By Nick McCarvel
Brett McClure is taking this approach in his new role as men’s high-performance director at USA Gymnastics: Listen first, then act.
“Right now, I’m starting over with my own strategy and plan,” he said in a recent phone interview. “But, if it’s not broken, then you don’t need to fix it. I feel like I’ve been hired for my experience and my vision. I have talked to as many people as possible to make sure that we keep moving in a positive direction. I have spent a lot of hours on the phone. And I want to keep everyone involved in the process moving forward.”
McClure, a team silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Games for the U.S., has always seen things from a together-as-one perspective. After retiring from his competitive career in 2006, he joined the Air Force coaching staff and then went on to the collegiate programs at Stanford and UC-Berkeley, the latter that he left earlier this year for his newly created position with USA Gymnastics.
“It’s going to be an uphill battle,” said the 36 year old of the men’s program. “Everyone is 100 percent committed. That’s the majority of the plan: I want everyone on the same page.”
McClure has heard the chatter of frustration around the last two Olympics, when in both 2012 and 2016 the U.S. men finished a disappointing fifth place in the team final, shy of the podium. The U.S. won silver in 2004 with McClure on the roster and then bronze in 2008, its first team medals since the historic gold it won at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“Having that experience, standing on that podium and representing Team USA is one of the greatest feelings in the world,” said McClure, who has relocated to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. “What I want to bring from that experience is to pass it down. I want them to have the same opportunity for success whether it’s at Worlds or the Olympic Games.”
McClure pointed out that the U.S. men won 12 medals internationally between 2013 and 2016 and the team mix after Rio includes both fresh faces and seasoned veterans. Chris Brooks and Alex Naddour are currently the captains of the national team, while rising talents like Yul Moldauer, Akash Modi and Allan Bower are ones to watch.
“[Brett] is stepping into a big spot, and I think he’s doing a really good job,” said Naddour in a phone interview. “From what I’ve seen over the last two quads – and I’ve been around for a while – is that now we have to be a lot more accountable at every camp. We’re tracking a lot more stuff so that we can keep our bodies in correct shape and make sure we are maintaining without injury.”
For now, Naddour is stepping away from the all-around in his gymnastics and is focusing on pommel horse – where he won Olympic bronze in Rio – and rings, and has taken his training down from full time to three days a week. He’s eyeing the 2020 Games as a specialist and won’t compete this year until the P&G Championships.
But while McClure might be lacking exact clarity on what he wants to do or change with the U.S. men for now, he’s busy getting lost in the details. His conversations – on the phone and in person – are being supplemented by the tracking that Naddour mentioned during camps, while also focusing on maximizing every workout and every turn, and also honing in on the mental aspect of training and competition, a layer to the U.S. men’s team that has faltered at times in the recent past.
“The mental strategy and the mental training plan is something that is very personal,” said McClure. “I think we can harness the power of that as a team. They’re starting to feel that pressure already. They’re able to work on that mental progress more regularly. The intensity has gone up at the national team camps. It’s something that the 2001-04 quad that I was a part of we did really well at putting pressure on each other. It can happen organically. There’s a lot to be said with that mental preparedness. I think that can be applied more and more.”
One of McClure’s first moves was to have members of the World and Olympic Selection Committees come to observe team camps – three of which he has overseen so far – to watch how the U.S. men progress behind closed doors, something that hasn’t happened before.
While John Orozco has retired and Danell Leyva has stepped away from competition, Olympians Brooks, Naddour and Sam Mikulak are being pushed by Donnell Whittenburg, Donothan Bailey and the young crop that includes Modi, Moldauer, Bower and Kanji Oyama, another athlete out of Mark Williams’ storied University of Oklahoma program.
“It’s a younger generation,” said Mikulak in a phone interview. “We didn’t have Jake [Dalton] or Leyva at this last national team camp. There are a lot of new faces. I like the youth and excitement that they bring to the table. They’re trying to earn their places. There are some really great guys.”
Mikulak tore his Achilles tendon in February during Winter Cup Challenge and needed immediate surgery to repair the injury. He’s running a bit now, however, and said he’s making progress and taking things “day-by-day” ahead of the P&G Gymnastics Championships in August. It will be a last-minute call on if he will compete in Anaheim or not.
“It’s given me a little time to re-evaluate,” the four-time U.S. all-around champion said of the injury and subsequent surgery. “I’ve been doing more drills. I’m trying to get the most out of my turns. I want to train efficiently and smart. I’ve always been a workhorse – first one in, last one out – and I think I have to transition into more efficient.”
Efficiency is something that McClure would like the U.S. team to adopt more of, as well, and Mikulak – like Naddour – has been happy with the new face leading the American charge.
“I feel like he listens to us very well,” Mikulak said of McClure. “He’s trying to find a balance of emotional and physical in our gymnastics life in and out of the gym. He’s taken well to try to simplify things. He has a good head on his shoulders. He doesn’t really command anything over us; he just provokes us to ask questions and be more involved. He plans things out really well. I think the future is much brighter with Brett.”
McClure hopes that is true. The first test will come at the World Championships this October in Montreal, though the U.S. won’t see things fully play out until 12-24 months down the road – and as the clock ticks closer to the 2020 Tokyo Games.
“These guys are looking for direction,” he said. “I need them to trust everything that I’m saying and laying in front of them. They’re 100 percent on board with what the training program is and what our strategies are moving forward.
I’ve inherited a young and eager team. In one sense, we’re starting over and in another sense we’re starting something new with a new set of guys in a new direction.”
What – exactly – is that direction going to be? We’ll come to find out in the near future.
“My approach is: ‘What is this team going to be known for?’ ‘Who do you want to be as a team?’ I want that to come from the guys,” he explained. “They create that identity moving forward. That’s more powerful. These guys don’t exactly know what that is yet. We have to pinpoint it. We have to improve on those weaknesses and exploit those strengths more. It’s really exciting and the guys are extremely passionate. It’s so new for everybody.”