Strengthening Girls’ Mentality and Impacting Lives: How Coach Sarah Pfeifer Makes a Difference in Girls Basketball

Mental strengthening, encouragement, pushing girls to their limits; Coach Sarah Pfeifer has it all.

Coach Sarah Pfeifer's school ID picture

Coach Sarah Pfeifer's school ID picture

Kailey Pickering, Editor-in-Chief

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The sound of shoes squeaking against the slick basketball court echoes off the gym walls as the game begins. The ball lies in possession of the other team. She stands on the defensive side, eyeing the girl with the ball, watching as her eyes flicker towards her teammates, trying to find an open girl. Seeing her opportunity she snatches it, jumping forward and tearing the ball out of the other girls’ hands, sprinting as fast as she can down the court on the fast break. All she can see is the hoop as she rolls in a layup and scores for her team. The defense, the competition, the strategy at play; it’s the game of basketball, the game that Coach Sarah Pfeifer fell in love with.

Pfeifer is in her second year as Head Coach of the Erie High School Girls Basketball Team, but her passion for the sport was first lit when she started playing in third grade, in her hometown of Ozark, Arkansas. Her height served an advantage, and when she discovered that basketball was something she could excel in and had a passion for, she jumped for tip off and her game began.

Pfeifer plunged further into basketball in high school where she played on an incredible team at Ozark High School under Head Coach Ron Rippy. She finished her high school career with a record of 99-3 and two state championships from the three she and her team competed in. Pfeifer remembers, “It was fun, high school was fun because we won a lot, we were 99-3 at the end of my high school career, lots of wins so everyone stayed pretty happy.”

As she continued to foster a deep passion for the sport, she was beginning to realize how big the sport and what it teaches truly is. Pfeifer explains how basketball holds “Mental toughness that all sports teach that help when you are in a tough time in life. Same thing with responsibility and being part of a team. In work life valuable skills to have in real life that sports teach you.”

High School was the first basket in her game of life, she ran up the court and buried a corner three and the euphoria of the game had her hooked.

Continuing to harbor the passion that had become a huge part of her life, Pfeifer played for the University of Arkansas on a basketball scholarship. Playing in college was a different experience from the triumph she was used to during her high school run of wins. Her game began to shift; the other team was closing in and starting to put more points on the board. Her college team was losing more often than they were winning and the losses stung. Pfeifer sees this point of her life as an opportunity to learn and grow. She claims that it was “beneficial to be on losing teams. Life is easy when you’re winning and it’s easy to get along with people around you. But the moment you start losing games, are you going to blame the people around you? Are you going to step up? Are you going to be mediators between other people who are blaming the people around them?”

The challenges she faced as her team went through a drought of wins transformed Pfeifer, it taught her how to persevere and to make compromises with those you work with. She learned to mediate and to strategically spread the facts the team needed to face and take on across her team. She mastered an aspect that she has integrated into her coaching style.

Pfeifer’s college team was facing these challenges and the press was setting in in her life game of basketball. She looked to her team and communicated. Through her mediation, her team came together and broke the press, bringing the ball back to their side of the court. Soon Pfeifer’s college team was seventh in the entire country; they even had the opportunity to play Duke University in the U.S. Virgin Islands and were making amazing memories together. Pfeifer was taking the lead in her game and the rush of the play was intoxicating.

Losing games did not serve as the only challenge Pfeifer faced as she drove deeper into the depths of the game. As she competed and put her all into the sport, injuries frequently occured throughout her basketball career, Pfeifer has had three shoulder injuries, a torn ACL, and a broken nose. Her injuries tended to find her at the beginning of the season, after the months of hard conditioning she poured herself into. Pfeifer would get hurt in one of the first games or scrimmages of the season, finding herself sitting out for a majority of practices, wishing she could play on the court, but catching up on industrial engineering homework instead. It was as if one of the strongest players on her team was in foul trouble in the first half and had to be taken out of the game. But this challenge only helped her as a coach, Pfeifer remembers the girl who had to sit out and watch the game she had fallen deeply in love with be played and not being able to take part in. “I remember what it was like to be a player, I hold my players to super high expectations because they can handle it, they’re going to get better, faster that way. But I also remember that there are bad days, I remember that injuries are injuries.”

After living the life of a college athlete, full of challenges complimented with great memories, Pfeiffer’s game was closing into halftime and she began to reflect on the game in which she was so immersed. She graduated from the University of Arkansas and traveled to Seattle where she became a video coordinator for the University of Washington. Pfeifer recorded practices and games, worked on recruiting students, and spent hours cutting film. She was spending around eight hours a day in front of a computer watching basketball.Pfeifer comments on how she came to know every in and out of the game in a short amount of time, furthering her knowledge and familiarity of basketball. “It was beneficial to me. I watched systems of 35 different teams a year as I was scouting and I learned a lot fast,”

As she discovered every aspect of the game, Pfeifer wanted to share and enhance that knowledge in others. “I had great coaches and I loved the sport and I loved what the sport taught me and how I can relate that to life and I want to be able to spread that to other people,” explains Pfeifer.

