MAP IT. BELIEVE IT. ACHIEVE IT. How a Stanford Team became Fierce

We had nine women on the team for the ’91-’92 season: four freshmen, four sophomores, and one junior. Very small, and very young. I had just arrived at Stanford University to be the assistant coach for the Women’s Gymnastics Team. Up to that point, Stanford had little success. They’d never made it to the NCAA National Championships, before. They wanted to break into that level, yet talent was an issue. And worse than that, what I observed almost immediately, these young women did not play the part. They lacked the confidence and ‘grit’ you see in a driven team.

I wanted to change that.

As a college gymnast in the 80s, I competed for the University of Utah. We were the best in the nation. While I was on the team, we won 4 consecutive NCAA National Championships. Under Greg Marsden, one of the winningest coaches in college sports. We had extremely disciplined practices, killer conditioning, and consistent mental training with sport psychologist, Dr. Keith Henschen. The mental training was powerful, and, furthermore, Utah had fiercely determined athletes. Every gymnast trained with a boldness I admired. I was motivated every day by my teammates. They had ‘sass’ and vision. Greg drilled us into the strongest and leanest bodies, with focused minds and exact performances. Wewould win.

I wanted to infuse that into Stanford.

In Fall pre-season training, one day, I entered the gym with a map. We had talked with the team about their goal to make it to nationals and I had an idea. I unfolded the chart of The United States of America and showed it to the girls: “Here we are in California.” I tapped Palo Alto. “Nationals are in…” and I pointed way across the map, “Tuscaloosa, Alabama.”

I folded my arms and said: “We are going to Alabama.”

Their eyes grew wide…and they smiled.

I had a red marker and made a RED DOT where we were in Palo Alto, and another RED DOT where we were going – Tuscaloosa. I taped the map to the wall in the gym, right by bars.

“Every extra hard practice you do, we will draw a small red line toward Alabama. Every conditioning round. Every bike circuit. Every early morning aerobics. You will be stronger, more focused and more disciplined than ever before. You will become a top team and you will earn your way to Alabama.”

I could feel my own determination buzzing in my body, and as the team looked at me and the map, I could also feel their energy – it was palpable.

Over the following weeks, we drilled and drilled: lots of basics, solid technique, perfect form, repetition, repetition. We broke down the gymnasts physically till they cramped and moaned. It was exhausting…and thrilling. Then we had team talks. Intense talks. They were asked to reveal personal challenges, doubts and fears. Acknowledge their own conflicts and struggles. The girls got to know each other deeply, and in kind, supported each other in every way. They pushed each other to overcome, to work harder, draw red lines on the map, and keep going and going… The drive began.

In the locker room, they kept a team journal. The women randomly took turns entering positive, inspiring messages to each other. Writing and reading those messages kept them hooked into believing Nationals was possible.

In the winter, we started competition. I said, “Now, you need to TELL SOMEONE 10 times a day – A friend, parent, dog, anyone. Tell them you’re going.

They paused….got quiet.

“This isn’t bragging or wishing,” I explained. “You are being assertive. You are taking action and spreading positive belief. You are saying what you want and what you will do.”

They looked at each other, hesitating, but a new challenge stirred inside them.

Soon, I had daily phone messages, “Hey Coach, we’re going to Nationals!” “Coach, see you in Alabama.” “Coach, did you know we’re going to Nationals? hahaha”

They took it seriously, it was fun, and they started to become fierce. They strutted into the gym, arms swinging, and heads held higher. They shared with each other who they were telling, who was excited for them, and also, who believed in them. They kept marking red lines on the map. They built mental powers. They were beginning to believe. 

The season progressed; we competed every week. Going against UCLA, Arizona State, and other dynamic teams was not easy; we were not winning. So we had to remind our Stanford gymnasts the journey is a process: “Keep your eyes on each other, focus on performances. Don’t watch the other team.” They listened. They re-focused. And soon, we were breaking Stanford school records. Other coaches and teams took notice, and our routines were securing solid scores from the judges. This. Was. . We were emerging as confident competitors.

In practice, we sat in a circle and imagined. We talked about Alabama, what Tuscaloosa looked like, the 2-hr time difference, southern culture, which famous bbq restaurant we’d eat at, and we performed mock ‘national’ competition in our gym. The team pretended to go against other teams at Nationals. and rehearsed the determination and focus for ‘the stage.’ As we approached NCAA Regionals, the lo-ng dotted red line on the map, from California to Alabama, was complete. When the team saw it, in some way it cemented all of their hard work. They had earned it. And by the time we arrived at Regionals, the Stanford team had evolved.

They created courage and honed a calm stance. Before competing beam, they blocked out everyone else, a mental ritual I taught them. They gathered in a circle, held hands, closed eyes, and stood very still…breathing….as one. The crowd made noise, music played, and our opponent rumbled. But our team focused solely on themselves. Going inward and connecting with each other gave them inner power—it made them believe in their abilities and the strength of their collective energy. We were one of the most consistent beam teams in every meet we competed.

Finally, after 6 months of preparation the night arrived. NCAA Regional Championships were hosted at UC Berkeley. Our team knew it was the deciding meet. I could feel the tension. After warm ups our nine women-athletes were dressed and set in red sweats, ponytails, and white bows. It was time to march into the arena for competition…they were strangely quiet.

Then, Kerri, one of the sophomores broke the silence. She yelled, “EVERYONE…JUST RELAX!!!!”

There was a silence…and they all burst out laughing. They giggled and nudged each other, making little cracks, “Guys, it’s just a meet.”

You may not believe it, but that night of competition wasn’t about Nationals. It was about who they were; who they had become as athletes; how they matured as competitors; who they wanted to be for each other. And, ohhh, how Stanford did it. With Athena-like valor, the gymnasts transcended, flying high, nailing dismounts, and peaking at NCAA Regionals. When it was all over, when the scores were in and double checked, Stanford University squeaked in as the 12th and final qualifier to the 1992 NCAA National Championships. Stanford Gymnastics was going to Alabama!

At Nationals, we did very well. We moved up a spot and finished 11th in the country, the highest Stanford ever finished.

Since then, Stanford Women’s Gymnastics Team has competed in 15 NCAA National Championships and is one of the premier teams in the country. I often recall that year, that journey, and how amazing it was. Sometimes I shake my head and think to myself…Noooo waayyy, I can’t believe it.  🙂

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