“In tumbling, we train the motion. Not the mind. That is because the body can be regimented, but the mind cannot be bridled.”
Ah…fear. It’s something that is biologically programmed into every human being. We ALL experience it. It’s innate, chemical, hardwired into our very being! It’s something you can’t avoid, something that is always there, whether you like it or not. And yet, as pesky as it may seem sometimes, it’s something we need in order to provide us with a healthy balance of risk and reward.
You see, many people are mislead into thinking that they can “get over” their fear, that there’s a step-by-step process to killing, defeating, or eliminating their fears. But I ask you, if fear is something that, as I said above, “hardwired” into our physiology, then how is it something we can kill, defeat, or eliminate? If fear is apart of our understanding of risk and reward, how is it something that we can get over? The answer is simple – you can’t.
We can’t “kill” or “eliminate” fear. In fact, that is the antithesis of how we should be thinking about our relationship with our fears.
If you’re a Marvel movie fan like me, then you’ve undoubtedly seen Captain America: Civil War by now. There is a scene in the movie between Vision and Scarlet Witch in which Vision is helping Scarlet to understand her fear. You see, Scarlet Witch was recently responsible for the deaths of almost 2 dozen civilians as a result of her losing control of her powers, and now she feared what might happen if she tried using them again. To help console her, Vision points to the yellow Infinity Stone in his forehead, and tells her that he doesn’t know what the nature of the stone is or the true power it yields. When she asks him if he is afraid of it, he replies:
“I wish to understand it. The more I do, the less it controls me. And who knows, one day, I might even control it.”
Vision, Avengers: Age of Ultron
And that, right there my friends, is how you OUTPERFORM ANY FEAR…understanding. “In the absence of specificity, fear thrives.” You see, we spend most of our time trying to fight our fears. We even have something as humans called the “Fight or Flight Syndrome”. We have hormones coursing through us that initiate such responses in the face of perceived threats that cause us to either fight, flee or freeze from a seemingly dangerous situation. It’s human nature to fear and fight against that which we don’t understand. But UNDERSTANDING is the key to not allowing these autonomous, physiological responses to rule us and cause us to freak out when there are no clear and present dangers or threats to our wellbeing.
But most people don’t take the time to understand it from that perspective. Because the “warrior mentality” or the “beast mode” mentality is to dominate, control and overpower any obstacle in our way, a lot of us are taught to fight against our fears, as if they were some foreign entity trying to invade our body. But they’re not foreign at all. Fear is biologically intertwined with our humanity. So instead of trying to fight something that is connected to us at a molecular level, why not, instead, seek to understand it.
Here’s another cinematic example for your consideration: Beauty and the Beast. Think of the relationship between Belle and the Beast, and how it evolved over time. At first, though she wasn’t necessarily afraid of the Beast, she didn’t understand him. Likewise, the Beast didn’t understand Belle. Therefore, she and the Beast were in constant contention with one another, butting heads and constantly at odds.
So how did they go from “barely even friends” to a “tale as old as time”? When the Beast showed his selfless side to save Belle in the woods from the pack of ravenous wolves, she started to see that there was more than meets the eye with him, and began opening her mind up the possibility that he was more than just a “savage beast”, that there might be more to his humanity than to his feral visage. You see, when Belle and the Beast began to take the time to understand one another, thinks began to change for them. The Beast, both literally and figuratively in this case, could not be championed or tamed. Instead, it was through understanding that he was re-humanized by Belle’s love and friendship.
Think of your fears as the Beast. Your fears are a part of you that only need to be understood. As Vision seeks to do with the Infinity Stone, if you can learn to understand your fears, you can better learn to not let them control you or rule your actions. Fear is a choice, a product of thoughts that you choose to create in your head, based on anticipations of an outcome that may or may not happen. Tim Ferriss, best selling author of The 4-Hour Work Week and one of my mentors (we haven’t met yet, but I trust we will soon), put it best on an episode of his show, The Tim Ferriss Experiment:
I think most importantly it’s not about overcoming your fears, it’s constantly FACING your fears, BEING PRESENT with your fears, so that you become comfortable with discomfort.
