Confidence Is Key for Muhammad in New Coaching Role

WVU Coliseum in Morgantown has long been home to an underrated and fun floor rotation. This year is no exception, with the lineup ranking inside the top 25 in the country every week of the 2021 season so far. While the lineup’s success hasn’t changed, the reason behind it has: It was primarily constructed and choreographed by one of the Mountaineers’ most memorable floor workers to date, Zaakira Muhammad. 

“This floor rotation has everything,” senior McKenna Linnen, who leads the Mountaineers off on floor, said. “We have a dramatic routine, a sassy routine and some weird ones. Zaakira helped create a unique floor rotation and made us feel pride in our routines.” 

The first year assistant coach brought more than a fresh floor rotation in her return to Morgantown. Muhammad also brings a coaching style that has been shaped by three different programs and team dynamics. This coaching style was shaped by her own time at her alma mater, which inspired her to go into coaching.

“During my four years [at West Virginia], the coaching staff really helped me build that confidence to get to where I was at the end of my career,” Muhammad said. “I want to be able to give that experience to someone else as a coach. I want to be on the other side of it.”

Following graduation, Muhammad served as a volunteer assistant Temple during the Owls’ ECAC championship season. She then spent a year at Eastern Michigan, where she worked as an assistant coach. Her  return to her alma mater is made all the more exciting by the fact that she is one of the most decorated gymnasts in Mountaineer history. While a gymnast, she qualified as an individual all arounder to nationals, earned team MVP honors three years in a row and holds career highs over 9.9 on every event.

These accolades as well as her connection to the program were plentiful, but it was the quality of her character that made her an obvious choice when head coach Jason Butts was searching for an assistant coach after the 2020 season. 

“She was always very open-minded, and she was just always a joy to have in the gym,” Butts said. “Her energy was amazing, and I never once questioned her work ethic.”

Muhammad was finishing up an abbreviated season as an assistant at Eastern Michigan when the opportunity at West Virginia arose. “I didn’t want to put her under pressure,” Butts said, “but the second we talked about it, I just was like, ‘OK that’s it. Get her back here.’”

As head coach, Butts watched Muhammad grow from a shy freshman to a strong, confident voice on the team over her four years in Morgantown. “She developed a very strong voice, not just about gymnastics, but life in general,” he said. “Any time that you have somebody who’s willing to communicate and is gaining confidence through gymnastics and then really just life in general, that makes it very easy to work with them.”

Linnen has also seen Muhammad on both sides of the student-athlete/coach relationship; she was a freshman on the team during Muhammad’s senior year. “She’s always been amazing,” Linen said. “I think we knew in preseason she was going to be great just having a fresh set of eyes on us and new choreography. She’s been great.

Eastern Michigan head coach Katie Minasola was part of Muhammad’s second stop on her coaching journey, during a time when the Eagles were second in the MAC for much of the regular season. Minasola also attested to Muhammad’s growth and desire to evolve, which marked her coaching style.

“She quickly realized that her opinion was going to be valued and that she had stuff to offer and things to offer,” Minasola said. “That was when she relaxed a little bit and she was more open to give her ideas and take charge.

Minasola was also impressed with Muhammad’s ability to adapt and contribute where she wasn’t the most prepared. Muhammad served as the primary bars coach for the Eagles; it wasn’t one of the events she was known for in college, nor had she coached it at Temple. But that didn’t phase her. 

“She was definitely nervous,” Minasola said, “but she did a great job in taking on a new event.” 

Growth and strength in the face of change are two important factors to Muhammad’s coaching philosophy, since both were characteristics of her tenure as both a gymnast and a coach. 

“As student-athletes, we have no idea what is going on and how much work that staff has to put in on the other side of things,” Muhammad said. “As time has gone on, I’ve gotten my feet wet and learned to start stepping into who I want to be.”

As someone who’s been on both sides of the coach-athlete relationship, Muhammad sees supporting her student-athletes and encouraging their growth as her greatest priority. When asked what her goals for coaching are, Muhammad touched briefly on rankings and the hope that her team would be ranked nationally throughout the season. But she made it clear that having an impact on the individuals she coaches was of the utmost importance to her. 

“The biggest thing for me is to make sure our athletes are leaving and having the best experience that they can have,” she said. “I want to let them know that they don’t have to fit a mold.”

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Article by Katherine Weaver

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