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Gym Dogs 2017 Season Preview: #TheProcess

If the Gym Dogs win it all this year, you might have Nick Saban and Kirby Smart to thank

Head Coach Danna Durante, presumably upon hearing that Lane Kiffin would not be coming to Athens as an assistant.
Emily Selby/UGA Sports Communications

Happy New Year, Dawg Fans! As we’re ramping up to the start of the Gym Dogs’ season this Friday, I’m doing a 3-part Season Preview series. This is part 2 in that series. In this edition, I’ll be reviewing our Gym Dog coaches and discussing some of the changes that head coach Danna Durante has made over the last year (or two).

(Ok, so that headline was probably a bit of hyperbole. But if you stick with me, I think you’ll find these conversations as interesting and revealing as I did.)

First, I have to give a nod and a huge thanks to the UGA sports information department. One of the SID team at UGA actually reached out to me and said they’d seen our Gym Dogs coverage at Dawg Sports in the past, and they invited me to attend the team’s weekly media availability time this year. To be honest, I was both astonished and incredibly excited. (I think “ecstatic” would be more like the proper word to use.) Unfortunately, I have some personal family stuff that I’ve been dealing with over that exact same time period (and which is still ongoing now), so I couldn’t get to as many sessions as I would have liked. Still, though, I got to have one good interview with Coach Durante, and also new grad assistant Brandie Jay (whose name should be familiar to you) and several of the Gym Dogs themselves (from whom we’ll be hearing in the final part of the season preview).

Bottom line, a huge portion of the final two parts of this season preview wouldn’t have been possible without the UGA SID team being really awesome and allowing me access. So, thank you, UGAAA, and good on ya for supporting the hardworking bloggers who tirelessly crank out old, worn-out memes and spuriously trash everybody in sight from the comfort of their parents’ basements. (I hope the sarcasm font is being accurately transmitted to the device on which you’re reading this. Yeah, I’m sure it is.)

Enough appetizer. Let’s get right to the main course:

Head Coach Danna Durante

Emily Selby/UGA Sports Communications

Coach Durante is entering her fifth season at the helm of the Gym Dogs, and while we haven’t yet returned to the halcyon days of the Suzanne Yoculan era (so far), there’s no question that Danna has made significant upgrades while she’s been here. After proverbially falling off a cliff during her predecessor’s tenure (Jay Clark), the Gym Dogs have made the Super Six (the NCAA team finals) in 3 out of Durante’s 4 seasons. In addition, last season produced our first two individual national champions that weren’t coached by Suzanne Yoculan (Brittany Rogers and Brandie Jay).

Now, this is Georgia, of course, and our fans have come to expect the Gym Dogs to make the Super Six every year. And not only do we expect our team to make the NCAA finals, but to actually be a serious competitor for the national championship more often than not. And to be fair, we haven’t yet really risen to the status of “legitimate national championship contender.” What I’ve seen and heard over the past 3 months, though, has given me hope that our program is on the right path, and that the Gym Dogs are poised to continue their competitive rise and return to our rightful place as national champions in the not-too-distant future.

When I sat down with Coach Durante back in September, she was remarkably open and honest in assessing the job she’s been doing, how the team is progressing, and in confronting her willingness to admit when “things just aren’t working” at times.

I must also be honest and admit that, having never interviewed Coach Durante in person before, I had probably a poor first impression of her personality and demeanor. In the quotes that I’ve seen in the official UGA media reports and on the short spots she has gotten on the SEC Network during meets, she can sometimes come off as “sound bite-y” or “euphemism-y.” After getting to talk to her for an extended period of time, though, I found Coach Durante to be very thoughtful, intentional, even somewhat introspective, and very focused on doing everything possible keep getting better, both as it relates to herself and her gymnasts. After our interview, my opinion of Coach Durante and her long-term potential for success in Athens has significantly gone up. In fact, you could probably say that I’m a “Danna Durante fan” now.

So let’s get to what we discussed in that interview:

Engagement with the Public

(Ok, so this is one thing that Coach Durante definitely did not get from Kirby Smart or Nick Saban.)

