For Liz Mills, a coach in the male-dominated world of men’s elite basketball, making a strong first impression is everything. “In Africa, female coaches even on the women's side of sport is something rare,” says Kenya’s head coach, who just happens to be the first woman to lead a men’s national team to a major FIBA continental tournament - AfroBasket 2021. 

Despite her decade of experience coaching in Africa, the Australian admits some of Kenya’s players were nervous when she took the top job in February, “because none of them would have been coached by a woman before.” It made having an instant impact even more important.

“I made sure that I was really prepared for that first practice session,” she says. “I knew everybody's names, their positions, what plays the team was running, the defensive schemes – and how I was going to change and improve the team.

“So I think they instantly respected me for that preparation and it was a really smooth transition. Which is not always the case, because they were definitely nervous... But as soon as they saw that I was just like any other coach, any resistance went away. And I've been really lucky to work with this group who are willing to do whatever it takes for this team to win.”

It's an exciting time for Kenyan basketball with Coach Liz Mills at the helm.

Win is exactly what Mills’ team did earlier this year when they qualified for the biggest national tournament in Africa, AfroBasket 2021, shocking 11-time champions Angola - a team Kenya had never previously defeated - along the way. Before this, Kenya had not qualified for the competition in 28 years. That kind of improbable success helps win over a team, and a country, too.

Mills first started coaching basketball at age 16 in Sydney, alongside her twin sister, taking charge of junior girls and boys sides as well as senior women's teams. While visiting Zambia in 2011, she attended a men’s league game and was hooked, later asking one of the Zambian club’s presidents if she could coach his team. She was 24 years old and had never coached men before. She got her chance and, that season, Mills’ team won the championship.

“Whether male or female, you've got to build a relationship with that person, regardless of gender,” says Mills on whether there’s a difference between coaching men and women.

“People like to criticise women by saying they’re being “emotional”, but I can tell you right now, men are just as emotional. They're just better at hiding it. And ego management is what you've got to worry more about with men, because there's a lot more expectation regarding what they think their abilities are.

“But at the end of the day, every individual - male or female - is different. And it's all still basketball, you're teaching the same Xs and Os.”

Kenya shocked African powerhouse Angola on their way to qualification for Afrobasket 2021.

A key part of that has been using video and data analysis – “I’m a huge stats person” – to bring a new dimension to Kenya’s play. Platforms such as Hudl Assist, which offers professional analysts breaking down video data, have been a game-changer in that regard.

“It's really about efficiency and how much time it saves,” she explains. “Prior to this, I was doing a lot manually: downloading film, cutting it, putting it into playlists – and then the advanced stats, I was actually calculating myself. So, after a tournament you’re looking at maybe 20 to 30 hours of manually doing that.

“Hudl Assist has saved me a huge amount of time, because 80% of my work is already done for me.”

“Hudl Assist has saved me a huge amount of time, because 80% of my work is already done for me" Liz Mills - Head Coach, Kenya Men's National Basketball Team.

Just as Kenya’s players adapted quickly to having a female coach in charge, Mills found no resistance to introducing greater video and statistical analysis, especially when the players quickly saw the improvement in their performances and results.

“They actually felt really confident having the information behind them,” she says. “We had film, we had scout reports, we had stats – and it played a huge role in our success. They went into games – against Senegal, Angola, Mozambique – feeling so confident. Because they were like: ‘We've worked hard at practice, we scouted these teams – we know what they're going to do.’ So it brought a new confidence.”

For Mills, this is only the start of the improvements the platform can bring. “Right now, because they're still getting used to it. It's more me just telling them: ‘Watch this game, look at this, then we'll jump on a call and discuss it.’

“The feedback I'm getting is that it's great that it's all in one spot. They can watch themselves, they can watch their opponents… But this is just the start. In the future, it will be much more of a two-way conversation on Hudl.”

Coach Mills and the Kenyan team use Hudl to analyze their opposition and prepare for upcoming games.

On the specifics of how it can help an individual player improve, Mills says: “One of my main scorers shoots a lot of contested shots. So I’ll pull all the clips of his contested shots, send it to him and be like: ‘Talk me through the decisions behind shooting these types of shots. Can you see a better option for yourself or a team mate? Is there a better option in our offence than you taking these shots?’ Until I put the playlist together for him he didn’t realise how often he does it.

“So being able to visually show him clip after clip of that reinforces it and encourages him to make a better decision in a game situation. Not that I always reinforce bad things! But that’s just an example because I put that playlist together for him today.”

Kenya are underdogs going into their first AfroBasket tournament since 1993. Particularly as they are in a group with the continent’s No 1 team, Nigeria, a top-10 team in Mali and Cote d'Ivoire, who were one of five African teams at the Basketball World Cup in 2019.

Shot chart for assessing shooters from the Malian team.
Stats report delivered to Kenya via Hudl Assist. 24 hours is all it takes for Hudl Assist to deliver in-depth stat reports, saving vital time for coaches.

However platforms such as Hudl can offer a vital edge.

“It's incredibly important, because this is our competitive advantage,” she says. “Now, if you're not using video or stats, you're falling behind.

“That's actually the great thing with this tool. Because I know for a fact, in Africa, this isn't being used. Of the 16 teams that are coming to AfroBasket, I would say maybe five or six would be using this kind of technology.

“So that's our advantage over 10 other teams. And for the players, they feel confident, knowing that they're doing this kind of homework that others aren’t.”

Mills enthuses over the vast untapped potential of African basketball, labelling the new Basketball Africa League a pipeline for talent into the NBA. She’s more reticent on her own groundbreaking success, but adds that opening the door for more women coaches in the future means a great deal.

“Being a role model is so important to me,” she says. “I had a young coach from Ireland reach out to me, a coach from the Philippines, I recently did a Women Coaches summit with coaches in South America… That’s what I can do now; change and influence girls and young women to take up coaching and be a mentor to them. That means more to me than anything I could achieve on a basketball court.”

“It's incredibly important, because this is our competitive advantage,” she says. “Now, if you're not using video or stats, you're falling behind" Liz Mills - Head Coach, Kenya Men's National Basketball Team.

Nonetheless, Mills admits that the moment when Kenya edged out Angola 74-73 – via a final buzzer-beater from Tylor Ongwae that wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood film – was a personal and professional highlight.

“It was super-special because it was historic on so many levels,” she says. “It was a huge achievement for the players and the Kenyan Basketball Federation but I was also proud to be the first woman to lead a men’s team to a major FIBA continental tournament. It was my opportunity to prove what female coaches can do working with a men’s team.

“There's a great term in Africa called Ubuntu. And that is: I am, because we are. I can only be all I can be, if you are all you can be – and if I value you as a person, not just a player, that builds a team chemistry that is really hard to beat. I wish I had known that more when I was younger. But I've found that great mentality now with the Kenyan men's team.”

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