Halftime was over and she was ready to take on the game in a different position. She began coaching at Gentry High School in 2010 as an assistant coach. Pfeifer then coached at Springdale High School from 2011-2016. She stood as the leader on the court, initiating passes, communicating with her players. Her team was moving with speed and intensity now.

In her second year as Head Coach, Pfeifer has already begun to impact Erie High School. She has made deep connections with the girls and enhanced their competitiveness and mental strength. Not only does she push her girls at every single practice, motivating them to give everything they have in every play and every drill, but she also spends so much time just preparing for specific games. Pfeifer spends time studying the other teams her girls are going up against, finding every detail of their plays and designing plays countering those aspects. Lindsay Fox. a math teacher at Erie High School and assistant girls basketball coach during the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 seasons, explains how Pfeifer pours herself into coaching, “She works really hard at learning what the other team is like and preparing for a game. One of her biggest strengths is having a game plan before the game; she always knows who’s their best player and forms what we are going to do around that.”

Pfeifer is more than just a coach with some great plays up her sleeve. She designs great plays week by week, training her players to be ready for anything. Each practice she brings new defensive tactics and drills to her girls, developing her teams’ skills to be the best they can be for the next game.

Pfeifer is far from your average high school basketball coach. She creates relationships with her girls that are unbreakable. She jokes around and teases, but when it’s time to work, it’s all or nothing. Elaina Dwinal, a junior on the basketball team, believes “She’s a great coach, she is super disciplined with me but she also knows how to joke around with me. She’s very funny and she’s very brutally honest, which is funny sometimes.”

It’s rare to find someone who can tell it how it is and leave her words truly resonating inside the head of a player. There is a feeling of respect for Pfeifer spread across the team. As Fox puts it: “She’s really fun, she tells it as it is, she’s very competitive. Those three make her a good coach.”

With these traits, her girls hold her in high regard and when she reaches out to them they take her words to heart and really reflect on what she’s saying.

Dwinal describes how Pfeifer has touched her as a player and motivated her to give more to everything she does. “(Coach Pfeifer) boosted my confidence quite a bit, as a freshman I was a very timid player and I didn’t have much confidence; not only in basketball but also just life in general. She has definitely boosted my confidence quite a bit, she’s always telling me you should do this, she has just overall boosted my confidence and my self esteem.”

Pfeifer puts her players in difficult situations, she pushes them hard, making sure it hurts. But her process is intentional, she shows them that they’re capable, because if you can get through one of Pfeifer’s practices, you can do anything. Pfeifer explains, “Practice is harder than the games and some drills are designed for you to fail; are you going to keep going even though you’re behind or are you going to give up because you think it’s impossible? Even though you think it’s impossible are you still going to give it your best and take pride in your performance?”

These questions lurk in her players’ heads as they practice, putting everything they have into practice, into games, and into their mentality.

For Pfeifer’s girls, failure will NEVER  be an option. Mentality is huge for Pfeifer, it’s similar to defense in a game; if you don’t have it, you don’t have a game. Sometimes the girls are going to want to stop, to just give up, but that would be the path of an average team. In senior player Kaitlyn Patterson’s words, “It’s not good enough to be average.”

Pfeifer’s team aims for above average, so if you decide to give up, your troubles are just beginning. If girls give up “they run,” Pfeifer says bluntly. “You put people in hard situations and you show them how to get through them over and over again.”

Mentality is a huge obstacle for many players but Pfeifer pulls her girls through the mental quicksand that’s difficult to get out of. She hands them the rope to get out and then she teaches them how to grab it and pull themselves out.

Patterson has been heavily impacted by Pfeifer and her coaching. Patterson explains how “[Pfeifer] has taught me a lot, she pushes me to get better.”

Pfeifer has pushed Patterson to reach the high standards she has set for all of her players. Not only does Patterson hold her in high regards with how much she knows about the game and conveys to the team, but Patterson admits that Pfeifer “makes me really mad when she beats me in shooting competitions.”

Before her recent achilles surgery, Pfeifer would often stay after practice playing one on one with Patterson, challenging her even further when they “played like five games in a row and I would get a good lead and then she would come back,” remembers Patterson.

“Whether you’re winning or losing there is a lot of effort, just as much effort when you’re losing as when you are winning, because to be good takes a lot of practice,” Pfeifer elaborates on the amount time and dedication her girls put into their sport.

However, the effort Pfeifer puts into impacting her team is beyond evident through the relationships she makes, the challenges she places in front of her girls, the preparation she puts into each game, and the mentality she builds within all of her girls. Pfeifer’s life game of basketball has been eventful and rewarding through the victories, the losses, and everything in between, but her game will never truly end. Basketball will always be one of the most important things in her life as it teaches and spreads the knowledge that only a sport can harbor. As her game of basketball continues to thrive, she will forever be impacting her players and how they see themselves in only the way that Coach Sarah Pfeifer can.