Reigning, no defending: K.J. Kindler's approach keeps Sooners pushing for more
NORMAN — A giant banner hangs on the southeast wall of the Sam Viersen Gymnastics Center, above the area where the OU women’s gymnastics team works on their floor exercise routines.
On it are the smiling faces of the Sooners’ 2019 national championship team.
Sooners assistant coach Tom Haley uses it as motivation.
“We have to be better than that team and every other team in the country,” Haley has regularly said as OU has worked to return to the level they were at last year.
He uses it as motivation not only for the team as a whole but with individuals.
“You’ve got to be better than that girl last year,” Haley has said more than once to junior Jordan Draper.
The Sooners are the defending champions, but K.J. Kindler tries not to approach it that way.
That attitude and her experiences during the 2015 season — a year after OU’s first national championship, have framed Kindler’s approach.
Kindler remembers coming into the gym in 2015 unsure about where to go from there.
“After we won that first one, the next year was the hardest year we’ve had,” Kindler said. “I think training wasn’t as disciplined. When you work hard for something and you finally get it, sometimes you might have a tendency to get complacent. I do think we did get a little complacent in our 2015 campaign.
“I think we were so elated about winning our first championship — the athletes, the coaches and everyone else — we didn’t really know what to do. What do you do next? How do you do it? I just felt like we were so pleased with ourselves we didn’t quite rebound the way we should have.”
It made Kindler change her approach.
She went from treating the program from being on one continuous ride to treating each season as its own entity.
“All the personalities are different, the dynamics are different, everybody’s bouncing off each other differently,” Kindler said. “There’s nothing the same from last year so you really can’t expect to have the same results in the same way so we have to figure out what way works for our team to try to reach the same goal.”
Human nature pushes to complacency after reaching the peak of a sport and Kindler has tried to find ways to fight that.
“The reason behind the season is helpful,” junior Jordan Draper said. “Last year doing it for Dave (Richardson), that was kind of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. This year it’s a little bit different. It’s just really cool to see what drives us each year.”
The season, the mantra the Sooners repeat is the “drive for five” — working for a fifth national title in seven seasons.
“We don’t really think of it as defending the national title,” junior Carly Woodard said. “It’s not trying to keep the same title.”
That approach has helped Kindler and her team turn the page to this season in a different way.
“You all can really enjoy it for this many weeks and then throw it out the window,” Kindler said of her approach to her team. “Been there, done that, now that are you going to do?”
So far, this season’s approach has worked.
The Sooners have a firm hold on the No. 1 ranking and are in the top three in each event heading into Friday’s home meet against Texas Woman’s and West Virginia.
“I never look at it as defending,” Kindler said. “We’re the reigning champions until someone else reigns.
“We’re fighting to prove that we can be there again, but I don’t think they feel the weight of expectations.”