We’ve heard its dimensions listed in a booming announcer’s voice: 16 feet long, four feet off the ground and four inches wide—well, 3.9 inches if you want to get technical. We’ve watched as it launched careers, decided championships and shattered dreams.
The balance beam is perhaps the most iconic event in women’s gymnastics, a precarious beast that demands confidence with every movement. Many teams just want to survive it, but others have demanded—and achieved—excellence year after year. At the University of Oklahoma, beam is more than a lineup to get through. Head coach K.J. Kindler crafts routines that flow like water for competitors as solid as steel. Beautiful, fierce gymnastics has become the expectation, and dominance the standard.
Over the past 10 seasons, Oklahoma has produced 29 All-Americans on balance beam, seven top-three individual placements at the national championships and 12 perfect scores. The Sooners’ average beam total was nearly 49.350 during that period, and they finished the regular season ranked No. 1 nationally seven straight times from 2013 to 2019. Statistics like these tell the story of a team that thrives under the kind of pressure beam can create. So how does Oklahoma do it? Is there a secret to conquering this notoriously unforgiving event? The answer, like beam itself, is both complex yet so simple.
“Anyone can be great on beam,” Kindler said. “Beam is all about habits. It’s not so much about strength or quickness. It comes from methodical, consistent training, from asking the same thing of yourself over and over.”
For the Oklahoma coaching staff, this mindset goes beyond words. On this season’s squad, all 21 gymnasts train balance beam and have a complete routine. The same can’t be said for the other events. Kindler believes each gymnast possesses the skillset to emerge as a great beam worker, but it doesn’t always happen instantly. It takes being around teammates that inspire greatness and provide encouragement.
“Our whole team is very mentally tough,” said fifth-year Carly Woodard. “When they get the opportunity to compete, they typically do very well. That’s a testament to how mentally strong our team is.”
Sooner alum Taylor Spears, the 2014 NCAA champion on beam, sees this mental toughness not just in Oklahoma’s high scores, but in the way each gymnast moves through her routine.
“They just have a certain confidence and rhythm to them,” she remarked. “Nothing in their face is showing they’re second guessing. They don’t let nerves show. They’re just up there being aggressive. They don’t stop. Even if they make a small mistake, they’re moving along.”
Oklahoma’s movement quality is no accident. Kindler choreographs dance elements on beam using eight counts, an approach more typically seen on floor. Counting each movement allows her to be more intentional with the moments when gymnasts gather concentration, avoiding lengthy pauses before difficult skills.
“I try to keep the routines moving and smooth. I’m not really one for sharp, posing kind of choreography,” Kindler said. “I think it’s important from a rhythm standpoint to keep them moving in and out of their skills and to keep concentration pauses at a minimum.”
She added that constructing routines in this way helps her athletes get out of their own heads.
“The first thing I say to them before they get on beam is ‘dance hard,’ because I know if they’re dancing sharply and hard, they are not thinking. They don’t need to think when they do beam.”
Getting to the point of not thinking can be a lengthy process. It often involves countless hours of physical preparation and confidence building. Woodard described it simply as trusting her training, while Spears said her body went into autopilot.
“I just took a deep breath and let my body do it, because I was so conditioned to do it at that point,” Spears said. “The thinking and learning for me was over at that point. It was meet time, so I just let it go.”
Kindler and her staff work hard to bring this quality out of their athletes, but she also admits it’s something she looks for in an Oklahoma recruit.
“I recruit athletes that I feel have ‘it,’” she said. “Then you’ve got to get them to believe they have it.”
Alumna Chayse Capps, who was known for her beam and floor work while at Oklahoma, was one gymnast Kindler knew had “it” from the moment she saw her on beam during a recruiting visit to Capps’ gym.
“She did everything and the kitchen sink in practice, and she did not come off once,” Kindler said. “That’s not an accident, because when you’re in the gym recruiting, they feel pressure. If they don’t come off beam in your presence, they’re good. You know they’ve got it.”
