By Erin Whiteside
Twenty-five years ago the Kentucky gymnastics coaches saw Jeff Thompson in the gym and asked him for help moving some equipment.
Thompson, a graduate student in biomechanics at the university, was dating one of the gymnasts and found himself drawing from his studies as he watched the athletes flip and move through the air.
When he realized he could help the gymnasts improve their technique based on mechanics and physics, the Wildcat coaches took notice, and he quickly landed himself a three-year job as a graduate assistant coach.
“Most gymnastics coaches were gymnasts themselves,” said Thompson, who played rugby in college. “What I find in every sport is coaches coach as they were coached. You say things coaches said to you. I’m not like that. With every skill I approach it from the mechanics standpoint.”
Thompson’s unconventional journey to gymnastics coaching has taken him to University Park, where he is beginning his first season as the Penn State head coach after spending the last 11 years leading Auburn in the same capacity.
It isn’t just science guiding Thompson’s approach, however. The two-time SEC coach of the year developed his coaching philosophy at the YMCA, where he was a member of the “leaders club” through high school. There, he taught everything from swimming lessons to volleyball to soccer, and majored in physical education as an undergraduate at Kentucky with hopes of securing a permanent position at the Y.
Thompson’s venture into graduate school changed his career trajectory, but he has stayed close to his YMCA roots, which he says have shaped his collaborative approach to coaching that values communication and understanding how different athletes respond to instruction.
“If you have a math major I can go to the dry erase board and write out an equation for the conservation of angular momentum, and they’ll understand it,” he said. “But if not, I can go and draw a stick figure to show why when the body is stretched this is what happens. They just have to know I take off at the right angle and flip at the right time I’ll go farther.”
Thompson’s approach has served him well. Last year his team beat five-time defending national champion Georgia in a regular season SEC meet and came within .025 of a point of knocking off Alabama, another perennial contender. The top-level competition was a huge draw for Thompson, but the opportunity to tap into the northeast recruiting talent proved to be an even bigger draw.
“Penn State is the crown jewel for women’s college gymnastics in the northeast,” he said. “And if you draw a six-hour circle around Penn State, I feel you encompass 80 percent of the best gymnasts in the country.”
For now Thompson and the Lions are focused on their 2011 goals and meeting the standards outlined in the newly-formed “mission statement,” which was written by the team.
“They start off with the statement ‘We are Penn State gymnastics 2011,’” he said. “’We are 14 strong. There are 14 girls on the team and if we make it to the finals there will be 14 meets.’”
In Thompson’s language, that is a formula he can make sense of.
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