Tahja’s passion: Using basketball to motivate girls to pursue their dreams


Where do you coach and how did you get started there?

I coach at Columbus Academy in Gahanna, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. I’m going into my fourth season this year. I started coaching because I got a phone call from the athletic director, asking me if I’d ever thought about coaching. He encouraged me to come see the campus and talk.

I’m around basketball all the time, but I’d never thought about coaching. I went to the campus, and he had a stack of clothes with all my sizes and said, “Oh, these are all for you. We really want you to be the head coach of the middle school girls. I’ll make sure you have a really good assistant coach that makes you feel comfortable.”

Honestly, diversity wasn’t present in the school’s staff when I came on, and there were a lot of girls who looked like me, who wanted a coach that looked like them. Coming off of the NCAA tournament and the visibility of that, I think the impact was more about the confidence that would be instilled. And it’s not only being a Black woman, but just being a female coach that has played before, that they can talk to, that’s kind of down to earth — apparently, that’s what I’m told by the girls. And that’s kind of how I got started.

During my first year as coach, we won the championship. After you win, you automatically have more fun. I don’t know if I would have continued coaching if we would have lost, to be honest, because I’m very competitive. But we won the first year, and I still keep in touch with those first girls that I coached to this day. One girl has moved to Arizona, I have gone to see her play, and she’s got like five scholarship offers already. It’s just amazing to see from the beginning to now, how far they’ve come.

You’re the director of a nonprofit. Is it specifically related to basketball, or what is that about?

It’s called Direction Up Basketball. My brother was playing basketball overseas, and we were kind of like, “What’s next?” We decided to do something together with basketball — not just trying to get kids to go to the league or be professional, but using the game of basketball as a guide to everyday life. So what we really strive to do and really talk about is having fun with basketball, but understanding that life is a game and it’s about that next place.

So if something bad happens in your life, are you gonna sit back? Are you gonna complain about it? Are you gonna be open to it, or are you gonna go on to the next play? So in the same way you want to get to the next level playing basketball, that’s kind of what we instill in the kids that come to our camp.

We are in no way trying to get kids to go to the NBA or the WNBA, but we are saying, “You can do this.” We encourage kids who have never touched a basketball that, by the time they leave, they’re doing something they weren’t able to do before they got there.

What’s the most rewarding part of coaching?

It’s the relationships that I’ve built. Some of the girls have been interns for Direction Up. Some of them have my cell phone number, and I’ve been invited to graduations and birthday parties. I’ve enjoyed remaining so close to those families and celebrating all of their wins, whether it’s in a different sport or not.

Anytime I go to the school and I see a parent, or I see a student that I used to coach, it’s like a reunion. So I think that for me is the most rewarding. I think if you’re a challenged athlete, you’re a talented athlete. I don’t take any credit for that. That’s their gift that God has given them, and that’s kind of on them.

Not only is it that I’m pouring into them, but they’re pouring into me. Every day is just something different. I still have girls that text me, and now they’re telling me about school and this person and that person and all that. I’m just like: Wait, we really have a relationship. This is big.

So, I think for me, that’s the most rewarding thing. I played basketball, my brother played basketball, and we have a basketball family. But what comes out of that are the relationships. I have a heart for our youth, especially with just how the world is and everything that they go through. Being able to be a small light in their day and joke around with them, that’s what it’s all about.

What’s the most difficult part of coaching?

Middle school. Just imagine where we were in middle school, and imagine that times three. Every day it’s another battle over something. I don’t want to do something, why life is over, why lunch wasn’t good, and all of that stuff. I also think the struggles of social media, the struggles of bullying — all of that is just a different realm.

I knew how I was in middle school, I knew how my life was and everything, but things are a lot different today. I don’t know if we talk about it enough, but I think that is the most difficult thing, trying to relate and understand what they are going through.

It’s hard to say the right things to them. They are very emotional, and they’re listening to everything. I am a jokester and very sarcastic. But if you say something like that and it doesn’t resonate with them, that becomes a challenging part.

Honestly, I thought it was going to be the parents that would have been the most challenging part, but I’ve had a really good experience with all the parents. I think it’s because they’re like, “I don’t know how you get her to talk,” or “I don’t know how you get her to do this.”

While it has been difficult, I think I’m working towards navigating it, because it’s not gonna get any better. It will continue to be different stones that we have to turn over to help them be the best person that they can be.

Like I said, it’s all about the next play, but I also think it’s the mentality. Our nonprofit, Direction Up, is about keeping a positive mentality. And every moment, every single moment, there is something you can get out of it. That is a positive thing. Whether you won or lost, there is always something you can get out of it. Every single day.

I can have the worst day at work, but you know what? I got this done, which is now making my tomorrow better. It’s just keeping that positive attitude in every realm of life. It’s not easy. It’s not like something that we show. If you try to have that mentality on those bad days, it’ll help you.