Christina Leone, a Colorado native, is starting her 17th year coaching at the high school level. The 20-21 season will mark her 12th year at Rock Canyon HS and she previously coached for five years at Ponderosa HS, while simultaneously directing a competitive All-Star dance program for four seasons. Her teams have earned numerous regional and state titles, are perennial finalists at UDA Nationals and are 5x Academic State Champions. Most recently, Rock Canyon earned two Bronze medals at the 2020 NDTC and in 2018 they were selected as the Varsity Brands American Spirit Leader Award winner. In 2015, Christina was the National winner of the Double-Goal Coach Award from the Positive Coaching Alliance and in 2016 named Coach of the Year by the Colorado HS Coaches Association.
Christina grew up as a competitive figure skater while also training in dance before joining her high school & college dance teams. Outside of coaching, Christina is an active adjudicator and conference speaker. She has judged for the USASF Dance Worlds, National Championships at the High School, All-Star, & Collegiate levels for UDA, NDA, USA, GSSA, Dance Summit, Jamfest and Jamfest Japan and currently serves on numerous committees including the USASF Credentialing Assessment Team, PCA Character Initiative Program and Varsity Brands DanceCAST. Christina is an avid fan of figure skating, the Denver Broncos and loves camping, traveling and spending time with her husband & two daughters.
Tell us about your coaching background:
As a kid, I danced at the local studio and then tried out for the local high school team in my neighborhood. I went to Littleton HS in Colorado, participated in the state championship there and got to go to nationals but everything was so different back then. I went to Miami University and danced in college. We were primarily gameday, and that was awesome because I was in Ohio and the Midwest is so collegiately focused. Gameday there is incredible so that was a cool environment for me to see and I got to dance in some of the biggest stadiums in the Midwest for away games. That was an eye opener of how much more opportunity there is in dance than I ever knew.
Then my job transferred me back to Denver and I truly just saw a coaching job in the newspaper. Actual printed paper, sitting in my mom’s house. And I didn’t think too much of it, I just thought it would be fun. I interviewed and ended up getting a JV position at Ponderosa HS. I coached there for 5 years and then started at Rock Canyon in 2009 so I just finished my 16th season total.
How do you instill a culture of hard work and commitment?
I wish I could say there was an easy answer, but kids change, and what’s important to kids change so culture changes every year. You can have a program culture that is very noticeable as far as a respectful and positive atmosphere, but the team culture changes every year. We have three teams (Varsity, JV, and Freshman) and I think it’s different for every team, but Varsity sets the tone for the rest of the program. I wish I had a succinct answer, but if there is one thing more than anything else that determines culture it’s leadership. Whoever is on our leadership team sets the tone for our culture. It starts by making them take responsibility for that impact.
Will you talk a little more about your leadership, please? How do you choose and how does it work on your team?
We have an all-encompassing leadership team meeting with those in a leadership role on all 3 teams. For our program, we don’t have a set number of leaders per team, it depends on the size. We also have an officer position which provides more leadership opportunities as essentially a captain in training. It helps take some stuff off the captains and gives the officer some specific tasks like a team bonding event, community events, social media, birthdays etc. But they are a part of the leadership training. We do 4 very deliberate training sessions throughout the season.
We make leadership a big deal because I look at it as an opportunity for so much more. For example, their interviews to become a captain are a big deal because I feel like interview experience is so valuable. It’s an opportunity to learn, they make a speech to the team, then they have specific tasks of teaching or cleaning so that we can see them in front of the team. We want to see how they conduct themselves in front of the team. Can you count music? Can you explain choreography? They need to show they can handle fundamentals in that role.
It takes a week or two and we do it for all three levels, of course being a little more lenient on the freshman team, but it’s a process to make them have a little skin in the game. If it’s too simple, then I won’t see the effort.
This past year we gave them even more to do. At camp, for example, we met with the leadership team at the end of the day, and then the leaders ran the full team meeting every night. It was hard to let go of it but it helps the team see them as the leaders. If you never let them really be the leaders, then they are still just coming to you for everything. It worked well and we carried it throughout the year. We met with the leadership and then they ran team meetings without us. It allowed them to step into the role and have more candid conversations. We could talk through with them about how to approach more challenging topics, but it could come from them. I don’t think every team meeting went well, but they learned from it and I really liked it.
