Valorie Kondos Field: How Can We Reinvent Our Definition Of Success? Former gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field led her team to victory by creating a supportive environment, instead of a cutthroat one. The impact of that decision, she says, echoes far beyond the gym.
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Valorie Kondos Field: How Can We Reinvent Our Definition Of Success?

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Valorie Kondos Field: How Can We Reinvent Our Definition Of Success?

Valorie Kondos Field: How Can We Reinvent Our Definition Of Success?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on today's show, ideas about reinvention, like, redefining success in our cutthroat, win-at-all-costs culture. Our next guest knows a lot about that because she's kind of a legend in gymnastics.


VALORIE KONDOS FIELD: In my tenure at UCLA, I was the assistant coach for seven years, and then I was the head coach for 29 years. And in my 29 years, I led our team to seven national championships, tons of individual NCA championships and Pac-12 championships, which I don't really keep track of. I was also inducted into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, and I was also voted the Pac-12 coach of the century. That's where we need the music to go (vocalizing).

ZOMORODI: The century.

FIELD: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: This is Valorie Kondos Field.

FIELD: And I am the recently retired head coach of the UCLA women's gymnastics team.

ZOMORODI: So clearly, Valorie, or Miss Val as she's called by her gymnasts, is used to winning. But she says that in the '90s, when she first started coaching...

FIELD: I was pathetic, horrible (laughter)...

ZOMORODI: OK (laughter).

FIELD: ...Trying to be somebody else.

ZOMORODI: Aw, don't be so hard.

FIELD: No, I was bad.


ZOMORODI: What was your - what were your expectations for the job? Were you like, I am going to come in, and I am going to what?

FIELD: I was totally out of my league. I had no idea what I was doing. I thought, you know, I grew up on stage acting. I can act. Let's just act like a coach. And so in my mind, this quintessential coach is someone who's really sharp-tongued, uncompromising, unempathetic, relentless, has really sharp quips - go hard or go home. Winners make adjustments, and losers make excuses.


FIELD: And then you just give them this glare, and then you walk away.


FIELD: Yeah. I was tougher and meaner and more of a bully, so we did absolutely horribly. And in hindsight now, it wasn't the gymnastics. It's the fact that I knew nothing about how to develop a culture.


FIELD: My first few seasons as a head coach were abysmal.

ZOMORODI: Valorie Kondos Field continues her story from the TED stage.


FIELD: And after putting up with my brash coaching style for a few years, our team asked me for a team meeting. And for two solid hours, they explained to me that they wanted to be supported, not belittled. They wanted to be coached up, not torn down. They wanted to be motivated, not pressured or bullied. It is so much easier in any walk of life to dictate and give orders than to actually figure out how to motivate someone to want to be better.

Being a dogmatic dictator may produce compliant, good little soldiers, but it doesn't develop champions in life. With awards and medals, athletes often leave their teams damaged - emotionally, mentally, not just physically. We have become so hyper-focused on that end result, and when the end result is a win, the human component of how we got there often gets swept under the proverbial rug, and so does the damage. I realized winning does not always equal success.


ZOMORODI: It sounds like that moment of having your team call you out had a big impact on you. Like, you made a big flip.

FIELD: Huge, huge flip.

Athletics is such a great metaphor for life because you're going to fall down more times than you succeed. And it's not how many times you fall down, it's how you're going to get yourself up. In that moment, I had a choice, and I chose to change. I remember thinking, we can train champions at the highest level without compromising the human spirit. And I knew at that moment, I was going to develop champions in life through the sport of gymnastics.

ZOMORODI: So - OK, so you have this, I mean, essentially, an epiphany in a day, but then you got to wake up the next morning and put this all into action. What did you do?

FIELD: I just started really helping our student athletes understand that I cared about them first and foremost as whole human beings. So as we started each day, let's define what success looks like today. And so, like, on beam - I coached balance beam. I love beam because it's so mental. And gymnasts - a lot of them, especially in growing up in that era, were taught that they were to seek perfection. And I was like, no, no, no, no, no. No, perfection doesn't exist. And if you're learning a new skill, you're not going to hit 10 out of 10 of them perfectly. It's not going to happen. But what will it look like for you to be able to leave today saying, I got better? I got 1% better today, including all of the, quote, unquote - we call them now soft skills. I hate that term. I like to call them life skills. Including how you related with your coaches, how you're related with your teammates - did you help a teammate today?

