KJ Kindler profiled in The Cut

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KJ Kindler Built a Women’s Gymnastics Dynasty in Oklahoma​

By Dvora Meyers
A blonde woman smiles for a portrait. She's wearing a dark top and two necklaces.


Successful women talk about managing their careers, and their lives.
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: OU Athletics/Shevaun Williams
When KJ Kindler took the reins of the women’s gymnastics team at the University of Oklahoma in 2006, the Sooners were good. But they weren’t winning-a-national-title good. A former gymnast who’d walked onto the team at Iowa State, Kindler had coached her alma mater to its first Super Six championship appearance in fall 2006. She did the same for Oklahoma, and under her leadership the team went on to win its first national title in 2014, tying with Florida. The Sooners have won five more national championships since then and are again ranked first nationally this year.
Kindler, 53, has relied on her organizational skills to build up this unstoppable program. She’s got a list for everything, written out in a neat hand as tidy as her gymnasts’ work on the balance beam. “I am a list-maker,” she says. “I love highlighting and crossing it off when it’s complete.” She insists on consistency in all aspects of the team’s training and competition. She makes sure the gymnasts don’t take early-morning flights so they can keep to their sleep schedules. The communal meal before a competition is always the same. And if a gymnast needs a particular item to compete — say, a banana, as was the habit of former OU star
Maggie Nichols — Kindler and her staff make certain that the athlete gets it.
Just about the only thing that
isn’t perfect are Kindler’s outfits at the end of a competition. She always wears black — there’s that consistency again —during meets, and the gymnasts get their chalk all over their coach’s clothing with post-routine congratulatory hugs. “Whatever I’m wearing, I dry-clean,” she says. “I think it’s $30 a week.” Kindler lives in Norman with her husband, Lou Ball, who is the team’s associate head coach, and their two daughters, Maggie, 17, and Adelaide, 15. Here’s how she gets it done.
On a morning routine that is anything but:
I have to get my kids off to school; they’re in high school right now. I make them breakfast. This morning, I made eggs and fruit and got them out the door. I usually try to get to the office around 8:30 to 8:45. I’m doing so many different things in the mornings. It really depends on the day. I might be doing some media. I research a lot of creative ideas, motivational ideas that can serve us well down the road. Yesterday, I had marketing meetings and meetings about event management and how to run and improve our meets. This morning, I’m adding to the recruiting mailing list. During the season, I’m checking in with a trainer every morning, seeing how everyone’s feeling.
On her full-to-bursting work schedule:
Normal people who have jobs do paperwork work for eight hours a day. I’ve got a four-hour workout in there. Some days, I’m having a six-hour workout and then trying to get stuff done. When I’m in practice, I try not to touch my phone. I would be so distracted by the 100 emails and 20 text messages I get an hour. I just want to be present. The gymnasts would know if I was distracted.
It’s very common for me to go home, have that time with my kids, and then go into my office and work more. I do recruiting calls at night. We have a lot of people committed that aren’t here yet that we stay in contact with. So you’re calling eight people regularly. I try to spend a good 45 minutes to an hour on the phone with each one of them. I try to keep it consistently spaced because I want them to feel connected when they get here. Planning the workouts, the rotations, what the assignments will be, and conditioning, all that is done the night before.
On when she finally felt she was the right person for the job:
We made the Super Six in 2010, but there was a lot of growth that still had to happen after that. In 2013, we finished second. It was an incredible team. We were inching our way up, making our mark. We had figured it out a little bit more. That’s 12 years into my head-coaching career that I felt like I had a handle on it.
On how she defines a win at work:
Not by a win. That has absolutely zero to do with it. It’s little things that happen along the way. It was a huge win last weekend and brought tears to Lou’s eyes, watching Ragan Smith do a one and a half on vault. She’s been working on that for five years. She might not be one of our top-six vaulters, but that’s a huge win for her personally.
