February 27, 2001
By Rico Andrade
"People make the mistake of thinking that a coach motivates you through emotion or locker room speeches. It's not true. Nothing motivates you more than the feeling that the guy really knows what he's doing. And with Coach, you feel that he's smarter than the people you're playing. He tells you they're gonna do something, and they do it, and when this happens over and over again, well, that gets you psyched."
That is how Patriots tackle Chad Eaton described coach Bill Belichick during Super Bowl XXXVI. For all I know, he could have been describing our coach, Sadao Hamada, who will retire at the end of this season after thirty years at Stanford. His last home meet will be next Saturday, March 9, against top-ranked Oklahoma.
I first met Sadao at Disney World during the Junior Olympic National Championships in 1997. I miraculously (mistakenly?) received an acceptance letter from Stanford just weeks before, and he didn't know who I was. I wanted to meet him, but I was just a little nervous to introduce myself.
You see, at first glance, Sadao has a stoic, intimidating presence. He had just won three NCAA Championships and coached Jair Lynch to a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics. I was a little star-struck and I felt that whenever he entered the arena, all eyes were on him.
Besides, I had no business in collegiate gymnastics. I was just eliminated in the first day of competition by barely finishing in the top 100. It was my last junior meet, and not even the then-lowly University of Minnesota (where I personally knew the coaches) showed any interest in my gymnastics. I clearly lacked any hint of form and basics. Why would Sadao want me on his team?
Gymnastics or no gymnastics, I was going to Stanford. After three days of competition, I finally walked up to him.
"I look forward to working with you in September," he told me. I wasn't expecting that. Those words extended my gymnastics career by at least another four years. He meant it - I don't know how many coaches are so supportive of walk-ons. I'm really thankful he gave me an opportunity to join the team, because the past five years have been the happiest time of my life.
This is one of Sadao's greatest assets - regardless of your skill level, he will give you a chance. As long as you put in the effort, he will work with you to make you a better gymnast. In a way, this frustrates the top gymnasts who expect him to do all of the motivational work. But Sadao is the type of coach who never screams, never panics, and very rarely gives motivational speeches. Once you understand his coaching style, and place complete trust in his plans and techniques, you flourish under his system.
I would characterize Sadao's coaching system as a "gamble" of sorts. He's a very innovative coach, who is willing to try something different but riskier plan in hopes of a greater payoff. It might not always work, but when it works, it REALLY works.
For example, instead of perfecting "sure-hit" routines at the beginning of the season, we start with routines above our physical ability, even though we fall a lot and lose a lot of meets. That doesn't bother him because he knows these are the types of routines that win nationals, and is banking on a couple extra months (that is, regular season) to learn those difficult routines. It makes him notorious for peaking his gymnasts at the right time. This was especially true my sophomore year, when, after being ranked very low for most of the season, we upset top-ranked Oklahoma at Western Regionals to sneak into the NCAA Championships.
Sadao is also famous for his emphasis on good form and beautiful gymnastics. He works harder on teaching us good basics (especially on the pommel horse) than actual skills. This emphasis is a long-term investment, because no matter how good you are, you won't have success at the international level without perfect body lines. Blaine Wilson, the great gymnast from Ohio State, dominated American gymnastics for five years, but had less success at the international level because of his execution. Sadao's strategy worked - though many college coaches have coached Olympians, Sadao is the only American college coach who has coached an Olympic medallist.
Sadao's presence no longer intimidates me; in fact, he's become a good friend to all of us. If it weren't for NCAA rules, he's the kind of guy who would let us borrow his car any time we needed it. He participates in our practical jokes, knows good sushi (Miyake bad, Jedaya good), and is a passionate golfer (he's working towards a PGA Senior Tour card). Thirty seasons of alumni will show up en masse for his last home meet on March 9. If you've never seen live men's gymnastics before, this is the perfect time to check one out.
And be loud, please.