August 16, 2022

Head Women’s Gymnastics Coach at the University of Denver

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #86

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Coach Melissa Kutcher, the Head Women’s Gymnastics Coach at the University of Denver. She is a 6x regional coach of the year, and a 2x Big 12 conference coach of the year.

On this episode of Bring It In season three, Melissa sat down with Sam and discussed embracing failure, being a genuine and authentic coach, and the importance of character.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Kutcher shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “You have to know how to adapt to your own team.”
  • “You can make mistakes as long as you learn from the mistakes.”
  • “Character is when words and action match.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: As a college coach, you get to interact and coach and develop and touch so many young people that really are the future of work, right? The girls you work with are gonna be leaders in the workforce tomorrow. 

Melissa: Yeah. You know what I completely agree with you, and I think that’s a role and a responsibility that coaches have regardless of the level, but certainly in collegiate athletics, how are we preparing our student-athletes to be successful in the workforce? Right. And how are we helping them develop those specific skills? And I say those skills like grit and resiliency and perseverance and persistence, but obviously teamwork is a major part of what the working world is like, things aren’t ‘oh, well, I guess not completely true, but things aren’t always done in a silo.’

And you have to be able to interact and work with colleagues, even if you’re working from home, you have to be able to work with a team of people and respect and value their differences and be open to new ideas. And so are we preparing them to be creative thinkers, critical thinkers? Are we putting them in a position to have that growth mindset that it’s okay not to know everything, but how are you gonna find out what you don’t know? And how are you gonna be a responsible, accountable employee? 

Sam: I was listening to one of the podcasts you were on before this, and one of the things you mentioned was you not being an expert in every area and getting experts around you in order to run a successful program. How have you been able to surround yourself with folks? What does that look like in order to kind of put together the best team? 

Melissa: Some luck. First you have to have a product that people can get behind and they want to be part of, and they wanna support. So I think really first it’s owning our own culture, right? Like our philosophy here at the University of Denver for our gymnastics program is based on character, teamwork and excellence. It’s kind of really that simple for us. And so those three areas of character, teamwork and excellence drive everything we do. And so I think selling to the people who are experts in their field, right, and ‘hey, come be a part of this, come be a part of this character, teamwork and excellence, this culture.’ 

I’m just so blessed, like you said, I think that’s kind of, managers, leaders, having broad-based knowledge, but knowing how to connect people. And so we’ve been just so fortunate to truly have some of the best people in areas of sports, medicine, sports, psychology, nutrition, strength, and conditioning. And so, yeah, it’s definitely been instrumental in our success. It’s certainly not me. It’s the team of people around us. 

Sam: What do you think makes, if you were to define, I love that character teamwork excellence. But if you were to define what makes a great coach today, what do you think about that?

Melissa: I don’t think anyone else has asked me that question. That’s so interesting. Well, you know, I have a 16 and 18-year-old too. So in addition to like 14 student-athletes and a staff and a support staff, and then my own children, that’s kind of like a fascinating question to look at it from different angles.

I’m gonna say, I’m gonna pull from John Gordon. This is not mine. It belongs to him, but I think that love versus accountability piece, right? How are you showing the love, the support, the positivity, the encouragement, the belief, but also, how are you holding people accountable? There is a job to do, right? And how are we measuring those with schools or standards? So I think balancing that love versus accountability, I think is more important now more than probably than ever, so that would probably be part of it.

Sam: Cool. You were a student-athlete, what has changed over the years on that same theme of coaching on how to connect with one of your athletes? What have you seen that has really changed that you and other coaches have had to sort of successfully adapt to?

Melissa: You know, that’s so interesting. And I know if you ask people, they’ll all have very different opinions on this and you’ll probably get a generational answer. 

Sam: Millennials, Gen Z…

Melissa: Yeah. You’ll get something along that line. I don’t really feel like that. I don’t like to pigeonhole people. I don’t like to say this generation, this, I don’t know that that’s completely accurate for people who are in high-performing and high-level sports that wanna be elite athletes. I would say you have to know how to adapt to your own team.

