Women in Sport: Cheryl Cox, Athletic Performance Coach, University of California–Berkeley

Cheryl Cox serves as Athletic Performance Coach for the beach volleyball and women’s gymnastics programs, and manages the University of California-Berkeley’s sports science department for intercollegiate athletics where she uses technology like Catapult to improve all facets of student-athlete performance for all of Cal’s sport programs.

“I didn’t choose this career, the career chose me.” Cheryl’s first exposure to strength and conditioning began as an intern at Georgetown University: “I had no prior coaching experience but I wanted to challenge myself…I had no idea how much of an impact that internship would make on me.”

From there, Cheryl never looked back, working her way up to become Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Georgetown and then at Pepperdine, and eventually Cal–Berkeley, working with nine sports in total, ranging from basketball and football, to diving and track and field.

Cheryl states that her journey to Cal “was full of twists and turns and involved a tremendous amount of sacrifice in all aspects of my life, but I am so grateful to be where I am today.”

Cheryl feels that one of the biggest barriers women face in male-dominated industries, such as strength and conditioning “is getting a seat at the table”. Once you have someone “to open the door for you, and give you an opportunity, the rest is up to you”. Cheryl highlights how fortunate she has been to have supportive mentors, constantly providing opportunities allowing her to grow both as a coach and as a sports science practitioner.

When Cheryl started her job at UC Berkeley five years ago, she learned that she was the first female to work with the Cal football program that closely and in that capacity. Since then, she has seen multiple female interns working with the football program. “To see the next generation of female strength coaches fearlessly attack opportunities working with football is amazing.”

Throughout her strength and conditioning career, Cheryl has made a conscious effort to celebrate the little victories, no matter how big or small, because “in a blink of an eye your bright-eyed freshmen are now seniors and your time with them is over.”

A few moments in particular stand out to her, in particular her work with the swimmer at Georgetown who was paralysed in her freshman year, but refused to sit back and accept defeat. “During one of our training sessions, she trap bar deadlifted over 200 pounds. You could see the pride and happiness on her face. She never gave up no matter what the challenge, and now she is a Paralympic gold medallist!”  

However, it’s not just players, but coaches and colleagues alike who have also had a significant impact on Cheryl’s career. 

“I love the Georgetown men’s and women’s swimming and diving program for buying into a championship culture and embracing me as a coach. I appreciate Cal football for welcoming me into their program and respecting me as a coach no matter what gender I am. I am extremely grateful for the camaraderie and commitment from Cal Beach Volleyball as we work towards a national championship.”

It’s impossible for Cheryl to pinpoint just one team or individual, as they’ve all contributed to her ability to lead by example, and be a positive role model for young adults trying to find their place in the world. 

As a female in a male-dominated industry, it can be daunting to enter it, and “to not only hold your own, but thrive.” Cheryl acts as a support system for male and female athletes alike: “I hope that my female athletes see that you can be true to yourself and still be successful in these environments. I hope my male athletes see the value of a different perspective on their coaching staff and that they can win championships when coached by females.”

Cheryl discusses the huge mindset shift in teams and coaches, that instead of viewing data “as the enemy”, and relying solely on their “coaching eye” to determine the specifics of a workout, they’re recognising the value of “marrying data with the art of coaching.” As technology evolves, Cheryl highlights there will be a need for practitioners who are able to “communicate those actionable insights into a language that the coaches understand.” 

Instead of separate strength and conditioning or sports scientist positions, she contemplates how “we are seeing athletic programs, both professional and collegiate, creating positions similar to mine where you serve the dual role as a S&C coach and sports science practitioner. Sports performance technology will never stop evolving and it is important that athletic departments continue to evolve with it.”

Cheryl’s ethos is “Grateful for Everything. Entitled to Nothing.” Her biggest challenge is learning how to hold athletes accountable and embrace the uncomfortable conversations. “You can’t become a champion without brutal accountability. By teaching the athletes how to take ownership and accountability, you are creating resilient individuals who have the skillset necessary to be great in both sport and life.” She emphasises that as a coach, it is her job to teach them how to fail, but also how to get back up again: “You can’t control everything that life throws your way, but you can control how you respond.”

Cheryl accepts that she doesn’t have all the answers but she constantly strives to be better today than she was yesterday. The student-athletes willingness and desire to constantly improve both on and off the court energises and motivates Cheryl every day. “The manner in which they tackle challenges and overcome adversity, both as a student and student-athlete, inspires me to be the best coach I can be. I hope my athletes remember how I held them accountable to high standards, that I coached them hard…but that I loved them harder.”  

Image: Al Sermeno Photography

Read our previous Women in Sport profiles:

Hannah Jowitt, International Pathways Analyst, ECB

Kate Starre, High Performance Manager, Fremantle Dockers AFLW

Tahleya Eggers, Sports Scientist, Parramatta Eels

Shona Halson, Associate Professor, Australian Catholic University