30 years as the coach of the BYU Cougarettes
Tell me about your background
I grew up dancing, I always had a love for dance. I’m quite a bit older than a lot of the coaches who are coaching now, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to take dance but my parents did their best to find me a studio. I was a little self-taught, but had some lessons. My dream was always to attend BYU and I attended as a dance major and I auditioned for the Cougarettes. It was a very different group than it is now. More of a drill team, some routines but nothing super technical.
I was one of the captains at BYU my senior year and then I was offered a coaching job at the high school I went to so I left BYU and took that job. I coached the drill team there for 7 years. After that I opened my own studio with a friend and we ran that studio for about 7 years and it was at that time I was asked to do choreography for the Cougarettes. It just so happened they were letting the current coach go and so they asked me if I would be interested in the job. It wasn’t something I applied for and the rest is history. That was 30 years ago.
In all of your time, do you have a favorite memory?
There has been a lot. We’ve had a lot of special experiences and opportunities at college nationals and some of my fondest memories have been watching my teams grow and really learn and progress through that whole season. Last year’s team was a whirlwind experience: competing at nationals, right to Worlds, then our team went to China.
We were recently reminiscing about that growth and how they were able to do everything they did. There were a lot of moments we didn’t know whether we were coming or going, but it was a special experience and to see that team bond and to watch them grow was incredible. I think people assume the successes and 19 national titles are the most gratifying but the team and I were talking about it recently and sure winning is amazing, but it was the journey and the closeness that was developed over last years’ team that I think was something really special that I’ll always remember. Watching them backstage before they went out to perform, those were really special moments.
It is so gratifying as a coach to have a team who really gets it. You know I can talk and talk and motivate my team, and coaches all want to think they are inspiring a lot, but I think when you have leadership who truly understands it and they are willing to be the first to call themselves out, make sure everyone understands this isn’t good enough. Watching that process is pretty amazing.
Your team has such incredible commitment and fight for what they want. How do you build that culture?
It’s been a process, it didn’t happen overnight. I tell them this all the time: every team that came before you had a part in making this team who they are. The things I’ve had to fight for at BYU, the opportunities I’ve had to fight for and to have the University behind us… I continually remind them to look at the past to build your future. The girls that are on my team now, we have some donors who have stepped up and it’s so humbling to see people who are so generous. But that wasn’t the case even 10 years ago, girls were paying out of their pocket but now almost everything is paid by donors. I tell them it’s easy to take for granted because it feels like the norm now, but every woman along the way helped to chart the course.
What are some of the things you had to fight for along the way at BYU?
Since I’ve been here, it’s come up a lot in the University… “do we really need the Cougarettes?” The school has A B and C other companies and we have a large dance community at BYU. We are a religious institution so people ask if it’s really a team we want representing us. What I’ve appreciated is we have had administrates who really see the value.
Years ago I fought to even have the Cougarettes. We had a Song team about 20 years ago and I thought, “why are they out in the spotlight and my girls are in the stands?” so I fought to dissolve that program and have the Cougarettes on the field with the cheer program. The Courgarettes are able to entertain, they are well trained. It should have happened before that but we had to wait for the right time.
When did that happen?
Early 2000s? The years all blend together
That’s a huge change especially considering you’re now known for, and famous for, some of your football entertainment. It’s so interesting to think that was a big change in your program that you had to fight for as their coach.
The best thing that happened was that we were in the dance department for years but I started a conversation with the AD to bring us over to athletics. But making sure to please let us maintain who we are, our identity as dancers. We do a full concert that I didn’t want to lose that, I wanted to make sure we would have studio space. When we moved to athletics, our budget increased, our support increased.
Now I’ve been in meetings with other coaches and they’ve brought up Cougarettes as an example to other coaches and I can’t help but wondered when that happened. There’s been times I feel like, “pinch me, how can this be happening.” We have an AD that is incredibly supportive and a VP who’s wife was a Cougarette and they all go with us to Nationals. So it’s turned a corner where the team really is revered and respected.
There are probably a lot of coaches who would like to have a change in their program like going from activity to sport or changing how the school views the program. Any advice for coaches who are trying to take on a big change like that?
Make sure what you’re putting out there is worthy of what your expectations are. I knew that we had to put out a program that people respected and saw the value and how talented they were. As the team progressed that’s when I started to put together my proposals. These girls work every bit as hard as other athletes, they should have the same opportunities. Its baby steps. Just the last 2 years we are trying to get them into the same academic facilities, but they are working on it. We are included in the nutrition center, bigger budgets etc. but it was baby steps. At the same time, we are not NCAA sanctioned and thank goodness because that would really restrict a lot of things because of compliance issues.
What does a typical practice or week look like for you?
We are fortunate to have a studio space and the girls get 2 credit hours of dance (another thing I had to fight for). Rehearsals are 5 days a week, most Saturdays especially winter semester January – April. We work concert material October through mid-February then switch gears and start working on nationals pieces. We learn the routines early but put it on the back burner until after our concert. For practices we go 3 hours a day Monday and Wednesday then two hours Tuesday Thursday and Friday, and about 8a – 4p Saturday but broken up based on what concert routine we are working on so everyone has breaks. In our concert we get a chance to do all styles, different number of girls in each routine. It’s a big fundraiser for us.
