Why they coach: Shannon Welker
Over the course of the next eight weeks, PowerMizzou.com is running a series of stories with the head coach of every varsity sport at Mizzou. The basic gist of the interviews began as “why do you coach?” Throughout each story, there will be many of the same questions, but with each subject we veer off on to some tangents as well.These interviews will run every Tuesday and Friday morning on the site from now until July 11th. Today, our conversation with head gymnastics coach Shannon Welker.
PM: When you were growing up what sports did you play?
SW: "Really, probably very active. Probably my parents got me going in this stuff primarily to keep me from breaking stuff in our house. Probably like a lot of kids quite honestly. I have an older brother and a younger brother so probably keeping us from beating each other up. That was good too to get us out of the house. I think primarily just to channel a lot of energy into those things. I did a lot of sports when we were younger. Unfortunately now it's a little less common, it's a little earlier now that kids have to specialize and select sports, just the number of hours and things like that. But, yeah, we did soccer and baseball and did diving in the summers and swimming and did all kinds of things. Then obviously as time progressed, started to do a little bit less and a little bit less and I think soccer and diving were probably my last two that I did along with training gymnastics. I continued to do diving through high school and actually my first year in college I was on a half diving, half gymnastics scholarship. So I did two sports and the year after, after a nice solid C average, I put that to rest and went all gymnastics. So that was kind of a little bit of the track through collegiate competition."
PM: How far did gymnastics take you as a competitor?
SW: "I went through, I competed probably starting around eight to nine years old. Then all the way through college. I grew up just outside of St. Louis, Missouri and went to the University of Illinois-Chicago and was an all-American there and competed four years for their program and was a captain and had a great experience there. They're actually, unfortunately they're closing down their programs this year. They dropped their men's and their women's programs. That was where my collegiate career took me and that was a great experience and obviously I kept my passion from my competing days. I took a little break there and came back to coaching."
PM: When did you know this is what you wanted to do?
SW: "I think like many student-athletes that have done it their whole life, when they get to the end of that collegiate career or whatever their career is, I think they maybe want to take a break. And I did as well. Took a break for a few years there trying to get some other career interests moving along, but then I came back and started coaching part-time. I was probably three years removed from college and I started coaching part-time, actually at the same club that I trained at in high school. I was coaching the females. Started doing that part-time while I was working another full-time job. Boy, I could tell, I started doing more and more coaching and I enjoyed it more and more. My wife finally said to me, she said, 'Listen, you've got to pick. This is ridiculous. You're working 8 to 9 every day' and we'd just had our first kid. Decided to get into collegiate coaching at that point. Of course, that was eight or nine years of coaching high school kids and moving them along and getting them into college and definitely have enjoyed it ever since."
PM: Who was the coach that you look back and consider kind of your mentor or your biggest influence?
SW: "I think my collegiate coach, C.J. Johnson was his name. He was a good coach but probably even more a great individual. He cared, he wanted you to win, but he also wanted you to do well in life and just make sure things were going well for you. So I think a lot of that goes to him. I've had a lot of other great mentors along the way. I'm trying to think of some of those people. Bev Plocki, University of Michigan, which I had coached there for about five years as an assistant. She really had some great influence on just ways to run a program and things like that. A lot of other great people along the way, but I think C.J., my old college coach was probably one of my favorites."
PM: Was there a moment along the way where you kind of realized, this can be a career?
SW: "Yeah, you know, there's a point where I think sometimes, at least in my mind--and I think some other people go through this--am I kind of selling myself short if I do this? I didn't want to do it just because that had been what I'd known all my life. I think that was important and I was glad that I stepped away because I think when I went back to it at that point, I really enjoyed it and I felt like I was very good at it, I think I was able to accept, hey, listen, this is something I think I can do here. This is something that can be long-term. Especially when I went into the collegiate route too. I think that was the moment, when I went into the college route, I was like, okay, this can work with a family life. The hours are a little more tolerable. Not great, but they're definitely more tolerable than coaching club kids because you have to go from 3 o'clock in the afternoon to 9 o'clock at night and that's not the greatest hours for family life. So I think when we made that step into college, I think at that point I really committed to doing this as a long-term career."
PM: Every coach says there are a lot of people who could be in my position but didn't get the break. What was your break?
