Suzanne Helfant is beginning her twelfth season as Kenyon's head women's basketball coach, but she remembers clearly the first day she walked into her office, to find a banner signed by every member of her team. "It's the Kenyon way," Helfant says. "People are so welcoming and supportive. I feel an obligation to pay it forward."
She's repaying the Kenyon community by quietly building a winning program, one that emphasizes individual attention and personal connection as much as jump shots. And she draws her inspiration from an unlikely source: geese. Art on her office walls includes a work by a current player depicting a flock of geese flying in a night sky, silhouetted against a full moon. The motif repeats in a quilt made by members of the 1999-2000 team, which won the North Coast Athletic Conference championship and a National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament berth.
What do geese and basketball players have in common? Plenty, Helfant believes. "It's the ultimate analogy to teamwork," she says. Her playbook includes a page titled "Lessons from Geese," a reminder of how geese flying in formation strengthen, support, and protect one another-just as her players learn to trust and draw strength from the rest of the team.
"After everything we do, we say, 'Together,'" Helfant says. "The only way we're going to get where we're going is if we go together." She's always subscribed to the "no-star" system, making sure that everyone feels valued. "Make the right environment, and they'll flourish."
Helfant herself flourished as a child in the Columbus, Ohio, area in a family of six, and athletics were always a part of her life. "My father was a lifelong coach, who coached just about everything-baseball, basketball, football," Helfant says. "He was my toughest critic and my biggest supporter." With one brother a year older and another a year younger, Helfant grew up constantly competing.
An award-winning basketball and softball player at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Helfant majored in communication arts. She had completed three-quarters of the requirements for a master's degree in counseling and human resources before she realized that she really wanted to coach. "The attraction of coaching is the influence you can have on people," Helfant explains.
It's those interpersonal skills that make her so good at what she does. "Individual attention is critical to being successful collectively," she says. "Chemistry is created through constant attention. You have to work at it daily." Helfant spends plenty of time with her players one-on-one, getting to know them and learning what will motivate each one to excel. She can tell when one needs extra encouragement, when another just needs to talk.
"Suzanne invests in getting to know her players," says Peter Smith, Kenyon's athletics director. "She's able to take her team into the most hostile of arenas. She inspires these women to believe in themselves with her locker-room speeches. They walk out with a mission, a sense of purpose."
"I'm a really competitive person," admits Helfant, who came to Kenyon after a three-year stint as head coach at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. "Losing still eats me up. There's not a game we've walked into that I thought we couldn't win."
Smith also values Helfant, who's the senior women's administrator in athletics, as a colleague. "Suzanne has embraced this college to the fullest," Smith says. "She's developed a large fan base of college and community members who really admire the way she works with her players and the intensity the players bring to the game. She really loves Kenyon, and believes in the student/athlete experience. Her players are winners on the court and winners in the classroom."
"I hope my players don't see me just as a coach," Helfant says. "I hope they see me as a teacher, as a mentor-as a friend. I take very seriously my responsibility to see that the people who are touched by this program are touched in a positive way."