Interview with Athletes Unlimited Director of Sport, Tayyiba Haneef-Park

Last weekend, new professional sports league Athletes Unlimited (AU), hosted a “Theme Day” game with Starlings in support of the organization, which strives to give all girls the opportunity to play club volleyball. Sports Imports has worked with Starlings in the past, and had the opportunity to speak with AU’s Director of Sport, Tayyiba Haneef-Park, about her career, AU, and Starling’s mission. Haneef-Park is a 3-time Olympian, a best-selling author, and Assistant Volleyball Coach at the University of Oregon.

 

(Sports Imports) Which of your accomplishments as a player are you the proudest of, and why?

(Tayyiba Haneef-Park) Making the 2012 team and earning a silver medal, just because it was a really emotionally, mentally and physically draining experience for me. I’d just had my son two years prior, and was trying to get back in shape and not making team after team and kind of being in the gym and thinking like, man, why, why am I even here? Why am I doing this? And you know, I have a brand new baby at home I can be with, I’ve got a husband I’ve been married to for a few years and we haven’t spent more than two weeks together. 

You always know that when you’re an athlete, there’s a sacrifice involved and it became that point of like, what am I really sacrificing this for? I’m not seeing the results and so it was very, really frustrating for a while, just hard on me in all those different ways. So when I actually got named to that team, and then we earned a silver medal, standing on top of the podium is by far the best memory of my life because I got to look out and see my two year old son in the stands, and he got to be a part of that. He was a motivating factor for that whole process for me. It really is just the culminating event of years of hard work and emotional toll, and it was all worth it.

 

(SI) How have you continued to manage that sacrifice? Between playing, coaching, and being with your family?

(THP) I think one of the reasons it was so difficult back then was that I was just trying to balance everything. Like man, if I’m in the gym for six hours, I’ve got to spend six hours with my son. Then I have to do six hours with my family, six hours of work – it all has to be equal with the thought of balance. When I was coaching at University of Arizona, I went to the NCAA Women Coaches Academy, and they talked about harmony. They said there’s no such thing as balance – what you should strive to achieve is harmony. 

I just thought it was the most amazing thing because balance feels like, man, I’ve got to equally put my weight everywhere in order to level things out. Harmony is this flow, it allows for the time, space and the means of wherever you are, realizing that there’s different seasons of your life. When I’m in season, harmony might look like more time in the gym and more time dedicated to athletes or practice, and home life might not be as many hours. When I’m not in season, harmony is more time with my kids, family and social outings; and maybe there’s less focus on the athletes and practice and all of that. 

I think once I was able to understand that, and be settled with whatever season of life I was in, it released so much pressure and allowed me to be present for whatever opportunity I was in at the moment.

 

(SI) How was the transition from player to coach? How did that harmony change?

(THP) It was different, I think most people have to learn what their coaching philosophy is. A lot of that came from me as a player. The coach that I am, and the coach that I strive to be, is the coach that I needed when I was a player. It’s going to be different for different players, and I feel like there are coaches who are like, “this is my way, I’m gonna coach this way.” They failed to see the individual (player), and how they need to be motivated in their own ways. 

I was one of those athletes that would understand if you visually showed me, but the person next to me, they might not be able to. I have learned through interacting with my teammates that we’re all motivated by different things, and we need that coach who can push us to our maximum potential by reaching out to our individual motivations, and so that’s what I try to do. A lot of it is also tapping into a more holistic approach – I’m not just worried about your success on the court – I need you to know that I’m invested in your life and your family because all of that adds to how you’re going to perform on the court. Are you okay? Are you mentally okay, physically okay, emotionally okay? Okay. I didn’t have that at a point in my life when I really, really needed that from a coach and so that’s who I try to be.

I went to business school, and one of the things that you learn is that people buy who you are, not just the product that you sell. If I can get people to buy into me and what I stand for and what I believe in, then they’re gonna work harder for me. I’ve got to represent something bigger than just success on the court.

 

(SI) What do you personally find most fulfilling, what do you feel like you get out of coaching?

