The excitement is palpable inside Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas. Videographers zoom in and zoom out, photographers’ cameras shutter, journalists take frenetic notes, the crowd is delirious, all eyes are on the stars of the meet. The athletes are entering the arena to contend for the top prize in NCAA gymnastics—the national championship title.
Behind them, shying away from all the attention, march the queen makers—the coaches. They take deep breaths, smile, whisper words of encouragement. They hide as well as they can the mixed feelings that envelope them. On one hand, they are nervous, as the six-month-or-longer preparation that they’ve done with their team is coming down to this one moment. On the other, they are confident in the preparedness of their athletes. They all agree that you don’t win a national title one day in April. You win it every single day in the gym from September to that point.
There are different types of coaches. There is the scientific coach, like Utah’s Tom Farden, who doesn’t leave anything to chance and details every minute of his athletes’ daily routine through an app, all the way down to the nuts his athletes may or may not want in their meals. There is the matter-of-fact coach, like Michigan’s Bev Plocki, who believes that anxiety should be left at the door of her athletes’ impeccable preparation. And there is the coach who is not afraid to let you know that her team is there to win. Oklahoma’s KJ Kindler embodies this mindset better than anyone else.
Their coaching philosophy is often different, as are their personalities and demeanors, but as they take a deep breath and smile their way into the arena behind their athletes, they all treasure three principles that are key to their success: the long hours of training in the gym, the team’s winning mindset on competition day and the right amount of superstition.
Ranked No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, Oklahoma, Michigan and Utah have had stellar seasons so far this year, which can be rewound all the way back to the beginning of Fall 2021. It’s been a long process, which has challenged Kindler, Plocki and Farden to find the right formula to have their athletes peak exactly this week of mid-April at the national championships.
“Each year we start with the training program that works backwards from the Four on the Floor all the way to September,” Farden explained. “We’re studying everything that we can from a scientific angle in gymnastics to peak at the right time. So I have great joy in the experimentation each year to try and peak the team at the right time. That’s why I am so calm [on competition day], because we plan all this. Things happen, we understand that—it’s sports. But there’s also an intentional plan going into this weekend.”
On meet day “you can give cues, reminders or mental keywords, but other than that, the work is completely done or it’s not done,” Plocki added. “On meet day, it’s not the day for me to go out there and coach; it’s the day for me to go out there, be a cheerleader and a calming voice of reassurance.”
Together with the work in the gym, equally significant is the experience that the athletes have gained during the regular season in the past three months. Farden tries to instill confidence in his athletes by reminding the Utes of all they’ve already achieved this year, which includes a Pac-12 and regional title. “We want the athletes to impress upon them they’ve had some brilliant performances and they’ve been brilliant throughout the year,” he said. “Our athletes are hitting a good stride right now…all they have to do is what they do every day.”
Plocki also likes to boost the Wolverines’ morale by showing them that their success is the result of their talent and hard work. “What I’m going to say to my team is just to believe and to trust in themselves,” she said. “There’s a reason that we were No. 1 for the large majority of the season until the end. There is a reason why we are at nationals. That’s because we’ve earned it. We’re talented, and we just have to compete the way we practice every single day.”
Like any team, Michigan’s had a few bumps in the road this year, but Plocki believes that they were beneficial, as they tightened the team’s bond and deepened the trust the athletes have for one another. “Nobody goes into a competition and makes mistakes on purpose, so there’s absolutely zero reason to be upset,” Plocki said. “We have had an individual many times throughout the season where we had a fall, but the idea is not to panic, because we trust each other and I know that if I’m third up in the lineup and I fall, the next three people who come up, they’re going to hit and not be affected by the fact that I fell… You don’t want to panic, and that’s one thing my team has been really good at.”
