Regaining joy in women’s gymnastics


Michael Caruso, Senior Writer

In the past few decades, the UCLA women gymnasts have experienced more emotional and physical trauma than most NCAA athletes, stemming from recent sexual abuse from USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar and the extremely demanding schedule from their club teams with the ultimate expectation of making it to the Olympics. However, there appears to be a common theme for the women who join UCLA gymnastics, as they start to find more joy and excitement in the sport that had been lacking for some time. Much of this joy arises from the coaching style of Valorie Kondos Field.


Kondos Field, often referred to as “Miss Val,” follows the philosophy from her mentor and idol: the late and legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden. She also models the characteristics of a healthy athlete to her team, which has helped her win seven NCAA championships since she took over the program in 1991.


“The whole point of coaching is teaching,” Kondos Field states in an article from “The Washington Post.” “Teaching is letting people make decisions for themselves. And if they’re not making the right decision, letting them fail but not disrespecting them and not making them afraid to make a mistake again. You can train champions to the highest level without demeaning them, disrespecting them and taking away their joy. You absolutely can.”


Female gymnasts tend to commit to a college at young ages. Until that time, their training becomes a lifestyle of physical rigor and mental hardship. Current UCLA junior Madison Kocian, who won a gold and silver medal in the 2016 Olympics, committed to UCLA when she was in tenth grade. Because of her elite skills, she was thrown into competition with 16-year-old Olympic hopefuls at only age 12. As a result of her intense training, she lost her satisfaction and love for the sport.


As the team selection neared for the 2016 Olympics, she was suffering from a torn labrum (which she trained through) and a broken tibia that sidelined her for eight weeks. To alleviate the stress, she would call Kondos Field, who would tell her that “there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter what happens.”


“A lot of us that came [to UCLA] have been broken in some way, some form,” UCLA senior Katelyn Ohashi, who thought her gymnastics career was over after she fractured her back at age 16, said. “[Kondos Field] tends to recruit a lot of elites and has been around awhile, so she has been around to help bring people up. To do that, she has to literally unravel everything from our past, take all this pain away and bring us from the bottom up. It’s like a rebuilding thing.”


Kondos Field understands that not every gymnast carries such baggage, but she has observed that many of her athletes are wary of adults and will not dare to question their coaches. She attributes this to the strict training background the athletes were accustomed to before joining her team.


The fault is rooted in the harsh culture of USA Gymnastics and the particular coaches who indirectly take the positivity out of competition for these women. This is why she aspires to build trust between her team, as it is an integral part of their lives both on and off the mat.


Kondos Field evidently takes an approach that works for her team. The best coaches are able to showcase the individuality of their players, while simultaneously providing structure, expectations, and rules that make the women the best athletes and people they can be. She wants to spark their creativity and replace negative thoughts with positive ones to enhance their performance, something that has worked historically.  


Many coaches in the NCAA have short-lived careers, but Kondos Field is providing a setting for women with traumatic pasts and turning them into the best athletes and individuals they can be for UCLA gymnastics. She has announced her retirement at the end of this season, but what she wants out of her team remains unchanged: “…becoming a better gymnast every day — one percent better — and to figure out for themselves that negativity does not work. That it’s okay to be positive and think positive.”


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