, the Flight, is one of the top ranked teams, creating numerous All-American players.   By the time she was in her final year of high school Coach Simmons was one of those All-Americans.

Simmons attended the University of Tennessee to play under Pat Summit but red shirted her first year due to a knee injury.  It ended up Simmons would play as a 5th year and wound up the only senior playing for the Lady Vols.  She spent a lot of time hanging out in the coaches’s offices since she had almost finished her undergrad degree and was already taking some graduate studies courses.

“That Whitney Houston song I’m Every Woman.  That was Coach Summit.  She was a coach, a wife, a mom to her son and dog.  “We knew that she was hard on us because she cared.  She was a big influence.  It was when I was around the offices helping the freshman I knew that I wanted to coach,” Coach Simmons tells me.  In 2013 she became the Assistant Coach for Ole Miss’ women’s team.  Remember the Insell family.  Well Tom Insell’s brother Matt is the Head Coach for the team. Clearly Tom had an eye for talent way back when.  Coach Simmons is on the younger side to hold her position.  “I didn’t have a lot of discipline when I was younger but, as a coach you mature faster.  There was a thin line when I was 23-34 at University of Kansas working as a Graduate Assistant but, I found the balance.”

Coach Simmons is the first to admit that there have been bumps in the road but Coach Rick Insell’s words still resonate today, “Success is built on inconvenience.”  Student athletes are pulled in a lot of directions between practice, training, attending classes, studying and attempting to have a social life mixed in with copious amounts of travel.   There are times when the pressure may get to a player.   “When a player is having a bad day we can either waste an entire day or remember our purpose.  At Ole Miss we are tuned into our athletes needs and wants.  Ultimately this is a business, but we are also a family and if you don’t care and have sympathy people are not going to perform.”

Ole Miss Women’s Basketball vs MTSU on November 29th, 2017 at The Pavilion in Oxford, MS. Photo Credit: Ole Miss Athletics. Alex Simmons, Assistant Coach Brittany Hudson, Assistant Coach.Photo by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

Coach Simmons learns quickly which players can be coached hard and scolded in front of her peers and those which require a softer approach.  “Having a great relationship with players lets you know what buttons you can and cannot push.”  She is also aware that not all of her players want to go on to play in the WNBA or overseas.  “There are some students playing so their parents didn’t have to pay for tuition. Some are here on a needed scholarship.  Some come that are working to become successful to get their families into a better situation.  I remind them of their end goal.”

There is one thing that Coach Simmons does mention; her own mistakes.  For those women that graduate, even when they want to go the corporate route and not necessarily go pro, Coach Simmons advises students to play in an overseas league.    “I encourage players to step out of their comfort zones.  It makes you stronger and shows that you are your own woman,” she says.

Coach Simmons’ hashtag is #allgasnobrakes.  “You cannot allow people to stop you and interfere with your dreams.  No matter what bump you cannot quit.  10 MPH or 50 MPH, keep your foot on the gas.”  Coach Simmons is in a unique position to have played for a few of the greatest basketball coaches in history.  They pushed her hard when she was younger.  As a result Simmons matured and now she pushes herself.  Keeping the gas pedal pressed is just as part of her personal fabric.  This gives Coach Simmons and her players a mutual respect because Simmons is empathic to her players.  She was in their shoes once.

Check out Coach Simmons and the Rebels schedule at http://www.olemisssports.com/sports/w-baskbl/sched/ole-w-baskbl-sched.html

About the writer: Catherine Brinkman has a sales career spanning 2 decades.  She has won numerous awards including Rookie of the Year and Silver Sales Associate for Dale Carnegie, a global training company.  In early 2016, Catherine started her own consulting business, partnering with sales and marketing teams to increase revenue. She works with everyone from Silicon Valley giants to small startups. She has a fun, comic approach to her consulting, having studied satirical writing at The Second City.  She can be found at cb@bhyconsulting.com and on Twitter @catbrinkman


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