SW: "You know, a lot of it is timing. There's a lot of great coaches probably in all sports out there, including ours. I think something people need to be willing to do is you have to be willing to take a leap of faith and take some risks. Things are not gonna be put on a silver platter for you. It's not going to be easy either. You've got to be willing to take advantage of opportunities when the door cracks open. I think probably at least getting into collegiate coaching, I actually coached a year at Bowling Green State University. I was there for a short stint, but for one competitive season, so for nine or ten months. I think things just happened there. Kerrie Turner, who's the head coach there, I just put my application in and she took me on and it was a great experience. When I was there, that's about an hour down the road from the University of Michigan and because of that, because of my proximity, I went over and helped them out with some summer camps over the summer and they happened to have a position open that next summer. And so it worked out great. I think that stuff, one opportunity led to another. My wife was generous enough and kind enough to put up with my travels. Those things all steamrolled one position into another. Then being from Missouri, when this position opened, we always wanted to get back because my wife and I are from the St. Louis area, we have a lot of family. So when this happened and when the University of Missouri joined the SEC, I think those two things, it being from our home state and them, for gymnastics, like many sports, it's the premier conference in the country. So I think when those two things lined up and this position opened and being at the University of Michigan that really gave us the opportunity and, I think, the resume to be competitive for this job. I think that first break into Bowling Green, quite honestly, was the best. And honestly getting turned down for a lot of jobs worked out in our favor too. Because I had plenty of rejections. I remember going on an interview to Penn State and I didn't get that job and it was the same summer I got the job at the University of Michigan. And I think I tried to get, before that, I interviewed at Ohio State and got turned down. And then the next year I got the job at Bowling Green and that steamrolled into some other things. So, you know, you get shot down. And I think that tells you a lot about yourself if you really want to do things. Rejection will tell you if you're really committed to what you're doing.
PM: Big picture, what's the most rewarding part of being a coach?
SW: "You know, I think that's changed for me. Or morphed a little bit over the years. I think initially it was just all winning. Like, man, that was my main (thing). And I think as an athlete many times that's obviously one of the most rewarding things. But I think my perspective's changed a little bit now as I've moved through this. I think now, I still like to win, don't get me wrong, but I think how we win becomes a lot more important. I think seeing young women coming through the door that end up walking out of here just great people and great representatives and having so much direction in their life, I think those are things now that I really value along with being competitive. That has really added to what we're doing because the winning's great, but if you don't those other things along with it, it's a little bit hollow."
PM: Flip side, what's the most challenging part?
SW: "I think for me personally, it's just the pressure I think I put on myself to get this program where I think it can be. I think sometimes coaches put more pressure on themselves--the good ones do, I think, or the ones that want to be great--than anyone else. I think managing that internal pressure that you put on yourself in a positive way is probably the thing that you've got to watch for the most. And if you can manage those things I think that gives you a long happy career in doing this professionally."
PM: I think I know the answer to this, but specific to this program, what's the biggest challenge for Missouri?
SW: "Well it's just the SEC. It's just the rest of our conference. People are like how's recruiting going? I'm like, it's great against every conference out there. The trick is outrecruiting your own conference most of the time. I think just getting more people on campus here, getting them to give us a look, because I think once they do, I think a lot of people, I've heard it over the years, 'I had no idea how much the University of Missouri has to offer, how nice the campus is, how nice the facility is' and all those things. So I think just getting people in here and just making sure that we continue to work on projecting the image, probably from a social media standpoint especially, because a lot of it's just image, right? People see this product and they're like, 'Wow, this is awesome, we should go visit there.' I think continuing to do those things, that will help us get the right kind of people so we can be competitive. But otherwise, there's really nothing stopping us. I think just some consistency in performance, that helps. You've got to do better to recruit better. And so that process takes some time, as we all know in all sports."
PM: I don't know if there's a correct way to ask this, but a man coaching women, what unique challenges does that present?
SW: "It's funny that you ask that because I'm in the middle of a book right now, it's about gender and competition. I just try to keep educating myself and reminding myself, there are some differences with coaching highly competitive guys and highly competitive females. I think what's really helped us is I have a really great staff. They've been with us for this is going on seven years here. So I think making sure we're surrounding ourselves with great staff people. I've got a great assistant coach in Casey Jo (Macpherson) down the hall. She definitely balances me out I think. I've got another one, John (Carney), who's not here right now, he's out on the road recruiting. But I think we all bring some different things to the table. I think specifically with coaching females, I think you've just got to remember, the piece, I think, about making sure that they all know they're in this together. I think you have to manage the desire to make some superstars. You have to make sure that everybody feels like they're on the same page moving along together. I think as long as you do that, then it allows for your quote unquote superstars to excel. But it also allows for your role players to excel as well. So I think that's the biggest challenge is just reminding yourself that we have to do this, that it's going to be a group effort here. As much as it's somewhat of an individual sport, we got to make sure that the whole team feels like they're succeeding and is a part of the success that we're doing versus maybe, you know, having only one or two superstars out there."
PM: I assume you hope it's a few years down road, but whenever you decide it's time to walk away, what do you want people to remember about you as a coach?
SW: "Well, you know, I feel like we came in at a time, we came in I believe in year two of University of Missouri joining the SEC. So what I'd really like to hope is, whenever we're done here, whenever that time is, people feel like, oh yeah, you know what? That coaching staff, coach Welker, really helped get Missouri to a very competitive point in the SEC and really helped establish their program as a competitive one. And I think we've done those things, quite honestly. But I think that's it. Our intention is to get our team, they've been to NCAA Championships once, our intention is to get them back there again and to be competitive in our conference too. That's the tough thing. If we can go .500 or better in our conference, that's going to be a really good year."
PM: You can make the NCAA Championships and finish eighth in this league, right?
SW: "That's right. The worst, the lowest ranked team in our conference, I think was 19th this year. And we beat them out."