Dana Safa Bernardino
On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Coach Jeff Graba, Head Women’s Coach of the Auburn Gymnastics Team. Coach Graba was named SEC Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2015 and SEC co-Coach of the Year in 2012.
On this episode of Bring It In season three, Jeff sat down with Sam and discussed adapting your coaching style, the importance of failure, and why winning isn’t everything.
Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts.
Below are some of the insights Graba shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.
Sam: So coach, I guess maybe a question I’m sure you’ve never been asked, but a great way to open up would be, how did you get from where you were to where you are?
Jeff: So I grew up on a dairy farm in Northern Minnesota and I have an economics degree from the University of Minnesota and it leads directly to head coaching gymnastics in Auburn, Alabama. So you know, long story short is just putting forth some work and some effort to try to impact lives. And I think over time it just turned into a career. And what started out as just a way to pay the bills and a fun hobby, has turned into a career. And I know I tell everybody I haven’t worked a day in my life because this is so rewarding and fun to do. Now, stress all of that, it comes with the job, but it’s better than some of the other jobs I had.
Sam: What would you say the most rewarding part is of being a coach?
Jeff: When they get it, or when you get how to help them get it. It isn’t knowledge-based, it’s more, I tell all new coaches that it isn’t what you know, it’s can you get it through to them? And sometimes you have to change the way you send a message and sometimes you have to use what we call compensatory technique. Not everybody does everything the same way perfectly. So you have to modify your approach and you’d have to modify your expectations at times. But the goal is that they get it, and when they get it, whether it’s a skill, whether it’s a high-level competition success or they leave your program and are successful later in life and are happy and successful members of society, that’s the rewarding part.
Sam: How long have you been coaching again? How many years?
Jeff: I’ve been coaching since I was 12. So 40 some years.
Sam: What’s changed in your mind, what has been maybe the evolution and the biggest things you’ve noticed from then to now?
Jeff: I think right now I’m noticing what used to be… I’ll put it a different way. It used to be like baking where there was an exact recipe that you could use to create repeatable products, and if you wanted a certain skill, you did this a certain way. You taught it this way in a certain amount of time to get it. Cooking is different, cooking is by flavor by taste. If you cook the same recipe a bunch of times, you might not do it exactly the same way. It’s a little bit of experimentation. What used to be baking for my first 25 years of this sport, 30 years of this sport has definitely turned into being adaptable, being creative, changing your approach, and admitting that you don’t have all the answers and searching more.
Sam: You probably get a lot of recognition for the athletes you have coached and the teams you’ve coached. But talk to me about the coaching development model that you must think about all the time around the other coaches, around you and through your system. What does that look like?
Jeff: Well if you get to a certain level in our sport, and I’m sure that’s the same in some of the C-suites or in the majorly successful companies, there’s not a whole lot of people you can look at for the answers to the questions you have.
We get to a certain level where the athlete, their input is way more important than your knowledge. You have limited knowledge. I’m lucky enough right now to work with Suni Lee and you know, she’s the Olympic gold medalist in our sport and is very much aware of what she’s doing in the air and is very good at communicating it to us. So we’re learning as much from her about, okay, what do you feel when you’re here? Do you hear things? Do you see things? Do you feel things?
I’d say a good chunk of our development and coaching is listening to our athletes, but the other good chunk is picking other great coaches, listening to them and watching what they do. We do a lot of video reviews about technique. And then a lot of other stuff where it’s similar to this podcast. I’m getting on a lot of podcasts and listening to how people manage people, how people develop themselves and get better. Doing a lot of that so that our communication skills improve, our soft skills, social skills improve, but also our technical skills have to improve.
Sam: And is that also probably part of maybe the evolution of the athlete, maybe the kind of mindset? I talk to a lot of managers who kind of fall into two camps. They’re either the ones complaining about millennials and gen Z, and then there’s the ones who have maybe identified that things are different and have figured out a way to make it work.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, it’s the same here. It’s the same here. I heard somebody say the other day that, if I start complaining about the new generation, I’m complaining about my own kids. So I better be careful what I’m complaining about because they’re growing up the same way.