That’s great it shows them that you trust them. You aren’t just telling them to go run a meeting, but you’re teaching them how to do it. You’ve investing in their leadership skills and that pays off for the whole team. It’s very deliberate, I really like that.
One aspect of team culture is the resilience factor. As a veteran coach you understand the highs and lows of this sport, can you talk about being resilient as a dance team and how you help your dancers bounce back from a setback?
You have to be really honest with them about the sport we are doing. Coaches and kids alike must be aware of the sport they chose to be involved in. We did not choose something that lasts 60 minutes where there is time to course correct. There are other sports like us where there is a short amount of time and one shot, and that’s a different mindset. You’re in a sudden death shootout every time and you don’t get another shot. It’s the mindset of controlling what you can control.
I like them to keep that competitive mindset, I don’t want to paint a picture that we aren’t there to compete and it’s all just to have fun. Of course, I want them to have fun, that’s why we do this, but you’re there to compete too. If it was just about having fun we would simply have a big recital! Approaching a performance in a competitive mindset is very different than a gameday performance. So, we talk about that mindset a lot. Do a halftime and then we talk about it. What was your mindset? Compete…what was your mindset? How did you control your nerves and handle your energy? When you talk about it, it brings back that control and adds ownership.
When things don’t go the way we wanted it to go we can always reflect back on what we were able to give. If it was our best, then you can feel confident in knowing that was your best effort. If you gave your best there is nothing more you could have done. I know we’ve all had it, when a dancer falls, or makes a big mistake at a competition and they are hysterical… in that situation, I always have the same conversation. I ask them, did you mess up on purpose? Of course, they say no. Did you finish as strong as you could after the mistake? Yes. Then we’re good. That’s all I can ask of you.
Maybe even it was my best today. Maybe not my best ever, but it was the best I had today. Then you have a good building block to move forward. If that was the best you had today and you still fell short, you know where to go from here to get better.
“My expectation is effort. You have to give your best effort for the whole day, not just the two minutes on the floor but the whole day. That’s enough.”
It’s ok to be disappointed in a result but not in yourself if you gave it your best.
Mental toughness is such a huge part of our sport. We are starting to talk about it more, but the ability to calm your nerves is so important. That’s the hardest part for me.
And we’ve all seen that the competition floor, that pom team that starts off with way too much energy and they are shaking and bouncing everywhere. It’s hard to learn how to control that energy and use it in the right way.
Let’s talk nuts and bolts a little bit. Will you share a little about finances on your team?
I call it the necessary evil, it just is. I don’t have a booster club and we have a great bookkeeper at school, and I keep all of it with her at the school. After all these years I’ve certainly had some parents who want to look into the finances and question me and I take comfort in knowing it’s a public-school program, finances are transparent. You can look up whatever you want. To me it’s nice that the school bookkeeper, not a parent, is in charge of the finances.
One really helpful thing for us is we do 4 invoices a year: summer, fall, winter, and final. One of my pet peeves is random checks and paper all the time. So there are very specific collection times and invoice times. I run it like a tab. You bought a new liner? Ok it goes on your tab. I don’t want it separate from everything else. I don’t want a random check where later on I’m going, “where did that $18 come from?”
There is only 1 specific day a month that I will accept all admin-related things. Money, waivers, whatever. I don’t want it early and I don’t want it late. It’s like when your school assignments are due. If it’s an administrative day that’s when it’s due, no exceptions. It keeps it easier and more succinct and it helps keep things clear between the three teams. I’ve really tried to think of how to streamline anything administrative and this really helps.
That’s all the stuff that takes so much time, and I love the 4 invoices. It always felt like so much to me to do it every month.
Talk to me about a typical practice for your program
I would say I don’t have a typical practice. But not to say it’s not structured. I would say our seasons change so much even from week to week, so we certainly structure out the month and then do weekly planning sessions within the staff.
We start and end with conditioning so that bookends most of our practices. Practice is dictated by where we are in our season, but I would say conditioning then warm-up, and that’s all the responsibility of the leadership team but I am very clear with them about expectations. I tell my leaders that I don’t come in without a plan and you can’t either. Don’t come in with a phone not charged, or the right cord, or a plan for warmup. This is your job. That stuff is led by the leadership team and it gives me time to observe and handle something else if I need to.
