May 4, 2024 

How coaching at Michigan is helping Ariel Atkins lead the Washington Mystics

‘When you become a coach, you have to find your voice’

When Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins first arrived at Michigan this fall to be the team’s assistant coach for player development, her impact wasn’t quite as immediate as she’d hoped.

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“How’s it going?” Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico asked her every day after practice for the first week.

“No one’s really asking me for any advice,” Atkins would respond. “No one’s been asking me for additional workouts.”

The players weren’t shying away from extra work or from opportunities to improve. Rather, they were nervous about approaching an Olympic gold medalist, two-time WNBA All-Star and WNBA champion.

It took a week to 10 days for the dam to break, Barnes Arico estimated.

“After that, she had to learn how to say no, because she was in the gym from like 6:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, just doing trainings and working out with different players and watching film,” Barnes Arico told The Next.

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Atkins spent the entire season with the Wolverines, helping them to a 20-14 overall record, a semifinal appearance in the Big Ten Tournament and a NCAA Tournament berth. She had dabbled in coaching in high school and at the NBA Academy Women’s Camp Latin America in January 2023. But she was still new enough to it this winter that she didn’t always think to answer when she heard “Coach,” she told “Inside Michigan Basketball” in March.

The lessons Atkins learned from coaching at Michigan seemingly come at a perfect time for her and the Mystics. She is entering her seventh season in Washington, and with plenty of roster turnover and new faces, she’ll be relied on heavily as a leader and a coach on the floor.

Atkins and Barnes Arico were connected through a mutual friend in Texas, who Barnes Arico saw at a gathering of coaches and evaluators. The NCAA had allowed women’s basketball teams to add two more coaches starting in the 2023-24 season, and Barnes Arico knew she wanted “someone in the W[NBA] if that was possible, someone currently playing, someone that they aspired to be, someone that they could really connect with.”

Meanwhile, Atkins wanted to try coaching but was selective about where. She felt comfortable with Barnes Arico, who had coached her in 2014 in the FIBA Americas Under-18 women’s championship, and enjoyed visiting the campus and meeting the players.

“I was like, I can give it a try, because the position wasn’t so daunting,” Atkins told The Next. “I mean, the biggest thing [Barnes Arico] wanted me to do is be an asset in any way that I could.”

Atkins met with Barnes Arico early on to discuss each player’s skill set and the priorities for their individual workouts. Atkins then developed practice plans and tracked everything on an app for Barnes Arico, from what time Atkins worked with a player to what drills they went through and what takeaways Atkins had.

In many team practices, too, Atkins wasn’t just a watchful eye from the sidelines — she jumped into drills to demonstrate concepts and challenge players.

“When you become a coach, you have to find your voice. You have to figure out what works for you, how you’re going to learn how to relay messages and different things like that,” Atkins said. “And so while I was still figuring that out, it was easier … [to] show them what I was trying to explain to them versus me trying to find 10,000 different words.”

She had to learn not only how to speak up, but also how to pick her moments with four other coaches and the players themselves all trying to communicate, too. In games, she looked for small things to give Michigan an advantage on the court and occasional opportunities to pass along knowledge.

Several players on the Michigan bench rise as teammate Laila Phelia shoots a 3-pointer right in front of them. The coaching staff, including Ariel Atkins, stays seated but watches intently.
Michigan assistant coach for player development Ariel Atkins (fourth from left, holding paper) watches as guard Laila Phelia (5) shoots during a Big Ten Tournament game against Minnesota at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on March 7, 2024. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

Atkins gravitated toward the Wolverines’ freshmen, who Barnes Arico said were “really overwhelmed” with college basketball early on. For example, freshman guard and top-100 recruit Macy Brown didn’t play many minutes in games this season, but she often worked with Atkins individually to develop her skills. Sometimes, Brown and Atkins would be on the same team in practice, going against the starters.

“One day they whipped up on our starters,” Barnes Arico said. “So that was like [an] aha moment. … [Ariel] and Macy were high-fiving each other as they were going down the court.”

“She’s getting better,” Atkins said about Brown on “Inside Michigan Basketball.” “Not even just as a basketball player, but just mentally you can kind of see her getting tougher skin and different things like that. And me and Macy, we talk a lot, but I think just her building her confidence within herself is huge.”

Atkins also made an impact on the upperclassmen, including junior guard Jordan Hobbs. After a win over Illinois in December, Hobbs told The Michigan Daily that she’d been working with Atkins on “seeing the floor first and reading the defense after that.” Hobbs had zero turnovers against the Illini, and the Wolverines overall had 17 assists and just six turnovers.

Atkins is never the loudest one in the gym, but she’s often one of the most positive, Barnes Arico said. In Michigan’s practices, for example, Atkins cheered on players as they tried to hit team goals in drills. She also often took players aside and talked with them one-on-one, “and she always has a way to do it in a positive way,” Barnes Arico said.

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For Atkins, her role in player development wasn’t just about basketball. Yes, she taught players how to change their footwork coming off screens to be shot-ready, and she used a big pad to teach them to finish through contact. But it was just as important to her to talk to them about their whole experience at Michigan: How are classes going? What do they have going on besides basketball? Are they feeling stressed? And at age 27, Atkins could still relate to their experiences as college students.

