A manager lays tape on the floor exercise

Team Managers Drill Down on Details, Building Trust in the Process

Look closely at the corners of the floor next time you watch a college gymnastics meet. Often, you will see someone standing there — not a coach, not a gymnast, but someone clearly team-adjacent — cheering or gesturing as a gymnast completes tumbling passes. 

You will see these same folks adjusting sting mats and measuring corners; setting the vault and springboard; laying specific mats near bars or beam. 

They are the team managers (often colloquially referred to as “the mat movers,” though, like the athletes on the competition floor, their job is as mental as it is physical). They do all the behind-the-scenes, off-camera, between-events maneuvering of mats and equipment you see at meets, and they provide a hefty dose of nurturing and support for teams from the sidelines. 

Kyla Graba (Jeff Graba’s daughter and Jess Graba’s niece), 21, is Auburn’s head team manager. Graba had never done media before this story, but you would never know it; she sounds as composed and media-trained as anyone on her team. Graba did gymnastics herself until she was 15. “You grow up in gymnastics, you stay in gymnastics,” she said, laughing. Her job is on a volunteer basis. She’s a senior, a psychology major, and is enrolled in a graduate program in industrial-organizational psychology. 

Though she began school majoring in kinesiology, her psychology background now comes in handy because a big part of her role is providing gymnasts with a mental boost as she stands at the corner of the floor mat during routines. Some gymnasts, she explained, depend on her there for every routine, whether in practice or competition; others use her only during competition. Some don’t want her on floor at all, but look for her support in other ways — for having their vault settings memorized or knowing when they need a sting mat. 

“I wanted to go into psychology because of the way psychology and sports are related,” Graba said. “I find it really interesting.” She wants to pursue a career in sports management or sports psychology, working with sports teams to strengthen their dynamics. “I really like seeing that bond that is created through being on a team,” she said. 

Rees Hagler, 22, is a senior at Rutgers University and transitioned to team management once she retired from gymnastics following two seasons competing for the Scarlet Knights. She will graduate in May with a double major in economics and Spanish, and said her gymnastics career will be over when the season is. She hopes to pursue a career that includes both her majors, is looking into teaching fellowships abroad, and said she will eventually go to graduate school (though in what, she’s still not sure). Being able to stay on the Rutgers team as a manager, Hagler said, “is a complete gift.” 

Following her transition from athlete to team manager, Hagler was able to study abroad in Valencia, Spain, during the first semester of her junior year — something most gymnasts are unable to do because of the demands of their year-round training. “It’s a gorgeous city,” she said. “Highly recommend!” 

Since managers are responsible for equipment settings and for adjusting the apparatus for each competitor, they often literally hold gymnasts’ lives in their hands. 

Graba sets the vault table and the hurdle lines specifically to each gymnast’s preference. She and another manager work together to set the vault and springboard while two other managers set up the post-flight mats. They give signs for a coach to hold at the end of the runway. Gymnasts’ preferences for things like sting mats on floor or eight-inch mats that cushion a bars landing change constantly. “It’s chaotic,” Graba said. 

Hagler, for her part, has all of her gymnasts’ vault settings memorized. She also sets the springboards for both vault and bars. Like Graba, she takes a position at the corner of the floor mat to provide moral support. “I work the less-busy corner,” she jokes, noting that the “busy corner” is typically where gymnasts land their first, and often most difficult, tumbling pass before heading her way mid-routine. 

Everyone has a meet-day role on the Rutgers squad, and Hagler is in charge of all of them. She maintains a spreadsheet with everyone’s responsibilities for each meet laid out. When gymnasts are done competing, she will put them on social-media duty for another event. “Just giving everyone a place to be and making sure that it fits into their meet day,” Hagler said. “That’s something that you might not see, but it’s a big part of what we do.” 

When she started in her role as a freshman, Graba said, the responsibility took a bigger toll than it does for her as a seasoned manager

 “There’s not a lot of second-guessing [now], but when you start, you overthink how safe you need to keep them.” 

“It’s a huge responsibility,” said Hagler. “Just having been an athlete before, you know the level of trust that goes into that person setting the board.” 

“It becomes more second nature the longer you do it,” Graba said of ensuring gymnasts’ safety. “I’ve been doing it for three years, ​​and I’ve built this trust and [a] special bond with all the girls. They trust me and I trust them.”

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Article by Lela Moore


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