The distance between Columbia, S.C. and Dallas, the site for the 2023 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament, is 995.6 miles. The South Carolina Gamecocks are already getting a head start with four bicycles and weekly missions.
Every Friday before the season begins, sports performance coach Molly Binetti holds one-hour workouts she calls "Final Four Fridays." Each week is different, but every session has a mission requiring the players to work as a team and visualize challenges they will face throughout the upcoming season.
One of the challenges is biking the number of miles it will take to travel from Columbia to whichever city the Final Four will be held next. Binetti sets up four bicycles, and the players take turns to register the specific amount of miles needed. Sometimes the miles relate to the number of games they'll play in a season. Other times, the challenge is based on the opponents, which means the difficulty is based on teams they will be playing.
Another challenge is a scavenger hunt in which the players have to complete certain tasks before time runs out. Binetti gives them envelopes with the challenges they need to accomplish on their way to the finish line, which is known as the "Final Four."
"It really started from this concept of, I want a way for us to compete as a team, have some fun and be exposed to some really hard situations in order for them to grow," Binetti said. "Every year we've just kind of evolved. It's my chance to give our players leadership opportunities."
Senior guard Brea Beal said that although the sessions are challenging, they help her and the rest of the team focus on their end goal. The end goal is obvious: to repeat as national champions.
The Gamecocks made it to the Final Four in 2021. Once there, they lost to Stanford. One season later, South Carolina pushed past its struggles from the season prior to win the national championship.
Beal said a big part of that step forward after falling in the 2021 Final Four was becoming mentally stronger.
"Every Friday we come in with the mindset of chipping away to get there," Beal said. "Two years ago we got there, and we were shut down with that Final Four game we lost. To get back there, we had to get over that obstacle."
Binetti got to South Carolina in 2018 and has been conducting the "Final Four Friday" sessions since. The sessions were initially called "Fun Fridays," but Binetti changed the name during her second year to match the perennial goal coach Dawn Staley sets of reaching the final weekend of the NCAA Women's Tournament.
"I think it's really about leadership strength, being able to get over that hard obstacle that's in our way," Beal said. "Every workout we have feels so uncomfortable, but we still got through it so it does relate to the Final Four."
While planning her sessions, Binetti takes into account the workouts the players went through during the week, as well as how as they performed. She chooses one or two leaders each week, starting with the veteran players. As the summer progresses, Binetti might pick someone who the coaches are trying to get more out of.
"I throw people into the fire as I see fit," Binetti said. "I'm going to throw that person in that week and put them in a situation where they are uncomfortable."
These leaders are the only ones allowed to ask Binetti questions during the session, and therefore need to display strong communication skills for their team to succeed. In the last five minutes of the workout, the entire team takes time to talk about what went right and where improvements could be made.
It's not an easy job, but the leadership task is key to developing character. Aliyah Boston is currently the face of the program and has demonstrated her leadership ability since Day 1. Binetti said Boston was one of the loudest players right away, but Staley sometimes described her as "too nice."
Binetti said Boston is still her sweet self, but has learned to be more confident and assertive when talking to her teammates.
Other players have required a little bit more of a push -- and have seen more noticeable changes. When Victaria Saxton first joined the Gamecocks, Binetti said she was shy and quiet. Through "Final Four Fridays," though, the senior has become a confident, vocal leader.
"I think it's a big deal to be a person like that on the team. I feel like it takes a lot of heart and a steady mind to be that person, to know what your role is," Saxton said. "You might not be the leading scorer, the leading rebounder, but you go out there and still do everything you need to do to help everybody else out."
That is the mentality Binetti tries to instill into the entire team with her sessions. Every "Final Four Friday" task requires team effort, and everyone plays a role whether they are the leader or not. Since reaching the Final Four is their goal every year, Binetti said she wants the players to understand exactly how tough it will be to get there, both physically and mentally.
"They have to possess leadership qualities and communication skills to get the mission accomplished. It's really just putting them in situations where they are responsible for the outcomes." Binetti said. "Ultimately, when they play and they are on the court, they are the ones who have to make decisions, communicate and get the job done."