When you plan a practice do you have a really clear plan of exactly what’s going to happen every day?
I’ve always thought my dancers respect me more when I’m organized. I always meet with my captains every Monday and chart the week. With the team, we circle up before practice, I tell them what’s going on. I give them calendars, it’s always constantly changing, they know nothing is set in stone but I always have a game plan to make the most of our time. I’ve always felt that I can’t expect more from my team then I‘m willing to give. I’m always prepared, I’m always on time, I expect myself to devote everything I have, I do my work to make sure that they are really getting the most out of every rehearsal.
How do you approach hard coaching decisions?
I’ve had assistant coaches and I rely on them. We talk things through. I’ll also bring captains in. My team knows any decision is made thoughtfully and with the knowledge of what’s the best decision for the team. I’ll be honest it’s not always easy. I’ve had girls crying in the back of the room and feeling sorry for themselves.
But going back to last year’s team, they were a perfect team if there is such a thing. I had alternates that were willing to do whatever it took. They practiced every bit as hard as the girls on the floor. That’s been something we’ve really tried to instill. There’s no shame in being an alternate, of course you want to be on the floor, but you are an important part of the process. Make sure you’re respectful of decisions being made, don’t let drama come in. Unfortunately, I even have parents comment, and it can be really frustrating.
Mostly I make hard decisions just by talking things over and I spend a lot of time talking about open communication with the whole team. We read the book “The 4 Agreements” at our retreat this summer and it talks about always doing your best, don’t take anything personally, and being impeccable with your word. We’ve really tried to hone in on open communication. If someone hurt your feelings or you don’t understand a decision come talk to me. It doesn’t mean it will change but I want to make sure you understand the process.
Talk to me about captains. It seems like they are very important on your team. Will you share their roles and responsibilities?
My captains are a huge part of the overall success and running the team. In the spring they audition for being captain. They choose the style of dance and they teach it to the team. I look for their interactions, creativity, professionalism, teaching technique. Usually, I have an idea of who is auditioning before then too, so I watch them in practice as well.
When choosing captains I look for the girls the teammates respect, who has a good rapport etc. Then I choose the captains because I feel like these are girls I work hand in hand with so it’s important I have a good relationship. They do most of the game day choreography. They do warmups in practice. When we get to nationals they are drilling the team. They are in charge of cleaning choreography. We talk about changes that need to be made and formation changes and who needs to be in it… They are an integral part.
You have such incredible precision in your routines, so regarding cleaning, do you have any advice for coaches?
We film and watch and critique. The captains and I meet an hour before practice and break it down into sections. We film the night before, the captains and I critique and send out texts to girls of what section to look at and what to fix. Everyone gets texts before practice and then we have list of what captains and I want to go over. Then we tackle the same section again. But we make sure we don’t spend too much time and get stuck in one section. We work together, analyze choreography, what’s looking awkward, how can we make it better. It’s a collaborative progress of film critique and analysis.
I wanted to go back to your summer retreat. Will you talk about that?
It’s so much fun, we usually go to a lake house or cabin. We bring in outside experts about leadership (last year was CircleUp Leadership created by fellow dancers), and our Choreographers who come in and do master classes and/or game day choreography. The team is told there are no cell phones allowed, we are secluded and we immerse ourselves in getting to know each other.
This year we started talking about difficult things and the girls really got vulnerable and I believe it was a really sacred moment that lasted hours. Everyone left that night really feeling like something incredible had happened and they all talked about how cool it was. It helped break down walls. When they aren’t afraid to share really personal things that’s how they are able to get close. The retreat really helps us start those bonds and create the unity that is essential. We also go over rules and expectations, costume and makeup do’s and don’ts, how they represent the community, sideline choreography, etc. It’s a great bonding time.
What do you think has been your biggest challenge as a coach?
One of the things that’s been a challenge for me is how things have changed over the years. My coaching style has changed to come in line with this generation. I think I was a lot tougher in my first years of coaching, because it’s how I grew up. But now I think they put it more on themselves and I try to be more supportive of them. I guess I don’t think it’s really a challenge so much as a learning process.
As a coach you can never be set in your ways. You always have to understand the needs of your team and reinvent yourself and stay on top of things that are relevant. I feel like I work at it all the time. At the end of every year I take some time to really assess how the year went. What are some things that were a success, what are areas where I feel like I feel short or didn’t meet the needs of my team, how can I better accomplish that. How can we move forward and raise the bar.
Any general advice you want to give other coaches?
Coaching has to be something that you really love with all of your heart and soul. You have to be willing to sacrifice and understand the magnitude of what you’re doing. I tell my girls all the time: you’re a part of the Cougarettes team for a short time but the things you take away, the lessons learned, the growth is going to help make you into the women you are for the rest of your life. You will come out with life-long friends. These are people you will lean on in the future.
That’s the thing I love most about Cougarettes, and yes I have a lot of national titles but it doesn’t even come close to the relationships I’ve been able to build over the years. I’m able to coach 2nd generation Cougarettes and it’s such a gift to know you’ve been a part of their lives and that you’ve done something or helped them to have opportunities that have really helped them in their adult lives. Remember the bigger picture and what you are trying to achieve as a coach… it’s all in the relationships.