Inside the coaching staff: Meet the volunteer coaches working for gymnastics, baseball

Media Credit: File Photo by Arielle Bader | Senior Photo Editor

Gymnastics volunteer assistant coach Justin Watson has worked with the program for 15 years.

Behind the scenes of every team is a staff of coaches working to help it improve and perform. But some of those coaches choose to pour hours into practice and games without pay, just because they love the sport.

The baseball and gymnastics coaching staffs both include volunteer coaches that specialize in catching and spotting, respectively. The coaching duo, comprised of Justin Watson and Ryan Smoot, said their love for the sport and the experience they’ve cultivated at GW supersedes a number on a paycheck.

Watson ranks among the most experienced coaches on campus, having joined the gymnastics coaching staff for the Colonials back in 2005. He has served as a volunteer under head coach Margie Foster-Cunningham in every season since.

Watson said his path to Foggy Bottom went through Chantilly Academy Gymnastics, a facility located in Virginia where Foster-Cunningham also works and holds practices for the Colonials. After spending a season coaching men’s gymnastics in Florida, Watson accepted an offer from Chantilly in May 2005 and moved up to the District, he said.

Throughout summer 2005, Watson met GW gymnasts who went to Chantilly to stay in shape during the offseason. Through those connections, he said he found out about an open volunteer coach position on Foster-Cunningham’s staff.

“I feel very fortunate to have been able to stumble into this position,” Watson said. “It’s just been really good the entire time.”

Watson said the position allows him to work with Foster-Cunningham, a four-time NCAA coach of the year in the southern and southeast region who has led the Colonials for 35 years.

“I’ve known Margie 15 years, and I just really love the way that she runs her team,” Watson said. “The culture of our team is outstanding. Like I said, the girls work really hard. She’s a great leader. She’s been a really great mentor for me.”

In charge of level nine and level 10 gymnasts at Chantilly, Watson said he has overseen the development of multiple national champions at the Junior Olympic level of competition. Foster-Cunningham said Watson’s experience in spotting, which prevents athletes from landing off-balance or falling at an awkward angle, helps athletes stay safe while they’re practicing routines.

“As we’re learning all of these new skills, he spots them and keeps them safe,” Foster-Cunningham said. “So it’s really an invaluable contribution that he’s making to our program and our development.”

Under NCAA guidelines, a paid coach must have completed a four-year degree. Watson said he is looking to complete his degree in information systems management to be eligible for paid employment in a college athletic department.

On the baseball squad, Smoot is in his first season as a volunteer baseball coach on head coach Gregg Ritchie’s staff, specializing in the catching position.

Smoot graduated from the Virginia Military Institute last May with a degree in economics and business. In four seasons on the field with the Keydets, Smoot split time at first base and catcher, starting 75 games and accumulating a career on-base percentage of .428.

“I went there for four years and knew early on there that I wanted to work in baseball and probably coach,” Smoot said.

Advice from current and former coaches helped forge Smoot’s path to a position on a collegiate staff, encouraging him to seek work at summer camps and start building connections and a coaching reputation of his own, he said. After spending the summer coaching at baseball camps, including one at GW, Smoot said he received an offer from Ritchie’s staff to help coach at GW.

Smoot said he holds the same responsibilities as paid coaches on the team. He added that he takes care of administrative work and sets up prior to practices, helps run practice activities and then returns to the offices to evaluate the performances of his players.

In addition to coaching on Foggy Bottom, Smoot said he heads to a training facility to teach young kids baseball skills after GW practices.

“A few nights a week I go to a baseball training facility to give lessons to some kids. Kind of a way that I can make a few bucks, so in that respect that’s probably the biggest difference between me and the rest of the staff,” Smoot said. “They’re probably getting on home and continuing to work on stuff with our team and I got to give some lessons.”

Smoot added that the coaching experience and passion for baseball motivate him more than a salary.

“I enjoy the game, I enjoy being around our guys and working with our staff and I enjoy competition,” Smoot said. “I think if those are things you value maybe a little bit more than money, then what you’re doing is satisfying.”

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