It’s Not About the Ball

Women’s Head Basketball Coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson recently led the Knights to their best season, but becoming a coach was never her goal.

By Nicole Dudenhoefer ’17 |
April 2, 2018

A woman with blonde hair stands with her arms crossed while wearing a black jacket.

Katie Abrahamson-Henderson has dominated the sport of basketball both on the court as a player and off as a coach.

After playing under Hall of Fame coaches for the University of Georgia and University of Iowa, as well as one season professionally overseas, Abrahamson-Henderson began coaching in 1990. This season, as head coach of UCF’s women’s basketball team, Abrahamson-Henderson led the Knights to their best season with 22 wins, a tie for their highest since becoming a Division I team, and their first back-to-back postseason appearances in program history.

“I set the bar really high [for players] in terms of their personal lives, their academic lives and their goals for the future,” says Abrahamson-Henderson.

Before coming to UCF in 2016, Abrahamson-Henderson, also known as Coach ABE, helped the Albany Great Danes win a combined nine America East Conference tournament and regular season titles. And she was named the America East Coach of the Year three times.

But Abrahamson-Henderson doesn’t only help the women she coaches to become better athletes, she encourages their personal development and academic success to shape them into the leaders of the future. Having earned a bachelor’s in physical education with an emphasis in sports administration at Iowa and a master’s in education from Duquesne University, she knows first-hand the importance of academics.

“I set the bar really high in terms of their personal lives, their academic lives and their goals for the future,” says Abrahamson-Henderson. “We talk about those things from the moment they walk in. What they want to do the next 55 years of the life, not just basketball.”

We sat down with Coach ABE to learn more about how sports can empower women beyond the court.

A white woman in a beige suit stands between two black players on a basketball court with empty seats in the background.

Coach ABE with players Zakiya Saunders and Aliyah Gregory.

Nicole Dudenhoefer: You started out as a swimmer and eventually became more interested in basketball. Why is it important to encourage young girls to participate in sports?

Katie Abrahamson-Henderson: For self-confidence. I really think self-confidence is huge. I mean obviously with my daughters [Savannah and Brooklyn] I try to thrust them in there and it gives them a sense of purpose. I think women, when they’re fit and they’re healthy and they feel like they’re accomplishing something, they’re stronger women.

ND: What does it feel to be in a position to mentor so many women?

KAH: It’s a big responsibility because there are so many different personalities and not every young person is raised the same way. So it’s a huge responsibility for me as a coach in trying to raise somebody else’s child. We’re really selective on who we choose because you’re going to want to be focused, you’re going to want to work hard and you’re going to want to have to accomplish something at a higher level, at a higher bar than maybe you’re comfortable doing.

ND: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from sports that has helped you succeed in your personal life and your professional life?

KAH: Hard work. I learned that when I was growing up [as a swimmer]. My family, my mother, who raised four kids on her own, taught me that. [Her father died when she was 12.] I also learned that when I was playing college basketball, and then [coaching] Elite Eight [teams in the NCAA] pretty much every year. And obviously I’ve played for great coaches, so they taught me that, too.

ND: You’ve emphasized the importance of a solid education even above athletics. Why is it important for athletes and women to be excellent in more areas than just sports?

KAH: Basketball ends for women — unlike for men it may go a little longer — but basketball ends and so I really try to empower them in what they’re going to do the next 55 years of their life.

Basketball ends for women — unlike for men it may go a little longer — but basketball ends and so I really try to empower them in what they’re going to do the next 55 years of their life.

If they want to accomplish anything, set goals for themselves, and if they want a really good job that pays more than minimum wage, they’re going to have to be smarter, tougher and stronger. The jobs aren’t waiting for them. They’re going to have to find a way to go get them.

So I try to train them that way. I teach them little things, how to shake people’s hands, how to talk to people, how to look people in the eye, how to dress appropriately and how to talk to each other. There are a lot of little intangibles that we do every single day.

ND: How can you tell when you’ve made an impact on your players?

KAH: I think when I see that they can achieve success without me telling them how to get it, and they are constantly doing it. An example of this is Tolulope Omokore. She’s [No.] 25 on our team. She came into the office and told me she wants to work for Nike. I told her, “Oh you do? Well so do two million other people in the world.”

So I told her step by step what she needed to do in order to get to this path. There are tons of people around this university that know Nike reps and [other] people that need to get you in touch, and give you the references that you need to get and the marketing you need to work on and so on.

And she has gone from having no clue of knowing how to do that, to now she calls me the next day and says she met this person from this company, and this person from that company and I’m like, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

So I know that I have empowered her and touched her life that way, because she has taken it to another level. She is so driven to get what she wants and she’s on the right path to do it.

ND: What’s the most meaningful thing a player has said to you about any sort of mentorship you’ve given?

KAH: “I love you, Coach ABE.” “Thank you, Coach ABE. I love you.” To be honest, when I get invited back to their weddings or they come visit me, and things like that, that shows I was a really good coach.