Kindler similarly believes that the two losses the Sooners suffered at Florida and at Utah this season were as important learning moments as their numerous successes. “‘I always think that it’s good to lose,” she said. “It sounds terrible, but we lost twice on the road to really incredible teams. Those were learning moments, we needed them, we still need them. Those pushed us forward this year. [The loss] against Utah was definitely a moment when we said, ‘We’ve got to change some things, this is what we’re looking at.’”
For a successful team like Oklahoma, who’s finished in the top two at nationals every year since 2016, part of the mental game is managing expectations. “This is the seventh season we’ve been the No. 1 team in the nation at the end of the regular season,” Kindler said. “Making the final eight, we don’t take that for granted—it’s hard to do every year. Certainly when you’re a program like ours and the expectation is there, it becomes even harder.”
In order to turn expectations into positive energy, at the beginning of the year the Sooners decorated a wooden wreath and each of them wrote in its holes the name of someone they wished to dedicate their season to. “We’ve carried it with us to every away meet and we’ve had it in our home meet locker room,” Kindler said. “It’s just a reminder that we do these things not just for ourselves but for a bigger reason and for people who got us here or were inspirational to us, who made a difference in our lives, and that includes coaches.” Kindler herself wrote the name of her children, of her husband and of the team in the wreath.
As Michigan is entering nationals as the defending national champion, Plocki knows that her team also is dealing with new expectations that were not there in previous years. “I don’t want them to be reading what anybody might write on social media and say, ‘Michigan is predicted to win’ or the opposite, ‘Florida is unbeatable.’ Everybody is beatable. Everybody can have a good day or a bad day,” Plocki said. “And that’s why we just have to perform at the best of our ability and let the outcome take care of itself.”
Additionally, Plocki doesn’t want the Wolverines to think that she has any expectations about how they should perform. “I don’t want them to go into this meet feeling that there’s any level of expectation from me,” she explained. “Other people can expect whatever they want, it doesn’t matter—they don’t matter. The only thing that does matter is our team and our staff. My athletes know that if we go in there and we compete to the best of our ability, the way that they train every day, I will never be disappointed in them, regardless of the place we finish.”
While all three coaches try to strike the right balance between their team’s competitive drive and a focus on the bigger picture, their approach is slightly different.
Following his scientific approach to gymnastics, Farden believes that the end goal for each season is not necessarily to win but to maximize the team’s potential. “Last year we went in as the sixth-seeded [team]; we came out finishing third,” he said. “We thought for the athletes we had assembled, with the situation we were in, we completely maxed [out] that team. So our goal every year is to max our team. If maxing our team one year means to reach the top of the podium, then so be it; but we’re also realists, and if you keep your sanity as a coach, [you know] that your job is to max [out] a group of athletes and coaches that you’re having.”
As Plocki’s confidence relies on her unshaken belief in a logical and rational approach to the sport, she doesn’t want her athletes to think about winning at all. “I am the coach that will tell my athletes that the last thing they need to be thinking about or paying attention to is winning,” she said. “That’s not something you have control over. What I tell my athletes is that if you do what you do every day, and we’re having fun and we’re performing to the best of our ability, the outcome will take care of itself.” This is a mindset that Plocki applies to herself and her coaching staff, too. She barely watches the competition that unfolds around her and reminds her assistant coaches not to stare at the scoreboard all the time.
While Kindler agrees that there is so much more to gymnastics than winning, she’s also unapologetic about her team’s competitiveness. “I think we always look at the bigger picture, but I don’t know of anyone who starts a race and hopes to pass the finish line. We’re in there to try to win, and I believe that’s true of all the teams that participate in this national championship,” she said. “I don’t think anyone walks into the room that last day and says, ‘Let’s get fourth.’ No one does that. They want to get and achieve their highest level they possibly can. If you ask any coach, ‘Do you have the potential to win this meet?’ They would say, ‘Yes, we have the potential to win this meet; yes, we want to win this meet.’ I guess I just say it out loud.”