Or when one of your freshmen does something they never thought they could do. We were at the Collegiate Challenge, and one of the people that I had chosen in the lineup was having a really hard time. I was like, “All right, I’m just gonna switch it and put in this very green freshman Jenna Dunn up on beam.” She was first up, and she hit really great. She came off, and she goes, “I just competed for the University of Oklahoma.” This is a kid who grew up in Norman, dreamed of being on our team. Those are moments that just take your breath away.
On learning from failure:
We tied for the championship in 2014. In 2015, we were ranked No. 1 every single meet of the year. We were picked to win. We were gonna run away with it. I’m saying what other people were saying, but in our minds as a staff, we knew we were not hitting on all cylinders. There was a disconnect. Something was not quite right. And at nationals, it showed up. We fell twice, and we finished third.
We regrouped after that year and adjusted a lot of things. We had never won before 2014. What happened next were a lot of things that we could have changed, had we known where the team was at mentally: the pressure they now felt having won, all of the things that we tried to run away from. “Oh, there’s no expectations.” Yeah, there are, and it’s better to face them head on than to pretend they don’t exist.
On a moment in her career that pushed her:
I didn’t necessarily want to leave Iowa State. It was my alma mater. We had made the Super Six the year before. I was all in, but I wanted more support for the program. I have this press release from when I left in my drawer. It says that they offered everything they could reasonably offer. That sentence said so much to me because what they offered wasn’t reasonable. I wanted to go somewhere where gymnastics is appreciated. I wanted to go somewhere where they believe in the future of the sport at their school and they want to create a program that’s special. I was so bummed because I wanted to be great at Iowa State. I spent 18 years there. But I had to make the choice to come to Oklahoma. The way they dismissed me as a person and the program, that was motivating for me.
On the advice she wished she had when starting out:
At the beginning of my career, I was very gymnastics-centric. My mind was wrapped around the sport and not the human. I always felt I’ve had good connections with my athletes, but it’s more important now than ever. The relationship piece is something that I would encourage every young coach to really dig into.
On ambition:
It’s hard for me to feel satisfied. I can always find something to do better. I can always find another way to go about things. I have super-high expectations. There’s no way my athletic director has higher expectations of me than I have of myself.
I’ve done a lot of things. Our staff has done a lot of things. But my freshmen have never won a conference championship. My freshmen have never won a NCAA championship. I’m providing a new experience for them, no matter if it’s an experience I’ve had or not.
On handling criticism:
The mentality is that we work too hard, we’re robots. But that’s the consistency of our program shining through. In meets, we do have a system. We have a plan, and we execute the plan. When gymnasts are recruited here, we tell them, “We’ve got big goals. We’re gonna get there, we’re gonna have fun doing it, and we’re gonna try to make you the best gymnast you’ve ever been.” All those things are used against us. It’s remarkable, actually, to think that consistency is bad and being organized and prepared is bad.
How do we handle those things? The team uses them for motivation. I always tell them, “They don’t know you. We know who you are, and we know what you’re trying to do. And we know you have fun.” These are young women, and the hate that they hear sometimes is very impactful, so we do our best to talk through those moments.
On balancing a demanding job and motherhood:
I made a lot of mistakes as a young mom. I went back to work after four days. I felt responsible to be with the team at that time, having taken on the new job. My mom came and stayed with us for a month. I think of those first four years as a blur in terms of motherhood and coaching. I had no balance at all. My athletes probably saw that in me. I get texts from that group, saying, “How did you do it?” Kristin White at Utah State is doing it right now. She was one of my 2010 seniors, and she’s like, “I totally appreciate what you were going through now that I’m going through it myself.”