It was also important to her to teach the players how to lead, even as she was growing as a leader herself. She understood that she didn’t have to know everything to be able to help.

“She continued to find her voice and really understand how important her voice was in teaching our kids who were on the quiet end really how to find their voices and be leaders at practice. And that was something that she really took great pride in,” Barnes Arico said.

As a result, one thing Atkins found herself saying in practices was that the gym was too quiet and players needed to speak up. Other frequent phrases coming out of Atkins’ mouth included, “Go be great,” “Try something different” and “Stop turning the ball over.”

Amid a hectic schedule of practices and games, Atkins also had to find time for her own workouts to make sure she was ready for the WNBA season. It was hardest on the road, she said, and she had some early mornings working on her game. But she had support from Barnes Arico, who never wanted Atkins’ work at Michigan to detract from her “real job” with the Mystics.

A few times during the season, Mystics coaches traveled to check in with Atkins about her workouts and recovery. Atkins sometimes marveled to them about how much work coaching is beyond what players realize, associate head coach LaToya Sanders told The Next.

She made it all work, though: Hiring her “was everything I hoped for and more,” Barnes Arico said.

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins jumps off her right foot and cradles the ball in her left hand, looking to pass over the defense.
Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) jumps to throw a pass over Indiana Fever forward/center Aliyah Boston during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Atkins has already seen her coaching experience pay off in some ways with the Mystics, but she and her coaches think they’ll see it more as the season progresses. As a player, Atkins said, the game has slowed down for her because she watched so much film with the Wolverines. She also learned that sometimes players try to solve on-court problems by playing faster, but they’d often be better served slowing things down.

And Michigan prepared her — perhaps better than anything else she could’ve done — for what the Mystics will need from her as a leader this season. With franchise stalwarts like Natasha Cloud and Elena Delle Donne gone, Atkins becomes one of the longest tenured players, and she is expected to lead a team that brought 10 newcomers to training camp.

“I definitely think [coaching] helped me with that, being able to talk in uncomfortable situations,” Atkins said. “Just going to Michigan and not knowing the players at all and hoping that they would take heed to the things that I’m saying … you have to learn how to connect with people and build those relationships. … So that definitely helps me. …

“We’ve got a lot of new faces, and I care about how they feel. Are they having a good day? Are their sleep schedules all right? How are they doing as people? Because all of that is going to translate to the court.”

Both Sanders and head coach Eric Thibault said that a big part of Atkins’ effectiveness as a leader this season is her ability to say the same thing differently to different teammates. That’s about tone and delivery, but it’s also about building individual relationships — all of which she practiced at Michigan.

Atkins and third-year center/forward Shakira Austin will likely be counted on most to lead, with help from veterans like Brittney Sykes and Stefanie Dolson. Atkins has recognized and accepted that responsibility and been deliberate about her leadership.

“We just got to do it. You can’t hold back,” Atkins told reporters at the Mystics’ preseason media day. “I think a lot of the times when you get into a season or a group of new people, you want to be the nice guy. You want to be like, ‘Oh, no, that’s fine.’ I think actually intentionally pushing everybody every single day, I think it’s gonna be really important for setting the tone.”

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The returning coaches and players, including Sykes and Thibault, have seen Atkins be more assertive in training camp. She has always spoken up occasionally — and everyone has always listened intently, soaking in those moments — but her presence is heard more now. 

“A actually says things more!” Sykes said at media day with a laugh. “… I think since becoming a coach, A is more willing to speak up. And it’s not the same voices all the time. We get a little bit of A now, so I’m really excited about that.”

The newcomers have likewise responded to the way Atkins leads.

“Ariel is great because she is a vocal leader but also quiet,” wing DiDi Richards said at media day. “It’s like she kind of appeals to both sides of the room, and I think that’s huge in being a leader.”

“I’ve kind of admired her from afar,” guard Karlie Samuelson told reporters on Thursday. “… Now to get to be her teammate, yeah, it’s really cool. She’s powerful with the words that she says as a leader.”

Michigan players and staff wrap their arms around one another in a tight huddle.
Michigan players and staff, including assistant coach for player development Ariel Atkins (third from left among those in navy tops), huddle during a Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Iowa at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on March 9, 2024. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

Though Atkins enjoyed and learned a lot from her season at Michigan, she still isn’t sure whether she wants to coach after her playing career ends. She also doesn’t know whether she’ll return to Ann Arbor next season: “My offseason life is always TBD,” she said, using the acronym for “to be determined.”

However, Barnes Arico would be happy for Atkins to stay with the program indefinitely. “That’s the goal,” she said. “I mean, she’s been phenomenal.”

If Atkins does return, there’s one change Barnes Arico plans to make. Instead of Atkins fitting her workouts around individual sessions with players, Atkins’ workout times will be set first, and players will schedule around that.

That’s all part of the constant learning that takes place as a coach — and an example of how a coach’s brain never really shuts off. Atkins got a window into that this winter, and she’ll get more of it for as long as she wants it.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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