Coaching gymnastics presents unique challenges

Gymnastics head coach Sam Morreale discusses his role in setting his athletes up for success


Sean Reed

Senior Morgan Hooper performs on the balance beam in the third rotation of the NIU Tri-Meet on Feb. 4 at the Convocation Center in DeKalb. Hooper competed in all four events at the meet, her best performance taking place on floor exercise with a score of 9.875.

By Noah Silver, Sports Reporter

A basketball coach shoots around with their players. A baseball coach takes batting practice with their team. A gymnastics coach… sticks their bars landing during practice? 

Gymnastics is one of the most difficult and technical sports in which athletes are tasked with contorting their body as they fly through the air. Whereas most sports allow for a coach to partake in the action along with their players at some point, gymnastics is an entirely different beast. 

Women’s gymnastics head coach Sam Morreale, who is in his 11th year at the helm of the squad, has led the Huskies into a new era of NIU gymnastics success.

“I started out as a club coach,” Morreale said. “Then I worked at a local club gym in town. Spent 20 years there learning the trade and then I was a volunteer for four years at NIU, then an assistant and then into the head coaching job.”

Since arriving at NIU, Morreale has instilled a winning culture to the team, which has resulted in NIU winning the MAC Championship in 2019, along with winning WCGA Academic All- American academic status ranking first in the country.

But how does he control his squad? How does he ensure that his gymnasts are perfecting their skills without being able to do it with them?

“It’s all relative,” Morreale said. “At this level there’s different stressors than maybe as a club coach where you are doing more of the fundamentals of the skills we are trying to do now, whereas now the kids have already done that so now it’s just tweaking things. Moreover, it’s the day to day planning for peaks in the season. How much we wanna load on them. Everyday can’t be the same stuff so you try to change and put different stressors on the kids.”

Gymnastics can be a very dangerous sport where an injury can happen at any time due to a wrong landing, missed spot or scary fall. That’s why the coach ensures the team moves to more of a managing style as the season progresses.

“The goal is at this point of the season we have backed off of the hard coaching stuff and moved more to managing the team more,” Morreale said. “Managing the season, the injuries, sickness, missing people. There’s different pieces to the puzzle.”

Everything is happening so fast during meets that it is hard for a coach to keep track of every correction that needs to be made. That’s why Morreale has an ace up his sleeve that has helped his team tremendously.

“We do have some video systems in place that film whatever it’s pointed at,” Morreale said. “We can go back and rewatch things while it’s still filming. So it’s super useful because you can look at it and be like, ‘you need to make that correction.’ They go and watch it, put those two things together and their next turn they try it.” 

As everyone knows though, a coach can’t do everything alone. That’s why Morreale has a lot of help to make sure everything is running smoothly.

“As head coach I stick my nose everywhere but then I’m primarily the vault, bar and floor coach,” Morreale said. “Then Chris (Weiss) as my assistant will assist on the bar but he has a good eye where he can stand on vault and make corrections there. Same with the floor. Nita (Teague) kinda does all of our beam but then she can help on the floor and different events. Nita and I have coached together for a long time. She has kind of a developmental background and that helps us the most, being able to start a skill from beginning to end. Even though we never necessarily have to do that, we can go back down the chain where we think we can make a change to make it better.”

While Morreale won’t be getting on the balance beam to show his gymnasts how to do a correct dismount, you can be sure he has everything in place to ensure that they are getting the best coaching to compete at the highest level.