Big Will on Fear
One of my other mentors I have yet to meet, and lifetime role model, Will Smith, has had much to say about the concept of fear and how we deal with it. His 2013 movie, After Earth, starring son Jaden Smith, placed facing your fears at the center of the plot. There is a scene where their two characters are separated by hundreds of miles and Jaden’s character, Katai, is all alone in the wild. Will’s character, in an effort to give his son both comfort and strength, lays down the truth about fear to him.
There is another Will Smith video I’ve shared in the past that everyone who struggles with fear needs to see. In it, Will shares a personal experience that led to a revelation about fear and how to understand it better. Check it out:
Do you get it yet? Fear is not to be tamed, beaten, overcome or ruled. To truly enjoy your life and live with fear in a healthy manner, we must understand it. So now, you’ve made it this far, there is a light at the end of the tunnel! How do you get over YOUR fear? Here are 4 simple steps you can take to help you understand and learn to control your fears and get back to performing your skill confidently:
STEP 1: Identify and Understand
I ask my athletes “why” they have lost their skills because I know they’re not using their logical minds to identify the problem. They’re reacting from a very emotional place where they are being told to flee in response to a threat or danger, whether real or perceived. Therefore, if you can identify the actual reason you’re afraid, you can then confront it. It’s very important for you to be completely honest with yourself during this period of exploration; denying the problem and pretending you’re not afraid, or choosing not to admit you’re afraid only makes matters worse.
Be as specific as possible. Instead of saying, “I’m afraid…” tell yourself exactly what you’re afraid of. Just try it, say “I’m afraid of [fill in the blank],” out loud to yourself. Did you feel that little twinge in your gut? That’s your brain and body already going into “defense” mode to protect you against that which you’ve acknowledged being afraid of. For instance, “I’m afraid of falling out of the air like a stone mid-skill and breaking my neck.” See?! Sometimes hearing yourself dictate your fears out loud will help you realize just how silly they are!
STEP 2: Acknowledge, Accept, Utilize
This is a huge step as this is the part where most athletes will turn against themselves! Once you’ve identified and taken steps to understand your fear, it’s time to learn to utilize it to your advantage in a positive, active way, through acknowledgment and acceptance.
Fear is something no one likes to talk about. But, there’s also power in acknowledgment that allows you to take back control from the thing that you’re afraid of. By acknowledging your fears aloud, you’re taking the power away from keeping it a secret, from the shame and embarrassment. You’re also giving yourself a chance to accept it as a truth, no longer denying that you had a problem. But you have to say it with conviction. You have to acknowledge it with unwavering belief. It’s ok, so you’re afraid. It’s not the end of the world. You can outperform this.
“One day or day one. The choice is up to you.”
Ok, now that you’ve acknowledged and accepted your fear, it’s time to turn that which once burdened and inhibited you into FUEL!!! It’s time to UTILIZE your fear for as a positive motivator!
As a deconstructionist, my first step in helping an athlete toward recovering from a devastating mental block or fear is to walk her through the skill step by step. This is how I coach both new and experienced athletes anyway, but it also lends itself well to working through a fear or mental block. Deconstructing a skill is a great approach because it allows you to slowly revisit the skill together. It is during this process that you can learn (1) at which point in the process the athlete is experiencing her fear (in varying degrees), (2) how firm of a grasp the athlete has on her technique to begin with, and (3) if there are any discrepancies or disconnects between comprehension and execution. Usually, I find one or a combination of those three to be true for each athlete I’ve ever helped work through a fear or mental block.
Deconstructing a skill into “micro skills” is great because it allows the athlete to gain confidence in fully understanding their technique and the sequence of events that add up to performing the skills as a whole. It also engineers success points, which are surefire confidence builders. These mini goals or steps of exposure help the athlete to see the challenge as being more accomplishable, and allow them to slowly work their way through the skill from a standpoint of completing small tasks gradually, instead of “trying to swallow the elephant whole”.
