Beam performance critical to NCAA Regional success

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By Cindy Yu, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 4, 2013

Performance on the balance beam distinguishes the best from the merely great in women’s gymnastics. In the postseason particularly, beam is often the deciding factor for which team is crowned national champion.

“We call beam the great equalizer,” said Michigan coach Bev Plocki. “You can be the No. 1 team in the country, but if you have a bad beam day, it can cost you dearly.”

The No. 5 Michigan women’s gymnastics team (12-2 Big Ten, 23-2 overall) learned that lesson at the Big Ten Championships on March 23, when it relinquished its lead to No. 8 Nebraska after scoring a 49.000 — the Wolverines’ second-lowest beam score of the season — on the final rotation.

Returning to West Virginia on Saturday evening to compete in the NCAA Morgantown Regional, the Wolverines have luck on their side and a shot at redemption. Not only will they be competing in Olympic order — vault, bars, beam, floor — and thus, not starting or ending on beam, but they will also be familiar with the equipment and meet format since they won a quad meet earlier this season at the WVU Coliseum. Placed in the same regional location, Michigan will have the opportunity to rematch Nebraska, as well as face No. 17 Illinois, No. 19 Kentucky, West Virginia and North Carolina.

Michigan typically scores in the mid-49.000 range on vault, bars and floor, but its season high on beam is only a 49.275 that was earned at the very first meet of the season, the Cancun Classic, on Jan. 4.

Despite lower scores on beam, the Wolverines are encouraged by their capability to perform much better than their scores reflect on the event. To prepare for regionals, they’ve been focusing on training for pressure situations.

“It’s impossible to create a real meet-like pressure in practice, but we do what we can,” Plocki said.

Methods to simulate meet settings include pressure sets with music blasting in the background to recreate crowd noise, stick competitions and “team beam,” in which the lineup competes and tries to obtain a certain team score.

The major beam assignment of the week was originally to spell out “Regional Champs” by Wednesday. Every time a gymnast scored at least a 9.900 on a beam routine in practice, she would put one of the letters up. Because the Wolverines almost spelled out the phrase by the end of Monday, the phrase was extended to “Regional Champions,” and then again, to “NCAA 2013 Regional Champions” because of their progress. The team completed the task on Wednesday, the day before the team traveled to West Virginia, and remarkably, even gymnasts not in the beam lineup helped accomplish the letters assignment.

In addition to being physically prepared for the upcoming meet, the team mentality is on point.

Sophomore Annette Miele has consistently been in the beam lineup throughout this season. She treats each routine in practice the same way she does in a meet.

“This is all mental at this point,” Miele said.

Michigan has demonstrated a new level of confidence that was absent during the previous season. Rather than let one major mistake or fall create a domino effect on the rest of the lineup, this team is unfazed by the added pressure placed in such high-pressure instances.

Plocki comes up with a saying each week for the team to live by. This week’s is “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.”

“What you’re telling yourself is what you believe,” Plocki said. “What you believe is what your reality is, and if you believe you’re not good, you’re not going to be good. If you believe you’re good, you have a lot better of a chance of being good, but you have to believe that you’re great if you want to go out there and win a National Championship.”

The Wolverines hope to place in the top two at Regionals to advance to the NCAA Championships, held in Los Angeles. The last time Michigan was in California, the team scored a season-best 197.550 on March 10.

“We need to do what we do,” Plocki said. “We need to be as good as we are. We need to perform the same way on Saturday that we have during the bulk of the regular season, trust in our abilities and have confidence.”