UCLA gymnastics coach on why ‘winning at all costs’ doesn’t work

Even if you don’t follow competitive gymnastics, you may have seen UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi’s viral floor routine, which blew up on social media.

The UCLA women’s team is a powerhouse. They have two Olympic gold medalists onboard, and have won seven NCAA championships.

Head coach Valorie Kondos Field is going for the eighth NCAA championship. She’s been coaching the team for more than three decades, and she’s retiring after this season.

With all the spotlight on her athletes, Kondos Field says they need to give back to their fans -- often young girls and fledgling gymnasts who are asking for autographs at UCLA meets. “Our athletes are exhausted, they're hungry, they're tired, they want to get ice on their bodies. But we need to take that time to say thank you to them,” says Kondos Field.

Valorie Kondos Field at KCRW. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

An equal playing field, where everybody does grunt work

Kondos Field doesn’t have ranks in her team. “We don’t have the freshman do all the grunt work. We’re all just part of UCLA gymnastics. And so it's very important that none of us get too full of ourselves, where we’re above moving mats, chalking bars,” she says.

She recounts how this work ethic manifested six years ago when Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber became the team’s manager.

“I said, ‘Well Jordyn, if you're going to be a team manager, that means you need to chalk the bars, and move the mats, and do the laundry.’ ...And she said, ‘I will do anything for my team,’” recalls Kondos Field.

Becoming UCLA head coach, then a ‘leader worth following’

Kondos Field started her career at UCLA in 1982 as the choreographer and dance coach for the gymnastics team. She had been a ballet dancer, with no experience in gymnastics. (She admits she didn’t even do a cartwheel until her 58th birthday last year).

“I kept choreographing, and then in 1990, I was called into the athletic director’s office, said they said, ‘We would like for you to be the new head coach.’ And I laughed out loud, and I said, ‘You know I don't know the first thing about gymnastics.’ And they said, ‘We've observed how you work with the student athletes, and we like the fact that you're firm with them, but you're compassionate. And we trust you'll figure the rest out,’” Kondos Field recalls.

Kondos Field says she struggled to find an approach that worked for her as a coach. She didn’t grow up in the athletics world. “The first few years I was a head coach, we were horrible. I was horrible, we were horrible,” she says.

However, that changed after learning former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s definition of success: “success is peace of mind, which is a direct result in knowing you have done your best.”

After that, she started being herself. “A few years after that, a few of my athletes said to me, ‘Miss Val, you have finally become a leader worth following because you're being authentic, and true to yourself. And even when you make mistakes, it's okay because we know your intentions are pure.’ ”

Motivating change

“I didn't grow up with ‘go hard or go home.’ I didn't grow up with ‘winners make adjustments, and losers make excuses.’ But I thought all those things sounded really cool. So I just mimicked them, and to a horrible result,” Kondos Field says.

She says there are two types of coaches: One dictates change in athletes, and demands winning at all costs; while the other motivates change in athletes. She embraces the latter.

“I'm gonna say to you, ‘You know what? The reason why you're falling off the beam is because you're not pushing through your legs. So if you'll think about getting your leg straight as you're pushing off the beam, before you split into the back handspring, you're going to have a better result.’ That’s motivating the change. That's motivating someone to want to change. And I believe that is the way parents should parent, and coaches should coach.”

Not believing in failure or perfection  

Kondos Field says failure is another f-word someone made up to make people feel bad about themselves. “I believe any time you attempt to do something, and it doesn't work, you at least learn something in the process of what you should do or not do.”

Kondos Field doesn’t believe in perfection either, despite the sport’s emphasis on the “perfect 10.” Instead, her team strives to get one percent better every day.

“Sometimes you're going to get a 10 when you really didn't deserve it. And sometimes you're going to not get a 10 when you did deserve it. And it's all about pursuing this illusion of perfection,” she says.

On sexual abuse in gymnastics and the college admissions scandal

Some of Kondos Fields’ athletes have worked with Larry Nassar, the former Olympic team doctor who was sentenced in January to 40-175 years in prison for sexual abuse.

She says they’ve acknowledged the abuse and that it wasn’t okay, and are still proud and don’t live as victims.

And when it comes to the recent college admissions cheating scandal, in which parents broke the law to get their kids into elite schools, Kondos Field says, “The first question I want to ask the parents is: Did your daughter want to get into that school? Or did you want the bragging rights of them getting into that school?’”

She says the nation needs to have a continuous discussion “about transformative coaching, transformative parenting, and what that looks like in this day and age where our youth are reporting to being so stressed out, and so much anxiety, and so much reports of loneliness and depression, and unfortunately suicide -- more so than ever before in our history.”

-- Written by Amy Ta, produced by Caitlin Plummer