So far, we’ve learned that acknowledging and accepting our fears can help us utilize them toward engineering success. However, if you’re afraid because you’ve been dropped by a coach, parent or spotter, or have been taught poor technique, understand that’s a very real problem that needs to be addressed immediately, which brings us to the next step…
STEP 3: Take it Back to Basics to Make Sure Your Technique is Solid
Tumbling is deeply rooted in physics and is therefore formulaic. That means that if you practice proper technique every single time you perform your skill, you should get the same outcome every time. Now if your outcome is you repeatedly falling or getting hurt, you know that there’s a problem with your formula! So go back over your technique and tweak the parts that are causing you frustration, pain, or fear. Remember that Aristotle said it best, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Therefore, it is practice, repeated, consistent, technically-sound practice that breeds confidence. You will gain more confidence in yourself and your skill when you practice with proper technique over and over again. For your reference, here is my 5-Step Back Handspring Process (patent pending):
When you’re performing these unnatural skills and are getting hung up on the emotional responses you’re having to performing, it’s better to focus solely on performing the technique and allowing science to take care of the rest. Remember, the fear will be there whether you choose to focus on it or not. It is a biological response from your body’s control center, your brain, sounding the alarm that something you’re doing isn’t right. It’s a natural response to an unnatural performance. If you place your body in the proper positions and allow gravity, inertia, friction, force and momentum to do what they do best, you’ll flip, twist, and tuck and back on your feet before you know it! And if you still need that extra push to help calm your nerves, there’s nothing wrong with saying a little prayer asking God for peace of mind and trust ;D
STEP 4: Never Be Afraid to Fail!
It’s a shame that in our culture and many cultures around the globe, “failing” and “failure” are given the same meaning, when in fact, they represent two completely different ideas.
You see, to fail is to learn, to take an experience and apply what one learned from that experience to your future endeavors. Especially when one is attempting to accomplish the same goal on a different “try”, a past “fail” can help teach you obstacles to avoid, situations to expect, and how to solve problems that might arise. If nothing else, failing teaches us what NOT to do second, third, or hundredth time around. It is Edison who, after finally getting the light bulb to work after some 10,000 failed attempts, is famously quoted as saying:
Edison also said, “Our greatest weakness lies in our giving up. The most certain way to succeed is to always try just one more time.” And that is the difference between “failing” and “failure”. Where failing means that you learn how not to do something and will apply that newfound knowledge to your next attempt, “failure” is when you throw in the towel and give up. Failure is quitting, and if you were going to quit, why start in the first place? It was Napoleon Hill who said, “When defeat overtakes a man, the easiest and most logical thing to do is to quit. That is exactly what the majority of men do.” Don’t fall into that majority, BE THE EXCEPTION!!!
Now, fear alone is one thing, when you’re dealing with being afraid of an irrational outcome to a skill or from getting hurt trying to perform the skill before. But the “Fear of Failure” is an entirely different beast. I’ll be going over this concept more in a future post entitled “The Pressure to Perform”, but for now, let’s talk about it in the context of how it can inhibit your performance.
Fear of Failure, or “atychiphobia” as it’s known by its scientific name, is literally a debilitating fear one develops from not wanting to fail. It is a fear that can stop us from doing the things that can move us forward toward achieving our goals. Now, psychotherapy articles say that this phobia comes from many causes, including: over-demanding or strict parents, an early childhood public embarrassment (getting pantsed in the cafeteria or laughed at during “show & tell”), or bullying and abuse. While these are all true, I think it’s extremely important that we don’t rule out the cultural implications of what it means to “fail” again. Some might argue it’s simply semantics, but I’ve come to learn in my coaching that the rhetoric we use to describe our actions, feelings and communicate our expectations plays a HUGE role in our understanding of an expected outcome. Parents, learn how to communicate to your children in the way that they are most receptive! Take the time to understand their personality, their “love language” (how they both communicate/show love and how they receive it), and the type of learner they are. Having this knowledge will DRAMATICALLY influence your interactions and dictate the type of output they produce when setting out to accomplish a goal. Teach them the difference between “failing” and “failure”, that not reaching an expected outcome DOES NOT MAKE THEM A “FAILURE”.
