UK Women's Basketball

Kentucky's Samarie Walker boosts game with help of sports psychologist

Kentucky's Samarie Walker secured a rebound against Missouri's Bri Kulas during UK's 80-69 win last week. Walker's game has improved since she began seeing a therapist last year. "It's definitely helped a lot," she said.
Kentucky's Samarie Walker secured a rebound against Missouri's Bri Kulas during UK's 80-69 win last week. Walker's game has improved since she began seeing a therapist last year. "It's definitely helped a lot," she said. AP

"You are NOT good enough, not even close."

"How could you miss that shot?"

"That would've been an easy basket for anyone except you."

Her coach's rants have nothing on the voices in the darkest recesses of Samarie Walker's mind.

The Kentucky forward has tried for years to drown them out, but her mind's megaphone of mediocrity always blasts loudly.

The voices scream at her during games, make her feel like less of a person, make her question why any school — let alone two of the nation's best in Connecticut and UK — would ever offer her a scholarship.

"At one point I'd tell myself I was terrible and that I sucked," Walker said on Friday. "I really started to believe that. And I think that's why I would play the way I'd play sometimes."

The senior would have a game or two where she'd feel good about herself, but all it would take was a couple missed shots for the self-doubt to settle in again.

"I scared myself into making mistakes, basically, being so afraid to mess up that I was messing up more," Walker said.

When Kentucky went on the road to start Southeastern Conference play at Alabama, Walker missed four shots from close range in the first four minutes.

Her position coach sat on the bench, worrying that her own words of encouragement and instruction for the forward would be drowned out by Walker's internal voices of vitriol.

But Walker played through them this time. She reminded herself that she already had several rebounds and an assist. She tried to remember the positive, to push away the negative with the same intensity she'd use to push a bulky defender.

"She continued to play, didn't start pouting and disconnect like she has in the past," UK assistant coach Shalon Pillow recalled. "That was a big aha moment for Samarie."

Walker missed her first four shots but she made six of her final 10 tries and finished with 12 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals in 29 minutes.

That game, an 85-63 win, was proof to Pillow that her senior had found a way to muffle the voices.

"She's in a totally different place than she was last year," Pillow said. "She has more confidence in herself and she believes in herself and she's putting in the work."

It's not just work on the court, which Walker has been doing regularly, including coming into practice 20-25 minutes early every day to get extra reps.

Or doing extra abdominal workouts with her teammates (even though she'd been excused from them because she's strong under the basket and can do the required pull-ups).

No, much of Walker's work has come in a place far away from the basketball court.

It's come in the office of a sports psychologist.

That idea was first suggested to Walker by head coach Matthew Mitchell when she was a sophomore. The head-strong, 6-foot-1 forward balked.

"I was like, 'Um, no. That makes me feel like I'm crazy,'" she recalled.

In May, Walker reluctantly agreed to go, giving it three appointments before deciding whether it was right for her.

Pillow kept pushing the forward, who reminds her a lot of herself back in her Tennessee playing days, to talk to someone.

The UK assistant coach had similar experiences as a Lady Vol and learned a lot about herself from those therapy sessions.

"It's just nice to talk to someone else, a professional, who has nothing to do with basketball," Pillow said. "He or she doesn't care that you're Samarie Walker or that you play for UK. She just wants to help you."

The Cats' post coach understands why Walker worried.

"Sometimes there's a stigma any time you deal with mental health and that's why she was largely resistant, and then we had talks that it's not about you being crazy," Pillow said. "It's just something to make you better, improve you as a person and help you once you leave Kentucky."

Walker continued her talks with the sports psychologist all the way through August.

"God bless her for doing the work to turn that around," Mitchell said. "A lot of people just won't accept it and won't even look at it and won't even say, 'Hey, I have to work in this area,' and she sure has worked in that area. I think she's done a great job."

Now Walker hears different voices.

Like when she missed several close-range shots in practice on Friday morning as No. 10 Kentucky prepared to travel to Auburn on Sunday, Walker simply reminded herself that she made more than she missed.

She played great defense and got some key rebounds.

"It's definitely helped a lot," Walker said of the therapy sessions. "It really helped."

It has made a believer out of Walker, not just in the power of sports therapy but also in herself.

The senior from West Carrollton, Ohio, is averaging nearly a double-double with 10.5 points and 9.8 rebounds. She has six double-doubles this season, including in her last game against Missouri.

Walker leads Kentucky in steals and has scored in double figures in 12 of UK's 17 games, including five straight games.

The forward's 11 points per game in league play is second best on the team. She's raised her rebounding average in conference games to 11.3 a game.

As Kentucky has battled injuries, including losing leading scorer DeNesha Stallworth to a knee injury for five games, and having key leader Kastine Evans hobbled by leg pain, Walker has been a consistent player.

"She's just done so much for us this year," Mitchell said. "It sure is comforting to know that you have that productive a player who's playing that consistently well."

But like any coach, he wants to see Walker do more.

He knows her best is yet to come. In practice, he sees her make 15-foot jump shots consistently. She can hit three-pointers, too, even though she's never attempted one in a game.

Coaches want her to start shooting more, to keep believing her shots will fall.

"When we're in shooting drills and she's just having fun and she's not putting a lot of pressure on herself, she just has outstanding range," Mitchell said. "When she gets into a game I'm afraid she limits herself, so that's what we're trying to work on with her right now."

Walker is willing to do the work.

She proved it last summer by silencing those voices.

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