Pro basketball player, championship winner at all levels of the sport, Assistant Coach of the WNBA Chicago Sky, and Keynote Speaker Ann Wauters knows something about teams. Through her storied career, she’s played on and led many successful teams. Ann now shares her experiences and knowledge with younger players through coaching and mentoring. There’s many parallels between team building in the sports world and the corporate world, says Ann, and in today’s episode, she shares the ingredients for a successful team with us.
Here are my four big takeaways from the conversation:
Honest feedback is crucial for growth and success. As a player, she always valued the feedback she received, because how else would she get better?
It’s important to have a strong support system in place.
Getting vulnerable with your teammates off the field helps build trust with each other.
Focus on things you can control, rather than wasting energy on what you cannot control.
Ann has had a remarkable life and I’m so grateful that she shared her stories with us. I know you’ll enjoy this episode.
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Ann Wauters: for me, Team, I always use it a little bit as, as the T for trust. the E for energy, the A for accountability and the M for mindsets, those four things are for me crucial for teamwork.
Aaron: I'm Aaron Levy. And I have this vision of a workplace where your manager doesn't suck; where instead your manager is your coach, helping you to reach your full potential at work. I founded Raise The Bar, wrote Open, Honest and Direct, and started this podcast to help companies transform their workplace to a place where both the company and employee succeeds.
In this podcast, I get to interview leaders who built high-performing teams. And learn from them on what it takes to unlock a team with potential.
Aaron Levy: Today is a special episode. We're lucky to have a professional athlete who has been successful on so many levels. Ann Wauters has played for more than 20 years of professional basketball in seven different countries.
Over three continents, she's won four times in the Euro league. She was drafted first in the WNBA, won a WNBA championship; she's won a Euro cup title, Bronze medal in the European championship and was also named European player of the year five times. Ann comes on and shares her stories and her lessons of what it takes to lead and play on and be a part of high performing successful teams.
And her stories translate not just to the basketball court, but also into to life and to our teams at work. And so I think you're gonna get a lot out of this conversation with Ann. Enjoy.
Aaron Levy: Ann I'm just so excited to have you on the podcast and to have this conversation with you. When I first got introduced to you, I was like, oh my God, what a storied career you've played basketball for more than 20 years with some stops and starts to build a family in between.
You've won the Euro league title four times, the WNBA championship, Euro cup. You had a bronze medal at the European championships. You have done quite a few things and not just your playing career, but also you won the championship with the Sky last year. So like thank you for coming on.
Thank you for making time.
Ann Wauters: Well, thank you. First of all, for having me, Aaron, I always love to share my experiences out of the sports world with all types of people, you know, from business world, corporate world leadership. I think there's so much parallels to be really honest when we look at a basketball team and when we look in corporate settings.
So I'm always really, really happy when I can share those experiences. And at the same time, I'm always open to listen to what we can learn. So I love it when we can have those different worlds coming together.
Aaron Levy: Yeah. I wanna dive so much into that. Like you've been successful in so many different teams and so many different stages.
And before I get too ahead of myself, I'd love to just hear your story. Like, how did you get here?
Ann Wauters: Yeah, well it's kind of a nice story to be honest. So I am a Belgian and when I was growing up in Belgium, well, basketball is not as popular as here in the states.
So it was kind of by coincidence. I started to play basketball because our whole system is different and we do have some school sports, but everything is more so organized in clubs. So from a young age, you kind of already have to choose which sports you're gonna do. And at that time I didn't really have one sport that I was doing, but I was already very tall.
So one one day somebody who was in my class just asked me and said like, Hey, why don't you join me for practice? After school? And I was like, okay, why not? And that's how I kind of yeah, by coincidence really fell into the basketball world. And at that time I was this tall teenager kid. I didn't have that much confidence to be honest in myself, cuz I always wanted to look smaller and I wasn't really proud of being that tall.
And when I started to play basketball, that's already the first thing that really, really helped me. It felt like I was at home and that all of a sudden, while I saw other people that were all so tall and being that tall also was a big advantage for me. So slowly then I started to believe more in myself.
My confidence grew. So that's already I think maybe the biggest thing that basketball has taught me. And from there on everything went pretty quickly. I started to play professional basketball right after high school. So I didn't go to college. So that's a little bit different also.
Aaron Levy: You went straight to play professional, well, that's a big leap.
Ann Wauters: Yeah. That is a big jump into the unknown. It was already kind of a big jump really and unknown also for my parents, for example, they wanted for their daughter, like a more traditional path where there's education, where there would be a degree, university and all that.