We devote a big chunk of our practice time to warmup and conditioning. I used to just feel like I wanted to get to the routine and get it done. But now I’m ok with it taking 45 minutes. It’s hard sometimes, but the payoff is there, even though you don’t see it until later, like fewer injuries and stronger bodies. I think it’s a lot of team dynamic too in how they push through conditioning.
We do combinations a lot in practice as well, and that’s another thing to allow time for. Every person on the team has to teach a combo, they can teach anything they want, any style. They come prepared with music, counts, and there’s a lot of great things that come out of it. It’s hard to stop working on your competition routine but it’s about trusting that the time will benefit many things throughout the year. It’s about training their minds. Retaining choreography and learning quickly is so valuable but we have to train them on how to do that. They can’t get better at picking up choreography unless you teach them how to do that. Doing it as a team, and learning to teach, even as a freshman is important.
One other common aspect is we focus on one routine per practice. I feel like the most ineffective practices where when we would jump around between competition routines. The dynamic of the competition routines are so different and my dancers can’t emotionally downshift. If it’s a jazz day, we might warm up differently, and use different music versus if it’s a pom day. It’s a whole practice energy per routine and bouncing around feels chaotic. You have to trust that it’s ok that you haven’t done your pom dance in four days.
They will inevitably retain more too when you are in one routine at a time. And I love that you bookend with conditioning and allow for the opportunity to learn how to pick up choreography quickly. I think that’s a great practice structure.
Coaches always want to hear about how you clean a routine. What is your favorite way to clean?
It’s going through multiple rounds. The kids make fun of me, but I tell them we are putting the dance through the car wash. You could just hose off your car, or you could take it to the dealership and get it detailed. There are different rounds of cleaning. It’s not as simple as “we cleaned the dance.”
You are always cleaning the dance and I think something we’ve done more of is having the kids involved more. It’s on their bodies, I’m not doing that pom dance. It gives them more ownerships. Typically with the captains, but not always, I would give them something specific, a few 8 counts. They should watch recent practice videos and know what needs to be cleaned before we get there.
Having a checklist before you get there is important rather than showing up and saying, ok show me and we’ll see what needs to be cleaned today. Because then you may spend your time cleaning something that doesn’t need to be cleaned because they are exhausted so that section is just off today. I always have a checklist in practice, and I tell them what is going to be done and they like to know. Cleaning is tedious, so if it feels never-ending you lose them faster.
We focus on consistently cleaning every section the same, not cleaning one part in more detail than another. And restricting how many voices are involved. I’m guilty of it too and I’ll say, “oh and don’t forget this and don’t forget that…” and you just gave them 7 things not to forget. Well maybe their body is clean for today but their brain is messier and they won’t retain it. They need one or two things for their brain to tell their body to do. The car wash thing comes in here. I’m not going to tell you this small detail during the first round of cleaning, we’re just getting the first layer clean.
The last thing is that you have to be humble about cleaning. When one dancer says, “we’re all doing it differently” and what you really mean is Suzie is doing it differently, just say that! They have to be conditioned to get direct feedback like that, but when they know that it’s a Suzie problem, not a team problem it saves so much time. We can bog ourselves down cleaning something for a few people. And it’s always the few people who don’t think it’s them while the perfectionists who are doing it right are panicking that it’s them. So honesty is a big part of my cleaning process.
Switching perspectives, you judge a lot and have a great view of seeing things from the national stage. Will you share a little about your judge’s perspective please, and any advice for coaches?
Judging has really impacted my coaching for sure. I feel like you have to know what sport we got involved in. It is very possible that you will get conflicting feedback. The score sheets are asking for different people’s perspectives. There’s no checklist, even like cheer, they may get more points for a back tuck over a back handspring, but we don’t get more points for a quad over a triple. Mentally, some of your panel might notice that you did the quad but it’s still subjective. I know we wish it would be more consistent and it’s so frustrating when you get conflicting advice. How did two people watch this and feel that differently?!? But that is the sport that we are in.
If I could give one piece of advice I would say less is more. We are in a phase of layering and complexity and texture, and these words that show up on score sheets all the time and I feel like it has led to chaos in a lot of routines. The best, most enjoyable, routines are the ones where I can see, and therefore credit, everything you intended to do.
Like when you drilled the triple leg turn in the right upstage corner but you had 7 other groups going and I was watching something else. Then she nailed it and you’re mad I didn’t give you credit for the triple leg turn solo. Well I couldn’t see it. It’s an unfair situation. It’s not to cut judges slack but think about what you’re giving them. If you give them too much, expect to get feedback that is really varied because they had to pick and choose what they are looking at.
