Nov. 26, 2013
By Brad Rudner, MGoBlue.com
For a veteran coach now entering her 25th season in charge of the University of Michigan women's gymnastics program, Bev Plocki has a recipe for success when it comes to getting her teams ready for the season. On Monday (Nov. 25), Team 38 took another step towards 2014 by competing in its annual intrasquad at the Donald R. Shepherd Gymnastics Training Center.
Gymnastics, by nature, is a pressure-filled sport. All the elite teams compete at packed arenas that are filled to the brim with thousands. Imagine being at the NCAA Championships in the final rotation of the Super Six and performing on a balance beam just four inches wide in front of 15,000-plus people. Come April, that's a situation that this team could find itself in.
Being one of the six teams on the floor on the last day of the season is the end goal of every team in America. While there may be six months until that time, Monday's intrasquad was a small step along what is sure to be a long season. It wasn't quite a Crisler Center experience, but that didn't mean it was any less pressure-filled.
"The idea is to ease them into competition pressure," Plocki said. "When you have intrasquads in the gym that's just us, there's only a little bit of pressure. The kids are still in their comfort zone, but now we've taken it a step further to have local clubs and boosters come in to watch, which adds additional pressure and makes it more challenging each time. At the end of the day, it's all about building confidence so we can start the season prepared and aggressive."
After the competition, senior Joanna Sampson, the reigning national champion on floor exercise, had some trouble finding the words to show her excitement.
"We're in a great spot right now," she said. "I'm excited for how this season is going to turn out. We just have so much going for us and so much talent and consistency in practice. We look really great."
While the confidence was there, the nerves and pressure Plocki talked about were, too, striking even the seasoned veterans like Shelby Gies. Before she went up for her balance beam routine, she noted to two of her teammates how her nerves had come back.
It's not like Gies hadn't felt this way before. She usually is the first one up on both uneven bars and balance beam, one of the two biggest pressure spots (the other being the anchor) on the two events that more often than not separate the good teams from the great teams. There's bound to be nerves in those positions. For this three-year veteran, however, she's taking a different approach. She's embracing them.
"To have them come back again means everything is starting," she said. "You never get rid of those nerves. I'm enjoying every minute of them this year."
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Freshman Nicole Artz said she was more anxious than nervous. After she put on her Maize and Blue competition leotard for the first time, she noted how official the competition felt, even if it wasn't.
"Whenever there are judges, it's like 'Oh, this really is real,'" she said.
From a coaching perspective, Monday's intrasquad served as a measuring stick to see where the gymnasts were at both mentally and physically.
"You're either a little bit better or a little bit worse and we need to find that out about these kids," she said. "Who's going to step it up and perform at a higher level than we see in practice because they've got that adrenaline that helps them in meet situations and which ones are going to be nervous and hold back? It's always nice to find out in a competition-type setting who is going to step up."
Take Austin Sheppard. After competing solely on vault last season, the sophomore from Murphy, Texas, looks to take on an even bigger role this season. She competed on all four events on Monday, the highlight of which was an upgraded uneven bars routine that she had only been training at full strength for a week. After she stuck her double front dismount, she couldn't help but get excited.
If Michigan is going to return to the NCAA Championships, gymnasts like Sheppard will need to step up. With Katie Zurales and Brittnee Martinez graduated and Stephanie Colbert forced to retire due to injuries, there are two lineup spots that need to be filled on each event. Sheppard felt she had more to offer, so she did extra cardio work over the summer to get herself into peak physical shape.
"I really took that into consideration," Sheppard said. "Last year, I wasn't at my fullest potential. I felt like I was more than capable of doing more than one event for this team."
There's that confidence again.
At the end of the day, scores didn't matter. Small mistakes were made here and there, whether it was a balance check on the beam or an added step on a landing, but that's okay. After all, where better to make mistakes than in a practice gym?
"That's why we do this," Gies said. "It shows you the spots where you're not as prepared as you should be. Those nerves came back. Learning how to deal with them under pressure? That's what's most important."