Nneka Ogwumike

263: Creating Opportunities, Resiliency, and Confidence

This week’s conversation is with Nneka Ogwumike the 2016 WNBA MVP, WNBA Champion, and 1st overall pick of the Los Angeles Sparks in the 2012 WNBA Draft.

Nneka is on a mission to inspire others to discover their greatness with an open heart, enthusiasm, integrity, courage, and compassion.

Nneka is currently serving as President of the WNBA Players’ Association (WNBPA) and successfully led the group in its renegotiation of a groundbreaking WNBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.

She is a six-time WNBA All-Star, three-time All-WNBA selection, three-time All-Defensive WNBA selection and was the 2012 WNBA Rookie of the Year.

A graduate of Stanford University with a BA in Psychology, Nneka led the school to four consecutive Final Four appearances.

Hailing from one of sport’s most dynamic families, Nneka is the oldest of four sisters who have played Division I basketball.

With her sister Chiney’s selection as the 1st overall pick by the Connecticut Sun in the 2014 WNBA Draft, the family made history, joining Peyton and Eli Manning as the only siblings ever selected number one overall in a professional sports league.

Nneka and Chiney now play together on the LA Sparks.

In this conversation we discuss Nneka’s upbringing, what gave her the confidence to believe she could play professionally, which mental skills have been integral towards creating her resilient nature.

“I’ve always feared not living a life that I chose for myself. The only way that I’ve seen real progress in that is standing for my truth and standing for who I am with anybody – my family, my friends, my teammates, anywhere, and not compromising.”

In This Episode:

What’s her family like?

I am second generation Nigerian American. One reason, Greater Houston, Texas. And I’m the oldest of four girls to Nigerian immigrant parents, who moved to Houston after going to school at Weber State.

What’s it like having Nigerian roots?

As Nigerians, pride runs through your veins, and that’s in every way. And so much of the culture is kind of homogeneous, but also a mixture of so many different things. And that inclusiveness comes with the pride. And that’s something that if you don’t know anything about Nigerians, you’re going to know about how prideful they are to the point that they will celebrate anyone that they don’t know, as long as they know that person has Nigerian blood, they’re one of us.

Mom taught her


Dad taught her


Sisters taught her


America taught her


Nigeria taught her


What was the vibe of her family growing up?

In African culture, respect for elders is very much a thing. I certainly am the oldest and I am nurturing by nature, but then also, I have responsibilities. So, I was very much kind of oldest slash also third parent. And so, a lot of my experience was not only being the guinea pig, but also guiding my sisters. And as a family, they ensured that we were always very involved in the community and school was huge, getting an education, and being active, extracurricular wise was huge as well. And then ultimately, in grade school, we started understanding the importance of being well rounded and incorporating things outside of what you’re doing in school. Those are definitely the foundational components.

Did she fear letting her family down?

I would have to say that a lot of my fear, even in my adulthood, lives in that realm of disappointment being the catalyst. That’s part of the pride thing, I think, too.

What were some of the costs of her early responsibilities?

Childlike experiences. And in a lot of ways, too, I had to outweigh what was important for leading by example, as opposed to what I necessarily wanted to do, because I was always a role model to my sisters. And I think for a while, it kind of cost me that sister relationship that I am now developing with my sisters. I’m becoming friends with my sisters and adulthood, which I didn’t necessarily do earlier on. The priority was certainly more focused on making sure that I set an example and get them down the right path.

When did she realize she was good enough to play basketball in college?

In grade school, I was trying to stay active. And I sprouted a bit early when it came to my height. But when it came to playing basketball, I didn’t delve into it until much later than what most people do. Most people were like, I was dribbling before I could walk and I was 11. So, I ended up realizing that I had a knack for athleticism and got into club basketball. And eventually, by high school, I was a top prospect. And I was learning a lot because as a Nigerian family, you’re not raised to believe that there’s much of a future in sports, especially for young girls. But then, the letter started coming in, a letter from Stanford came in and I was like, “Oh, wait a second, I can go here for free?” And that’s all she wrote.

What does it feel like when she’s on the court?

When I step onto the court or when I’m training, it’s like breathing in a lot of ways. It’s like walking in a lot of ways. You don’t think about it, but you’re doing it and you know that you doing it feels good and it feels natural. But it didn’t always start that way. And I say that when I refer to basketball itself, but using my body has always felt natural.

The moments she loves most

There’s moments when I’m playing or training that it feels like second nature. And then the moments that I really, really love are those moments when you’re working on getting better, and those small little lapses of mistakes over and over again. And then eventually you step on the court one day, and it doesn’t happen. And it’s almost as though like you can tap into building that muscle memory. Feeling that muscle memory coming in is probably my sweet spot. And it’s very subtle. It’s very, very subtle. But it feels so natural to me and it feels good.

What’s the magic she’s looking for?

I want it to feel contagious, whether it’s coming to me or going to someone else. I really tap into that when I tap into my true intentions and what I’m doing. I try to do things incredibly, mindfully and that started with me playing in me understanding, like, how simple can I really make this so that it almost feels as though there’s only one synapse, if not at all.