If you follow Coach Durante or the Gym Dogs on Twitter (@DannaDurante and @UGAGymnastics, respectively), you’ll notice that she and our team are very engaged on social media. In fact, Danna hosted weekly Periscope sessions during the fall, where she answered questions from the public. She usually pulled in a gymnast or two for each session, too, and got them to talk about their experiences. And in one Periscope session, she got coaches Jack Bauerle (swimming) and Josh Brewer (W Golf) to join her and jam for a while. You can check the archived sessions out on Periscope, but here’s one with our star sophomore, Sydney Snead. (Also, apparently, known as “Sytty Wap” to her teammates? We find out critical information from these interviews, y’all.)

I asked Danna about this, and she said the team’s social media engagement was certainly a very intentional decision. Most teams engage with the community in some way, but Coach Durante has also tried to make both herself and her team very available to the Georgia fans, both on social media and via special events that the public are invited to throughout the offseason. (The Pumpkin Peek in November and the Sneak Peek in December are two of those events.) About those efforts, Coach Durante said:

That's one thing about this program that sets us apart from other gymnastics programs. Our athletes are engaging, they do interact. Our staff is engaging. They interact with the community and the fans. We really want to be accessible.

Given that so much that we typically see in other college sports can be shrouded in mystery (and 90-day FOIA requirements), it’s really refreshing to see a head coach that is willing to pull back the curtain a little bit. The Georgia Gym Dog fans love their team and enthusiastically support them, and it’s great to see the head coach lead the response in reaching out to the fans to acknowledge them.

Reassessing Yourself and Being Open to Change

Coach Durante actually caught me a little off-guard on this point, as I started out asking her about her very public association with the What Drives Winning conference and program. She has tweeted a lot about the WDW conferences and the WDW program, and I was intrigued about how that particular program became important to her. Right off the bat in her answer, she brought up the 2015 season, which was, to date, the only season in her tenure that the Gym Dogs didn’t make the Super Six. Here’s what she said:

2015 was a difficult year. Performance-wise, we didn't perform well, but personally as a coach, I felt... "Are you coaching the way you want to coach?" And the answer for me was a resounding "No."

Not only was I not staying true to my passion, which was growing young women and developing them not only in the sport of gymnastics, but who they are as people; but I had become so focused on so many other things, and I had let that "outside noise" of everything else sort of take over.

So, this [WDW] conference was taking place, and I said, "Hmm, this sounds like something that would be of interest." I love hearing from other coaches, and there was this slate of fantastic coaches, and a sociologist, and just a wide and interesting variety of people that I felt would continue to grow me and help me shift back to where I needed to be.

I went to that first conference, and it was sort of like, "Ok, you've got to get back to who you are and what's important," which is your team and your athletes and making sure you're growing them, and not being about "just the win." 'Cause we were not winning. We were not doing well. And I was not coaching them the way I wanted to. So it was sort of like a double-whammy.

When you’re in a high-pressure, very visible position as the head coach of the most historically-successful women’s gymnastics program in the country, it takes a big person to admit that you’re doing something wrong. Kudos to Coach Durante for being able to re-assess and take stock of her results, her approach, and admit that she needed to make changes.

So, after the WDW conference in 2015, she and Manny Diaz (men’s tennis coach, who was also at the conference) brought the WDW founder in to work with their teams on campus. They attended the WDW conference again in 2016, with Brandie Jay even getting her own spotlight as part of the discussion. (This is a really great video... you should watch it.)

What Coach Durante’s comments and Brandie’s comments from that video say to me is that one of the major steps forward from 2015 to 2016 was getting the team to actually come together as a team and be personally invested in each other. And that’s an easy thing to say, but it’s incredibly difficult to do without purposeful, continuing effort. Seeing how the team improved from 2015 to 2016, however, you have to say that their efforts were pretty successful, especially if that chemistry can be sustained in the future.

Which leads me to the most major change that Coach Durante made in this past offseason...

