I love when smart coaches try something new. The really intelligent ones almost always do.
Remember cerebral Arizona Wildcats assistant Mike Dunlap turning the UA into a pressing, trapping monster overnight to baffle and beat No. 4 Gonzaga four years ago?
Or, more recently, how New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick picked Oregon boss Chip Kelly’s brain this summer to improve his team’s no-huddle offense?
Bill Ryden — who, before becoming the UA’s gymnastics coach, was an actual rocket scientist — had one of those moments in mid-November.
He packed up all 15 of his gymnasts, one assistant and the team trainer and went to Mount Lemmon for the weekend.
The girls stayed together in a beautiful, huge rental, with the male coaches at a home nearby.
They watched the UA-Utah football game on satellite, made s’mores and played hours of “Mafia,” a game where those holding face cards ensure others sleep with the fishes.
They brought enough food to make all but one meal, and ate dinner at Summerhaven’s only restaurant.
Assistant Randi Acosta, who stayed in Tucson because she was pregnant, had a baby boy that weekend. Photos were texted up the mountain.
The gymnasts hiked and, for three hours that Saturday, did team-building exercises with Scott Goldman, the athletic department’s sports psychologist.
“You seem,” Ryden said, “like you’re a million miles away.”
That was the point. Ryden had never held a team retreat before, nor had many of his gymnasts dealt with a sports psychologist.
“In gymnastics, we do a lot of mental work, simply because of the fear and the danger of the sport,” he said. “We were looking for something different, something to shake it up.
“It becomes, sometimes, drudgery. Sometimes that can become dangerous if you’re mentally lax.
“In our sport, you have to bat a thousand.”
The workload is staggering.
In both the fall and spring, the UA practices in the gym four days a week, with two days reserved for weight-lifting.
Gymnasts are raised in the culture. Many start at age 3 or 4; when they grow older, their club’s doors are closed, maybe, one week a year. The UA gives athletes six days off for Christmas, but they often go to their home clubs to practice.
The old saying is that, for every week a gymnast takes off, it takes two weeks to return to form.
In that sense, taking a three-day retreat is rare.
“We’ve been in the gym every day for years, senior all-arounder Molly Quirk said. “To bring in a different aspect to improve us, was interesting.”
Aubree Cristello, a three time All-Pac-12 all-arounder, said the getaway “got us all really excited, because we were together as a team.”
For coaches (UA softball guru Mike Candrea is one) that believe women need to fell good to play well, that’s a big deal.
Especially because the UA has to replace four departing seniors — including Katie Matusik, who finished third in the balance beam at last year’s NCAA Championships — when the season begins Sunday at a quad meet in Berkeley, Calif.
Ryden said the Wildcats, ranked No. 19 in the preseason, have the potential to reach the group of 12 that participates in the national championship.
“There’s an old saying in our sport, though,” he said. “‘Whoever’s walking in April, wins.’”
The Wildcats are off to a bad start: four of their 15 gymnasts aren’t healthy enough to compete this week. Ryden admitted to being “pretty distressed” about injuries, and hopes the team is at full strength by February or March.
Until then, giving newcomers some added experience isn’t a bad thing.
Before Cristello and Quirk became four-year stalwarts in the program, they were forced into early action as freshmen — just as others will be this month.
“It’s not a lose-lose, but it’s not a win-win,” Quirk said.
“But it gave us a great foundation for the next three years.”