When my sons were attending preschool in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, every other week they’d walk up the street to nearby Redwood Empire Gymnastics and participate in a gymnastics class. I was a parent helper and was assigned a station to help out on by the gym’s preschool director, Steve Sassone. I remember watching Steve work with the kids and thinking how gifted he was with them. The kids loved him! Years later when I began working at REG, I was hired and trained by Steve Sassone. I was very fortunate to learn almost everything I know about coaching gymnastics from Steve. Through his passion for teaching gymnastics and safety awareness, he helps kids believe in their abilities, grow, and become more confident young people. Steve has been coaching for 35 years and has literally worked with thousands of kids between coaching gymnastics and teaching Kid Power classes. He’s affected many lives in a positive way and I’m honored that he agreed to let me interview him and share his knowledge and experiences with you. He currently owns Flying Angels Gymnastics.
Interview with Steve Sassone, Part 1
How and at what age did you become involved with gymnastics?
I remember watching the 1964 or 1968 Olympics on my black and white TV set at home and I saw the Japanese team doing these release moves on the high bar. I was just transfixed and amazed that the human body could do that kind of stuff. I was fascinated by the fact that by using angles and force you could move your body almost effortlessly into different movements and flight. That was so exciting to me. My dad was very athletic and gave me the sports bug. Plus I was built small and wiry and I loved climbing, so that really was my inspiration. And then I had a third grade P.E. teacher. He was the first P.E. teacher they had brought into the school and he was into gymnastics. So I got into it that way. And then in my community we had Roy Davis (who would eventually start Gymnastics West in Palo Alto) come in and start a 6 week summer gymnastics program and I was able to do that. These were my first official gymnastics lessons from a gymnast. I started learning the basics on all the events. Once Roy’s club started however, my family couldn’t afford to enroll me in classes so when I got into college (Sonoma State University) that’s when I started really doing gymnastics. It was a division two school so I was able to walk on. The coach invited me to be on the team with my minimal experience. I learned all the fundamentals. I had a great coach. He inspired me and we had a good group of guys. We all got along and it was a good environment so I started learning all the basics there and by the time I got to my third and fourth years, I was able to compete on all the events. I eventually became the team captain and I was really into it. Thank goodness I was at a division two college. They say sometimes it’s good to be a big fish in a small pond. Well I was a small fish in a small pond but I was allowed to grow into it and get all that experience.
Do you feel your involvement in gymnastics as a child had a significant impact on your personal development? What were the best benefits or life lessons it offered you?
Something my P.E. teacher did was start what was the precursor to the President’s Physical Fitness program. We did a variety of exercises, one of which was pull ups. I was only in third grade but was able to do eight, which was unheard of for most kids so I figured I was pretty good at it. I got into it and started practicing every night because I had gone to the local junior high school and saw the school record board that they had for a variety of athletic things. The school record for pull ups was 21 and I told myself that I wanted that record when I got to junior high. So I got a bar in my bedroom doorway and started doing pull ups every night and continued that for years. When I got into seventh grade I took the President’s Physical Fitness test and I did 23 pull ups, so I had reached my goal and had the school record. Then when I got into eighth grade I got the record again, which wasn’t easy to do because my twin brother and I competed against each other. We kept each other honest! When I look back at that, for a third grader to set that goal and consistently work out like that for years, it’s pretty unusual.
So what this whole experience taught me was that if I just keep applying myself, don’t give up, and keep looking ahead at my goal, I’ll get there. That sense of accomplishment after achieving something like that, that’s the feeling, the self-knowledge, that if I apply myself I can accomplish my goals. That kind of freed me up to set whatever goals I wanted. All the different successes that I find in my life, like getting onto a team in college, I gained the confidence to try because I trusted myself to be able to achieve what I wanted to achieve. That carried over and continues to carry over. Success leads to success, leads to success. As a coach, one of my visions and goals is to give kids the possibility of success. I want to create space for them, to create tools, and challenges that they can be successful at. So I can look at them and tell them when they started with me five weeks, eight weeks, or two years ago, this is where they were at. And tell them to notice how far they’ve come because it can be an anchor for them for future successes and to help pull them out of more difficult times. It’s a nice tool they can have with them. That’s a big part of the inspiration for coaching. To give them that, what I felt it gave me. Being around kids every day keeps the inspiration fresh.