#Process’ing the Gym Dogs

I started this next part of the discussion by asking Coach Durante about how she was focusing their practices at that time (in late September)... whether they were already setting up meet lineups and “depth charts” or not. Which led her to this:

Because of how we started last year and how long it took us to find our stride - and really I think that's been true the last couple of years - we've taken a little bit of a different approach [this year]. We [coaches] used to tell them that "You're competing every day," or "We're watching every day," but we didn't really put them in scenarios in practice where that was actually the case. And Phil [Ogletree, asst. coach] loved this one quote from Kirby Smart where he was talking about situational football. [Coach Ogletree] said, "that's exactly what we've been talking about in here." If we don't create situations for our athletes to know where they are, then how can we expect them to be raising their game every day? Or competing at this level that we're saying we're going to compete at? So we're putting them in competitive situations.

On every event in our last practice, we did a little bit of a show. Just where they are right now [in late September], so not full sets, but halves, or skill sets, so that they could see where they are. And then we say, "Ok, if we had to put a meet lineup together this week, where are we?" Who are you trusting [to be a top performer]? How do you feel about where you are, or how do you fit in that lineup?

And at first they were like, (GASP) "She might get her feelings hurt if I don't pick her!" Well, how are you going to feel in January if the coaches [don't pick you then]? You should know where you are!

And that's where they came around. That's been a huge part of us re-framing how a lot of [our gymnasts] think. It used to be this kind of, "Oooohhh. I don't know if I wanna know!" Well if you don't know... it's like not knowing your grade in class. How am I going to get an A if I don't know that I'm at a D, right? Like I know, "Now I know I need to work harder."

At first glance, that concept might seem pretty obvious. But I don’t think it’s that obvious at all. On one hand (as I mentioned above), you’re stressing team chemistry and cohesion, but at the same you’re openly competing against each other in practice for the right to even be in the rotation during a meet. I asked Danna about that dichotomy between team chemistry and intra-squad competition, and this is what she had to say:

That's exactly right. It's a balance. It's all about developing those relationships so you are actually - and we talked about this last week - not only competing for your team, but also, "Yes, I wanna kick your butt because I want that spot!" But if I don't earn it and you do, then I am with you 100%. I'm for you, and we're all together. That takes work to balance that. But that's absolutely the attitude and the competitive feeling we want to have.

So, it sounds like the “chemistry vs. competition” aspect is something that’s new this year, but it’s something that the coaching staff and the team is intentionally working on. And personally, I think it’s a positive sign that the team has been working so hard on developing their tight chemistry since last year, because if that closeness as a team isn’t already there, and then you introduce an overt aspect of competition... that can lead to bad places. But it sounds like this is taking us in a good direction.

So, “situational football” becomes “situational gymnastics.” And with that, #TheProcess takes hold a little more firmly in the culture in Athens. But in a good way. Hopefully.

The Assistants

Both of Coach Durante’s primary assistant coaches, Phil Ogletree and Jay Hogue, are back this year. Coach Ogletree and Coach Hogue have both been with Coach Durante for her entire tenure in the Classic City, and both have also been honored for their work, being named NACGC/W Southeast Region Co-Assistant Coaches of the year in 2014.

Coach Hogue primarily works with the uneven bars, which has usually been the team’s biggest strength under his tenure.

Coach Ogletree works with the vault and the floor exercise. Our vault performances have usually been very strong, while our floor work has been somewhat lacking at times. As I’ll cover in the final part of this season preview, though, our floor performances started coming along well towards the end of 2016, and there’s hope that we’ll continue to see improvement in 2017.

(And in case you’re keeping track at home and wonder who that leaves to be in charge of the balance beam, Coach Durante directly handles the beam. Danna was a star on beam at Arizona State back in her competition days, so that event is her specialty.)

The biggest new face on the coaching staff, which will not be a new face at all to Gym Dog fans, is Brandie Jay. Brandie was a senior for the Gym Dogs last year, and won the individual national championship on the vault.

(Gratuitous picture of a national championship ring with a big “G” on it goes here.)

Actually, all 3 seniors from last season are still involved in some way with the program. Mary Beth Box is working as the team’s social media coordinator while doing her graduate work, and Brittany Rogers is also helping the team on a less-formal basis while she finishes her undergraduate degree and also trains to qualify for the 2017 Canadian World Championship team.