“So Chayse was coming here, no matter what her other three events looked like, because I saw her on beam,” she said, pointing to her head as she added, “and I was like ‘she’s got it up here.’ She was so good on beam that it translated to the other events later on.”
No matter what an incoming freshman was like on beam in club or elite, she can expect a change in approach once she arrives at Oklahoma.
“Transitioning from club to college is more consistency focused,” said junior Jenna Dunn, who entered the beam lineup as a walk-on after being coached by Spears to the 2017 level 10 title. “In club, you’re just trying to stay on beam, but then you hit college and consistency is demanded. Every turn counts. When I got to college, I became a lot more focused on each turn, rather than doing it just to get numbers done. I was doing it to get better each turn.”
A change may come in composition as well. While many of the gymnasts she recruits come in with a plethora of skills to choose from, Kindler experiments with a wide variety of acrobatic skills and leaps to create connections that utilize her gymnasts’ unique abilities. Each routine is a showcase for the audience as well as a strategic layout of what each athlete can perform consistently.
“K.J. is really good at finding what works, but also at making things different,” Spears said. “She’d do things I wouldn’t think of, like my Onodi to back handspring swingdown series. You don’t see that. She knew I could do the Onodi, but she was like, ‘How can we make this even cooler?’”
This helps when it comes to developing strong beam workers as well.
“If I have an athlete who’s not quite getting somewhere on something, you don’t always have to do the standard,” Kindler said.
However, figuring out the best combination doesn’t always come as quickly as she would like. There have been plenty of learning experiences throughout her coaching career.
“Brenna [Dowell] is one of my biggest mistakes, and by one of my biggest mistakes, I mean I didn’t find what was the best for her early enough in her career,” Kindler admitted.
Dowell’s series, a front aerial to back pike, is something the head coaches wishes she considered earlier.
“She can do a back pike in her sleep,” Kindler said. “Once she settled into her series, she was like money in the bank every time. I could have left the room. She brought it out of herself. I’m not going to take credit for that.”
When things clicked, it was especially rewarding, because “Brenna did not love to do beam,” often coming over begrudgingly to work on the event during practice.
“I think at the end, it was her favorite event,” Kindler said. “I can be very excited about that.”
Whether someone is a natural beam performer or needs some extra help, they all perfect their skills in practice. The training gym is where Kindler’s commitment to consistency becomes truly apparent. Expectations are high, but standards are clear. Teammates push each other to be better with every turn. Bonds are strengthened through pressure, preparing the Sooners to thrive in competition.
“It’s the consistency that makes them a great staff and such a great program,” Spears said. “They have high standards and expectations, and they help you reach those expectations. They constantly say positive things to get you there and to help you gain confidence. Through the process, you feel the trust they have in you.”
It all starts with the basics. Spears commented that the staff at Oklahoma is incredibly detailed. They take every moment of practice seriously, from the warm up and conditioning to the ending stretch. If a skill must be done at 100%, Kindler and her staff train it at 150%. That way when the meet comes along, everything seems simpler.
“We do a lot of drills in the gym,” Kindler said. “From a tumbling perspective, we keep them aggressive. You can’t hold back on those skills. We work a lot of things ‘up.’ You’re doing your series ‘up,’ you’re doing all of your skills and leaps ‘up,’ which makes you have to do them bigger and better.”
These drills aren’t just the same old ones gymnasts have been doing for years either, as Kindler’s creativity extends from routine composition and choreography to training as well.
“I use a pit block to do my front toss on beam, and that’s something even across the NCAA you don’t really see,” Woodard said. “K.J. has an incredibly creative mind. She knows how to create these drills or find drills from gyms that she visits, which we’ve never done before. I think those help us demand the best of ourselves.”
Dunn added that the team also does mental routines and pressure sets in practice. One of the activities involves partnering with another gymnast for what Kindler calls a “no move” assignment, where both partners must perform an error-free routine.
“To achieve that, you both have to be on board on the same day,” Kindler explained. “And of course, that’s how it is at a meet. Nobody can really be disconnected. We’re consistent in the gym, and that translates to the arena.”