When did you begin your coaching career and what are the different coaching positions you’ve had?
When I was on the gymnastics team in college I was given the chance to coach at a junior high school that had a gymnastics section and I taught an 8 week course that culminated in a gymnastics meet that the kids got to be in. So I’d teach them skills on whatever events we were doing and then we’d put them together into a routine. That was my first coaching experience and then when I graduated from college I started taking an adult gymnastics class at Gymnastics West. My coach told me he was leaving and asked me if I’d like to take over his position as head coach of the boy’s team. I didn’t even have to think about it. I said yes, and it was a dream-come true for me. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing, it was about making mistakes and learning on the go, but that was my first opportunity to be a team coach back in 1981. We’d compete against other boy’s teams, one of whom was Steve Klotz’s gym, (Redwood Empire Gymnastics, in Petaluma, Ca) and his girls team coach, Mike Steffen (who would eventually open Rohnert Park Gymnastics in Rohnert Park, Ca) was a friend of mine from college. He kept telling me I should coach at REG and then it turned out that they really needed a coach because one of their coaches was leaving. At the time some things were becoming more difficult where I was coaching so I decided to say yes.
You went from being a boy’s team coach to becoming the preschool and recreational director at REG. What was it that drew you to those areas of coaching?
When I started coaching, for me it was all about being a team coach. Coaching recreational classes was really about developing kids to be on team. That was the main focus. Then as I matured as a coach, I came to know that 95% of kids never are going to be on the team or even aspire to be on the team. They just want to do gymnastics and I started seeing that gymnastics for the majority of kids is really a positive movement experience that supports their growth as well as a recreational activity that they just enjoy doing and can have fun with. I learned that if you pressed too hard on the technique, precision and the artistic value of gymnastics you start to figure out who was made for team and who was made for enjoying gymnastics for a fun recreational activity. So that moved me then into becoming the preschool director. I was happy to do that because then I could really work with kids from a very early age. As a team coach I was constantly fixing problems that kids developed because they weren’t properly prepared at a younger age. Because I knew where gymnastics was going, I could correct those body issues early on and give them the proper foundation so if they chose to go for team then they’d at least be prepared. Then I could also direct kids to the right path. We tried to keep the team option available but we also wanted to keep the recreational program fun. And that was a real interesting decision because we started developing our recreational program with a very clear focus; to get kids to team. But we started losing kids because we were so focused on team requirements that kids were losing interest. We had to shift gears and make sure we weren’t losing kids because we were so driven to get kids onto the team. And all of a sudden our enrollment started to pick back up. They stayed longer because they were enjoying themselves. We could focus on the enjoyment and the variety and multiple levels of challenges that we could give kids that weren’t moving at that rapid rate where they had to be working four days a week by the time they were eight years old. Because that’s where competitive gymnastics was headed in the nineties and early two-thousands. Young kids were working out for many hours. You’d go to these meets and your eight year old's were competing against kids who were working out two-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week and your kids were working out two-and-a-half hours a day maybe two to three days a week. So we had to make some decisions. We wanted to be an inclusive gym where the kids were loving gymnastics and not just winning awards. We were trying to find that balance.
What administrative positions have you had in the gym throughout the years?
I started out as team administrator, managing competitions, etc. And then when I became the preschool director I managed the lesson plans and all of that. After that I became the recreational director too so I managed that as well. What happened with REG at that point was we were getting so big and Steve Klotz was coaching and running the business of the gym. I felt like we needed to take Steve out of the gym as a coach so he could focus on growing the business and then I would manage the gym. I started doing the staff hiring and running staff meetings, and the class scheduling, and as much as I could take on in addition to the preschool and recreation responsibilities I already had. Everything I saw that he didn’t need to be a part of that I could do, I tried to do. Eventually, I hired an assistant director, Danielle Jones, because it was too much for me to do all of these things, so she was taking over some of those tasks. I was trying to give everybody as much responsibility as they could handle on the side so that Steve could focus on running the business and it worked out great. We kept growing. And it prepared me for being a business owner today.
Please watch for the next post, Interview with Steve Sassone, Part 2, in which Steve talks about how he acquired the knowledge to create lesson plans for beginning gymnasts and an impressive testing program for REG’s recreational students.