OK, I have a question for all of us. You ready? Is all winning success?
I am the recently retired head coach of the UCLA Women's Gymnastics Team, a position that I held for 29 years.
And during my tenure, I experienced a lot of winning. I led our team to seven National Championships, I was inducted into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame and I was even voted the Coach of the Century by the Pac-12 Conference.
Winning is really, really, like, really, really fun.
But I am here to share my insight: winning does not always equal success. All across America and around the world, we have a crisis in the win-at-all-cost cultures that we have created. In our schools, in our businesses, in politics, winning at all cost has become acceptable. As a society, we honor the people at the top of the pyramid. We effusively applaud those people who win championships and elections and awards. But sadly, quite often, those same people are leaving their institutions as damaged human beings. Sadly, with straight A's, kids are leaving school damaged. With awards and medals, athletes often leave their teams damaged, emotionally, mentally, not just physically. And with huge profits, employees often leave their companies damaged. We have become so hyperfocused on that end result, and when the end result is a win, the human component of how we got there often gets swept under the proverbial rug, and so does the damage.
So I'm calling for a time-out. Time-out. We need to redefine success. Real success is developing champions in life for our world, win or lose.
Real success is developing champions in life, not for your team, not for your business and, I'm sad to tell you, not even for your Christmas card bragging rights. Sorry.
So how do we do this? First of all, you may be able to dictate your way to a win, but you can't dictate your way to success.
Let me take you back to 1990, when I was first appointed the head coach of the UCLA Women's Gymnastics Team. And I would like to share with you that I've never done gymnastics. I grew up in the world of ballet. I have never done a cartwheel, and I couldn't teach you how to do a proper cartwheel.
It's sadly true. And I knew nothing about how to develop a team culture. The best I could do was mimic other coaches who had won. And so I became tough-talking, tough-minded, relentless, unsympathetic, bullish, unempathetic and oftentimes downright mean. I acted like a head coach whose only thought was to figure out how to win.
My first few seasons as a head coach were abysmal, and after putting up with my brash coaching style for a few years, our team asked me for a team meeting. Well, I love team meetings, so I said, "Yay! Let's have a team meeting." And for two solid hours, they gave me examples of how my arrogance was hurtful and demeaning. Yeah, not yay. They explained to me that they wanted to be supported, not belittled. They wanted to be coached up, not torn down. They wanted to be motivated, not pressured or bullied. That was my time-out, and I chose to change.
Being a dogmatic dictator may produce compliant, good little soldiers, but it doesn't develop champions in life. It is so much easier, in any walk of life, to dictate and give orders than to actually figure out how to motivate someone to want to be better. And the reason is — we all know this — motivation takes a really long time to take root. But when it does, it is character-building and life-altering.
I realized that I needed to fortify our student-athletes as whole human beings, not just athletes who won. So success for me shifted from only focusing on winning to developing my coaching philosophy, which is developing champions in life through sport. And I knew if I did this well enough, that champion mentality would translate to the competition floor. And it did. The key ingredient was to develop trust through patience, respectful honesty and accountability — all of the ingredients that go into tough love.
Speaking of tough love, Katelyn Ohashi is a perfect example of this. You may have all seen her floor routine. It has had over 150 million views. And the consensus is, her performance is pure joy. However, when Katelyn came to UCLA, she was broken in body, mind and spirit. She had grown up in a stereotypical, very high-level athletic world, and she was damaged. So when Katelyn came to UCLA her freshman year, she found her inner rebel quite well, to the point where she was no longer able to do gymnastics at the level at which she was recruited. And I will never forget a team meeting we had halfway through her freshman season. We were in there with the team, the coaching staff, the support staff, sports psychologist, and Katelyn very clearly and unapologetically said, "I just don't want to be great again."
I felt like I got sucker punched. My first thought was, "Then why the heck am I going to honor your scholarship?" It was a really snarky thought, and thankfully I didn't say it out loud, because then I had clarity. Katelyn didn't hate gymnastics. Katelyn hated everything associated with being great. Katelyn didn't want to be a winner, because winning at all cost had cost her her joy. My job was to figure out how to motivate her to want to be great again, by helping her redefine success.
My enthusiasm for that challenge turned into determination when one day Katelyn looked me in the eye and said, "Ms. Val, I just want you to know, everything you tell me to do, I do the exact opposite."
Yeah, it was like, yeah, Katelyn, challenge accepted. OK.
And further proof that dictating was not going to win. So I embarked on the painfully slow process of building trust and proving to her that first and foremost I cared about her as a whole human being. Part of my strategy was to only talk to Katelyn about gymnastics in the gym. Outside of the gym, we talked about everything else: school, boys, families, friends, hobbies. I encouraged her to find things outside of her sport that brought her joy. And it was so cool to see the process of Katelyn Ohashi literally blossom before our eyes. And through that process, she rediscovered her self-love and self-worth. And slowly, she was able to bring that joy back to her gymnastics. She went on to earn the NCAA title on floor, and she helped our team win our seventh NCAA championship in 2018.
So let's think about the Katelyn Ohashis in your life. Let's think about those people under your care and your guidance. What are you telling your kids on the car ride home? That car ride home has much more impact than you know. Are you focusing on the end result, or are you excited to use that time to help your child develop into a champion? It's very simple: you will know you're focusing on the end result if you ask questions about the end result. "Did you win?" "How many points did you score?" "Did you get an A?" If you truly are motivated about helping your child develop into a champion, you will ask questions about the experience and the process, like, "What did you learn today?" "Did you help a teammate?" And, my favorite question, "Did you figure out how to have fun at working really, really hard?"
And then the key is to be very still and listen to their response. I believe that one of the greatest gifts we can give another human being is to silence our minds from the need to be right or the need to formulate the appropriate response and truly listen when someone else is talking. And in silencing our minds, we actually hear our own fears and inadequacies, which can help us formulate our response with more clarity and empathy.
Kyla Ross, another one of our gymnasts, is one of the greatest gymnasts in the history of the sport. She's the only athlete to have earned the trifecta: she's a national champion, a world champion and an Olympic champion. She's also not one for small talk, so I was a bit surprised one day when she came to my office, sat on the couch and just started talking — first about her major, then about graduate school and then about everything else that seemed to pop into her mind. My inner voice whispered to me that something was on her mind, and if I was still and gave her enough time, it would come out. And it did. It was the first time that Kyla had shared with anyone that she had been sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, who was later convicted of being a serial child molester. Kyla came forward and joined the army of Nassar survivors who shared their stories and used their voices to invoke positive change for our world.
I felt it was extremely important at that time to provide a safe space for Kyla and our team. And so I chose to talk about this in a few team meetings. Later that year, we won the national championship, and after we did, Kyla came up to me and shared with me the fact that she felt one reason that we'd won was because we had addressed the elephant in the room, the tragedy that had not only rocked the world but that had liberated the truths and the memories in herself and in so many of her friends and her peers. As Kyla said, "Ms. Val, I literally felt myself walk taller as the season went on, and when I walked onto that championship floor, I felt invincible." Simply —
Simply because she had been heard.
As parents, as coaches, as leaders, we can no longer lead from a place where winning is our only metric of success, where our ego sits center stage, because it has been proven that that process produces broken human beings. And I emphatically know that it is absolutely possible to produce and train champions in life in every single walk of life without compromising the human spirit.
It starts with defining success for yourself and those under your care and then consistently self-examining whether your actions are in alignment with your goals.
We are all coaches in some capacity. We all have a collective responsibility to develop champions in life for our world. That is what real success looks like, and in the world of athletics, that is what we call a win-win.