Historically an area of concern for UK, beam, one of four routines in a gymnastics meet, is once again the proverbial mountain to climb that separates the Cats from moving up the Southeastern Conference ladder. At season's end, the team will likely look at beam as either the team's key to a successful season or the anchor of disappointment.
No wonder everyone is so tense when Kentucky is on the beam.
A week and a half ago, UK was on the verge of upsetting No. 13 Arkansas. Leading after two events, UK headed to the beam with floor exercise to go.
The thought process was pretty simple: Get through the event with a decent score and slam the door shut on Arkansas on floor. But that's easier said than done when walking a tight rope in front of thousands of people.
The Cats fell that night. And they fell again. And again. Three falls in six performances on the beam ended all hopes of upsetting Arkansas. It was and still is the difference between UK and teams like Arkansas.
"It's very frustrating," assistant coach Heather Hite said. "I think the hardest part for me is that I know they are so good at that event. They could be very successful, and my job here is to get them to reach that potential. When I see them fall, I see they are not getting to where they could be and we have to work on what makes them do their best. In the competitions, they aren't showing these people how good they really are, and I was so disappointed for them because they do such great things in practice. We want to show how great they are."
For a team that has no problems staying on the beam in practice, it ultimately comes down to overcoming a mental hurdle. Years of struggling has a way of adding up into one heaping pile of frustration.
"It's one hundred percent mental," Hite said.
It's contagious. When one person falls off the beam, the already overbuilt pressure snowballs into even more pressure and anxiety.
For the next person on the beam, the focus then becomes more about not messing up than executing, which is obviously not the mentality Hite and fellow assistant coach Chuck Dickerson are looking for.
"It's almost like a domino effect," Hite said. "They tell you that if more than one person falls, it's a totally different thing. Mentally you are thinking, 'I have to stay on and salvage this.' Then they hold back to stay on the beam and that's not what you want them to do. You don't want them to think like that.
"Instead, you want them to do their routine, and if everyone else falls, at least I did my routine. You kind of want them to look selfishly at the balance beam."
It isn't a matter of not being able to succeed on the balance beam, gymnast Andre Mitchell said. According to the senior, the Cats frequently nail the beam routines in practice.
"All of our problems are mental because we could come in here any time of day and hit a routine and do it in our sleep," Mitchell said. "We have done it before. It's just in our heads."
Maybe no other gymnast has had to overcome the mental aspect of beam more than Mitchell.
Self-described as an overly competitive gymnast, Mitchell tends to take things like falls tougher than anyone else on the team. The problem is those frustrations can sometimes carry over into other events.
"I get so mad knowing that we could have beaten them," Mitchell said. "It eats me up. It's a challenge for me going into floor because usually I mess up on the next event because I am so upset and my head is somewhere else."
In that aspect, Mitchell has come a long way, Hite said. She's practiced patience this year and learned to move on from event to event.
It's shown as Mitchell is arguably the best all-around performer the Cats have. She's finished second in the all-around at every meet this season with the exception of a third-place finish against Georgia last week. Ironically, if she hadn't fallen off beam in the meet at No. 1 Florida, she would have set a career best in the all-around.
"The difference is night and day," Hite said of Mitchell's improvements. "She used to get so frustrated with herself and get down. It was hard for her to get out of that and move on to the next event. She's very competitive and wants to win. This year, individually, she is taking care of her business and realizing the rest of the team will succeed because she is doing her part for the whole team."
After a season-low score of 46.400 at Florida and the nightmare against Arkansas, the team showed significant improvements last week.
Junior Whitney Rose, arguably the Cats' best gymnast at vault, was taken out of the beam lineup last week because of confidence issues and a freshman, Audrey Harrison, took her place. The Cats ended up with a season-high score of 48.175.
"We are improving each week which is a good thing to look at," Mitchell said. "Even though we are struggling on beam, we are making progress each week and that definitely leads to confidence. It definitely makes me feel good that we are progressing at an even pace."
It should come as no surprise either that once Kentucky improved its beam score, its total score benefitted as the Cats notched a season-high 195.000 overall mark against Georgia.
The only problem for UK is the road never gets easier in the SEC. Having already faced four nationally ranked teams, including No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Georgia, UK will head to Auburn to face the No. 22 Tigers.
Although the Cats want to win every meet, the ultimate goal is to improve their team score each and every week to make regionals and nationals at the end of the year.
"It's not all about winning," Mitchell said. "It's about improving, too. It's definitely about putting a good score out there."