By Blythe Lawrence
Brett McClure’s first brush with NCAA gymnastics came as a coach, not a gymnast. It was 2006, and McClure, a couple years and a couple surgeries removed from helping the U.S. men capture the Olympic team silver in Athens, had finally hung up his grips for good.
Another Olympian, 1996 U.S. team member Kip Simons, recruited him to help coach the men’s team at the U.S. Air Force Academy, just down the road from the U.S. Olympic Training Center where Seattle-born McClure had spent nine years as a resident athlete. A bit reluctantly, McClure accepted the job.
“One of the things I would tell myself as a gymnast was, ‘I never, ever want to be a coach,’” the 37-year-old said in a recent interview with USA Gymnastics. “You spend so many hours in the gym that you couldn’t imagine spending more hours in the gym while you’re going through that grind.”
A year of NCAA coaching proved him wrong. “That fun, lower-pressure mentality just reignited the joy that I always had in this sport,” he recalled. “To teach a cartwheel or to teach somebody something they never thought was possible just gave me more gratification than I thought was possible. After that first year of coaching at the Air Force, I was like, ‘You know what? This is what I want to do.’”
After a stint as an assistant at Stanford and four years of head coaching at Cal-Berkeley, McClure returned to the USOTC last year as the U.S. Men’s Team’s first ever high-performance director, a position created following the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Unlike the former national team coordinator position, high-performance director is a full-time job that includes oversight of the senior and junior national teams, as well as the Future Stars program. Building depth and coordinating efforts to develop gymnasts from the grassroots levels all the way up to the senior team are critical parts of McClure’s mission.
More than ever before, the U.S. men’s team is infused with the fired-up spirit that punctuates collegiate competition. All five of the men who competed at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar, this past fall — Sam Mikulak, Akash Modi, Yul Moldauer, Colin Van Wicklin and Alec Yoder, along with traveling alternate Allan Bower — have been through the NCAA or are still in it. Several other top prospects for Tokyo 2020 are currently refining their skills on collegiate teams.
With personal experience as a USOTC athlete and professional experience in the NCAA, McClure aims to harness the best of both worlds. “When I was a resident athlete, the [USOTC] mentality was mental toughness, difficulty and absolute focus that allowed your body to perform on autopilot in the highest-pressure situations. An attribute the NCAA side has is the passion, emotion and team performance part of it, and to be successful on the international floor right now, you definitely need a little bit of both,” he said. “What you’re starting to see, what I saw quite a bit last year at the World Championships, is other countries doing more of that, embracing that performance, verbalizing that performance, showing emotion.”
McClure has made listening to the needs and recommendations of the athletes a priority in his new role. “He’s created a very transparent atmosphere in the men’s side of the community,” said five-time U.S. champion Sam Mikulak. “He really likes to hear our input, and if we have an idea for something new or some change, there’s nothing holding us back from going to him.”
When the athletes suggested that requiring two days of all-around competition at Winter Cup was too much at that time of the season and that an opportunity to perform upgraded routines was needed, McClure, the coaches and the Men’s Program Committee strategized on how to scale it back to a single day of all-around competition.
“Once he heard it, he was like, ‘I get it, let’s make the change,’” Mikulak said. “His ability to really go after something and believe in it because the gymnasts believe in it has really been the best part of having him in this position.”
That’s a lesson McClure learned as an athlete. “I was very resistant to ’my way or the highway’ coaching style,” he said. “I had a coach that allowed me to experiment and take control of my training, and when I was allowed to say, ‘Hey, I’m really comfortable with these skills, this is the direction I want to go,’ my confidence really skyrocketed. It went from falling three times on my best event at the 2000 Olympic Trials to never missing a routine through World Championships that whole next quad. I’m a firm, firm believer in that collaborative effort and really providing that education using the resources available to find your own path.”
In the interest of maximizing the U.S. men’s potential, McClure is bringing a bit of Moneyball to gymnastics, employing statistical analysis to chart each athlete’s progress. A customized platform — McClure likens it to a gymnastics-ized Facebook profile — tracks each gymnast’s performance at each domestic championships, international competition and national team camp. McClure has been meticulous about combing through the data, looking for patterns and fleshing out ways it can help the team member in question improve.
“It’s a quick education,” he said. “It helps keep everyone accountable. The guys know that when they compete and it’s at a camp, their performances go into their profile and it doesn’t get erased. It puts a little more pressure on them in a camp situation. You want them to feel as much pressure as possible as often as possible, so you learn how to handle it and have more practice at it.”
He also tracks nearly every athlete on the world level, dropping interesting routines into national team members’ profiles for inspiration.
“He’s given us easy access to seeing what everyone else is doing around the world: the skills, the scores, the kind of routines other people are doing,” said Yoder. “Those profiles show our hit rate, our percentages — that just motivates us and keeps us on track.”
Getting the Americans back among the top three teams in the world is one of his main priorities, but so is building the teams of the next Olympic cycle and the one after that. He was “very pleased” with the Americans’ fourth-place team finish at the Doha Worlds, and feels the team performed to the maximum of their potential at the time.
“The rest of the world is very, very competitive on the men’s side, and the biggest difference is with the depth. That’s something that China has, that Japan has, that Russia has over us,” McClure said. “Those guys have a little bit more wiggle room — somebody gets injured and the next guy is ready to go up with the same amount of difficulty and experience, and that’s something that’s going to take time for us to build. But it’s really just addressing the issues, where our holes are, where our strengths are, and putting all our energy into making sure those start values go up. We’re not going to jeopardize our hit percentage. That’s got to be our priority until we have more wiggle room.”
To attain such wiggle room, more young men will need to take up gymnastics. The path to building participation isn’t dangling the Olympic carrot in front of young gymnasts, he says, but letting them know that as a foundation sport, knowing the basics of gymnastics will help them in any athletic endeavor they may choose later.
That and not fixing what isn’t broken.
“I’m not going to try to change what they do that’s been working,” he added of his work with the national team. “I provide as much education and as many resources for them as possible to help them do what they do. They’re coached by the best coaches in the country. I’m just going to try to enhance that.”