And I kind of, at that time, I already was maybe a strong character. And, and I kind of felt that I was like, Ooh, I wanna do something with this basketball because in those couple years that I was playing basketball, it helped me. I felt so good. And I, and, and I was already really passionate about it and I wanted to get better and better and better.
So I knew I felt deep inside of me that I wanted to do something more with basketball for example, here, college, where you have your education and you play sports at a high level. It's not really like that in Belgium.
So when I got the opportunity to go and play in France, professional basketball, well, that was big. I mean, and I didn't even know that at that time I could make money by playing basketball. So everything was very new. It was very new also for my parents.
Yeah, they were a little bit scared, I think, you know, that their daughter would choose all of a sudden a different path. But at the same time it felt also good. And I was right away I, I had the level already to play professional basketball. Of course I had tons that had the things that I had to improve that I had to learn. Really, it made me happy and I was doing it every single day.
I was just really keen on getting better. And I think in life also, a lot of times you do have to be lucky. And I was fortunate enough that I right away, I got into a team in the north of France which was a really professional environment. People were really helpful, but also taught me what it meant to be a professional athlete to have that kind of discipline, to have the desire, to get every single day, a little bit better and to really improve not only my basketball skills, but also my physical skills, my, my basketball IQ.
Everything around it, but most definitely also I've learned there a lot of things about teamwork. Like how can we as a team really perform at our best. And that was really kind of the foundation or for me getting that kind of an education. It wasn't like a university education I was getting, but that kind of education I really got in the north of France early in my career.
Aaron Levy: It was the, it was the real life education.
Ann Wauters: The university of life, which I like to call it , but everything again went pretty quickly. And then after two years playing there, I got drafted and it was a really big jump again. I got drafted to go and play here in the WNBA
and I was a number one pick and that was like big and I didn't even know what was happening to me. And that opened again a whole new world for me. Coming here to the states it was a different culture and basketball of course is very, very popular here. And people are also even in a different way.
I would say maybe really how they look at basketball. People what they think about it, how they see it. And that was always so good for me to have all these different impressions, all these different perspectives, also on how to, to play the game that I loved so much and where I could always take some stuff to learn and to get better.
And so that's when I started in 2000, doing both seasons. So a lot of female basketball players, they play in the long winter, they play in Europe. So I've started in France, but afterwards I went to Russia, Spain, Turkey, and then in the summertime we play here in the WNBA cuz it's only a summer season for now. But so that was kind of for me, like a really, honestly a great life, you know, I was playing 12 months out of the year.
Aaron Levy:. No downtime. How does your body handle that?
Ann Wauters: Yeah, that was a little bit the consequences, when you're in your twenties, everything is fine and you can handle it and all, yeah. I loved it, to play at the highest level. But then once yeah, you get a little bit older, it got harder. It did definitely got harder. And then I couldn't combine all the time the two seasons in one year. So then I had to take sometimes a summer off to recover and to keep on playing then more so in Europe, in the second part of my career, even though in 2016 I still came back to the WNBA and I won the WNBA championship with the LA Sparks.
Which was also pretty awesome because that was my last season. I was playing here in the WNBA and still getting that championship. And I know how hard it is to get it here. Cuz it's very competitive. It's 12 teams that are competing with each other. So it's been a journey.
It's been a really, really nice ride I would say. And now to see that I can transition in a different role, but still very close to basketball. It makes it even more special. Now seeing that I can take another role as an assistant coach here with the Chicago Sky. It's been new to me, but at the same time, I'm really, really enjoying it again, sharing all those experiences that I've gone through, like throughout my career, sharing them now with those younger players who have lots of talent, but still can improve so much. And I think I'm really starting to like that journey too.
Aaron Levy: I mean, not only did you have a 20 year playing career with various teams, but somewhere in the middle of that you had three children with your partner.
Like, how did you, how do you fit all that in? I'm thinking like the 12 months of basketball traveling between Europe and, and the states, and then bringing kids and a whole family through the whole journey. How, how did that fit together?
Ann Wauters: Well I think I have to be very thankful having my family because they were the reason also why I was able to, to play that long and also chase my Olympic dream, which I just recently just only last summer.
And it was the first time ever that Belgium got to the Olympics and I was a part of that team. So it was like really, really a dream for me that came true. And I can honestly say it's really thanks to my family, my kids, my wife, that I was able to do that and really chase that dream. So I'll take you a little bit back at one point.
In my career, I was playing, like I just told you in France, then I went to Russia in the summertime here. Everything was around me. It was always around my schedule. It was about when I have practice. when I have games and at one point I didn't feel like it was enough anymore for me. I needed more. I needed something else too.