On the day of the final, it’s the coaches’ responsibility to help their athletes build that winning mindset that they will carry over to the competition floor. In many cases, the way they address the team depends on the athletes’ mood. “[What I tell the team] is situational based on what we saw in warmups, based on what we saw in practices, based on what their needs are. The messaging that I told them during finals at regionals is probably different from the messaging that I’m going to tell them [at nationals],” Farden said. “Last year before the final it was a message of doubt—don’t have any doubt; we’re going to go out there with zero doubt. You have to make a choice, and you have to choose confidence. Go out there and do the gymnastics that you’ve got to do. We went out there and hit 24 routines and peaked the team at the right time. So that’s always the goal.”
Kindler adopts a similar approach. “I always try to read the room with my athletes,” she explained. “A lot of times they don’t need to get rallied together and have the messages come to them all at once from one person and sometimes they do. So I have to understand where they’re at. If they are flowing and moving in the right direction, I let them continue to do that instead of stopping the action to give them a message. Sometimes their momentum should be stopped, and so I really have to read what’s necessary.”
As the team gets ready for competition—doing hair and makeup, having breakfast and warming up with the trainer—the coaches can take a moment for themselves and indulge in some rituals that help calm their own nerves and boost their own confidence.
Farden gets ready by wearing black pants and a red shirt, which is the same outfit he wears at all away meets in what he believes is a mix of simplicity and superstition. Plus, he polishes his shoes, even if it’s tennis shoes. If he’s nowhere to be found, he’s likely in the gym, where he likes to work out before the meet as a way to relax. “I definitely work out every meet day, so back when nationals was practice day, then semis, then Super Six, then event finals, I was so sore by Monday because I worked out four or five days in a row,” he joked.
Kindler and Plocki also have special outfits and tokens they always wear. Plocki had last year’s nationals ring turned into a pendant, and she’s worn it at every meet this season. “But now that I’m saying that, I don’t think it really goes with my nationals meet outfit, so I’ll have to find a way to be able to wear it, I guess,” she laughed.
Plocki is also a nail enthusiast and is very particular about the shade of Michigan blue she wants to sport. “My nails [are] the one thing I do for myself,” she explained. “And usually during season, I always have them blue, but it’s not always the same shade of blue. This year, I have had this particular shade of [dark] blue for the entire season, and when I go get my nails done, the girl who does them always wants to do something different and I say, ‘No, season is not over yet. Two more times and then we’ll go to a summer color!’ So I’m sticking with this right now.”
For Kindler, who always wears black as a competition outfit, it’s all about the shoes. “I pick up a pair of shoes at the beginning of the year, and I just wear them all year. It’s very economical, I think, and they just make me comfortable. So I’m always doing something like that; it’s been a tradition for me,” she said. “Every year’s different, but they’ve got to have a little sparkle or sassiness to them. As I’m getting older, [they get] a little thicker heel and a little lower heel.”
While at the end of season most shoes get retired and some of them are even “tossed in the garbage,” Kindler still has the first pair of shoes she wore as Oklahoma’s head coach back in 2006. “This is the worst thing ever, but the first five years that I was here, I wore the same ones all five years and they don’t smell very good,” she joked. “They’re actually in our locker room up on a shelf at the Lloyd Noble Center, and I keep them there as a reminder that I’ve moved on and I can wear a new pair every year now.”
Once the right outfit, shoes and nails are ready and the athletes are good to go, the coaches follow their team into the big arena. They remain a step behind, watching their athletes salute the judges as a parent would watch their child leave home for the first time. They’re feeling a mixture of emotion, anxiety and pride, but most importantly, they know their job is done. The stage now belongs to their athletes. The competition is theirs to live and enjoy. “I try to stay calm, excited—honestly in the background,” Kindler said. “I don’t like to be in the forefront at all. I like it to be their moment and their time. I’ve had my time in the gym when I was preparing them. Now this is their time to shine.”
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Article by Talitha Ilacqua
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