In basketball, the crowd –is the sixth man; in football it’s the 12th player; and for the Michigan men’s gymnastics team, the crowd — along with its infamous cowbell — acts like the 21st player on the team’s roster.
“The crowd always helps for us,” sophomore Dave Flannery said. “It helps us hit. It helps us get going. The energy in the crowd transfers over to the energy in our routines.”
The cowbell, which has been a tradition in Cliff Keen Arena for as long as the team can remember, is used by the gymnasts to get the crowd involved and helps the fans maintain a high team spirit, especially when the Wolverines have had a series of missed routines.
Along with the crowd, the cowbell has been known to lift the team’s attitude and push the gymnasts to try harder and hit their events when they are struggling.
“If you’re really down and there’s no team spirit at all, it can really hinder you,” coach Kurt Golder said. “It’s not a given. But also if you have a great spirit and you start with great spirit and then you get some hit routines under your belt, you have a lot of momentum and you keep that spirit going.”
During home and away meets, a team member strikes the bell to begin one of the many well-known Michigan cheers, including “Let’s Go Blue” and “Go Blue.” In the past, the cowbell has been banned from away meets because other teams have considered it to be an unfair advantage for the Wolverines. But, it’s now allowed, and Michigan has it on the floor at every meet.
“The cowbell has been around since I was a freshman,” senior captain Geoff Corrigan said. “Ever since I was a freshman we (have brought) it to NCAAs. We aren’t allowed to have it on the floor at NCAAs, so we have it up in the crowds and people use it. It’s just something that gets us all together and gets everybody focused.”
In addition, the gymnasts frequently stand several feet away from their teammate yelling and cheering for their fellow Wolverine while he is completing a routine. The gymnasts enjoy the support, and they say knowing their teammates are right there, depending on their every hold, makes them push themselves to stick the event.
Some teams and their home crowds will cheer during an opposing team’s routines, often distracting the gymnast and causing him to miss holds and fall off the apparatus. But, the Wolverines welcome other teams to cheer during their events. They said it prepares them for the atmosphere at the NCAA Championships, where up to 10 teams are on the floor cheering during each rotation.
At Michigan’s last meet, No. 7 Oklahoma yelled throughout the night. At times the gymnasts were banging the floor and stomping their feet, trying to throw the Wolverines off balance. But, much to the Sooners’ disappointment, Michigan was solid all night and barely noticed the “Go Sooners” and “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A” chants that echoed the arena.
“I think we were so focused and motivated by ourselves that we didn’t really notice,” Flannery said. “I just think our concentration and our cheering for ourselves took them out of our mind.”
The atmosphere at meets wasn’t always this rowdy and energetic. Gymnastics has evolved into a more fan-interactive sport over the years. Today, fans and gymnasts cheer not only before and after the routines, but during them as well.
“(In the past), you could hear a pin drop during a gymnastics competition,” Golder said. “Then, when the performance was over, you would hear like golf clapping. But now, the teams get all hyped up, and they want audience participation.”