And every team every year is gonna be different. Even if you have the same people, maybe the goals are a little bit different or the same, or the products different or the same or whatever it might be. But, for us, we’re certainly integrating new first year student-athletes and freshmen into our program all the time.

So how are we integrating them? So I think it’s, one, kinda looking at the individuals on your team. What do they need individually to be successful? And then how do we work together as a team to achieve a common goal? I would say I have a range in our program, but more often than not, I have found they tend to be a little bit more on the perfectionist side, so I don’t know that that’s necessarily a change from what it was before.

But it used to be maybe in the old days of coaching and again, you could be super hard on an athlete and maybe they would respond to that type of coaching. What I have found more over the course of time, you have to really know your athletes, right? Are they a red, competitive energy and they can handle that push and level of expectation and intensity, or are they someone that that’s not going to help their performance? And if anything, that’s gonna tip the scales of stress and where they won’t be able to perform with freedom and enjoy what they’re doing, because they’re constantly putting that kind of pressure on. So I think it’s a little bit of that. 

I think from a coaching perspective, it’s being authentic to yourself and that was something I had to learn early in my career. There’s so much amazing information out there, and so many amazing role models and coaches in all different levels, in all different sports and in industry, it’s not just pulling from all different books and podcasts. But you can have all the knowledge in the world, and certainly I don’t have that, but it’s being authentic and genuine to yourself. What’s your style? How do you coach? 

So I don’t pretend anymore, well, I wouldn’t say I did, but I certainly, at my age, don’t pretend to know what 18 to 23 year olds like all the time. But I’m relating to them on a level that I think they need as the head coach. What’s the common respect for each other? How are we working to achieve academic and athletic excellence, that kind of thing, and building the skills we need. I can stay out of some of that other stuff. 

So I know that didn’t directly answer your question, but I think the only other thing I’d throw in there is COVID has been interesting for everyone over the last couple of years. What I’ve noticed a little is the collective fatigue of things. Is that resiliency there, you know, there’s been so much that has happened over the last couple of years, whereas in any individual’s resilience and ability to respond to adversity and obstacles, how do we look at that those challenges and look at failure as a true opportunity to succeed and have success later on, versus I have had obstacles and now I wanna shut down. And I think that’s just a little bit of just the collective fatigue from the last few years. So I’d say my role now a lot as a coach is, we’ve had, even this year in our program, unfortunately, a couple of injuries that maybe are keeping us back performing at the high level we’re truly capable of performing, but using that as a learning experience. No one likes that, but how do we really take that and grow from it and learn from it?

Sam: You’re a teacher sounds like in many ways, right? 

Melissa: Yeah, that would’ve been my other profession. 

Sam: I’m glad you brought up failure, cause I think that’s another one, you coach in a sport where you could probably look at it as a spectator and say to get a 10, you’re trying to avoid failure, but I’m sure that maybe you have a different perspective on that with practice and embracing failure, I guess. How do you manage failure as a coach?

Melissa: I’m gonna be honest. I think it’s difficult, right? It’d be difficult to manage failure in any industry. Now, the beauty of being in the setting we’re in is there’s still a protective bubble around what we’re doing and they still are in a safe environment. And allowing them, well, I wouldn’t say allowing them, but you know, mistakes. My whole philosophy is you can make mistakes as long as you learn from the mistakes, as long as we’re not repeating the same mistakes over and over, as long as I see some growth with that. 

But I think disappointment is hard for anyone. Disappointment is hard when you set your goals and you have expectations to not be logical about, what did we miss, why did we miss it, go through that process step by step to figure out how we can kind of do better in the future. But I have definitely had to do this, and it’s not easy for me. I’m a competitive person. And certainly I wanna win. I mean, I wanna win at the highest level possible. But to recognize that, we don’t get to choose, I think this is like what I’ve really thought about over the last few years. We don’t all get to choose when we have obstacles or struggles at adversities. We don’t get to say, ‘Hey, I’ll take it when I’m 30 years old on this date, at this time, in this month.’ Life is full of challenges and ups and downs. And when you are presented with that it’s up to us and the attitude we want or how we wanna respond to it. I think there’s some genuineness in giving people some space to process and respond to disappointment and failure in a way that’s healthy for them.

