As gymnastics fans, we know that the NCAA season is approaching, and, now that teams have started releasing their meet schedules and tickets, we can truly start to get excited. After looking at the schedules, I came to realize that many of the programs follow a formula for picking an ideal schedule. To get a better understanding of the process, I took a look behind the scenes by getting several coaches’ perspectives on crafting the perfect schedule.
K.J. Kindler, head coach of Oklahoma’s gymnastics team, reports that finding match-ups every weekend that work for each team’s stacked schedule is a bit like doing a puzzle. Executing this kind of strategic scheduling comes down to a few main things: strong coaching connections, publicity for the program, and preparation for the postseason. Depending on the size of the program, each of these factors comes into play to different degrees.
According to Kindler, the initial process of reaching out to coaches is “just a phone call.” Every conference has its own set of guidelines that programs follow, so some coaches have more control over their scheduling than others. For example, in the SEC, the majority of the schedule is already planned out because it is largely filled with SEC matchups. Each team is required to host four home SEC matchups, preferably dual meets for broadcasting purposes. With most of their meets scheduled, coaches in the SEC only have a few weekends to play around with.
On the other hand, smaller conferences and newer programs have to create their schedules from scratch. In the Big 12, Kindler is “solely responsible for [their] schedule,” and it all comes down to an “agreement amongst the teams to meet each other.” For a brand new program like Fisk University, which is not yet NCAA approved nor aligned with a conference, Head Coach Corrinne Tarver said they can do it “anyway [they] want right now.” Tarver’s main goal is to gain exposure for their program and HBCU gymnastics as a whole. Though being tasked with creating an entire schedule means more work for the head coaches of smaller programs, it gives teams the ability to compete against programs across all conferences and get a real feel for the full scope of NCAA competition.
This is where strong coaching connections come into play. Head coaches not only need to know who to reach out to but also that the agreements that are made are reliable. They are typically structured as two-year reciprocal agreements where the team that competes at home one year, agrees to travel the next. Reliability is a huge factor because, as Auburn Head Coach Jeff Graba said “you’re talking about two years out, nobody’s signing a contract here. So if you say, yeah, we’ll come to you. And then two years from now, you’ll come to us, you’ve got to feel confident that that’s gonna happen.” University of North Carolina Head Coach Danna Durante approaches this by conducting scheduling conversations through text message so she has the agreements in writing.
Another key goal that teams consider when building their schedule is publicity; each coach wants to build a name for their program and improve engagement with the sport as a whole. Home meets are a great way to do that. When you compete at your own school you are surrounded by fans who want to support your program and see you succeed. One of Durante’s goals for 2024 is to “build those crowds and build ACC gymnastics excitement,” during its inaugural season. “We want Carolina’s footprint to grow. And we want the country to see what we’re doing and what we’ve been building,” she continues.
Similarly for Fisk, not only do they strive to build excitement surrounding Fisk Gymnastics, but HBCU gymnastics as a whole. When choosing travel meets, Tarver considers where Fisk’s alumni base is located, opting for places such as Chicago, the Washington Metropolitan area, Atlanta, and Texas where alumni are able to drive in to support the program. In its inaugural season in 2023, this approach led to every meet Fisk competed in coming close to, or setting, attendance records. In addition to alumni hotspots, Tarver considers proximity to other HBCU institutions. During their meet against George Washington, Howard University bought an entire section of seats for their students. At Fisk’s meet against Georgia, Tarver’s alma mater, Fisk University transported two busloads of Fisk students to support their Bulldogs. “That was awesome,” said Tarver.
Away meets at schools with large arenas and huge fan bases are fantastic not only for team publicity but also for counting the necessary away meet scores. “I love the opportunity to go anywhere where the fan base understands gymnastics. They appreciate great gymnastics, and they’re going to cheer louder for the home team, but they’re gonna support your team as well,” Durante explained. Schools with high meet attendance bring in a lot of really good energy, allowing teams to get motivation from that environment and show off their gymnastics on a big stage. “It’s great for your athletes, it’s great for the sport. It’s great for the home team,” she continues.
Additionally, coaches know what arenas are best for getting NQS scores. When asked about choosing the difficulty of a schedule when choosing meets, Tarver explained, “If we are competing against really good teams, then our scores will reflect that because if we do a good routine, then we’ll get back a good score. … I want to expose my team to the best,” Elaborating on this topic, Graba believes that “you have to go up against the best teams in the country and test yourself in order to get not necessarily just good scores, but great, great competitions usually create great scoring and usually bring out the best in your athletes.” Coaches are not afraid to continually challenge their teams and tend to stray away from giving them an easy weekend. “I don’t see us ever trying to go up against a lesser team or something like that to rest,” Graba elaborated.
A main component when drafting schedules is preparation for the postseason. For this reason, many top schools prefer to schedule more away meets than home meets. “Because postseason–wise, the fact that you’re going to be away for postseason a majority of the time this to me is better preparation,” Kindler said. Graba continued, “You’re not going to be home for the national championship; you’re not going to be home for the SEC championship; so you have to be good on the road. That means you need to get out there and test yourself on the road.” Graba likes to include a challenge so that his team is prepared for anything. “A destination like Denver or Utah, where you go up in elevation, go there. That’s a real test. But it’s also a good trip for your athletes to go through because your team will grow,” he said.
Additionally, both Kindler and Graba like to include one double meet weekend every year. Although he doesn’t like them for the sake of his athletes, they are important to be prepared for the postseason format where you are competing frequently. “I just try to stay away from them if possible, unless it sets me up for success,” he said. Kindler also aims to include podium quad meets for her team to get the feel of postseason chaos.
As much as coaches want to be able to strategize their schedules, they usually just have to be flexible and focus on preparing their teams for any matchups they are given. “I wish I could be more strategic, but ultimately I just take what I can get,” Kindler admitted. As much as a person would love to assemble a puzzle from top to bottom, in the end, you just end up putting together what fits.
Article by Mary Collier