The other side, which is maybe a soapbox a little bit, but last year at the Varsity Coaches Conference I taught a class on score sheets and people thought it was going to be about how to maximize the score sheet, but really it was about what to do with your score sheets after the competition. To me, having both perspectives makes me very passionate about it.
As coaches, what we do with our score sheets has such an impact on our kids. When you read it in front of our kids and you don’t like what it says, they know right away. All you’re doing is talking poorly of the judges and that’s poor sportsmanship. Knowing what you’re going to do with the information before you talk to your kids is important. I put a lot of time into it, no scoresheets are discussed the same day as the event. I dissect them, I highlight. Is it something fixable?
Another piece of advice is do your research. I’ve received feedback that can seem unclear like, “fix left side during pirouette it’s too wide.” I can easily say, “well what pirouette, I don’t know what you’re talking about” and just write it off. But instead, sit down with the video and find it. Especially when they are handwritten, give them a break. Go watch the video and you will find what they were talking about. Or make it up if you have to! It can still be a teaching moment for our kids. If they say, “connect your passé in your pirouette” and you can’t find it, make it up or just make it about all turns!
I think that if the coach is the biggest culprit of receiving scoresheets negatively our kids will as well, and they are future judges. These are the people who will eventually be coaches and judges. If you look at it from a sportsmanship mindset, it changes how you take the information back to your team. I think people want the answers and they think all the answers are on the scoresheets and really those score sheets are a gift. What other sport writes all these notes? If you go as a diver, you just do they dive, and you get a number. All these comments are extra help, not justification.
Finally, don’t assume that judge’s suggestions can’t be done. I know we all think, “well we can’t change that now.” Why not? Don’t underestimate your kids and if you’ve done the training to pick up quickly and adapt quickly in practice, then when you get 4 comments about your lift being ugly, do something! Your kids will want to fix it too. There are so many advances in the last couple of years for judge education and training, a lot of companies have upped the ante and I think there is a lot of quality out there. There’s my soapbox, I’ll step down now.
Thank you! You have such great experience both coaching and judging at an elite level, I appreciate that perspective.
What has been your biggest challenge as a coach and how did you handle it?
For me the biggest challenge was realizing this isn’t something we were trained for. Most of us don’t receive any sort of formal training, but the expectation is that we fully know what we’re doing, and we don’t. The challenge for me has been not giving myself enough grace but also not using it as a crutch. I think it’s changing as students have more opportunities as captains and teaching camps, assistant coaches, etc. but coaching a competitive team is hard and no one taught me how to do it.
So I had to be ok with learning as I go. I had to find the balance between confidence and humility. There’s no handbook, the expectations and requirements are so minimal to coach, you have to be patient enough to learn by experience and that in itself is a challenge. It’s like parenting, you can read every parenting book and every coaching book, but you will learn through experience.
It’s a common struggle for new coaches especially, you start and you’re just sensitive because you have such good intentions and when people question those intentions those are some of the hardest days. Because when they question you it’s not just about your coaching it’s often challenging your values as a person. It’s not unique to dance, it’s coaching in general. On the corporate side, I don’t take feedback as a personal challenge but with coaching, it feels so much more personal. It takes a lot of self-reflection. When you can look yourself in the mirror and you know you had the right intentions, and something didn’t work out the way you hoped, you can learn from that. Give yourself grace, no one taught you how to do this and no one taught you how to handle the curveballs.
Any last piece of advice for coaches?
You don’t have to do everything like everybody else does. Our state is very saturated, I could walk to three other very talented schools and we are really stimulated by what other teams are doing. Then you add social media in there… but you don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. Our kids are so influenced by what everyone else is doing. They notice it too and want to do something just because someone else is doing it. As the adult in the situation, you have to be ok with not going along just to go along. It’s so easy to feel pressure… are we enough?
You don’t have to do it like anybody else, do it like no one else, and be ok with that. I don’t think our intent is to be cookie-cutter teams, we don’t want cookie-cutter teams and dancers. It’s ok to have a different style, so don’t feel the pressure. We are looking for a checklist of what we are supposed to be doing, and there isn’t one. Be your best version of you, not a copy of someone else.