You can’t just say to someone, ‘flip your thoughts right now and refocus your thoughts in five minutes and let’s move on.’ Everyone kind of gets there in their own time and way in space, but at some point it’s important to refocus and look at what are the new goals and what is important now and how do we get there?

And so just really doing a lot of teaching around, this is what my current message to the team is. It’s easy in practice to say, ‘look for ways to build grit and resilience.’ When things are going well, of course you can say that of course you can say, look for ways to build grit and resiliency. When things are going well, you’re not really building grit and resiliency. But when you have the challenges and you have the adversity and you have the obstacles, and then you say, ‘this is our opportunity to truly show our grit and resiliency. This is the opportunity to show the fight we have to that not quit attitude.’

And I think, and you know, we have to make the most out of the situation we have. And so I think those are important life strategies that are gonna be again, whether your employees, family members, whatever that’s gonna be when life does throw you those curve balls, how are you gonna respond. 

Sam: And I think also from outside the sport of gymnastics has gone through, it feels like a lot of coaches have gone through maybe an adaptation or a change in order to make the sport more fun, but it feels like there’s been something else happening on the mat, in the sport that has been embraced. 

Melissa: Yeah. I mean, I think you’re 100% right.  Whether it’s stereotyping, you have that old image in your head of these little, young children and big towering coach screaming at them and the pressure and the expectation and the performance. Certainly I think the sport has evolved and thank goodness, right? Rightfully so. I think we’ve all learned a lot about how to mentor adolescents, children, collegiate-age athletes, whatever that might be. And so I think we’ve all changed and adapted over the years and are a little bit more in tune to what is truly important, and how we help make sure that people leave the sport feeling healthy and well-rounded and competent and intelligent and capable and have self-worth and self-confidence. And I think those things are vitally important to be successful later. 

Sam: I wanna ask you about recruiting, because I think there’s a lot of parallels to what’s happening today in the workforce that folks can maybe learn from. There’s businesses that are fighting to retain talent, some are in maybe poor cultures and other things are at play there as to why they’re working so hard. There are organizations that are spending a lot of money to hire recruiting firms, from restaurant brands to tech companies. And I just feel like you probably have some insights about how to effectively recruit that so many could benefit from. What is it like to recruit a college athlete to compete for you?

Melissa: Well, you’re touching on one of my favorite topics. I obviously love to recruit. It can be so, so complicated and so massive, the question you’re asking, I will tell you what I learned, and then hopefully, maybe that helps someone in your audience or it’s just like maybe a takeaway point. Early on, probably, in my career when we were recruiting, the University of Denver is a medium size private school and it’s academically phenomenal. And you certainly have to have the ability to get into the university and then to be successful once you’re here. And that’s an important component because we wanna bring people here who are gonna graduate, who are gonna have a great academic experience, who can be successful. We wanna put people in those right situations. And so maybe I would focus a little bit, and I’m certainly exaggerating, but maybe I focus a little bit more on what kind of student they are. What kind of classes are they taking? What’s the GPA at the time we’re moving away? Obviously, most schools in the country now are test optional. And I think that is one of the biggest positives. You can’t rate someone’s intelligence over, in my personal opinion, in an SAT or an ACT. But with that said, test scores, GPA curriculum, whatever it might be, and maybe we wouldn’t focus enough on the other areas. 

Okay. Then we’re moving to, ‘Hey, we wanna be one of the top four gymnastics teams in the country, which we were fortunate enough to do in 2019’, or ‘we wanna win this big 12 conference championship, which we were fortunate enough to do last year.’

Okay. Let’s swing toward only focusing on the highest level. What’s their skills, like what skills do they possess? How can they bring depth to our program? How can they bring competitiveness or high performance or whatever that might be. And over the years, what I’ve kind of learned in recruiting is not to swing one way in just an academic way or just an athletic way, but really the whole thing needs to be about character.

