Elena Delle Donne On The Importance Of Keeping Girls In Sports And The Mental Side Of Rehab

The WNBA season has reached its midseason Olympic break, with Team USA (and the WNBA All-Stars) descending on Las Vegas for training camp and the All-Star Game prior to heading off to Tokyo.

To this point, one significant figure has been missing from both the WNBA season and USA Basketball, as Elena Delle Donne, a gold medalist at the 2016 Rio Games and 2019 WNBA MVP for the championship-winning Mystics, missed the first half of the season as she works her way back from back surgeries. Delle Donne is one of the top players in the game, and without her, the Mystics have floated near .500 at 8-10, thanks largely to MVP-caliber play from Tina Charles.

There’s hope that Delle Donne will return at some point in the not too distant future for the stretch run to the playoffs. For now, she’s enjoying watching the Charles show in Washington and providing support for her teammates, whether they play for the Mystics or the national team. On Monday, Dime got a chance to talk with Delle Donne through her partnership with Always to encourage girls to stay in sports about why that cause so important to her, advice she’s giving Ariel Atkins about her first Olympic trip, lessons on leadership, Charles’ sensational start, and the mental grind of the rehab process that often gets overlooked.

To start, how did this partnership with Always come together and why was this something that was important to you to be able to do?

Yeah, so both Always and myself are trying to encourage girls to stay in sport and also inspire others to do the same, because when I heard the statistic that half of girls are dropping out of sports during puberty, it’s something that was super concerning to me. Because I just know that sports can affect your life skills in so many ways and it can build so much confidence and teamwork and communication skills, so to hear that girls were dropping out of sports is something I was highly concerned about. And then I know that Always is a brand that’s been empowering girls now for over 30 years, being there for those who need it and changing the stigma of the saying “Like a girl.” That’s why I was so excited to team up with probably the most powerful company that can encourage girls to stay in sport.

For me, I can’t imagine where I would even be if I didn’t have sport and not just because I’m a professional athlete, but just where I’d be in life like confidence wise. Because when I was young, it’s probably not too shocking, but I was very tall and I wasn’t always confident in being tall. There were moments where I felt like I was being bullied or I just was lacking so much confidence because I was so much different than my peers, and I went from being this like hunched over little girl who didn’t want to stand tall in pictures and who was shy and struggled to communicate and make friends to being somebody who found her power in sport and found that being tall and being unique is my greatest power. It helped me to make friends and just to do so much in life, so that’s why this is so important to me.

Yeah, I wanted to ask what would be your message to girls about, even if you’re not going to be a professional athlete, what sports can still provide you with, the skills that are transferable, and like you said the confidence building and the teamwork is all part of that too?

Exactly. I mean it’s not even about being the best one out there or being a professional athlete down the road. I’ve met some incredible women in my life who are CEOs of companies who credit sport for so many things that have gotten them to where they are today. You know, it’s even just being able to deal with stress, like sports can help you with that — obviously staying fit staying active staying healthy, those are the things like we all know and think of when you think of sports. But there’s just so much value in staying in a sport and learning the focus that it takes to try to achieve a goal, or even learning how to handle not achieving that goal and finding a way to get back up and to persevere. Even when it always doesn’t go your way, so there’s just so many life lessons that go into sports.

Yeah, and I think the mental side of it is something that’s interesting and doesn’t necessarily get talked about a ton in sports, but just from your own experiences, what are the things that that you feel like sports have given you from just a mental strength perspective? Because obviously you’ve gone through highs you’ve gone through lows, and being able to deal with all of those things.

Yeah, I mean, certainly, it doesn’t always go your way. Sometimes it does, but sports kind of help you to have an even keel way about yourself to realize that, like, the highs can be high and the lows can be low, but if you can find a way to stay kind of in the middle and regulate your emotions, that’s where to be. And just the idea of like focusing in on a goal, and being determined enough to try to see that goal through, and pushing yourself to be getting up and getting in a little bit more practice each day, then you usually do. To be able to be goal driven and to keep working for those goals is something that we need in everyday life. Like, things don’t just happen you have to make them happen, and I think sports really teach you that.

The Olympics are coming up and the 12-woman roster is set. When you look back on your first experience in the Olympics in 2016, there are a number of players who are about to have that first experience themselves. What would you tell them about soaking that all in and the things that you get from that experience of being on an Olympic team?