And I was already together with my wife. I, I met her pretty young and she was able to travel a lot with me. So she knew the kind of life I had and that we had together. And it was just. Also a great, perfect time for us to start a family.
And she was willing also to kind of be the prime caretaker, I would say so that I could also still be a basketball player and focus on my career. But at the same time, having that balance, having a family coming home to kids, coming home to my wife, it gave me really like Yeah, that, that kind of balance that at that time, I, I definitely needed in my life.
And so then we just took them everywhere we could, our kids and we, we kind of had the same life we were having before, but now just, we, we took all our kids with us. So we were pregnant actually at the same time, which was also pretty unique and pretty awesome experience.
Aaron Levy: So you and your wife each were pregnant at the same time.
Ann Wauters: Exactly. Yeah. Oh my gosh. you know, that happened how there? It was in all. I see. We had really nice pregnancies, so that time was really, really awesome because I had been playing like 12 years abroad and it was a time for me to just be at home in Belgium, enjoying the small things of life. We just had built a house.
We were like, just decorating it. Like just being really, really like chill at home with our friends, with our families, getting ready to really start our own little family. Once the babies were there, it was more challenging.
We underestimated that a little bit, that part, but, oh my gosh. It was, it was tough. I admit it was tough. And I must say, I think even more my wife, because after three months when I delivered our son I had to be back on the basketball courts because I, I already signed a contract. So there was not, not a lot of time. And to Spain, we were there.
And that's where. I think it's also always important for any kind of leaders to have a great, what I always call it a social network, some people who you can fall back on and who you can rely on. And for me, it was definitely also my family, but at that time, when we were abroad in Spain with our two babies, well, all of a sudden our social network was not there.
So it was even harder, especially for my wife, to really take care of two little babies while I was going on the road, sometimes playing games, having practices and all that. So I can definitely see how important it is to really have a good social network close by.
Aaron Levy: This is another team on top of it, right? Another team that you've had to be successful with you know, your family unit, team the four Euro league titles, the WNBA, you've had, just what sounds like a number of successful teams. And, and you alluded to this earlier. I'm really curious to hear what, in your career, in your life, what have you found are those key ingredients to making a team work?
Ann Wauters: Well, that's a great question because in basketball you cannot do anything alone. You really have to have a great team. And like you said, I've been fortunate enough to really be on unbelievable, great teams with lots and lots of talent. And it's true, I've won some titles and I'm really, really proud of them, but I've lost also lots of finals.
And in my opinion, teamwork starts really when you have first of all, a common goal. And that is, I think really easy in sports. you start a season and you really wanna win together at the end of the season, lift that trophy or you know, really going for that championship.
Ann Wauters: So that is very, very clear for us. And I think that's already. And different kinds of businesses are corporates. It's always important to have a common goal. That's already the first step, but then you have all this talent together and now you have to make that talent work together. And everybody has to be on the same page.
For me team, I always use it a little bit as, as the T for trust. the E for energy, the A for accountability, and the M for mindset.
Those four things are for me, crucial for teamwork. And that I think a lot of things come into play like trusting each other, having confidence in each other, really having specific roles, also understanding what does it take for you to make your team successful? And it's not always the same thing, you know, like there's different roles, but having different responsibilities, even sometimes.
Being able to hold each other accountable. That is just really important. And I can give you an example. I think it's, it's maybe easier. When we were playing with our Belgium national team, we had like recently success, because we really understood that we are from a really small, tiny country.
Right. And we knew that we had talent. Yes. We had some talent because without talent, it's impossible also to get there, But then we really understood, well, like maybe we were not the most physical team or not even the most athletic team.
So we had to have something else, like our team chemistry, our teamwork had to be excellent to be able to, you know, compete with the biggest countries to even compete with the United States, with friends, with Russia, with all those big basketball nations. And that's how we understood that, Hey, we have to really, really play well together and having each other's back trusting each other.
And it's something that just doesn't fall from the air. I don't believe in that because it's true. Like sometimes we do spend a lot of time together, like, and sometimes with some teammates, of course, you're gonna have a better click, you know, there's even sometimes friendships that come out of it. It's exactly the same with colleagues on the workforce with some, you're gonna have, you know, an actual click and you're gonna feel good about it, but the most important thing is like, you could work good together, that you guys can perform together as a strong team.
And those were things we understood.
