commentary + critique

from tamryn spruill

A’ja Wilson’s Self-mastery Defies Expectations Placed on Black Women and Professional Athletes

Apr 1, 2021

By Evan Cooper

Curating a support system that holds her accountable and practicing self-discipline on and off the court, A’ja Wilson, the WNBA’s Most Valuable Player in 2020, is wise beyond her years and hungry to better herself and those around her. Before being selected as the No. 1 overall pick by the Las Vegas Aces in the 2018 WNBA Draft, Wilson blazed trails so wide at the University of South Carolina that a statue to honor her legacy was erected in January outside of Colonial Life Arena, where the Gamecocks play. In a recent sit-down interview with CBS News, Wilson discussed the great respect she has for her community, absorbing knowledge from WNBA trailblazers, understanding the value of collective effort (both professionally and politically) and investing in the younger generation. She knows the value of representation, as much as she did when she was a kid, and respects her role as an increasingly visible public figure. But her journey of self-mastery defies many of the stereotypes and expectations placed on Black women and professional athletes. 

She lives by the emotionally-intelligent actions of:

Honoring those who paved the way for her success

To implement sustainable changes in life, it is imperative to study and learn from our predecessors. A’ja Wilson is no stranger to the idea, often citing immense admiration for players like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, Dawn Staley and Lauren Jackson. In some cases, such as Wilson’s, the WNBA has created a unique experience for its players as they can develop under the league’s trailblazers from earlier generations. We can see the value in this from Wilson’s testimony alone, routinely mentioning her desire to “play for a woman that looked like me, that did everything that I wanted to do.” Hopefully, in the future, WNBA leadership of this nature will become the standard. 

Valuing collective efforts

It is no secret that the WNBA player proudly advocates for the causes in which she believes. Most impressive is her comprehension of the stark impact Black women, specifically, yield when working together, a notion that is often underestimated. Wilson shared that she was nearly brought to tears when Kamala Harris, a fellow AKA, was elected Vice President of the United States of America.

Pouring into her community

Wilson has worked to remove the shame and barriers surrounding learning disabilities with her eponymous foundation. This is no easy feat for the forward, who is prone to face heavy criticisms and stereotypes that follow both athletes and Black women. At the intersection of her identity, however, Wilson understands she is not the first or last person to feel defeated by dyslexia. She works to uplift those in her community by providing and making readily available the same resources that she notes helped her grow into the woman she is today. The A’ja Wilson Foundation’s Twitter page is filled with reminders and hacks necessary for young people who show signs of dyslexia. In sum, the page removes the stigma wrongfully placed on learning difficulties. Her commitment to using her platform to share the knowledge and resources that helped her is one of the only ways we can hope to continue seeing the growth of communities that often are overlooked otherwise.

Accepting the realities of mental health

Arguably, one of the most tumultuous relationships to navigate is the one we have with ourselves. Wilson refuses to allow her most recognizable accolades or the millions of external opinions about her to infiltrate how she defines herself. Instead, she uses adversity as an opportunity to learn more about herself. Whether it is unexpected circumstances on the court or managing her emotions around the myriad things tugging at her attention off it, Wilson’s practice of accepting loss and adversity in all forms is one we can all aspire to.

Being intentional about who and what receives her attention

The discipline to practice habits that allow us to maintain our goals and values is easier said than done. Humbly, Wilson will not hesitate to cite the influential people who have motivated her to achieve her level of success. Without diminishing anyone else, the routine discipline Wilson practices is worthy of celebration, too. She intentionally reevaluates everything to which she dedicates her time to ensure her actions are aligned with her values. This process affords her the ability to realign herself with the people, beliefs and steps she believes to be necessary. This precision is rare to find in anyone, let alone a 24-year old.