It’s interesting: the first definition of “failure” in the dictionary is “a lack of success, as in an unsuccessful person, enterprise or thing” (not sure what an “unsuccessful THING is, but I’m guessing you’ll know it when you see it, haha). Now in today’s modern vernacular, this means that one has failed at life. To be unsuccessful is to be someone who sucks at what they do. Ok, it doesn’t mean that literally, but it’s interchangeable in meaning (like so many other American words, phrases and slang terms). But if you look up the word “success”, it’s defined as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” So to be “unsuccessful” literally means “to not accomplish an aim or purpose,” which coincides completely with a definition of what it means “to fail”, or, “to not meet a desired outcome”. Therefore, to be called a “failure” is only to be called an “unsuccessful person”, which is to mean you’re someone who didn’t meet an expected outcome. You are only a true, complete and utter failure, when you let your failure become final and quit. Otherwise, you’re simply a person on a journey toward success.
Teach your athletes to know the difference between failing at a task and learning from that failure, and letting that failure dictate their efforts. It’s perfectly fine to fail, because these instances teach us about ourselves: what we’re able to handle, how we cope with failure and loss, and how bad we want it! Just like Big Sean says, “If you’re a real one, then you know how to bounce back!”
You see, in order to succeed we must first fail. Ironically, it is this very fear of failing that keeps us from trying in the first place. But as Savanah Walker, one of my former athletes who struggled with both fear and anxiety, so eloquently put it once, “You’ll never truly grow as an athlete if you never fail.” She’s exactly right too! Without failure, we can never learn, adapt and make the changes necessary in our technique, approach or thinking that will allow us to succeed. If you can not only learn from your failures, but also learn to identify and understand your fears, trust in your coaches and technique, and dismiss the false evidence appearing real, you’ll be able to accomplish great things.
STEP 5: Practice, Practice, Practice
I said it above but it bears repeating: consistent, repetitious practice with proper technique builds confidence! The more confident you are in your technique, the more confident you’ll be performing (or attempting) your skill! The more confident you are in your ability to perform you skill safely, the easier it will be for you to control your fear, especially if you’ve taken the time to understand your fear better!
I often say that good coaching doesn’t adopt “The Nike Approach” to tumbling, you can’t “Just do it.” And that’s unfortunately the stance I feel too many coaches take when coaching their athletes. They expect athletes to be able to take a skill like the back handspring and do it after a few poorly articulated explanations. Many coaches, though talented, expertly trained athletes themselves, don’t always make the best coaches. And tumbling, being an extremely mental activity, requires a coach who can break down both the physical and the mental aspects of the skills they’re teaching.
The psychological side of tumbling is very real, and though many coaches are aware of it, they’re unsure of or unable to clearly and effectively articulate how to help their athletes understand it. Tumbling is 80% mental and 20% physical. The brain will do whatever it takes to keep your body safe, and the brain feels safest when you’re body is doing something it understands. Tumbling is not natural, and therefore, is a constant battle between your brain’s comfort & understanding and your body’s training.
I care SO MUCH about all of my athletes and their physical safety, as well as them building confidence within themselves to tackle tough obstacles. The lessons and methods outlined here can apply far beyond the realm of tumbling. Learn to identify fear and F.E.A.R. in your daily life and begin employing these steps to vanquish it from your life entirely. Remember, “danger” is very real, and although it is our brain’s natural response to danger, fear at the end of the day, is a choice.
If you, your athlete or your team struggles with fear of performing their tumbling skills, or if you suffer from fear in general, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me! #coachlainhelps
Coach Lain is a mental performance and tumbling technique coach from Northern California. Specializing in fear psychology and deconstructed movement, he helps student-athletes and coaches better understand their fears in an effort to outperform them confidently and consistently. His podcast, The Fear Less University™, features special guests each episode who lend their wisdom and expertise to help discuss, dissect, and examine some of life’s greatest fears. His second and newest podcast, the Coach Lain Inspires™ Inspirecast, seeks to provide listeners with a daily dose of inspiration.
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