When competition day arrives, all that preparation is condensed into a few short moments before each gymnast’s routine. Kindler’s beam talks have practically become the stuff of legend, reminisced about by alumni and brought up during press conferences and television broadcasts. What does she say that enables her athletes to compete so well time and time again? It’s easy to imagine there are magic words involved, and in part, that’s true. It’s magic that comes from knowing exactly what each competitor needs before that critical minute and a half.
“I tailor my talks based on if they’re superstitious or not, or if something I said clicked the time before,” Kindler said. “In general, they’re an overview of your routine, and the reminders I say in practice. Again, trying to put your mindset back in the gym and in practice. If there’s a certain thing I say in the gym that equals great results, I say that in the talk.”
Woodard added, “It’s like she knows each of our personalities and knows what to say to each of us to get us in the right mindset.”
When Kindler provided examples, it was clear this understanding was true.
“Carly responds to aggressive discussion, so I’m aggressive. When I talked to Chayse, I had to say to her at the end of every talk, ‘Be amazing Chayse.’ If I didn’t say it, she’d be like, ‘You forgot something?’ Then I would say it, because that’s the name of a lot of our assignments: B-E and A-M in amazing says beam.”
For others, like Maggie Nichols, the talk is more to calm them down before getting up on the apparatus.
“Maggie was a little more of a nervous competitor on beam,” Kindler said. “I would put my hands on her shoulders and say, ‘Namaste.’ It sounds silly, but they were just things to remind them what they need to do but at the same time take their mind off what they’re about to do.”
For athletes like Spears, the words spoken before a routine were invaluable. “Oh, I miss those talks,” Spears said. “I was so sad I wasn’t going to get those pep talks from her anymore when I was done. It’s something special that you share. It’s also her telling you that she’s so confident in you, and you feel it. I’ve got chills just thinking about it.”
On the beam, under the arena lights, everything comes together: the routine construction, the drills, the pressure assignments, the final words. Oklahoma gymnasts compete in a state of flow from mount to dismount.
But in times when it doesn’t come together, Kindler has a plan for that too.
“Any time there’s a setback on beam, you can go one of two directions. You can go, ‘It’s going to happen again,’ or you can go, ‘That was a fluke.’ You have to go the fluke route because it probably was or you wouldn’t be in the beam lineup, right? Your mindset and the way you respond to a mistake in a meet is everything.”
Going the “fluke route” extends to Kindler’s actions as well. Unless she deems it absolutely necessary, she won’t try to reinvent the wheel when a gymnast has a mistake but rather commits to sticking with the composition, the gymnast, the lineup or whatever else was less than perfect.
When it comes to injuries or difficulty keeping a lineup spot, Kindler’s confidence in her gymnasts empowers them to stay the course. Last season, Woodard sat out for eight weeks with a broken foot. Dunn was replaced on a few occasions by athletes Kindler wanted to give a chance. Both of them used the experiences to become better beam competitors and better teammates.
“I was out of the beam lineup a couple times last year, and it was really cool because you get to see other people step up,” Dunn said. “It’s very cool to see how your team always has your back and how they’re ready to go.”
Kindler’s coaching and lessons have extended beyond Oklahoma now, too. Spears, now in her fourth season as an assistant coach at the University of Arizona, has also embraced those lessons.
“I think it’s crucial that I instill that confidence in our kids. They need to feel that confidence from you as a coach, and it reassures them that they’re prepared and you trust them,” Spears said. “Some kids like me to go through their routine like K.J. did, and others just want me to tell them to take a deep breath and have fun. The main thing as a coach is showing them that I’m confident in them to go knock it out of the park.”
On balance beam, the most inconsistent event in women’s gymnastics, Kindler has encouraged consistency at every turn. She has choreographed confidence-building into a series of careful counts, pushing her athletes to find the rock-solid competitor within themselves. The results? Nothing short of a dynasty. The Sooners don’t need magic to succeed; trust is just as good. It may be difficult to find that self-belief, it may take a bunch of steps, but it all starts by taking a deep breath—and dancing hard.
Article by Ryan Wichtendahl
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