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Sam Paradise O’Malley: “Seize the moment, embrace it, love it!”

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Shot on location at Saint Thomas Aquinas High School.

Saint Thomas Aquinas High School assistant basketball coach Sam Paradise O’Malley uses the word “process” when she discusses her strategies for building top-notch girls basketball teams. Many people think sports is a natural gift for athletes, and yes, genetics can play a part, but so much more is crucial to create an excellent player and an excellent team. Sam sees it as a careful method of mixing talent, motivation, practice, confidence, ability and more into an incredible equation for success.

“My personal mission is to develop women of strong faith and character who strive to become their best by giving their best effort in all that they do. I bring my passion for the game by creating an atmosphere of excitement and engagement by learning to love the process of hard work instead of focusing directly on the outcome. We all bring the energy and enthusiasm,” she noted. “We live in a world that is so consumed with winning, but the questions should be what did you learn from the game, what did you take away, what can you improve for the next game and did you have fun. A win or loss can create an opportunity for growth, which is a big part of the competitive process, striving daily to be better than the day before.” Nevertheless, Sam is proud that her team prevailed at the state championship for 5A Girls Basketball in March, adding another W to their record.”

Full Circle
Not only does she take on the role at Saint Aquinas, the Overland Park, Kansas, wife and mother of four enjoys the job of head coach for the seventh-grade girls premier AAU basketball team called the Eclipse. But Sam began her high school basketball career at the same place she now coaches, Saint Aquinas. During her time as a student, the team brought home the first state championship in basketball, boys or girls, in 2001. In the semi-final game leading up to the championship, Sam recalls that they were down by 12 at halftime to the opposition. However, the tide began to turn in Aquinas’ favor when Sam sank two free throws. Everything that she had trained and worked so hard for came to fruition with those two shots. At the sound of the buzzer, they took the game by four. Now, she coaches at Aquinas with the same head coach who mentored them to that championship.

After her high school career, she went on to the University of West Florida as the only freshman in the program awarded a scholarship. “I played point guard with transfers and upperclassmen, and it was a pat on the back to be given that role,” she shared. “At the end of my third year of college, I joined a traveling flag football team as a receiver and we won four national championships in women’s and co-rec leagues.”

After receiving her undergraduate degree in sports management in 2007 and a master’s in exercise science in 2008, Sam moved into coaching basketball at several colleges in the southern states. “I’ve coached middle school and college and faced plenty of struggles, professionally and personally, but instead of seeing it as a failure, I saw it as a growth opportunity to develop as a person,” she advised. “Coaching basketball is a daily improvement opportunity because it challenges me to learn, grow and pursue excellence for myself. Our lives can be a book with lots of chapters and within one you can write the story of how you pressed on through struggles and became a better person because of it. I say, ‘Don’t let life define you; let it refine you.’”

It’s How Girl Ballers Ball
While the sports programs focusing on males usually receive the most attention and resources, Sam relishes her opportunity to mentor young women in the art of basketball, especially enjoying her seventh grade AAU team. She points to the pride and simple joy the girls express on the court and their excitement with the game, fueling her love for the sport. Women’s basketball is described as a sport that thrives more on solid fundamentals and teamwork rather than the showmanship that can drive the men’s game.

“Girls are fundamentally sound on the game. Sure, there’s athleticism in men’s and women’s basketball, but girls have found a way to perfect the game and spice it up as they play,” she noted. “Most don’t dunk, but we do the small things that excel us to the next level. We play solid defense; there’s a true purity to the way we play the game. Yes, the game has changed from the beginning but kept its authenticity and the purity honoring its start. I love watching ‘girl ballers ballin.’”

While her enjoyment of the game certainly pushed her into a coaching career, it was the watchful eyes of her parents that propelled Sam into this field of teaching others how to play. “My dad was the head coach of my younger sister’s team; she was in third grade and I was in fourth grade. He would bring me to watch her practices and told me that I was the assistant coach,” she recalled. “Then my mom got me my first whistle and said I would do great things. When I got my first college coaching job at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia, my mom mailed that whistle to me with a note that said, ‘Told You, Always Believe.’”

Coaches are known for their ability to inspire and motivate, getting everything they can from their players. However, Sam goes against the notion that her players must give 110 percent when they’re on the court. In her opinion, that’s a phrase that should be retired. “I don’t believe that’s possible. It’s hard to give even 100 percent each and every day because there is so much going on in a person’s life,” she commented. “I ask them to strive for greatness by giving their very best effort. If they can be honest with themselves at the end of practice and they believe that they gave their best, then that’s a success, I’m happy. I want to motivate them to give everything that they can for that particular day.”

Leveling the Playing Field
In 1972, the United States Department of Education implemented Title IX of the Education Amendments, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs receiving federal financial assistance. It decreed that the athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally and effectively accommodated. Young women would be offered the opportunity to participate in team sports in educational systems, which had been denied by some schools for many years. Sam sees the benefits that can come to young women when they have the opportunity to participate in an organized sports program.

“Sports can refine you as a person and prepare you for life. We’re challenged daily and must not let walls of fear keep us from trying. It’s important for young girls to participate in sports, to face challenges and conquer them,” she remarked. “Sports builds character and confidence in females by allowing them to enjoy the process of hard work. They can choose to be positive and enjoy the process and that mindset will help them determine their outcome in life.”

Of course, she strongly urges young women to consider playing high school, college or even professional sports. Yet, she shares her advice for those making that move. “It’s better to have tried than to look back and regret that you didn’t. Don’t let fear hold you back from something great and possibly making a difference in someone’s life,” Sam said. “Seize the moment, embrace it and, most importantly, love it. Enjoy every moment; don’t let the fear of failure hold you back.”

Sam also offers her insight into taking the love of the game to the next level and mentoring others to grow their athletic skillset. The role of a coach can be a tough position, hampered by the pressure to produce winning teams, carting home trophies and banners. But for Sam, the true victory is the positivity a coach can bring to those who put their trust in her.

“It’s about people; it’s not the players and not the sport. As a coach, you want to inspire, lead, build trust and mutual respect. It’s about making a difference in someone’s life. Sports are only a small percent of the pie chart of our life. In the end, it won’t be filled with how many wins you got, but the impact you have on a player’s life. It’s about the relationships,” she advised. “I say find your support network and live out the work-life balance. Coaches can get so enthralled in the winning and the process of winning that they miss out on life. Former UCLA Men’s Basketball Coach John Wooden said, ‘Don’t get so busy making a living that you don’t have time to make a life.’”

As a wife, mother of four and a career basketball coach, Sam has plenty heaped on her plate, but her pie chart of life seems to have the properly sized slices to score a complete and meaningful impact on those closest to her. “I just want to make a difference, attract people to women’s sports and share the love of the game with any and all. God gifted me with a talent and I want to share that talent and, hopefully, make a difference along the way,” she commented. “I strive each day to be an original, not a carbon copy. I want to be a positive light and bring joy to those around me. I can be goofy, unique and quirky, but I love people and I love seeing smiles. Sometimes, you have to take time in the moment to actually enjoy the moment. Sometimes, you need to cook the stew a little bit longer to get the best taste.” ■