• Alexandra Nikou

Nya Valentine is Perfectly Imperfect at Shelton State



Nope. Not Nya Valentine.


Everyone has at some point stopped working hard.


Everyone has, at least on occasion, given in to the temptation to relax on the couch.


Everyone except Nya Valentine.


As a 5’ 3” player with a dream of going D1, she never even questioned the importance of consistent dedication.


Hard work pays off.


Practice makes perfect.


Words to live by that will never let you down.


Right?


Early Effort

Nya Valentine grew up in a household that valued perfection. She described her father as intelligent, which may be a severe understatement; he got a perfect score on the ACT. When asked how often he reminded his three children of this fact, Nya laughed and said, “Always.”


Might that inspire a child to seek perfection at something too? For Nya, basketball appeared the obvious choice, with both parents having played in their youth.


Valentine first stepped on the court at age five, joining the boys as a way to embrace challenge. “I remember I made a shot over a boy, and the crowd went crazy,” she said, smiling.


Her dream of playing Division 1 basketball in college started as early as middle school. She knew that to achieve that goal, she would need to work for it. Her drive only grew with the support of her parents. Nya remembers her mother telling her, over and over, “If you want the results, you have to put in the work.”


Nya took that advice to heart. In middle school, she began working with a personal trainer. She recalled her least favorite drill: he would tie himself to the end of a rope, tie Nya to the other end, and have her dribble around the court, dragging a trainer’s worth of weight behind her.


These workouts went alongside the coaching Nya received from her father, whom she believes gave her the “athletic” gene. With two not-so-athletic older brothers choosing violin and writing over sports, Nya and her dad made a connection through basketball. “He’s actually tough on me, and always has been,” said Nya, “[but] he’s still my number one fan.”


That toughness, especially from a place of love, continued to push her to be the best player she could possibly be. He critiqued everything she did wrong after a practice or a game, highlighting that which she needed to improve. She took these critiques in stride, applying them the very next game.


As Valentine got older and entered high school in her home town of Mobile, Alabama, she continued her efforts when she joined a travel team so she could grow closer to her D1 dream. Her mom and dad took turns driving her the whopping five hours to and from Atlanta to play for the Nard Celtics.


It was no walk in the park to play on a travel team, and it required consistent practice outside of scheduled times. Valentine dedicated at least two hours each day to training, which rose to four in the summer, all throughout her high school years.


Valentine’s family came to as many high school games as they could, and not without good reason. Her team, who she is still close friends with now, made the final four all four years of high school. Her senior year, she averaged 18 points per game, with 5 assists, 3 steals, and 3 rebounds. She even made the Alabama All-Star high school team. All those hours of training were paying off.


College: An Imperfect Beginning

When the time came to pick a college, Nya chose the junior college route. Despite her success in high school, she simply did not have D1 schools looking in her direction. So, to keep that dream alive, Valentine donned the green and white of Shelton State Community College (despite her favorite color being purple). This college decision was in no small part due to the no-nonsense training style of their women’s basketball coach, Madonna Thompson. Coach Thompson made it clear early on that those who did not want to work hard would not get along with her.


Naturally, Thompson and Valentine get along just fine.


Valentine’s coach entirely understands Nya’s inclination to improve. “She’s a kid that really, really wants to be the best she can be,” Thompson said. “She is so determined to make it happen.”


Not only has Nya grown close with her coach, but with the rest of her team as well. “It’s a sisterhood here,” she said. “I love them.” Teammate Rachel Early agreed wholeheartedly. “More than anything, we are a family and look out for one another,” said Early. The group loves to go bowling together outside of practice time. Giving credit where credit is due, Nya cited Rachel as the best bowler on the team.


This sisterhood faced a challenge early on in Valentine’s freshman season. In her second ever college basketball game, against Georgia Highlands, Nya felt extreme pressure to play well. Not only was this the first ranked team Shelton State had gone up against, but coaches from D1 schools sat in the bleachers. If she hoped to impress them, she knew she needed to play perfect.


As the point guard, Nya had to protect the ball. That meant no turnovers.