How does she think about resiliency?

I think it has a lot to do with me knowing that I am my only competition and knowing how great I feel doing something or just in a moment and knowing that that’s not the end. That’s not as far as the greatness could go. Tapping into kind of this archive of greatness and resilience that allows me to take it just one centimeter more. And then outwardly, I would definitely have to say that I’ve experienced that magic from other people that have shown me my resilience in places that I didn’t think that it existed. And me stepping in, I don’t want to say blindly but walking into an open door, in which I don’t know what’s on the other side with confidence and with strength, because others believed me to be able to do so is kind of where I find that magic as well from the outside. That’s really the only type of outward motivation that I have. Everything else really comes internally for me. But I’ve had so many instances in my life in where I wasn’t thinking big enough for myself, but someone brought to me a bigger picture that I now stepped into. And the magic just kind of happened.

What was it like playing with her sister at Stanford?

Playing with her is like playing with three teammates, not four. She’s an extension of me. And certainly, we tap into this competitive nature and the success, this chemistry that we had before, but we just hadn’t really experienced how great the team could be.

When did she realize she could play professionally?

I had a really amazing game my senior year at home at Stanford versus Tennessee. I finished with I believe it was 38 or 40 points. And conversations leading up into that, I had always said, “Oh I don’t know if I’m going to play professionally.” This is on the end of what is like kind of like preseason and the regular season starts in January, and the draft is in April and Chiney just says to me, she’s like, “You just had a 40-point game against Tennessee at home on TV. You don’t need to go and try and become a doctor, you’re about to be the first round draft pick.” And when she said that, it was the first time I had heard it and actually believed it. And from that moment on, I tapped into this space when I was playing that felt so free. And when I’m having fun on the court, that’s the freest that I feel and that year was so much fun. And I ended up just kind of playing out … I guess I always say I tap into Nnekanator. That’s like my alter ego. And so, Nnekanator came out that season. And I finished with I guess kind of no questions about whether I would be the first draft pick of that season. And here I am now.

How does she think about humility?

There’s this weird balance in my mind of being or having too much humility. I think in a lot of ways, having too much humility oftentimes can almost appear as though it’s another form of narcissism because you’re deflecting so much. And by no means am I using this clinically. This is just my own interpretation. But you’re actively deflecting so much that now you are now aware that people are trying to instill in you that magic and you’re deflecting from it. And so, if you’re actively doing that, there’s a level of awareness that you’re rejecting. And also, there’s a level of awareness that you’re inviting and it’s an imbalance. And so, I’ve tried to maintain that balance. And the seed that’s planted by others allows me to kind of jump into that space of, “Hey, you’re valuable. You’re here for a reason. You’re equipped for this. Just show up.”

What happens when she pushes to the edge of her capabilities?

I love the edge and the challenges that come with it. The edge is already tough. So, if you fight it, I really believe that you’re kind of contributing to that energy. The edge for me, I’ve learned, especially in the last few years, in my career and in my life, the edge for me is an indication of a pause. And I’ve never gone wrong when I’ve paused when I’m at the edge because I’m the type of person that does, does, does, execute, execute, execute, that’s how I am. And the edge is no indication of me experiencing, I guess, that extra of needing to. It’s certainly more of a scale back, take a breather, take a break, sit, relax, chill out, let it settle. And that’s what the edge is for me. And so, understanding when I’ve reached that point, which I have, especially in the last few years, fighting it has only pushed me over a cliff rather into I guess, flowing waters over the cliff that pushed me past the edge. I’m not afraid to go past the edge. It’s about whether it’s a canyon or an ocean.

Which mental skills does she utilize?

One of the mental skills that I practice every day is certainly quieting my mind. I don’t know if anyone has ever truly mastered it because we’re all human beings, but practice makes practice. I think that every opportunity that I have to quiet my mind is a learning opportunity and it’s not the last one, and it’s not the worst one, it’s not the best one. It’s always something that I know it’s going to have to be worked on. And it’s something that I have to home constantly quieting my mind for sure.

What is her practice to quiet the mind?

I certainly meditate and I journal as well. I think a lot of times when I’m able to write things down, it gets those thoughts out. But throughout my day, recognizing that the voice in my head is not me, rather I’m the listener of that voice is something that I constantly remind myself of, “Oh, you’re just listening. So, you can always just shut them up.” And it sounds simple, but it’s incredibly hard. We all know this.

How does mindfulness help her day-to-day?

Mindfulness helps me think about, what am I doing right now? Whatever this voice is telling me, is that happening right now? No. And so, it brings me kind of to a space of gratitude. And of course, I guess, focus that helps me make small moments, big moments. We think about the big picture. We don’t think about the small strokes, and each small stroke, it requires focus. But if we think about the big picture the whole time that we’re stroking, what does that picture going to look like Moments are what you make them. For me personally, when you deem moments small, then I feel as though it kind of implies lesser importance. So, I try to make every moment a big moment, however small or innocuous it is.

A fork in the road for her was…

Believing in myself or allowing others to do it.

Suffering comes from…

Living. Suffering is not always bad. Mine is beautiful.

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