Yeah, I actually have been talking to my teammate Ariel Atkins, who, this will be her first Olympics and I’m sad I’m not going to be able to experience it with her. There’s like a little bit of a happy medium of trying to take everything in and soak it all up because it is incredible and it’s probably one of your lifelong goals that you’re finally being able to achieve, but also being there and being confident knowing that you’re there for a reason, and bringing exactly what you can and what they want you to bring to that team. So we’ve had many conversations now — I’m sure even when she gets over there in Tokyo, we’ll have more — but it is an experience of an absolute lifetime, and not many get to do it. So I do want her to be able to soak it up.

Yeah, I talked with Bradley Beal last week and he mentioned he’s already kind of adjusting to how you have to play a different role on the national team than you do in your starring role for your NBA or WNBA team. What did you learn about adjusting to that, and how can you take some of those skills you learn playing a different role for the national team and doing some different things to when you go back to your WNBA team? How does that kind of round you out as a player?

It’s certainly a different role because when you’re on your team, it’s like, yes, you do get most of the touches or you get most of the shots up, so to come on to a Team USA where, you know, you’ve got All-Stars left and right, you know that you don’t have to shoot the ball every time and you never need to really force your hand because that next pass is the best pass. It’s something you have to try to quickly learn, but also, the most amazing part of that is when you put that group of people together who are not just the most highly-skilled people, but also have such a high basketball IQ, it makes everybody’s game kind of lift to a new height that you really didn’t even know you had. And it’s so much fun when that moment happens and it clicks, and then to be able to try to bring that back to your own team, and show the excellence that you have to demand out of each person every day, and by lifting your game and lifting others around you, it just makes the team that much better.

You’ve entered this this role now where you’re not just a star but you’re also a veteran in the league and a leader. What are the things you’ve learned about leadership, and, like you said, being able to lift up others around you? Obviously, you were able to do that successfully when you won the championship and what have been the lessons along the way to get you to a point where you can you can be not just somebody who leads by example but who can lead in the locker room and help pick people up?

Yeah, I think a great attribute as a leader is to kind of be able to learn what makes different people tick and what makes different people go. And the biggest way to do that is by spending time with others and really learning your teammates. Learning about their families or learning about their passions off the court, and when you put that time in with those people, I almost think of it as like filling a bucket, filling the relationship buckets. So then when you call on them on the court, or it gets heated and the time comes and you need to pull something out of them, you’re able to pull a lot from that bucket that you’ve created together. So, for me, that’s how I try to lead, and once again to tie this back to Always, it just shows that by playing sport you get to learn so many incredible skills, like being a leader, or communicating with different people and figuring out that not everybody is the same and all different people communicate in all different ways and different things will make different people tick. So it’s the importance of sport, helping me learn that.

I do want to talk a bit about the Mystics this season. Obviously, you haven’t been able to play yet, but what have you seen from them and particularly Tina Charles, who has been nothing short of spectacular this season in her first year in Washington?

Yeah, Tina has been completely amazing. I mean she’s having such a historic year it’s been just so much fun to watch and to watch the consistency that she’s playing at is unreal. And then the Mystics, it’s been an interesting season because we have dealt with so many injuries, not just my own, and there’s been games where we’ve been playing with six or seven players. So to be able to play through that type of adversity this early on in the season and to be close to .500 is something that I think we can all take positive from, and then just know that once this break is over, we can kind of pull from that, and hopefully get ourselves peaking at the right time.

Absolutely. And finally, something that I’ve talked with folks about is the mental side of rehab and having to take care of yourself mentally as much as physically when you’re going through this process. Because basketball is such an important thing to you and has been for so long and not being able to play can be frustrating and a long rehab takes so much patience, what are the things that you’ve had to learn about the mental side of that and taking care of yourself mentally as much as physically as you work your way back to the floor?

That has been so important for me. I am a big believer in meditation, it’s something I try to practice daily for, you know, 10 minutes a day. And it’s just trying to continue to practice the ability to stay present and stay in the moment. So, at this time where I don’t have games to compete, or even practices at times, like I have to find what I’m competing for in that day. And maybe it’s, you know, getting more back mobility or maybe it’s just like getting a little bit more core strength today, but being able to lock into the moment and really just trying to focus on the present and not being worried about the past or what might happen in the future, that’s really the only way I can stay this adamant about my process to recovery.