Now that I’m in the twilight of my daughters’ high-school years, I am feeling nostalgic about the fact that they’re actually going to be leaving. There was a lot of lost time because my job is demanding and they share me with 19 other women who need my attention. I give credit to my daughters for being super-understanding. But I also feel like I’ve been a great example that you can do multiple things. It may not go smoothly all the time, but you can do it.

On the people who help her get it done:
Number one is my whole staff. Every single one of them is so important to us getting this done. To my daughters, who are super patient and understanding of the things that we have to do and the time that it takes (and the fact that they have to take vacation during the dead period every year). And then my parents, who have totally killed it in helping us since we moved here. Almost my whole family is in Minnesota, so taking time out of their lives to come down and take care of our kids and support us, that’s been huge. Lou takes control of the head parent job, so I wouldn’t have to worry if I had media or extra work at night. And I have to give it up to my athletic director who’s been incredibly supportive.
Coaches can learn some things from KJ. And some of that stuff is right here in the article: making lists, planning details, connecting with the person, confronting pressure head on.

The woman has truly created a dynasty. I wanted OU to win in 2014 and 2015. Since 2017, I have wanted other teams to win instead of OU. But other coaches have to step it up if they're going to put out the results she does, and I wish they would. I'd like to see more parity at the very top. It makes the sport more exciting.

It would've been interesting had Suzanne's, KJ's, and Val's peaks overlapped.

What team will be the next dynasty after OU? (Granted I think KJ could keep this up for quite a while being only 53). Cal? I don't see Jay Clark creating a dynasty. Maybe a coach who isn't even yet a head coach. I'd be interested to see if Jordyn Wieber moves on to a higher ranked team one day. She could continue to improve Arkansas, but they don't have the same level recruits as LSU, UF, and UCLA.
Winning a NCAA Championship is important to a lot of athletes. Why then don't the majority (or at least a larger number) of star athletes choose to go to OU?

If you go to OU, you are essentially guaranteed not one but multiple NCAA team titles (look at the past decade... every gymnast who stayed on the team got multiple wins). If you choose UF, UCLA, or LSU (or any other school), there is a good chance you won't win any. None of UF, UCLA, or LSU has won a team title in the last eight years. And LSU has never won.

I can at least understand that UCLA and UF are highly ranked academically. But LSU really isn't, and they have more star recruits than OU. Is KJ's intensity too much for some of the athletes, or what is it? There has got to be a reason, and I don't think OU's lack of diversity accounts for all of it.

(That said, I don't want OU to get more star recruits. That would be scary. And OU certainly doesn't need them. KJ can turn a team of decent level 10s into NCAA Champions. But I don't understand why OU doesn't get a bigger share of star recruits... and I don't think it's KJ turning down elites she fear will break soon... after all, she took Ragan Smith who came from Texas Dreams, had poor technique, and had a bum ankle).
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LSU has stupid huge amounts of NIL money, that's part of the attraction.

I don't know how much credence to lend to the innuendo and whispers about Oklahoma's lack of diversity, but there are people out there who swear it not because Oklahoma can't land those recruits but because they won't recruit them, period.

I've always been curious what makes Utah attractive. They haven't won a national title since 1995. And while the scenery in Utah is infinitely better than Oklahoma, it's also the most dreadfully uptight state in the country. There aren't enough star Mormons to account for their ability to consistently land so many top recruits.

It doesn't seem to have affected recruiting so far, but I am interested to see if the stripping away of rights, among other actions, has an adverse impact on schools located in conservative-led states.
I know NIL stands for Name, Image, and Likeness, and I understand athletes being able to earn money off their name, image, and likeness. But how does a school have NIL money as opposed to individual athletes earning it?
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The school has foundations that will work with individuals, charities, and companies to support the student athletes and get them opportunities with NIL.

For example, Utah has the Crimson Collective, which is non-profit, and is able to secure companies or cooperations with an athlete and that athlete's social media influence. The Crimson Collective was able to secure custom trucks for all of the football players, and then got cars or trucks for the basketball players and gymnasts.

LSU has NILSU which has its own app and connects opportunities to student athletes. Student-athletes create their own profiles (like Linked In) and include various information that might appeal to companies. The company can reach out to the athlete via the app.

Other athletes were able to do it on their own, like Livvy Dunne.

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