But during the 2016 season, Brandie was very vocal about her desire to get into coaching after her competitive career was complete. Coach Durante provided Brandie with that opportunity, officially bringing her onto the 2017 staff as a “graduate coach” to help her learn the trade. I got an opportunity to talk to her about that new role, and she was very excited her transition to coaching, but also very open about the challenges she faces.

One of the things Coach Durante had told me, and Brandie also mentioned, was that one of the bigger challenges for Brandie (and all the seniors from last year, really) was finding a “sweet spot” regarding when to speak up and when to simply stand back and let the new leaders on the team emerge and step into their leadership roles. In Brandie’s words:

When I was on the team, I was very vocal. I was never afraid to say what was on my mind and hold other people accountable. So [one of the biggest challenges is] just knowing when to use my voice and when to let them figure it out on their own. You know, I've been through it and I've been through their struggles, but at some point they need to figure it out themselves for it to really stick. And so just finding my voice [is a challenge].

I pressed Brandie a little bit on this point, asking if she felt the team had leaders that were stepping up to fill the gap after the most celebrated Gym Dog senior class since 2009 had left. Her response:

I'd like to think that we did a great job last year of passing [how to be a leader] on and teaching them everything that we knew. Even so, they have to step out in their own way, and I think they've done that. There are 5 seniors, that's a huge class, and I've seen every single one of them leading. And not only them, but also the juniors, and the sophomores, and even the freshmen. We have a very vocal freshman class. And I think it's awesome that they've already started figuring that out so young.

To be honest, that kind of sounds good, and also kind of sounds like, “Well, if everybody’s a leader, do you really have any leaders at all?” Kind of like the, “If you have 2 quarterbacks, you really have no quarterback,” argument. There’s no denying, though, that the biggest performers on this 2017 team (at least, if past form holds) will probably not all be seniors, and might not even mostly be seniors. Ideally, you’d like to see leadership from your star performers, no matter what class they’re in, so that might be a sign that this is what’s happening.

In any case, it sounds like Brandie is confident in the leadership the current team is getting, and she’s been around long enough to know good, confident leadership when she sees it, so I hope that’s a good sign.

I asked Brandie what areas she was currently working with in her coaching duties:

Usually in practice, I'm with [Assistant Coach] Phil [Ogletree] on vault and floor. Those are my favorite events, so I love it. It's also easier for me to relate to the athletes and give additional suggestions.

In other words, she feels like she can sometimes help “translate” some of the feedback Coach Ogletree provides, and can sometimes give alternate/additional suggestions to the gymnasts based on her own experiences.

Brandie said that her current plan is to stay on as a graduate assistant for 2 seasons, then go from there. (To be honest, in any college coaching profession, thinking 2 years in advance is practically long-term planning.) So, look forward to seeing Brandie Jay on the Gym Dog sideline until at least 2018! I, for one, think that can only be a good thing for our team.

Conclusions (from the coaching side, anyway)

Overall, I like what I’ve been hearing from this coaching staff. Coach Durante took a bold step and completely reassessed her coaching style and focus after 2015, and that paid immediate dividends. After 2016, we lost some great talent, and you can’t minimize the impact of that. But it sounds like the entire coaching staff are still willing to make big changes in their practice strategy and regimen to keep the team moving forward.

I don’t know if the “situational gymnastics” approach will work out in 2017 or not. The best coaching in the world won’t help if you don’t have the talent to compete with the Oklahoma’s, LSU’s, and Alabama’s (the preseason #1, #2, and #3) of the world, and we’re replacing a lot in the lineup. But if these ladies can raise their game and, just as importantly, improve their consistency from week to week, I feel confident in saying that these 2017 Gym Dogs have a chance to be great. But I’m getting ahead of myself... analyzing our roster will be the focus of the final edition of our preview.

But if the Gym Dogs storm into 2017 and come out with our first national championship since 2009... who knows? Maybe we’ll just have Nick Saban to thank for helping us beat Alabama (et al).

Later this week, I’ll close out this season preview series with a look at our roster and my expectations for them. Until then...

Go Dawgs!