And we actually also worked on, we worked on not only on the court together and building those relationships on the court but even outside of the court. We, a lot of times, had some sessions, like some kind of workshops where we for example, had to share something of our life that nobody knew or tell a little bit about the biggest moment of our career, but also about the lowest moment of our career and those things. They do create some, some more depth and you can kind of build something and you can trust somebody maybe even a little bit better.
And at the end of the day, that will also help to be more performance on the courts. So trust definitely something that I would say is, is really a fundamental of teamwork. And it's something that you cannot neglect or think like, oh, you know, we're good. Like, it's something that you have to keep on working on it as well.
Otherwise you cannot take that for granted, for sure.
Aaron Levy: Okay. On a team. Well, you play with them every day. You're sweating with people you're in the trenches. And, but, you know, and just even hearing your start of your story, these are teams that are formed newly, right?
Like anytime a new contract is signed, there's a new team, anytime. Like there's so many things. And, and then the Olympic team, and that's a new team and I love what you said. It doesn't just happen. The trust. No, it takes work. And, and something that you said very specifically was. We worked on it by being vulnerable with each other.
We shared vulnerably on and off the court, which created more depth. And I think that's something that like, goes without saying, when you think of professional athletes, you don't think of vulnerability. But what you're saying is, Hey, when we were vulnerable, we connected with each other. We got more depth which helped build trust on the court and on the team.
Ann Wauters: Exactly. And being vulnerable with each other doesn't mean softer, you know, I come to a next step, because if you have a good foundation of trust, then you can accept much more like the different roles there on a team, the different responsibilities you have to take, and you can keep each other accountable because the trust is there.
So you are able to tell somebody if they're doing amazing. Yes. But if they didn't do what they were supposed to do, and that is also about keeping each other accountable, keeping each other kind of sharp also.
So it's not, when you're vulnerable, you are all of a sudden you're like soft because in the sports world, a lot of times, you know you have to be tough and you have to play through pain and all that, but at the same time, you also have to be able to really, if you wanna be your best version of yourself, you also have to be able to show yourself vulnerable to your teammates, because that's the only way how you will be able to perform at your best.
So I think that's the next step where we also are really pretty open about it. And you can already imagine that in some teams you have a different role and you have to be able to communicate well, I think that's something we do pretty well in sports, and I could only emphasize that like, communication is key to so many things and in, in corporate sense, it's exactly the same.
If you communicate well with each other you could avoid a lot of problems. So for us, it's exactly the same. Our communication has to be on point and it's different kind of communication. Sometimes on the court, it has to be short and sharp and we know what we do.
You have to call out a screen left, right? Whatever it has to be there, because if you don't call out the screen, your teammate is gonna run into it. But then after a game, for example, you can analyze and you can have maybe a deeper conversation. And that communication has to be also pretty good. I think so.
To me, that's, that's a second layer. I would say, like having those responsibilities and they can vary like in different teams and accepting them and embracing them and playing and doing them to the fullest. And I think that's also really a key to, to success in different teams. A third layer, I would say.
And that's something again, if I can refer to the Belgium Olympic team, we knew that we had to have so much energy. We had to be so enthusiastic. And to me, that's something that is so, so crucial. And it's been proven in the positive psychology when you give a lot of energy, when you're cheering for each other, good things are gonna happen.
You know, like it's very easy to get a little bit in a negative spiral. But if you have a teammate who will pull you out of it, or if in your team, the dynamic is mostly positive. Then good things are gonna happen. It's just the way it is in positive psychology. And I think that's something we really pay a lot of attention to no negative body language really being there for each other in harder moments.
And that helps. Helps you to feel also again, more confident, trusting again each other that even in times when it's really not going your way and you just missed five shots in a row and they just scored on you or something like that, you will know that. Okay. No, come on. What can I do now? Better, better to do in the next possession again, a little bit better and, and trying to, to find a way to to beat them.
So it's about all this positive energy that you can create within a team. And usually it's, it doesn't always start only from the coaches or from the leaders. It has to be carried by everybody, that kind of energy. And that is something also, I think we can all work on because you can feel it right away. what kind of energy there is, what kind of culture they have.
And it's also, again, easier said than done, and it's, again, something you have to work on every single day. So there's not a lot of secrets I would say to success, but it's definitely all those little things that make you successful at the end of the day.
Aaron Levy: And it's work and you said, it's simple, but it's hard to do, right. There's a lot of steps involved. And I think about like, anytime there's a new team formed and, or as a coach going into a new team, what is, if, if you're thinking of, and speaking to the, the coaches of the rest of the world, right?
The, the leaders listening, who are coaches of their team, what's the first thing. that you do or would do with a new team, right. Of all of these things. Where, where do you start?
