After her four-year tenure on Pomona-Pitzer softball as an outfielder and catcher, Baleigh McCuskey PO ’19 has not only caught an assistant coaching job for the team she played for — she’s also received the linebackers coach position for the P-P football team, making her the first female assistant coach in program history.
But McCuskey doesn’t see her achievement through a gendered lens.
“I think a lot of women coaches who break barriers would say the same thing; it’s not necessarily about breaking the [gender] barrier,” McCuskey said. “I think it’s important for people to know that it’s about doing something you love and inspiration comes out of that.”
For McCuskey, that love began in high school, when she helped coach younger age groups of a travel softball program. There, she learned the importance of patience and other coaching concepts that she still applies to this day.
“I think one of the biggest things is patience, and [coaching little kids] makes you good at explaining things and breaking things down in a way that is easily digestible for people,” she said. “Having the ability to put things into layman’s terms and putting things in a way that your athletes are going to understand from the get-go is a super important tool.”
A lot of McCuskey’s coaching knowledge has proven to be universally applicable, but football comes with a unique set of challenges. Coaching football in an effective and respectful way, McCuskey explained, means tackling the customs and expectations of hypermasculinity.
“Traditionally, football players are very much used to men screaming in their faces all the time, and so there’s a misinformation surrounding how they’re really used to it,” she said.
“I hoped that the boys could appreciate tough love, where I could be blunt with them but add that kind of supportive element that they may have been missing in the past.”
Being more hard-headed and direct as a football coach differs from her thoughtful, inclusive personality when coaching softball.
“The way that I coach the softball team is a little bit more wholesome,” she said. “They know how to take criticism; criticism in a different way.”
Although her delivery may be different, McCuskey pushes her athletes in softball and football: “One of my favorite quotes of all time is ‘potential just means you haven’t done shit yet,’” she said. The best feeling for the coach is when she’s able to reach what she calls an “aha, lightbulb” moment with one of her players.
While much of coaching requires a parental attitude, the job also provides space for McCuskey to express her childlike emotional freedom, something she taps into out on the field.
“For lack of a better term, I get to be a kid every single day, where I go out and enjoy myself and be high energy,” McCuskey said. “The greatest thing in the world is stepping out onto the field or stepping into the weight room and getting to yell and bounce and jump around and run.”
As she manages the weight of two coaching jobs, McCuskey has struggled to reconcile her competitive nature as an athlete with the longer-term growth mindset of a coach.
“I think anytime you see failure on the field, it feels like a personal failure — like you let your athletes down because they didn’t succeed in a moment you wanted or needed them to,” McCuskey said. “But we [as coaches] learn while that feels like a personal failure, we’re always looking at that as a growth moment: using every failure that you see on the field and using it to your advantage.”
Even though McCuskey is more concerned with growing into her new roles and responsibilities than she is with being the first female assistant coach for P-P football, she does not take for granted the trailblazing she’s doing, or the women in sports who came before her.
“There’s a lot of women that I stand on the shoulders of — strong, wonderful, fabulous women who have opened the doors who have made their mark in male-dominated sports — which I think is an inspiring thing to see,” she said.
With so much achieved in just the first leg of her career, McCuskey spoke with an earned confidence of someone more than qualified to serve as a role model to other young coaches. Her advice to other female coaches stressed timing and humility.
“I think the biggest thing for female coaches, especially women that are coaching men, is to set your expectations and make your mark early,” McCuskey added in an email. “The core of my coaching philosophy, and my athletes know it well, is to check your ego at the door, and that goes for coaches too.”
In keeping with her own mantra, she explained that her focus is on doing the best work she can in her current role. It’s something she can back up; typically, she works 12 or more hours a day, starting at 7 a.m. and not stopping until the evening. She is also a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee for the athletics department as well as its Mental Health, Wellness and Performance Committee.
For someone so motivated, who is as busy as she is, nobody could blame McCuskey for looking to climb the ladder towards the next, bigger, better thing. Still, she remains grounded.
“If eventually one day, I get a call from Nick Saban or Eric Bieniemy, and they say, ‘Hey, we love what you’re doing. Come work for us,’ I will absolutely jump at the chance,” McCuskey said. “But one thing that I always want to do is to make sure I put my athletes first, not where I would constantly be doing things for my own self-benefit.”