Life Lessons from a Legend
By Greg Bach
Valorie Kondos Field didn’t play organized sports growing up.
She never swung a bat, grabbed a rebound, or even kicked a soccer ball during a Saturday morning game.
But she is one of the greatest coaches on the planet.
And someone we can all learn a lot from.
The just-retired head coach of the UCLA Women’s Gymnastics team led her squad to seven national championships during a glorious 29-year career.
That’s more titles than Saban and Krzyzewski.
The recently named PAC-12 Coach of the Century touched hearts and changed lives throughout her time on the UCLA campus, as she turned the gymnastics program into a life skills class.
And isn’t that what coaching is really all about?
“My intention was to develop superheroes through the sport of gymnastics,” says Miss Val, as she is affectionally known.
CARING AND CREATIVE
Kondos Field was offered the coaching reins of the UCLA program in 1990.
“When I was first asked to be the head coach I knew nothing about athletics,” says the former professional ballerina. “I grew up on stage and I could act, so I thought I would just act like a coach. But the problem was in my mind a coach was someone who was tough-talking, relentless, borderline mean and a drill sergeant.”
So, she looked at a certain hot-tempered Indiana basketball coach as the model.
“I honestly studied Bobby Knight and we did horribly my first year,” she admits. “So I thought I just had to study harder, which I did, and we did worse.”
On the verge of resigning, she came across iconic UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s book and the course of her life changed forever.
“The greatest coach who ever lived doesn’t mention winning in his definition of success,” says Kondos Field, who would later become a close friend of his. “Success is simply peace of mind in knowing that you have done your best.”
It was a message that resonated. And would change countless young lives through the years. She details that, and much more, in her book Life is Short, Don't Wait to Dance.
“That was how I grew up in the dance world,” she says. “I trained well and I prepared well so that when I was waiting to go on stage I could be calm, confident and excited. That’s success.”
Armed with a new approach to coaching, outside influences like judges and opponents no longer grabbed her attention or devoured time that could be more wisely allocated to teaching and developing young athletes.
Kondos Field was all in on her athletes – and it showed.
“I’m not going to let some judge in a blue polyester suit decide whether I and our student athletes feel successful and proud of our job when we could win or lose by a tenth of a point,” Kondos Field says. “So that is when I started changing the way I coached.”
They worked hard and competed hard. They had fun. They didn’t gloat in victory or throw out excuses in defeat.
And all-important life lessons were squeezed out of every single day.
A MESSAGE THAT MATTERS
Every day before practice she would have all her gymnasts close their eyes.
“I had them acknowledge one thing that they are grateful for that they have not earned,” she explains. “Such as you have a strong mind or a strong body, or you were able to get yourself out of bed and are able to do gymnastics. You didn’t earn that – you are blessed with that.”
And then there was this powerful and incredibly thoughtful ritual.
“We would take a moment and give thanks for the people who have fought for our freedom in this country, the greatest country on the planet,” she says. “As young women they get to play sports and there are a lot of countries where they wouldn’t be able to. So what I believe happens is they have better intention with their workouts when we start each day with gratitude of things that we haven’t earned.”
She also didn’t allow athletes to hang their heads following losses.
“No one is perfect so stop having a pity party,” she says. “Get over it. It’s called being an athlete.”
That’s why failure isn’t part of her vocabulary. Losses and disappointing performances were used for learning and growing as they figured out ways they could be better next time.
“That’s why I don’t believe in the concept of failure,” Kondos Field says. “Because whenever you learn something in the process it can’t be failure because you have moved one step forward in your quest for whatever you are seeking.”
It’s a message she wants you – as parents and coaches – to get your arms around.
And ingrain in our youth.
“We have got an epidemic of depression and suicide with our youth and that’s on us as coaches and parents,” she says. “We’ve got to change the narrative and I believe it starts with changing the definition of winning and the definition of success. We’ve got to honor and celebrate the love of the game, and the love of striving to be the best we can be.”
Just like Miss Val – who is one of the best.
Valorie Kondos Field
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In recognition of Children’s Cardiomyopathy Awareness Month, check out Part Two of our conversation with Lisa Yue, Board President of the Children’s Cardiomyopathy Foundation