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Nancy Napier: Boise State gymnasts solve problems on the fly

Boise State gymnasts compete against a team from San Jose State.
Boise State gymnasts compete against a team from San Jose State. Boise State University

Do you think you solve problems on the fly? Try it when you are upside down, 12 or 15 feet in the air, with no net.

If you do something wrong, you could either splat like a bug, face down on the floor, or wrap your back around a 4-inch wooden pole. That’s what gymnasts face every time they leap into the air.

When I asked Tina Bird, co-head coach of the Boise State women’s gymnastics program, what is different about her sport, she looked at me straight on and said, almost casually, “They solve problems on the fly, literally.”

These young women have to know when their hips, feet or heads might be a few millimeters off, and how to make adjustments to their bodies in the air so they land safely and beautifully. And they do it all in split seconds.

I’m curious about high performing, highly creative organizations — how they get there and stay that way. The women’s gymnastics program at Boise State is one of those. It consistently ranks in the top 25 of the 61 Division I programs across the U.S., and sits at No. 19 in preseason rankings right now.

With only 180 scholarships available nationwide, and three a year at Boise State, the program can attract the best from inside and outside the U.S., including from other countries’ national programs (e.g., New Zealand, Peru). The Boise State program’s participants have the highest GPA of all of our university’s athletic programs. This last fall semester (2015), the team broke university history with its 3.82 GPA. In fact, none of the gymnasts had less than a 3.5 GA, and these are students with majors like pre-med, English and mechanical engineering.

I spent a few hours recently watching the Boise State gymnasts, their three coaches and their athletic trainer during practices and an intra squad meet, where the gymnasts compete against each other to determine who will lead the events in team competitions. Whenever I do something like this, I think about what business leaders could learn. Here are a few lessons that will sound familiar to leaders of high-performing organizations:

Have a magnet

When I asked the students why they joined this program, they immediately tilt their heads toward their coaches. The co-head coaches for the last eight years, Tina Bird and Neil Resnick (informally known as the Bird and Resnick powerhouse team), along with assistant coach Patty Resnick, are hands down the reason young gymnasts are drawn to Boise State.

Before joining Boise State, Patty and Neil Resnick became Master Sports Coaches, an honorary title for coaches who have trained and developed a student who performs at the world competition level or at the Olympics. Neil Resnick still works with the U.S. national team and still trains athletes and their coaches, but his heart and his day job are in Boise. Tina Bird holds records as a gymnast at Boise State, where she competed, and became co-head coach in 2007 with Neil Resnick.

Recruit to your values

When I asked Bird and Resnick how the program has remained so strong, they immediately said “Culture. We bring in top students who have a passion for the sport and who follow the rules.”

That’s “all” it is and that’s all it is. The program’s clear values drive the recruitment.

Of the estimated 68,000 female gymnasts nationwide, only 1,700 reach level 10, the top level, by high school and want to perform in college. That’s still a lot of young women chasing 180 scholarships. So the strongest programs can choose the best performers.

Boise coaches also want disciplined, serious students, and since there are no “professional gymnastics” beyond college, they demand that team members put academics first.

Avoid toxic people

Bird and Resnick also stress staying out of trouble. A few years ago, one of the top-ranked athletes in the conference broke this rule. She became a toxic influence, hurting the team as a whole. So she left the team during the season. The message — stay out of troubl e— became even clearer. Since then? High performance, no trouble.

Be versatile

The best coaches reach individual players on their own terms, in ways that will click. Some of the women need descriptions of a move or trick. Others need an image to think about, and then their bodies will “feel” what to do. Rather than making the athlete or student adjust to the coach (or leader or teacher), it is the leader’s responsibility to adjust. Bird and Resnick intuitively adjust to their gymnasts — a useful reminder for the classroom (student-centered learning) and in the business world.

Likewise, Patty Resnick, who is a master choreographer, adjusts the dance moves to the athlete — some are long, fluid and elegant; others are dynamic, fast and aggressive. She finds moves and music to fit the strengths of the gymnasts, just like good leaders do in organizations.

So next time you need inspiration about fast decision-making, recruiting or culture, go see a gymnastics meet. In fact, there’s one this Friday night, Jan. 29.