Year of Changes Leads to Success for Rutgers Gymnastics

Accepting a new job involves momentous life changes for anyone, but when Umme Salim-Beasley became the head coach of Rutgers Gymnastics, some parts of her professional life stayed constant.

She was able to bring her assistant coaches from her old job at Temple, Anastasia Halbig and Michael Rosso, to Rutgers. And this year, two gymnasts who originally committed to compete for the Owls under her tenure instead became Scarlet Knights. 

Pennsylvania native Jenna Ferguson has made an early impact in the beam lineup while former elite Hannah Joyner is ranked in the top 10 on that event nationally and top 50 in the all around.

“When I left, I had [to let them know] I was behind them in their gymnastics and that I still wanted them to be a part of the program that I had; I recruited them all over again,” Salim-Beasley said. “Our philosophy of coaching and way of doing things is something that they really wanted for their college experience, so they switched their commitment and we were really thankful for that because they are phenomenal athletes.”

It wasn’t a decision that happened overnight for Joyner.

“At first I was skeptical because I didn’t know what Rutgers was! But I looked past that and I looked at the school here because it’s a great academic school,” she said.

In her home debut on Saturday, Joyner had a landmark result: She tied Rutgers’ program record on beam with a 9.925.

“It feels really good to be able to do that as a freshman and just go out there and do my job and not be nervous and just have fun,” she said.

Being able to accomplish so much without fear is a validation of Salim-Beasley’s plan for her team in 2020, which focuses on mental game.

“The biggest thing that we really focused on last year was creating a culture of trust, of excitement, of 100% work ethic that we had to put in place to be able to accomplish anything,” she said. “This year we are focusing a lot on their mindset, keeping them focused. We have a couple of things  that we want to make sure they do every time, so we’re able to train their minds as much as we train their bodies.”

Some of these mental strategies and cues are quite abstract, but one is very concrete.

Throughout the meet, the Scarlet Knights carried a “focus board,” a posterboard with four images to indicate the emotional progression Salim-Beasley wants her athletes to execute in preparation for a routine.

First, they should feel inspired. The team’s favorite athlete, Serena Williams, serves as a cue. Then a beach at sunset indicates relaxation, an image of a knight slaying a dragon reminds them to be courageous, and Rocky at the top of the steps tells them to think about victory and their ultimate goals. The four images are also posted in the training gym, so athletes can rehearse the four steps in practice as in competition. The team believes that mental preparation is key. 

“We’re doing the absolute best for the athletes that we have, and we’re getting the best out of them. We’re pleased with where they are,” Salim-Beasley said.

As the new coaching staff makes changes to how the team trains and competes, its surroundings are rapidly changing too. The Scarlet Knights have a beautiful new training facility—a necessary upgrade from their old space, which was part of a basketball court separated by a curtain. Plus, they’ll have five new leotards, a massive improvement over recent years.

Salim-Beasley is focused on how the changes will affect her team’s long-term prospects.

“The administration really understands that for us to be successful in the Big Ten we have to not only compete with the recruiting, we have to compete with our facilities,” she said. “When you bring athletes in that are looking at [other schools] and they have these amazing facilities, and you’re walking into our space and we were behind a curtain last year! So at least we can be on a level playing field when we have facilities that are similar to other schools within the conference.”

Nevertheless, the athletes are fixed firmly on the present.

“It’s just an amazing experience coming in as a freshman and having all that new equipment, a new team, a new vibe for everything,” Joyner said. “I’m just very fortunate. There’s so much excitement on the team.”

Article by Rebecca Scally

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