That’s kind of my personal opinion. I’m a big believer that if you have character, if your words and actions match, if you’re grounded in being open to new ideas and differences, you value honesty and integrity, you’re probably going to be fine. Of course we have to look at a level of athleticism and academic ability, but if you stray a little bit academically, if you have that character, you’re gonna pull it back, and you’re gonna be successful. You’re gonna figure out how to work hard. You’re gonna figure out how to use your resources. You’re gonna figure out how to be successful. If something goes off the side, athletically, maybe you have an injury, maybe something unexpected has happened, you’re gonna figure out, ‘Hey, these are my past experiences. I know I can do these skills. I possess these fundamentals and basics, and I’m gonna be able to get back to where I am.’ 

And I think looking at the character when you’re recruiting is so important. What type of person are you wanting in your culture, in your organization? And what are the most important traits to you? So does that give you a little bit of recruiting peace? 

Sam: Yeah, totally. I loved what you said a second ago, cuz character is a word often used, but rarely defined. And you said ‘where words and actions match.’ I thought that was pretty cool.

On the recruiting front, from Florida to Michigan, to the University of Denver, I would assume resources are maybe different from across those three universities. How do you make up for that? Again, parallel to a company that maybe is trying to recruit software engineers and they’re not Google, you know? How do they compete for talent when maybe you’re not the biggest brand in the market?

Melissa: Oh, I think that question is so on point. Things are different from when I came to university 23 years ago than they are now, and thank goodness, with a level of success, there’s been an increased level of support, but I completely understand your question.

We don’t have a football team here at the University of Denver, so you’re not on national television. You don’t have that brand recognition type of thing. Yes, at a mid-major school, the resources are different. I think for us in general, it’s really saying what’s important. You can go to a school, and we both had experiences at big schools, and not that there’s anything wrong with that, right. There’s positives however you wanna look at it wherever you wanna go. But if you’re sitting in a classroom of 500 kids, where here at University of Denver, you’re gonna be in the classroom of 20 people and they know who you are and they know your name and they’re invested in your future and they want to be able to help you. Where you might get the help at a larger public university, but you’d have to be more active seeking that out. There’s no way for a professor teaching an undergrad class. In some cases, it’s not even the full tenured professor. It’s a GA or teaching assistant. And so selling points for your organization and company for the University of Denver, my selling point, you’re not going to be a number. You’re gonna be a name. They are gonna know who you are. They are invested in your athletic academic success. They wanna make sure that you’re successful and learn the material. They wanna help you with internships or volunteer opportunities, whatever that might look like.

And I think using what you have in your organization or company, that’s important to a lot of people right now. Not everyone wants to be at a company where it’s so massive that maybe they don’t have a personal attachment to you, they don’t know your family, your children’s names, whatever that might be.

So I think, knowing what that is, we sell that here and I also think the same thing in our athletic department. We have a super competitive athletic department. Our hockey team, for instance, currently is ranked third in the country. They have a shot to win the national championship. We’ve had a lot of success, our men’s lacrosse team has won a national championship. Our skiing team. There’s plenty of success in the athletic department, which I think is fun for us, but we don’t compete for resources because we don’t have the big football. So here it does seem to have a little bit more of a family feel to it.

Of course, we’re all competitive. We’re all going our own directions. We all have our team. So I’m targeting people who are looking for substance. Not that if you don’t go to a big school, you’re not looking for that. Not true at all, but here it’s academic and athletic excellence and character is gonna be at the front of all of what we do, that character and culture that we have developed. And I think that’s an important point. Not that you asked this question, but how do we continue, like culture in my opinion is not at a desk, you don’t get there and then stop. It’s an ongoing thing. And it’s continuing to build, integrate people into that culture. 

So I think in our, in any company, looking for those things that resonate with people, right? Looking for when you’re recruiting or you’re trying to retain someone. And you know what, sometimes it might not be the best fit for everyone, not just for you, but for them too. And maybe they’d be more challenged in a different setting. But I think the other thing is finding, what are people’s goals? What do they want to be?