Not 5, not 3, not 1.


Zero.


Well, Nya had 7.


And Shelton State lost terribly.


Ugh.


Nya had not expected this when she came to college. She believed that hard work should pay off.


“I was frustrated because… I put a lot of work into basketball,” she said. The disappointment she felt caused her to lose focus. She became distracted, and the game after Georgia Highlands didn’t go much better. She tried so hard to be perfect, yet somehow she played worse.


So Nya asked for help.


She turned to her number one fan, who’s been there for her the entirety of her basketball career. She asked her dad what to do.


Valentine’s father knew just how to help his daughter. As Nya described, he told her that “basketball is full of ups and downs. You’re not going to play perfect—ever. I want you to get out of your head, this perfection, because it’s not going to happen.”


Her dad was right to convince her of this; according to a study by the University of Essex, “perfectionistic concerns—an obsession and excessive reaction to perceived failure—were strongly related to athlete burnout.”


Her father knew exactly what Nya needed to get her head back in the game. She thought about her favorite basketball player, Steph Curry, and how he still made mistakes too. Even the greats missed shots sometimes. As Nya said, “One shot doesn’t define him, so one game shouldn’t define me.”


The Georgia Highlands game and its aftermath proved to be a major turning point in her mindset. “It changed my outlook on bad games and basketball,” Valentine said. “You’re not going to be perfect, so get that out of your head. You’re allowed to make some mistakes.”


With this new viewpoint, Nya felt ready to jump into the next game, the fourth of the season—until, that is, she got benched. Nya’s heightened drive had been placed on hold. However, in the second half, the coach decided to put Nya in the game.


The freedom of her new mindset allowed Nya to play well and to have fun with the game again. “I most definitely feel free [now] that I don’t have to live up to this false perception of being perfect,” she said. That fourth game, she scored 24 points in the second half alone. After that, she had a stretch of four games in which she scored more than 20 points.


Though it has only been one college season, this change in mindset has already taken Nya far. She averaged 14.1 points per game, and her 3-point field goal percentage was 41.7%. Her team ended the season ranked second in the nation by the NJCAA.


Then, towards the end of the school year, something incredible occurred.


Nya received a call from an organization in Knoxville, Tennessee, who told her they wanted to recognize her accomplishment and dedication.


They even wanted to hang her jersey in their Ring of Honor.


And what organization was that?


The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.


“Honestly, I’m just honored,” said Valentine. “It’s a big deal.”


Nya and her team plan to witness her accomplishment when they travel to Knoxville in the fall.





Dreams for a Perfect Future

Knowing that perfection is impossible did not deter Nya’s drive to work hard and play well. If anything, it made it stronger.


Now she dreams of playing Power 5 Division 1 basketball after finishing her sophomore year at Shelton State. For a player who stands only 5 feet and 3 inches tall, this will not be the easiest task, but Valentine and her support system know that she can do it.


“If you can get past the size,” Coach Thompson said, “the skill set and the knowledge of the game is very high.”


Nya even shared that she is already in talks with some D1 schools that are willing to help her finally make her dream come true. There may be an old, familiar saying that “practice makes perfect,” but recognizing the permissibility of imperfection allowed Nya to grow closer to her goal.



Beyond Basketball

After her basketball career, Nya hopes to become either a physical therapist or a sports psychologist, so that she may help other athletes who have not yet discovered that they do not need to be perfect.


Even with all the hours Nya dedicates towards basketball, the sport does not completely define her. She is a well-rounded individual, imperfections and all (which may or may not include a secret love of anime). For example, mysteries and true crime stories fascinate her. As a kid, she even wanted to be a detective before her love of basketball truly took off.


But above all else, Nya is a good friend. She listens well and cares deeply about others. Take it from teammate Rachel Early: “Nya has a great personality and smile. She is always good for a laugh or someone to just talk basketball to.”


Allowing herself to be imperfect has brought Nya joy both on and off the court. “We’re all human, and we all make mistakes,” she said. “The real test is how you respond to mistakes and how you bounce back.”


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