Ann Wauters: Well I, I, I definitely would start with having great communication with each other. And having that indeed like that positive body language, positive communication, really communicating, well, what kind of roles they will have in this team?
What do you expect? And then I'll come back to the next thing while I think we do pretty well in, in the sports world is giving each other feedback and that's something in corporate settings we can always use maybe even better. Yeah. I would say. We are used to it. In basketball. from a young age, I wanted to get better and better.
So I was gonna listen to my coaches. I was gonna look at my teammate. Hey, what kind of move they have? I can maybe copy it, or like, I just, I want feedback, to get better. And there is not a negative connotation about feedback. Sometimes I feel like in, in corporate settings there is, it's more like, ah, okay, this is something I haven't done.
Well, I have to improve. but no, if you see it also, and, and it can start with yourself it can start with like, how do I see feedback? So I can improve. I can get better at, or do I see it as something negative. Oh, he's not happy or she's not happy because I didn't do that the right way.
So it's all about what kind of mindset you put into it and especially leaders. It's very crucial. The way you give feedback too. It's something you can't only be positive. No, because people just want honest feedback.
Just really try to be as honest as possible. And if you are really a good leader, I think you can feel what kind of people need very direct feedback or some need, maybe a little more explanation.
So it's all about that. It's all about how can you improve your people? And how can you make them better for the ultimate goal for your team to perform at their best.
Aaron Levy: And I love the simplicity that you brought it down to. And it's funny, cuz we talk about the importance of clarity and the importance of feedback as a gift.
And you mentioned right. Giving clarity on the roles and expectations of the team and. Giving feedback to improve giving the gift of feedback. And I, we talk about it all the time. Like if you think about it as a gift, it's something that helps you give certain good things that you want versus, right. Like, oh, I have to, I have to hear what I didn't do.
Well, it's like, no, I love that. Like, even from the beginning, I wanted that feedback cuz it was an opportunity for me to help improve and that's just such a, it's a mindset. And I think that's so powerful.
Ann Wauters: And it's very powerful and, and you can control that. That's the other thing Sometimes we do waste a lot of energy on things we cannot control.
And in, in sports again, on a, on a basketball court, I had to learn that too. When I was young, I was sometimes also impulsive and I would get so angry sometimes with decisions like a referee... I would lose myself in it. And then I understood, I think also with a lot of experience, like those are things I cannot control, you know?
So just, I, I can't. Take my energy there. I'll have to focus on what I can control. And when you start looking at that like I can't even control if we gonna win or lose, I can just control what I can bring and I can control my effort. I can control my attitude, all those things.
I can control that. I cannot even control if I'm gonna make that basket or not. I'm gonna try to yeah, my best. But if you start thinking that way and not only on like the result, it kind of liberates you, I just have to focus on the things that I can, and I think that helped me too, for example, in very big games that I had to play finals or a game that will decide if you go to the Olympics or not. there's a lot of things at stake, you know? It's also, again, being in the moment, just focus on the things that you know, how to do, what you can control, and that does help, you know, to lower a little bit the stress level.
And you can translate that again to the business world. When you have to give a really huge presentation, lots of people there, and maybe you're not really used to it. Well, take a deep breath. Think about what you can control and you gonna be fine, you know, if you prepare well, you will be good. So those are all the things that we've learned also during my career that I can translate right now in a, in a more corporate setting.
Aaron Levy: I love that it reminds me of the John Wooden quote, where and for those of you who are listening, John Wooden is one of the more famous basketball coaches, college basketball coaches of all time, famous and successful. And he used to say, you know success is knowing that you've done everything you can to, to prepare and do your best.
And, and I don't focus on the outcomes I focus on, how do we prepare to get ourselves there? And that was just, you know, all that you've just said is like, let go of what you can't control and focus on what you can control, which is how you show up, how you prepare, how you communicate, how you bring the energy.
This is just such a fun conversation and I'm grateful for the, the time you've spent sharing your story and I'm grateful for all that you've done.
And, and I'm excited for the, the coaching career to continue on and all that you're gonna continue to do to share these lessons with people in the corporate world and other basketball players coming up.
Ann Wauters: Well, Aaron, thank you for having me. I'm I'm always happy to share all those insights and, and some of, of the experiences. And I will get you some tickets, but I wanna see you in the stand supporting the Sky!
Aaron Levy: Open, Honest, and Direct is produced by Raise The Bar, where we help organizations level up their leadership by empowering their managers with the tools, skills, and training to be better leaders of people. You can get in touch with us at raisebar.co.
Thank you for listening and go put your learning into practice.