(THP) I love being able to see transformation in the athletic space and in the personal space. I love seeing young women become these refined adults and taking on bigger responsibility, or being successful in the business world. I find joy in laying the stepping stones for them to accomplish whatever their dreams are on the court and off the court. I feel that sense of accomplishment when they reach their goals. 

 

 

(SI) You’re starting a new position at Oregon soon, what are you looking forward to the most?

(THP) I love that it is a very family oriented, very supportive environment. The athletes, they really love each other. They buy into the program. The coach buys into them. It was just a really, really supportive environment. So I can’t wait to be a part of that. And I feel like I get to come and bring in my own experiences as a female athlete at all the different levels of the sport. I think that these women need to see what that success looks like, how they can achieve it, and that there’s many different pathways to get it. You know, my pathway is going to be very different from theirs, but there’s always a blueprint to get there if you’re willing to follow. 

 

(SI) Do you have any go-to advice you tell your players? Either on the court, or off the court as young women athletes who are trying to achieve that harmony themselves?

(THP) There are two things that I always preach. One is, never let someone else’s doubts about you become your own reality. There are a lot of times that you’re going to have naysayers, people saying you can’t do this, or this other player is better. The moment you start to believe that and it becomes your reality, then everything changes and you limit your success. But, if you always believe that there is a way, and you are willing to champion yourself, then the road ahead is bright. 

Secondly, in that process there’s going to be failure. Learn to fail. It is okay to fail. I always think about failure as finding answers and learning. So the faster you can find those lessons and learn from them, the faster you’re going to adjust and surpass what happened, or the next person who’s stuck in their funk. Always believe in yourself, and when things don’t go your way learn that failure is not a bad thing. It is actually a really, really great thing. It is an indicator. It is a marker and that’s it. It allows you to adjust, overcome, and set your sights again.

 

(SI) How do you see Athletes Unlimited specifically, and other professional sports leagues changing the future of sports for women?

(THP) We have shown that there is a market for female athletics just by the numbers that we have tuning in weekly, subscribing to the Tiktok, watching on ESPN and Fox sports, and in the stands selling out tickets. There is a market, and I think that we have always been led to believe that people just aren’t interested in women’s sports.You’ve just got to provide the opportunity. People want to come see high level, elite level athletics from women. 

Then, I think that Athletes Unlimited is giving a voice to the athletes. We’re showing it’s not just about your success on the court, as we were talking about earlier. We’re giving you a voice to stand up for your charities and the stuff that you believe in. We’re giving you a voice to talk about social impact and justice, equality, equity, all of that. We’re giving you a seat at the table, and recognizing that you have value. I think that’s something different that a lot of other leagues and sports have not done. Maybe they will start to recognize that because of our success.

 

(SI) Why do you feel like it’s important for organizations like Athletes Unlimited to build relationships with organizations like Starlings, and form that professional relationship as well as the personal relationship between the athletes and the organization?

(THP) Well, I think there’s something to be said about giving access to all fans to watch women’s sports. We want to give access to all women to have the ability to play a sport that they love, especially in a sport like ours where money or where you live is oftentimes a barrier. We want to minimize those barriers to create opportunities where everyone can play, and everyone has a chance to observe or try. I think it’s important to continue to partner with organizations like Starlings where they’re striving to create those opportunities for underrepresented communities. It works perfectly with our own mission, giving back, and bringing sport to everybody.

I hope that with the clinic that we did with Starlings, the athletes were able to get a glimpse into the wonder, that love that we have for the sport. How it brings together women from all over the world – different backgrounds, different classes, ethnicities, everything. It brings us all together as one for something that we love, and that the networks and the bonds that come into that are lifelong, and so I hope even if they don’t continue to play, they get to see what an impact that sport has. I hope that they are invited to something that opens up a new horizon and opportunity for them each time we go out and do one of these clinics.

 

Athletes Unlimited volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, and softball are all available to view live on CBS Sports, Fox Sports 2, and on AU’s social media platforms. Tickets are available to purchase on their website. For more information on Starlings and how to get involved, visit Starlings.org.