Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
For Yolisha Jackson, the dream to coach a Division I women’s basketball team to greatness was about more than just recruiting star athletes and calling plays. It was about building a deep-rooted community of strong, connected talented Black women who not only believe in their own potential excellence but are willing to put in the hard work to make everyone else around them believers, too.
Before joining the University of South Florida as the assistant coach and recruitment coordinator for women’s basketball, Jackson spent time intentionally learning the sport and its hierarchy, and then leveraged relationships to reach players who often bristled under heavy-handed structure and authority. She recognized that to be able to develop their athletic ability, she had to be able to cultivate a genuine connection with their personal individuality.
“At first it was very hard for me to not be friends with my players because we were the same age,” Jackson recalls. “Naturally, we gravitate towards people like us, so I was also gravitating towards them. It was a beautiful thing looking back, being able to help them. Not just on the court, but with their hair, or how they wanted to be treated or their voice. Whatever it was.”
No matter the role or environment, Jackson established herself as a confident, reliable presence to those around her: from the start of her career as a player at Jacksonville University; to leading recruitment efforts for Kennesaw State University and the Air Force Falcons; to assistant, and then associate head coach, at South Alabama University.
Jackson’s varied experience, thoughtful leadership, purposeful guidance and focused attention earned the respect and affection of the young women, on and off the court. She doesn’t have time for hubris; she’s humble—almost to a fault—which makes her often deflect attention from her own personal feats. But there’s no denying Jackson’s credibility—her reputation for long hours, studied practice and determination speaks for itself.
During her playing days, Jackson was only the second player in Jacksonville University history to score more than 1,000 points. She graduated as the single-season record holder for points per game, free throws made and free throws attempted, as well as career free throws made. After such a successful campaign on the court, transitioning to a career that included both coaching and recruiting was a natural next step—especially considering the Jackson family’s history.
Jackson’s father, Howard, is an Austin Peay State Hall of Famer who has been coaching since the early 1970s. It was her dad’s success that made it possible for Jackson to even imagine a career in coaching for herself—and now she hopes her journey and leadership will inspire young Black women of the future.
“It’s so important for African-American female athletes to see themselves in powerful positions—whether it’s as a coach, athletic trainer or the director of marketing. It is so important for us to be there for these kids,” she says. “When I went to school, there weren’t a lot of Black people in leadership roles in athletics, period. They need to see more of us around in every capacity.”
Jackson is used to being the only Black person in rooms of powerful people within the industry. That’s why she’s committed to making sure her players are keenly aware that opportunities do exist for them in executive and leadership roles that are traditionally held by white men and women. She’s always thinking beyond the next shot, the next game, the next season for her players to keep them motivated and upward-bound.
The opportunity to witness her players grow more empowered, more assured and more self-reliant is the ultimate reward for Jackson. “Getting them ready for this world, for whatever comes next—I think all of the Black women in my profession take it as a privilege and an honor to be able to recruit and help mold and shape younger Black women,” she says. “We’ve got to be the ones that take care of ourselves in a sense, and help us out.”
Now in her 17th year in the industry, Jackson recently gave birth to her first child, a baby girl named Zoe. She was amazed by the unexpected presents, notes, cards and flowers from former players—the ones she nurtured as if they were her firstborns—who were so ecstatic that their favorite coach was becoming a mom.
“One of the things I say in recruiting is of course we’re going to win games. but more importantly, we’re going to be around each other,” Jackson says. “When you get married, I want a wedding invite. When there are big milestones in your life, I hope you think enough of me and say, I want coach to be here, or I have to let her know. This is not just a four-year decision—it’s a 40-year decision.”
For Jackson, that 40-year decision is really a lifetime of family ties.
Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.