Parenting has some influence, but social interaction in social media, all of that stuff is impacting it quite a bit. So I’m very much in the second camp. We have to adapt. I’m guilty like everybody else complaining that these kids aren’t the same and that type of stuff, but that doesn’t get me anywhere. So I’m going to adapt and try to go where the puck, what did Gretzky say, “skate to where the puck’s going to be, not to where it is.”
Sam: Yeah, sure. A lot of coaches have mantras, sayings, quotes they put on the wall, symbols they use. Is there anything that you, as a tiger that at Auburn, would latch onto or something that you find is a really powerful part of your team’s culture?
Jeff: Yeah, I think we have something here. The Auburn creed is, ‘I believe in work, hard work.’ It’s a long creed, and it really attaches us to it. And it’s really close to what I believe in. I believe in hard work getting through, but I also believe in failure. I believe you, in order to be… I wouldn’t say fearless, I’d say more courageous. I don’t believe in getting less fearful, I believe in getting more courage. If you’re more courageous it’s because you’re able to not fear failure so much. And the only way to not fear failure so much is experiencing it once in a while.
Our sport is built on failure. We’re the only sport that I know of, that we never win anything. We only survive. Gravity wins everything we do, and our job is to survive and to make it look good surviving. We never dominate gravity. So if you dial it back, our athletes and our coaches are dialed into failure. We know we will never be perfect and we will never win the battle against gravity. But what we’re going to do is we’re going to try to survive and advance. And that’s really what our mantra is here; let’s work hard, but let’s also realize that failure is not an option, it’s a necessity.
Sam: That’s totally counter to the way most managers or the average leader would stay away from uncomfortably, stay away from conflict, stay away from fear because that stuff is hard.
Jeff: Our people are that way too. When they come in, they think you only win if you shoot for the championship and then there’s a bunch of losers after that, which in some ways it’s true, but in my estimation, you don’t win unless you shoot for the championship and understand that there’s going to be a lot of losers under that and you might be one of them. And if you’re afraid of that, you’re not going to make the championship. If you are embracing that fear, using that fear and conquering it, then you’re going to have a good shot at being a champion. And we tell our team a lot, it’s easier to try to shoot ahead than to look over your shoulder and try to stay ahead of who’s passing you. So quit worrying about who’s passing you. Quit worrying about the failures. Look ahead and try to take something.
Sam: How does that play a role in the way you design? I’m always intrigued by the way coaches design practice and the models. I find every coach has their own philosophy around practice, and they’re constantly looking and learning and changing and tweaking, but failure being an important component, what makes an effective practice to you at the end of a training session? What are the things that have to happen?
Jeff: Well, I don’t encourage failure as much as I accept that it’s going to be there. So in our particular situation, we are in front of sold-out arenas pretty much every night. Our failure is very upfront, very public, we’re on international TV. People watch it. Millions of people are watching our student-athletes, whether they succeed or fail. I’ve found that they’re more successful when they’re capable of embracing the possibility of failure. So we try to put that into practice. We have highly stressful practices at times but we try to give people an opportunity to succeed as well. It’s fine to fail, but we also have to walk away with what are you good at? What did you succeed at? Build people up a little bit and make them a little less fearful of costing the team falling on your face in front of millions of people.
They have to want it and understand they’ve been through it a bunch of times. So stress inducement is huge. If you practice at a high-stress level and you’re generally successful, you’re probably going to be generally successful in competition. There’s a saying that we have, ‘let’s shoot for your average.’ So, what we don’t want is we don’t want you to have to be at your best for our team to win. And we know that if you’re not at your average, our team cannot win. So our goal is to raise your average. Let’s raise your average up and sacrifice whatever it takes to get your average up because our whole team has a higher ability to win on our average night.
Sam: That’s great. One thing you said a minute ago, it makes me think of a coach I had who said. ‘we’re going to play in the rain, we need to practice in the rain.’ You gotta be in those situations in order to perform the way you need to when it matters.
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. And you have to build resiliency. People aren’t naturally resilient, human beings naturally go towards the easy out. It’s in our nature on purpose, we’re not supposed to choose the hard route, but in order to build resilience and toughness and all that stuff that you want, you actually have to experience it and go through it and understand it’s not life-threatening. It might be life-altering, but it’s not life-threatening.