And I remember one of the athletes that had gone through that change and that transformation time with me. When she became a senior, she said, you have finally become a leader worth following.


FIELD: And then she went on to say, it's because you're being authentic and true to who you are. Even when you make mistakes, it's OK because we know it's coming from a proper intention.


FIELD: Kyla Ross, another one of our gymnasts, is one of the greatest gymnasts in the history of the sport. She's the only athlete to have earned the trifecta. She's a national champion, a world champion and an Olympic champion. She's also not one for small talk, so I was a bit surprised one day when she came to my office, sat on the couch, and just started talking - first about her major, then about graduate school, and then about everything else that seemed to pop into her mind.

My inner voice whispered to me that something was on her mind, and if I was still and gave her enough time, it would come out, and it did. It was the first time that Kyla had shared with anyone that she had been sexually abused by Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics Team doctor who was later convicted of being a serial child molester.

Kyla came forward and joined the army of Nassar survivors who shared their stories and used their voices to invoke positive change for our world.


FIELD: It was in the middle of our competition season, and I chose to bring this up in a few different team meetings - not constantly, but I felt it was important to give our student athletes a safe space to talk about this and to help them formulate words to put to their emotions, whether they were a victim or just a friend of a victim. And later that year, we won the national championship.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: They did it. UCLA has won the national championship - unbelievable. I'm getting emotional watching this knowing what these girls have been through. You worked so hard for this. You dream about this day. You dream about this moment, to be able to come out here...

FIELD: Kyla came up to me and said, Miss Val, one reason we won was because you addressed the elephant in the room - the scandal. And she said, in doing so, it liberated all of my memories and the truth. And she said, I literally felt myself walk taller as the season went on.



FIELD: And when I walked onto that championship floor, I felt invincible simply because I had been heard.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And you'll tell by the crowd.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: It's a 10. She's got the grand slam - a 10 on every event.


FIELD: When I talk about developing a champion in life through sport, gymnastics is what gave all of those women the confidence and the poise to look their sexual abuser in the eye and tell their story without losing their cool.

ZOMORODI: Do you think that if you had not changed your coaching style that Kyla would have come to you and told you about her experience with Larry Nassar?

FIELD: No. There's no way because they had zero trust in me at that point. And in order to really have a relationship with someone, you have got to build trust. And it takes a long time, but it's so important.

ZOMORODI: I mean, it does feel like we're this moment when it comes to listening to women and girls, and that listening is starting in some ways, you know - it's not just in gymnastics. It's in other sports. It's in Hollywood. It's in politics. But so much of what you're also talking about is reinventing the overall culture of what success even means. How do we begin to do that?

FIELD: It starts in the home with the parents. It starts when your child is young. It starts when your child has a teacher or a coach that is bullish and that you allow it to happen because you want your child to get the edge, to get onto that team, or to get that scholarship to a D1 school.

ZOMORODI: Hmm, right.

FIELD: If you want to help your child develop into a whole human being, into a champion in life, you're not going to just care about the end result. You're going to care about the process and the experience, and you'll ask different questions then. So when your child gets in the car, instead of saying, did you win? You'll say, what did you learn today? You'll say, did you help a teammate out? And my favorite question is, did you figure out how to have fun at working really, really hard at something? And then the key is to be quiet and listen to their response.


FIELD: So making sure that you get to know your child, and realize what makes each of them tick and unique and beautiful and brilliant and defining success for them. So if I've got a young daughter and she's in gymnastics and I'm helping her redefine success and she's not gifted as a gymnast but she loves the sport, let's define it. Let's look at all the different avenues that she can be in in this wonderful sport of gymnastics that's not along the national team training path. What are the other paths? What are the other options for her? And let's define success that way.

We have to redefine success in every single walk of life - sports, businesses, politics, in the home. And we have to keep believing that you can achieve greatness without being bullish, without throwing other people under the bus, without compromising the human spirit.


ZOMORODI: That's Valorie Kondos Field, the former head coach of UCLA's women's gymnastics team. You can see her full talk at

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