Nikki Hayner describes how she worked her way up from a YMCA youth league to Division I college basketball.
How did you get into playing basketball?
I’ve played for as long as I can remember. I joined the YMCA’s youth league when I was about four years old. Both of my older sisters played and my dad coached them, then me. I remember at almost all of their high school games, I would go out and start shooting. They called me their halftime show.
If you played other sports, why did you choose to pursue basketball?
I used to play soccer, softball, and volleyball. I really enjoyed those, but I focused more and more on basketball as I got older. It was partly because I had played and watched it the longest, and partly because that was the sport I was most skilled at. Also, I was tall for my age so everyone kept telling me that I had to keep playing, which made me feel cool.
How did playing fit into your personal life?
It could get frustrating having to sacrifice so much time. It made it hard to stay in touch with friends and family outside of basketball, but I met some of my best friends either by playing with or against them. Basketball seems to be its own little world where everyone knows everyone. Growing up, some people didn’t like me because I tended to be too aggressive, but I’m just going to call that passion. Anyways, it was easy to make friends with people who loved the same thing I did. I’m still good friends with a lot of the girls I played with ten years ago.
How does playing fit into your life now?
Basketball is pretty much my job right now. Between workouts, lifts, practices, and classes, most of my time is planned out for me.
Do you enjoy a sense of friendly competition among your teammates or friends?
I wish I could say yes to this question. I think I enjoyed it more when I was younger, but as I got older it seemed to get more personal. At least at my college, every single one of my teammates was the best player at their high school, so we all think we deserve to play. It’s tricky to balance wanting to play with being a good teammate.
During a game, are you savoring the action or thinking about the outcome?
If it’s possible, I’m usually doing both. Being concerned with the outcome is part of what makes it enjoyable for me. I love the competition and how quickly things can turn around. Coming back from a big deficit and winning is one of the best feelings. It’s why I love the game so much.
Does being the underdog, contender, or favorite make a difference in how you play the game?
I think it absolutely makes a difference. When you are the underdog, you have nothing to lose, which makes it less stressful and gives you more energy and the fire to prove people wrong. You see that all the time in the NCAA tournament. Being a contender is probably the best position you can be in. People will praise you if you win, but won’t blame you if you lose. These are the games where you feel confident and excited to play. I think being the favorite is the hardest and most nerve-wracking. It’s easy to be overconfident and underestimate your opponent. Throughout the years and the many teams I’ve played on, I have been in every single one of these positions.
What do you consider the greatest triumph of your career?
There are three things I consider my greatest triumphs. First, my junior year of high school, my team and I won the state championship. It was especially meaningful because the year before, our team barely made it through the first round of playoffs. Second, earning a scholarship to play Division I. This was something I had dreamt of since I first picked up a basketball. Even when I didn’t think it would be possible, it was still a nice dream. Lastly, starting in my first college game my freshman year. There are a lot of freshmen that never even see the floor, so I was very proud to not only play but start.
Do you consider yourself to be striving to succeed or avoiding failure?
Wow. This seems like a half full or half empty question, but I know that I am striving to succeed. I don’t want to just not fail—I want to be the best that I can be. I have learned that if I focus on being the best I can for myself, and not for anyone else, I’m happier and more successful.
Interview by Olivia Crane