And I think that’s a very important part when you’re recruiting, knowing what the person wants. Do they want to be part of a team that hasn’t yet won a national championship, but does want to do that and be part of that legacy to do something like it and like that challenge, or that’s not something they’re interested in? You can’t know how to recruit them until you actually know what motivates them. 

Sam: A lot of fun practices to figure that out, I bet. 

Melissa: Oh yeah. Lots and lots. 

Sam: You’ve touched on this a few times around character and you just talked about what it’s like in the classroom. So I’d assume that you have a lot of care for your athletes after they graduate and stay in touch. To the HR leaders and directors and managers that are out there in the workforce, like let’s say I was hiring one of your student-athletes into my organization after graduation. What coaching do you have for me in order to get the most out of and put the most into creating the right environment for one of your former athletes?

Melissa: Yeah, I think that’s such a great question. I would say, and again, we don’t wanna use generational types of things, because everyone’s different individuals are different and I don’t, as I mentioned, like that stereotype of this generation is like this. But I do think there’s something about, they want to feel valued and they want you to get to know them. They want to have a purpose in what they’re doing. They wanna be connected to that purpose. So if you were hiring them, I’d say, ‘Sam, get to know Mia Sundstrom, get to know what drives her, what motivates her, ask her about her goals, her expectations, what she can bring, you know? 

I’m feeling like if you’re hiring, I think they’ll be very respectful. Let’s hope we’re all hiring people that will be very successful and know the boundaries and understand that there’s work, there’s a path to get there, and you’re not just gonna be promoted as a CFO, and that you need to show the investment and the time and attention and prove yourself. And to be able to continue to have the honor of working at these different places. I know not everyone kind of maybe feels like that or kind of takes that approach. But I think the more connected you get with them, and the more you can like to get to know them as a person, what motivates them, what drives them and that there’s a philosophy or values match, maybe, that would maybe be some of the advice I would say if you are hiring them. 

Sam: That’s great, coach. I got one final question for you. You know, obviously we’re talking about a bunch of topics, but all around, a lot of this touches on work and where it’s going. What is your hope for the future of work?

Melissa: Oh my gosh. Well, you’re gonna ask me and I have a 16 and 18 year old, so my answer might not quite be relevant to the greater good. I’m gonna say, finding a work-life balance. I think it’s very easy to be working pretty much all the time, every day, weekends, nights, you know, everything.

And again, it depends on the industry you’re in, and you have to just acknowledge if you’re in an industry that drives that kind of work, then that’s where you are. Finding those abilities to recharge, finding the areas to recover, finding areas that energize you. Some people are introverted, some are extroverted. I know for me a little bit of alone time recharges me. And so, what is that? So I’d like to see people having that work life balance, knowing what works for them so that they can be more productive in the workforce. And then having that connection with, again, whatever in our world administration or whatever that might be, but that C-suite. Having that connection to feel like their people’s ideas are valued. I think we have phenomenal young people that will be going into the workforce. They are intelligent, they’re driven, they’re values based. They do care. They do wanna be successful.

Of course, you’re gonna have your anomalies to that. Not everyone’s always gonna be like, ‘I think there’s a lot of positive things to be excited about, about the workforce and the next generation.’ They’re incredibly smart and thoughtful and mature and knowledgeable. So I think looking for people, I would hope that the workforce looks for people who are critical thinkers.

And because I think that’s the future of work right now. It’s all of it coming together from many, many different fields and integrating all that information to make it be the best it can be. You’re no longer just working in a bubble by yourself. Like you have to be able to take different fields, integrate information, and get that product out.

Sam: Coach. Great to meet you. Thanks for taking time. 

Melissa: Thanks so much, Sam, nice to meet you. Take care. Good luck. 

Sam: You too.

Topics Discussed: Coaching, Accountability, Adaptability, Authenticity, Failure, Recruiting, Character, Culture, Work/Life Balance


Dana Safa Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle