Kay Yow: Successful Coach, Positive Person

Self confidence is one of the keys to success that I discuss in Straight Talk for Success.  If you want to become self confident you need to do three things. 1) Become an optimist.  2) Face your fears and act.  3) Surround yourself with positive people.

Kay Yow was one of the most positive and optimistic people you’ve never met.  She passed away on Saturday, January 24.  She had been the Women’s Head Basketball Coach at North Carolina State University for the past 34 years.  She coached two teams that won Olympic Gold Medals.  She was an assistant coach in 1984 and the head coach in 1988.  Her teams won four Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championships; earned 20 NCAA tournament bids; and reached the Final Four in 1998.  She was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002.  In 2007, North Carolina State named their home floor “Kay Yow Court” in her honor.

She also battled breast cancer for 22 years.  She was first diagnosed the year before she coached the US team to the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics.  She had a mastectomy, underwent chemo and kept coaching. 

Kay Yow’s cancer returned with a vengeance in 2006.  She took a 16 game leave to focus on her treatments during the 2006-07 season. She returned to coaching and her won 12 of its final 15 games beating women’s basketball powerhouses – and big time NC State rivals Duke and North Carolina.  Her players wore pink shoelaces in honor of their coach.  That team got into the NCAA tournament and made it to the Sweet 16.  She was so weak during those games that she spent most of her time sitting on the bench.  Her assistant coaches stood to shout instructions to players, and helped her to her feet during time outs.

In an interview after the 2007 sesaon, she said,

“I have to go through it. I accept that, and I'm not panicked about it because the Lord is in control. But it just would be so saddening if I had to go through it and I couldn't help people. But then I see I'm helping others in a greater way than I ever have. That's the amazing thing, you know?”

Pat Summit is the Women’s Head Basketball Coach at the University of Tennessee.  She also has more wins and more national titles than any other women’s basketball coach.  Kay Yow was her assistant coach in the 1984 Olympics.  She said,

“Kay has just been a great friend to so many people; obviously left her footprints all over the place with the kids she has taught and molded.  And she is a woman that had fought such a hard fight, but it was always about everyone else, never about Kay.   In the two decades she fought the disease, Kay never allowed herself to be victimized by cancer. Kay never pitied herself.”

Rutgers Women's Basketball Coach, Vivian Stringer, a breast cancer survivor said,

"Kay showed us how to handle one of the most difficult things — cancer — in the most dignified and courageous manner.  She gave every ounce of the energy she had left to the young ladies she coached.  She was, and will always be, an inspiration to many people."

And that’s the common sense point for today.  Stuff happens, bad stuff like cancer.  None of have control over what happens to us.  We do, however, have control over how we react to the things that happen to us.  Self confident people like Kay Yow use the bad stuff that happens to them to set an example for others.  They remain optimistic.  They face their fears and go on with their life.  They set a positive example for others.  As the Optimist Creed says, they are “too large for worry, to noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.”  I remember watching Kay Yow coach during the 2006-07 season.  It was clear that she was very sick and weak.  It was also clear that she was an inspiration to her assistant coaches and players.  She was an inspiration to me as well.

If you want to honor Kay Yow’s memory, you can make a donation to the KayYow/WBCA Cancer Fund at www.JimmyV.org.  If you want a copy of The Optimist Creed to hang in your office got to: http://bbilanich.typepad.com/success_common_sense/2008/12/the-optimist-creed.html.

That’s my take on Kay Yow and self confidence – and optimism, courage to face her fears and being a positive person.  What’s yours?  There are many others who have fought cancer with dignity, most not as well known as Kay Yow.  Please leave a comment sharing the cancer story of anyone you would like to honor.  We all can benefit from hearing others’ stories of tragedy and triumph.  I will post my cancer story here in a separate post.  As always, thanks for reading.


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  1. Positive thoughts always lead to positive actions. They also provide a strength to face what we used to avoid. Overcoming our own fears is a great achievement in itself. Once that is done there is nothing that can frighten us in our life.

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