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Inside Sky coach James Wade’s exercise to make Gabby Williams mentally tougher

Gabby Williams’ biggest opponent has always been herself. Coach James Wade is trying to fix that.

Gabby Williams’ biggest opponent always has been herself. It has haunted her throughout her career.
Chicago Sky

Toward the end of every Sky practice, Gabby Williams steps to the free-throw line while her teammates stand on the baseline.

The game is simple. If Williams makes two consecutive free throws, everyone goes home; if she misses, everyone — or sometimes only a select group of players — has to sprint from baseline to baseline.

Williams isn’t a bad free-throw shooter. She sank all four of her free throws in the Sky’s victory Tuesday. Coach James Wade implemented this as a mental exercise for Williams, who has a tendency to overthink things.

‘‘You don’t need to be finding an opponent in your head; that’s putting doubt in your head,’’ said Wade, who thinks Williams’ second-guessing can limit her from reaching her full potential. ‘‘You have to push through it. When you focus on the negative, you can’t focus on getting out of it. So trying to find solutions, and you have to find solutions within yourself.’’

On some days, Williams can make the free throws on her first try. But when she doesn’t, it spirals out of control.

June 7 was one of those days. Williams and her teammates already had sprinted four times. When she missed again, she slammed the ball to the court and yelled before turning around to run.

Guard Kahleah Copper yelled out to Williams, who was within earshot: ‘‘You’re too hard on yourself.’’

It seemed Williams brushed her off, so Copper put her hands on Williams’ shoulders after they were done running. They locked eyes.

‘‘You’re too hard on yourself,’’ Copper said.

Williams sank the next two free throws.

‘‘It’s frustrating,’’ Williams said after the practice. ‘‘I should be making them. . . . I’m thinking about [how] I want the team to go home. I know everyone is tired of running, and I feel like I’m letting my team down.’’

Williams’ biggest opponent always has been herself. It has haunted her throughout her career. At UConn, Williams only shot one three-pointer in her four seasons.

‘‘I was too scared to miss,’’ she said. ‘‘I regret a lot of the things I did at UConn. I don’t want to have those same regrets here.’’

The Sky know the athletic Williams is capable of being a top-tier player. But she’s only hurting herself when she dwells on her mistakes, Copper said.

‘‘Gabby doesn’t really know that she has another level that she can tap into,’’ Copper said. ‘‘It’s just her holding herself back. She makes little mistakes, and she gets so hard on herself because she wants to be perfect.’’

Wade has seen Williams be less aggressive on the court because she’s overanalyzing her every move. He’s trying to train her mind to let her body take control.

‘‘I want her to be stubborn,’’ Wade said. ‘‘It’s an attitude; it’s a swagger that you have to have. She has to find it, and even when she does things bad or does things that frustrate her, she has to know that it’s not her.’’

So far, Williams thinks Wade’s approach has been working. She has been adjusting to her new role as the backup point guard to Courtney Vandersloot. She said it has been different, but Wade has been helping her feel more confident in her abilities.

Through five games, Williams is averaging 7.6 points and three assists. She knows there’s plenty of room for improvement, but it’s a start.

‘‘I’m trying to be more comfortable with making mistakes this year,’’ Williams said. ‘‘Last year, if I was scared to do something, I just wouldn’t do it. So now I’m trying to be OK with, like, ‘You have to get better, you have to miss, you have to have turnovers,’ and not being so timid.’’