MU gymnasts follow steady beat of new coach

Amy Smith was a member of a national title squad at UCLA and looks to help the Tigers emulate that success.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008 | 9:55 p.m. CST; updated 8:29 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 22, 2008
First-year Missouri assistant coach Amy Smith works with a Missouri gymnast on the balance beam during practice Tuesday in the Hearnes Center. Smith is a former national champion and All-American gymnast from UCLA.

COLUMBIA — At the Cat Classic gymnastics meet Friday night at the Hearnes Center, rapper Unk’s “Walk it Out” played in the background during warm-ups. While the song was being played, first-year Missouri coach Amy Smith started to dance on the edges of the floor exercise mat.

Immediately after Smith had finished dancing, sophomore Sarah Shire and junior Alicia Hatcher started to dance to the song as well, imitating many of Smith’s dance moves.

While many of the Missouri gymnasts mimic techniques, gymnastic moves or even the dancing of Smith, their ultimate goal is to mimic her success as a gymnast.

During Smith’s collegiate career at UCLA, she was a first-team All American in the balance beam and floor exercise. However, even more important to Smith, she was the team captain of UCLA’s 1997 National Championship team — the school’s first gymnastic championship, making the Bruins only the fourth school to win an NCAA gymnastics championship.

Because of the way the gymnastics championships are scheduled, the team finals were performed before the individual finals. Smith had a chance to win an individual championship in both the floor exercise and balance beam, but individual success at that point was trivial to Smith.

“We went out to compete and we did these horrible routines,” Smith said of the individual championships. “We didn’t care because we had accomplished our goal of winning a team championship and that was the most important thing to us. The individual stuff didn’t really matter.”

Smith’s coach at UCLA, Valorie Kondos-Field, taught the UCLA gymnasts to adopt a team-first attitude and told the gymnasts if they worked hard, they could have fun in the sport. Now a coach, Smith sees gymnastics from a different angle than she did as a participant.

“It’s so funny now to be in that position on the other side of it,” Smith said. “To think back to some of the things (Kondos-Field) would say or do and I say ‘0h wow, I get it on a whole other level now’ of what she was trying to get accomplished.”

Smith says she tries to instill confidence in her gymnasts and be a motivator, but also knows when to be tough, something she says she learned from her coach at UCLA.

“I think I am hard, but I think I’m fair,” Smith said. “I like to have fun, too, I am not serious all the time by any means. If you’re getting your job done, it ends up being fun and you can have fun doing it.”

Smith enjoys having fun during gymnastics practice and emphasizes a team-first attitude, but her intensity is always high. It doesn’t matter if she is giving positive reinforcement or constructive criticism, Smith is always intense because it keeps the gymnasts on task.

“I just want the gymnasts to focus,” Smith said. “Going back to wanting to get the work done, in the moment, that’s what it takes.”

Smith focuses much of her coaching on finding the intricacies of each athlete. Knowing her gymnasts better helps Smith come up with successful routines, because she knows what moves will work and what moves will not work, physically and mentally.

Working with the athletes to develop their routines is an important part of coaching. But, equally as important is the coaching that comes when the gymnasts are most nervous: the moments leading up to their events. Smith tries to lighten the gymnasts’ emotions and nerves before their routines begin.

“I always tell them what happens before them and what happens after them doesn’t matter,” Smith said. “They’re in control of themselves in that moment and to stay in control and focused.”

That pre-routine focus is something Shire says Smith has improved immensely.

“Before each routine, she calms me down and tells me ‘look, you know you can do this,’” Shire said. “I don’t think many coaches have had a lot of faith in me before, and she really has faith in what I can do and she helps me with that every day.”

When Smith gives advice to the MU gymnasts, they listen because they want to emulate her successes.

“We can look up to her and say ‘wow, she has been to nationals and won nationals,’” Hatcher said. “I think just knowing that whenever she makes corrections to us, it’s coming from a place where she knows what she’s talking about.”

Hatcher also enjoys Smith’s intensity.

“She brings so much energy and fire,” Hatcher said. “For me, she is always like ‘come on Hatch, you can do it.’ She gets you really motivated even if it’s for just one turn or beam routine and its not just in a meet or intra-squad, it’s every time and every day.”

But perhaps Smith’s best coaching moves beyond the competition.

“Amy is very easy to relate to because she was a college athlete herself,” Shire said. “She understands what we’re going through, and she is there to listen to us about gymnastics and about life. She is very good at separating the gym from life, and if there’s something you need to talk about that’s not even gymnastics related, she’s there to listen, she’s there to console and she’s there to help.”

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