When the year ends and the season wraps up, emotions sometimes run high. There’s excitement about the accomplishments of the year, sadness in having to say goodbyes, and relief in being able to take a breath, relax, and recover after a long four months. For some, there are feelings of uncertainty that come with the end of a season. While this is certainly the case for some athletes, we decided to speak with a few head coaches about what it’s like for them to have another season in the rearview mirror, and the potential uncertainty of what their jobs might look like moving forward.
Since the close of the 2023 competitive season, there have been 10 head coaching changes across all divisions and conferences. Of these 10 schools, four are in their inaugural season: Clemson (though the gymnastics program has been in the works for two years, this will be their first competitive season), Talladega College, Utica University, and Greenville University, a program which, as of this writing, has yet to fill its head coach position. The other six programs have head coaches who were previously assistant collegiate coaches, have coached outside the collegiate environment, judged, or done gymnastics themselves. However, not one of the six new coaches has previously had the title of ‘Head Coach.’ With the exception of Amy Smith, who before taking the helm at Clemson was the head coach at Utah State, the other eight are in their first season with their new titles. It’s a very exciting move, but one that comes with a lot of uncertainties.
There are so many questions they have to answer for themselves and their new teams. What does this responsibility look like? What changes are they looking to make within their programs? What goals do they have for this new era? What impact do they hope to make during their time in the role? We spoke to a few of the new coaches about how they got here, what they’ve learned, and what comes next.
How did they get here?
The sport of gymnastics is one where once you are involved in it, it is always a part of you. Both Ashley Miles Greig, the current head coach of Iowa State, and Aja Sims-Fletcher, the inaugural coach of Talladega University, attended the University of Alabama, while Casey Jo MacPherson, new head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, competed for the University of Arkansas. Danielle Cerminaro of Utica University owns her own club gym and has experience coaching at the USAG level, as does Diana Gallagher of Springfield College, who also has stayed connected to the sport through coaching and judging. All of these new coaches come with a plethora of diverse experience and, most importantly, a true love of the sport.
Despite these similarities, the journey of coming back to gymnastics and finding themselves in this new position has been quite different for each coach. For Utica’s Cerminaro, the club gym she owns is just a short walk away from the university. Coaching at the college level has always been her dream, and when the school came to her with a proposal to implement a program, it was a no-brainer. This dream quickly turned into a reality; within a few short years of announcing the decision to implement a program, the school gave the go-ahead to move forward with the 2024 season. The other three I got the opportunity to speak with saw an opportunity and jumped at the chance. Both Greig and Gallagher, though they had each stayed connected to gymnastics in their own way, had other careers before coming back to the sport full-time. Gallagher returned after being asked by one of her students what her dream job was, and realizing the passion she held for coaching. The same held true for Greig when finding her place at Iowa State; passion and love for the sport was the driving force.
When asked, Greig said, “[gymnastics is] ingrained into the makeup of the person that I am,” which is a sentiment all gymnasts can relate to. Gymnastics is a sport with countless different paths, and because of that, it’s a sport which these coaches have found no problem staying connected to. Whether it be through coaching, judging, choreographing, or commentating, each journey has been different, but they have each been brought back to the sport, in new and different ways.
What does this new role look like?
Whether these coaches were former NCAA gymnasts or this is their first time in a coaching position, they all recognize that this is a huge responsibility.
“You can’t fully prepare until you are in it,” said Pittsburgh’s new head coach, MacPherson. From being the final say in decision-making to recruiting and ‘behind-the-scenes’ administrative work, the to-do list for a head coach is, put by Greig, “a non-stop gig.” MacPherson echoed this sentiment when she said, “there are so many small pieces to being a head coach.”
One of the themes that each of these coaches emphasized is the learning aspect of the job. “It can be tough for someone who was a gymnast and has that personality that ‘I always want to be good at things, be a perfectionist;’ it can be tough to be in a place where I’m learning, but I’m learning to embrace [it],” said Springfield’s Gallagher.
One of the most common challenges with the job is learning how to communicate effectively. “I’m a very direct person…Tell me what you need. I want to know all the things; how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking…,” said Greig about how she wants to go about building relationships with her team.
Arguably one of the most important, if not the most important, part of being a coach is having a strong foundation, building relationships and learning how to communicate with one another once you’ve built these bonds. “It’s about managing people, managing time and managing relationships. Being able to look at the bigger picture besides what is happening at every practice… making sure everyone is being paced appropriately and making sure everyone can get to that finish line, how is everyone doing mentally and emotionally and finding that balance,” said Gallagher.
While the job of being a head coach has a lot of responsibilities, a major perk is being able to delegate these amongst the coaching staff. Having been an assistant coach for the past decade at the University of Missouri, MacPherson can speak to both sides. “As an assistant, you have your own responsibilities, but as a head coach, you have that final say,” said MacPherson.
