The Wizard &
The Miracle Worker
Published Apr 1, 2006 12:00 PM
Q: Val, when you became UCLA’s head gymnastics coach in 1990, you said that you really didn’t know much about coaching until you read Coach’s book, They Call Me Coach. What was it about the book that resonated with you?
Copyright ©Photo by Jack Chance
VKF: When I became head coach, I felt to be successful I had to emulate other successful head coaches in gymnastics. So that’s what I tried to do. And I failed miserably because the people I was emulating were about winning. And it didn’t resonate well with me.
I picked up Coach Wooden’s book, They Call Me Coach, and it didn’t sound like all this other coach talk I’d heard. It was filled with a lot of tough love, but honest love. Compassion and discipline. I grew up in the ballet world, and there was a lot of discipline in my life. I was raised by a very typical Greek family, where family was important, so there was a lot of discipline with respect. And I think that the discipline, combined with the love that came out of Coach’s words, hit home with me. And I said, “That’s how I feel.” It’s about teaching life’s lessons through the sport that we’re a part of.
So I totally changed how I was coaching our team, and that’s when we started becoming successful. And I think it was the next year I called Coach and asked him if we could bring our team out to meet him, and he said, “Absolutely, my dear.” And that’s when we became friends.
JW: You watch Val’s teams, and you see they care for each other and they care for her. And you have to do that. I told my players, “I don’t like you all the same. You won’t like me all the same. You won’t like each other all the same. But I love you all the same.” And if I’m a strong enough person, that will never enter into my determination about who’s going to play. I told them, “I’m going to treat you all the same and try to give you the treatment that you earn and deserve. You’ll see that I’m not perfect, and sometimes I’ll be wrong, but if I’m wrong too much, well, you don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be fired!”
VKF: What I think all of us at UCLA appreciate about Coach Wooden is that he’s very supportive. He would never think to tell any of us how to do our jobs or even to offer advice about how he would do it. But I remember Sept. 11 (2001) was the morning that our team was meeting for the first time that year. And obviously, like everyone else, I was devastated. I didn’t have any idea what to say to them. I called Coach and said, “We’re meeting in an hour. What am I supposed to say to these young people?” All he said was, “Follow your heart, and you’ll know what to say.” On the one hand, I was like, “No! Tell me what to say!” But, you know, that’s good parenting.
JW: You have to keep away from saying what people think you should say or what I think you should say. It isn’t what you think you should say, it’s what you really feel. There’s a difference.
Q: Do you remember what you said to the girls, Val?
VKF: Yes, I do. We sat down and Carly, one of our student-athletes, was just devastated. She said, “Miss Val, this is a real serious thing that happened. How can we go into a gym and flip?” And I said, “Because we can. Because we live in a country that allows it. And allows us as women to do this.”
Q: What principles of Coach Wooden’s have you used in your teaching?
VKF: When I’m contemplating what to do, or when I’m trying to make a decision to go back to my faith — and anyone who knows Coach Wooden knows he has a very strong faith that starts with love and compassion — it always comes back to that very simple, yet powerful, basic. To realize that in this day and age, the more you win, the more pressure you have. It’s easy to turn your mind to listening to what people have to say about winning and letting them down if you haven’t won in a while, and it’s comforting to be able to go back to someone who had the success that Coach Wooden had. And it’s not just success on the court, but success in his heart and in his ability to be able to say, “Yeah, I did a good job.” And that comes from a very strong faith.
Q: Your sports are so different. In basketball, the final score determines the winner. In gymnastics, it’s very subjective.
JW: Well, they all should get a number 10. I was displeased [at the last meet] because there were no 10s.
VKF: He thinks everyone deserves 10s. Horrible judge.