Breaking Down Kent State’s Storied Floor Depth

Craig Ballard can’t read his gymnasts’ minds. Instead, he fosters and relies on a team culture of open communication, creating training assignments and lineups that are designed to build trust between the athletes. 

Floor has historically been Kent State’s hallmark event, between floor music that plays to the home crowd and big E-level tumbling passes. Behind it—often literally on meet days—is Ballard, who is in his 10th season with the Golden Flashes and is the team’s vault and floor coach. Year in and year out he has coached their abnormally deep floor roster to lead the MAC, but as the spring of 2020 came up, their season was cut short as they were beginning to hit their stride. Senior night and the MAC championship never happened that year, leaving two high scoring meets out from their final rankings. On Karlie Franz’ account, the shutdown put a fire under the team and motivated it to come back stronger. 

When the new year rolled around, Kent State relied on its floor team to hit the ground running, and finished the 2021 season ranked 18th on the event—largely in part to its signature blend of depth and consistency. The Golden Flashes are routinely in the top of the conference on floor, if not outright leading. And this season is shaping up to be another strong year, with a strong upperclassman presence. 

Almost every athlete pushes to show readiness on the team’s signature event, with preseason mock meets going as deep as 16 scored floor routines. “It’s exciting having so many people do floor, but when we do those things, you have to go into it with a positive mindset,” Franz said.

She also recognizes the freshmen working hard to make the top six, stating, “They look at our past lineups and they see what it got, and I think it pushes them to want to get into those spots.” Sophomore Alyssa Guns believes this is a good situation for the team to be in. “Depth helps us all on every event. The more depth we have, the more we’re pushing our teammates to be better.” 

The idea of being better doesn’t happen overnight, though. Ballard’s unique approach to quantifying the intensity of floor accounts for every athlete’s possible stress factors, on top of the difficulty that’s measured in the code of points. Every assignment or goal carries a value of adding or taking away stress, and his job as a coach is to be as mindful as possible, making sure no gymnast has too many stressors at once.

One of the main ways this happens is through training a wide variety of passes onto a resi in preseason, so narrowing down to two or three minimizes the stress of transitioning to the hard landing. That transition is also a heavily spotted one, to counteract the stress of having no loose pit to tumble into.

Ballard clearly remembers the first day doing true floor tumbling this season. “I may have spotted 53 double backs. You’re trying to create an environment where we’re introducing something that’s a little more stressful, how do we manage that load [until] it’s something that becomes easy and comfortable?”

This coaching outlook helped propel Guns into the national floor conversation last season, changing her initial composition with a double layout, front layout to Rudi, and a double pike down to only two passes. While that routine was attainable, the two pass option was stress-free and maintainable for the entire season. It paid off, earning her an exceptionally rare 9.975 for her floor debut. 

The attention to detail mitigating possible stresses allows for more energy to go toward communication and accountability. For both Franz and Guns, tumbling is the easier part of floor. “Getting the leaps, jumps, and turns perfected—that’s the most important thing because at the end of the day the tumbling is going to be on your feet,” Franz said.

The Golden Flashes will often partner to work through assignments, and watch to see if their respective partners are meeting the day’s numbers. “They’re holding each other accountable. That happens in meets, that happens with teams, and I think it’s a good thing where they know they can trust each other to hit routines, and they can trust each other to tell the truth too. If it helps our team be better, then great. If it needs work, that’s great too. Let’s get to work.”

From the first salute of their floor rotation through to their anchor Franz’s final finger guns pose, the Golden Flashes thrive off of each other’s high energy. With those high energy floor routines come big goals, including sending the full team to regionals. Guns looks back happily on her experience qualifying as an individual last season and adds, “If we can get the whole team there, it would be even more fun.”

Maintaining their status in the top 20 on floor will be a major component in qualifying the whole team into the postseason, with Ballard and Franz agreeing that 49.000 is where they want their lowest floor team scores to land. For Guns, she again looks back to last season to set the precedent for 2023—her goal is to equal or better last season’s event high of 49.475. No matter the scores, though, the Golden Flashes floor lineup has complete faith in itself, because their trust for each other has been forged over time. That trust sparks the fun on meet days and being able to fully enjoy the experience.

READ THIS NEXT:  Depth, Execution and More Depth Are the Keys to Vault in the MAC

Article by Peri Goodman

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