Sam: Yeah, coach, you mentioned one of these athletes, but you’ve coached a number that have had moments where they’ve scored perfect tens. To the average person, how special is that? What does it take for that moment to occur?
Jeff: Generally speaking, it takes a ton of prep to get to that moment. I mean, are they extremely talented? Absolutely. They’re some of the most talented athletes in the world. The ones who get the tens have it all though. They have the mental mindset. They’re tough. I would say some of them want to be, you don’t get a 10 if you don’t want to be center stage, you gotta have that in you. There’re some people who want to be the center of attention. So you gotta have that. You’ve got to have the work ethic. You’ve got to have everything fall into place. Your team needs to set you up for that because you don’t get a whole bunch of really poor routines in front of a 10. Usually have a bunch of routines that are building to this, and then you just have to be better than them.
And, typically that’s what starts to snowball rolling. But, they’re special people, and we’re lucky to coach him. So if I had the recipe, I’d create a bunch of them, but they’re special out there. And that’s where recruiting comes in. You better get a couple of those on your team every year.
Sam: I’m sure you’ve had to interact with parents or along your coaching career. I have a five-year-old daughter, and the other day she let me and my wife know that she wanted to do gymnastics mostly because she jumps off everything. And my wife’s concerned that she’s going to do something wrong. What advice do you have for me or other parents, around how to put your young person in a position to be successful without all the other stuff that can go wrong given today’s moment?
Jeff: Listen to your kid. Ask them a lot of questions, but don’t coach them. If you’re not a great gymnastics coach I wouldn’t coach him. If you are a great gymnastics coach, I wouldn’t coach him. I would let somebody else coach him. I really believe they have to want it for them, or it’s never going to happen. I’ve seen it a number of times, not just in our sport, but in other sports where the mom or the dad want it more than the kid, and that’s just a real disservice because they already, now don’t want this sport, but you also might’ve taken them away from another sport that they would have wanted. And maybe they wanted this one and you crushed it, or maybe it took them away from a different one. So I wouldn’t say ignore them because I want you to talk to them. Is their experience correct? Are you getting all the other things that you need out of the experience?
I would say step back as a parent, let them have the experience, and by all means support their failures, support their less than perfect successes. They don’t need to win all the time. They need to get better. They need to progress. And if they’re progressing, they’re learning life lessons. And if you’re supporting them in that, then they’re learning that you support them in their life. Not that you’re the one demanding the most out of them. Let the coach be the one demanding.
Sam: I think the point on picking the right things to encourage and support versus, like the process versus the outcome or the behaviors instead of the outcome is to be.
Jeff: Yeah. And, you know, there can only be one winner, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a bunch of people who’ve succeeded at a higher level than they would have otherwise outside of their coach. And maybe second place is a win for some of these teams or individuals. If you can’t beat the best kid, can you beat the second best kid? So just be careful with that, that winning is not everything. Growth is everything.
Sam: I have one final question for you. Thanks for taking time. One of the things I think about when I talk to you is that from a position of a manager or someone who’s working inside of an organization, whether they’re doing employee learning or just a sales manager, for example, the one thing that you think about all day long is how to get the most your people and primarily young people who are going to be, your training centers, are going to be in the workforce being coached by other people. So I want to set that frame for my question for you. As you think about this, what is your hope for the future of work?
Jeff: Well, we talk a lot here about trying to get the young people I grew up with in old school and they would say you can’t push a rope. Basically the trick is we’re going to go farther if we get them out in front, pulling us. And that’s true on my team when my team is engaged as a group and is on a mission to do something and I’m there to help guide them, make sure they don’t get off course, we’re way more effective than if I’m dragging them across the finish line. So my hope for work in the future is that we somehow, as leaders, can figure out how to guide, nudge, whatever you want to call it, our people that are working for us and with us to get them to help lead.
I want to embrace the positives out of this generation and see if we can squeeze some more juice out of the lemon, so to speak. So somehow we got to try to get them in front and make sure that we’re the stewards of our success, not necessarily the drag people across the finish line type.
Sam: Sure. Coach, thanks for taking time.
Jeff: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Topics Discussed: Future of Work, Work, Competition, Failure, Gymnastics, Coaching, Leadership, Resiliency, Adaptability
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