Where Joy Lives: How UCLA Gymnastics Wins in the Gym and in Life

UCLA's Nia Dennis, a Metea Valley High School graduate, during an NCAA gymnastics meet on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 in Anaheim, California. (Kyusung Gong / AP)

If you have been on social media in the past few weeks, there is no doubt that you have seen a video of a floor routine by a Black gymnast on the UCLA gymnastics team named Nia Dennis. (If you haven’t, you should.) Dennis is no stranger to the phenomenon of going viral, as this is the second time in two years her routine has captivated the world, both within and beyond the sport. Floor routines featuring black hip hop artists and dance moves inspired by greek life’s stepping and pop culture moves like the moonwalk, the “whoa,” and the crip walk were unheard of in the sport until Dennis and fellow teammate Katelyn Ohashi, whose routine went viral in January 2019, took the sport and internet by storm.

When I saw Nia Dennis’ floor routine recently go viral with the hashtags #blackexcellence, #blackgirlmagic, and #representation, I could not stop thinking about the power of these routines. Because, WHEN YOU SEE IT, YOU CAN BE IT. Full stop.

It cannot be overstated how impactful it is for a girl to see older girls and women that look like her being highlighted for their achievements. In the case of Nia Dennis, not only was she competing in gymnastics on one of the biggest stages, but she was performing moves that represented her culture, in a sport that routinely asks its athletes to check their identity at the door. By taking that risk, girls who never would have connected with the sport of gymnastics saw a door opened for them, inviting them in.

For girls, sports can be an intimidating and unwelcoming place. The barriers to access are significant, there are frequent conflicting messages about what is feminine and what is athletic, and visible role models and coaches that look or act like them are scarce. So when Katelyn Ohashi, who is Asian American, and Nia Dennis, who is Black, mesmerized the world with these powerful routines, it is no surprise that Michelle Obama, AOC, Simone Biles, Missy Elliot, and many other prominent women of color are elevating it.

The transcendence of Nia’s routine is even more powerful against the backdrop of gymnastics’ recent history. Let’s face it. It’s been a rough few years for the sport of competitive gymnastics. A variety of different scandals have brought to light the inner-workings of a sport that can often be harmful to its athletes mentally, emotionally, and physically. But the UCLA gymnastics team somehow became a safe haven for its athletes, and I needed to know what was empowering these women to throw the traditional expectations of elite gymnastics out of the window and take the risk of showcasing who they are.

I learned that a lot of the program’s success can be attributed to “Miss Val,” or Coach Valorie Kondos Field, who ran the UCLA program from 1991 to 2019 and led the program to numerous championships and accolades. Kondos Field, as it turns out, is actually a Ted Lasso in the wild. (If you don’t know about the amazingness that is Ted Lasso, watch the show and see this previous blog by Megan Bartlett. Spoiler, we need more Ted Lassos.) Just like Lasso, Miss Val coached the human first. But, she hasn’t always been this way. Kondos Field acknowledges that she has made mistakes over the course of her career and upon reflection became a more intentional, and in turn, better coach.

In gymnastics, perfection is a toxic expectation and many gymnasts struggle under the weight of immense and frequent stress. Kondos Field learned over time that she wanted to do it differently. She wanted to “coach her girls up, not down.” She aimed to build trusting relationships through patience, respectful honesty, and accountability. Her approach flipped gymnastics culture on its head and led to success: in the gym and in her girls’ lives. But what stood out the most to me about Kondos Field was how Ohashi referred to her in an interview with the Washington Post. She said that Kondos Field was “a healer” and that although many of the gymnasts entered the program having been “broken” in some way or form, Kondos Field had rebuilt them from the bottom up.

At We Coach we emphasize that trust is the antidote to stress. We know that our rational, or thinking, brains cannot perform their best, or sometimes at all, in the presence of overwhelming stress and, instead, our stress response system causes our reactive brain to take over and keep us safe. To mitigate the impact of that overwhelming stress on the brain, we have to regulate or quiet down our stress response so we can get back to using our thinking brains. This leads to healing, and there is nothing that supports healing more than healthy relationships. Kondos Fields buffered the stress of the sport by prioritizing building individualized, consistent, and supportive relationships with each of her gymnasts. She chose to never speak about gymnastics outside of the gym. She facilitated opportunities for informal time, where the gymnasts could talk about anything they wanted: television shows, romances, celebrity gossip; time to just be college students. She created safe spaces where her athletes could share the depths of the abuses they had suffered in the past. By focusing on this, Kondos Fields created a culture where athletes could come as they were, were safe to make mistakes, and were able to have fun.

In our work educating coaches, my teammates and I have often received the skeptical question, “But how does competition play into all of this? Can we still be competitive AND trauma-sensitive?” Let’s review the byproducts of Kondos Field’s intentional approach of helping her athletes heal first. I’ve already mentioned the seven national championships, but Kondos Fields is also a four-time Conference Coach of the Year, the 2018 West Region Head Coach of the Year, and the Pac-12 Gymnastics Coach of the Century. She is also the third most-winning NCAA gymnastics coach of all time. This analysis overwhelmingly tells us that yes, we can be competitive while being healing-centered. But more importantly, WE SHOULD BE.  

Furthermore, I’d argue that Kondos Field’s more meaningful successes are the ones that we are reminded of when we watch Nia Dennis’ most recent routine. On display for the world to see was a confident, talented, and competitive gymnast who was brave enough to say to the world, this is who I am, and this sport is better off for having me in it. And it is no doubt that Nia Dennis will carry this power on, beyond gymnastics. Kondos Field fostered that power. Through relationships.

“You can train champions to the highest level without demeaning them, disrespecting them and taking away their joy. You absolutely can.” – Coach Valorie Kondos Field

To contact Jillian, We Coach Lead Consultant and Trainer, reach out at jgloughran@weallcoach.com