But how do you create a balance? How do you build a cohesive coaching staff? How do you ensure the people you are delegating these responsibilities to will carry them out in the way you need them to?
When asked how they approached this task, the answer was largely ‘finding missing pieces to their puzzle.’ In the case of Pittsburgh, a program that had to build an entirely new coaching staff, MacPherson took a great deal into account when creating her team; “Once I [found] people to coach the other events, I have to ask what other strengths do they have? What other experience do they have? Can we work well together on a day-to-day basis?”
MacPherson has years of collegiate coaching experience behind her, but the same feelings were echoed by the coaches who are in their first year in the role. In the case of Greig and the new Iowa State staff, she shares, “I’m a good leader, I know that about myself, so surrounding yourself with the strongest possible staff to hire out for your inefficiencies is important. I have never coached before, that’s no secret, so it’s important for me to have a very experienced coaching staff; someone to make the training plans, to spot, do all those things has been very important.” While both Pittsburgh and Iowa State have the ability to hire out and bring on three additional, fully paid coaches, Gallagher and Cerminaro share a different perspective when it comes to hiring. For Utica and Springfield, their additional hands come from former gymnasts, now grad assistants, who have been able to provide them with guidance from a different standpoint. The perspective they bring to the table helps fill in the missing pieces. Regardless of who these additional coaches are and how the staff was built, each head coach shared that having cohesion within the staff is essential.
So, what now?
Moving into this new role is both a daunting and an exhilarating task. Entering a ‘new era’ and getting to build on top of a legacy or help create an entirely new program is definitely an exciting part of the job.
Cerminaro has the unique opportunity to build Utica ‘from scratch;’ everything from who makes up the team, to the culture of the program, the creation of new traditions, etc. Cerminaro’s inbox has been flooded with messages from interested recruits, and from this, she has been able to take a different approach to creating ‘team one.’
There are athletes who have had injuries and hardships, but have been involved with gymnastics since they were two … and I really want to have a few spots on each of my teams for those girls who want to be on a team and should be on a team and right now I can do that. … It’s not just going to be about the best score, the best routine, but it’s really going to be about the best version of what each person can be. … Gym is gym, scores are scores, but life is life.
Cerminaro has been able to give athletes who might not have been able to be on a college team the opportunity and chance they have dreamed of, putting the emphasis on, “Building our story, building our future, but also living in the moment.”
Each coach has the space to leave their mark on their program, however they choose to do so. It might be implementing new things like having the freshmen class make up a cheer at Iowa State or continuing the ‘Hold The Rope’ tradition on competition days at Springfield. For all these coaches, leaving their mark looks a lot like creating a family, establishing a foundation, and building relationships with student-athletes that go beyond their four years in the program. “We spend time with our team every week; we carve time out of our 20 hours just to spend on relationship development. It could be talking about gymnastics, school, team things, it could also be personal development,” said MacPherson on what she is placing an emphasis on at Pittsburgh; building this camaraderie with her team from the start.
Likewise, one of Cerminaro’s biggest goals is to prepare her athletes for when they leave the gymnastics world. Cerminaro said, “[I want to] help navigate the athletes we coach with life skills and take it all and learn from it, and show them it’s okay to not be perfect. [I want them to] be ready for the next chapter of life, not getting ready for life, but getting ready for the next chapter because we are already living.”
Let’s get to the gymnastics!!
Ultimately, all of these head coaches returned to the sport for the love they have of gymnastics, a love that is clearly reflected in the vision each has outlined for their first season. Even with the beginning of season still three months away, the excitement for the year is at an all-time high.
“I’m excited to watch everything just come together. I’m excited to watch athletes continue to do what was their choice. To have a group of girls that want to be here, that want to be from Utica University and want to be on the first team,” said Cerminaro.
Likewise, each coach is ready to watch the work they and their team have put into preparing for the season come to light. “There’s nothing better than seeing an athlete do what they are capable of when it matters, and that makes this really worthwhile,” Gallagher shares when explaining her goals for her team this season, and showing how capable she already feels her team to be.
MacPherson speaks to this same note; “[There’s] only so much preparation you can do until you are out in front of a crowd; then after that, we can assess.” The goal for her team this year is to have success week to week and create something to build on, not only what they are working for in preseason, but with each competition, honing in on details and refining each piece.
The goal for Greig is to create a new identity for Iowa State, to build on the culture already within the program, and to establish a strong foundation that will bring the team to the place in the national rankings they are capable of being. “I’m most excited to step into Hilton and compete for the first time. … There’s something special about that place … Iowa State will look different this year,” said Greig.
Taking on the responsibilities of becoming a head coach is a loaded task, but each of these new programs, whether they are being run by a former athlete, a long-time NCAA coach, or a coach in their inaugural NCAA season, are all in good, excited, and devoted hands.
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Article written by Julianna Roland