It’s not a school day, but Saturday mornings at the Latin School gym on the Near North Side are hopping. Basketball players—all girls—are practicing their shooting, working on ball handling and running plays. Is this an ultra-dedicated, private school team? Nope, they’re students from a variety of Chicago-area schools, ready to raise their game in a sport that’s historically belonged to boys.
This is Flow Basketball Academy, a new training program for girls ages 9 to 18 launched last spring by two women with serious hoops credentials. Co-owner Margaret Stender played college ball at the University of Richmond and cofounded the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, serving for six years as the team’s CEO (she’s still a minority owner). Her partner and Flow cofounder Korie Hlede was a decorated college athlete who played 11 years professionally in the WNBA and internationally before coaching at the pro and college levels. Together, they’re ready to groom the next generation of female basketball players, hitting the gym three to four days a week to offer year-round training classes, camps and clinics, and competitive travel teams.
The aptly named Flow takes a holistic approach to girls’ development as athletes. “When our mind, body and spirit are aligned, everything else flows,” Stender explains. It’s a concept she and Hlede are passionate about. “If we can live by those principles, it creates an opportunity for those girls to be successful.”
On the court, that translates to focusing not just on the game or the team (which other youth organizations tend to do), but also putting emphasis on training and development at the individual level.
Even at the pro level, Stender says some athletes have never mastered certain fundamentals. “I saw very accomplished regional and pro players who had bad free-throw form,” she notes. “Sometimes we assign a player a certain role and then they don’t learn the whole game.” She says it happens often with taller girls. “They get stuck playing underneath the basket when they’re eight or nine because they grew faster, and by the time they’re 13 or 14 they’re too small, but they don’t have any guard skills.” Flow’s training focuses on “whole skill development,” regardless of position.
They also teach that your mind is as important as your athletic ability. “We don’t all have the same physical gifts,” Stender says. “The way you create an advantage is reading what’s given to you—the lay of the land, what your teammates are doing—then using your brain, your basketball IQ and your creative skills to take advantage of what you see.”
Stender adamantly believes that athletics help foster skills in girls that can play into other important achievements. She herself served in senior, executive-level positions at the Quaker Oats Company and PepsiCo, and credits her basketball experience for developing her confidence and leadership.
Flow Basketball Academy serves a range of athletes, starting with beginners who just want to see if they like the game, to teens looking to excel on their high-school teams or even play college ball.
Ten-year-old Marianne Mihas takes a Saturday skills class and also plays on a travel team, which practices Friday nights and competes on Sundays. She had never played basketball before. “It definitely teaches you a whole lot of teamwork,” she says. “If one person doesn’t know what’s going on, it kind of falls apart.”
Moira Mulhern, an eighth grader at Evanston’s St. Athanasius, says her interest in Flow was piqued after hearing about it from a friend. “Their coaching style sounded nice. Instead of being so intense, it was more about trying to improve players than trying to win games.” Last year she played on Flow’s travel team and took some clinics. Her goal is to play high-school basketball, and she’s earned a spot on Evanston High School’s feeder team.
Competitive programs like Flow (others include Lady Fire Basketball, operated out of Chicago’s Whitney Young High School, and Hoops Express Flash in River Forest) are becoming more common, but that wasn’t always the case.
Last June marked the 40th anniversary of the controversial Title IX law. The statute covers a range of protections against sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs, but it’s best-known for its impact on high-school and collegiate sports—namely, creating equal opportunities for athletes of both genders (often, some allege, at the expense of men’s programs). Stender says Title IX’s impact has been extraordinary, noting that 40 years ago, only one in 30 females participated in sports; today, the number is one in 2.5.
But in terms of gender equality in sports, are we there yet? Stender says no—in particular, she notes the lack of media coverage for female athletes which, among other things, helps drive fan base (and an important byproduct: economic viability of the sport). But she’s excited about the momentum and ready to push it further. Co-running Flow is her full-time job now, and Stender says she and Hlede hope to expand their programming into nutrition, conditioning and college athletic counseling, for those who get to that level.
Whether her athletes go on to play in college or not, her main goal is to create a positive team experience and help their leadership development. “I loved starting the Sky; it was a wonderful and meaningful experience. Now, it’s fun for me to take it to the youth level and hang out with a bunch of ten-year-olds.”
For more information on Flow Basketball Academy, visit flowbasketballchicago.com.