In my last post, The road to mastery, I discussed some of the mental blocks and physical backslides I’ve experienced over the years. That road, which is never a straight line because #progressisntlinear, is also littered with potholes and debris that cause you to swerve as you navigate the rough terrain. In this chapter, I will discuss how I have managed fear throughout the course of my training and how fear continues to be a useful factor in my decision-making process at the gym.
Chapter 3: Managing Fear
Fear is a natural, powerful, and primitive human emotion. It involves a universal biochemical response as well as a high individual emotional response. Fear alerts us to the presence of danger or the threat of harm, whether that danger is physical or psychological.Lisa Fritscher, Verywellmind.com
Fear is a very real and pervasive experience in adult gymnastics, and with good reason. After all, we are trying to accomplish things that, from an ageist perspective, we have no business trying to do. When we experience fear, strong physical reactions occur, starting in the tiny, almond-shaped amygdala nestled deep in the underside of the brain, which triggers the nervous system to release adrenaline and cortisol (our stress hormone). Our senses are suddenly heightened, our heartbeat and respiration becomes elevated, all because our bodies are preparing us to fight or to run for our lives. It’s the natural activity in our bodies that teaches us to keep ourselves safe and out of harm’s way. Humans have survived saber-tooth tigers and wild boars because of it.
In the gym, a healthy dose of fear is what keep us from facing imminent disaster. I can’t tell you how often I feel my heart racing when I’m about to try something new, difficult, or when I attempt a previously mastered skill that suddenly doesn’t feel right. It happens at least once every time I go to train, because there’s always a skill that I’m working on that I am not completely comfortable with. My amygdala understands and thankfully causes me to remember that I need to take a moment, draw a breath, pay attention, and make sure everything is in place before I hurtle my body into space. It has taught me to think before I act and to “be where I am” (a favorite phrase of mine).
This is the plight of the avid adult gymnast who didn’t flip as a kid: once you start training, the flood gates open. When you’ve started to gain some skills, you feel a little like a superhero and all you want to do is to learn more cool flippy stuff. I remember, when I first started training, just bouncing on the trampoline and trying to stay upright, I’d watch women my age and older doing complex tumbling passes, vaulting handsprings over towers of mats, and chucking back flips on the floor. My brain went into overdrive as my inner child screamed “I WANNA DO THAT TOO!!” I wanted to feel like I could fly. From that point forward, every training day was an education in balancing fear with action.
When you are a kid, and your skeleton is still made of rubber, falling off of a balance beam or landing poorly on a tumbling pass is not too scary. As long as you learn how to properly land a fall and there’s enough padding to cushion said landing, the fear factor stays at a pretty manageable level and doesn’t interfere too much with progress. Not that kids don’t experience fear; they do, but they usually get over it pretty quickly once they see that they can safely accomplish something, the fear melts away and they act like lunatic monkeys to keep doing that thing. I subbed for an advanced class of 8-14 year olds the other day, and we worked on improving some of their existing skills. I noticed that as these pre-teens absorbed bits of coaching advice, they were able to manage their fears by applying a few minor corrections that helped them land on their feet more consistently. Then, like adrenaline junkies, they were eager to repeat that skill over and over again. True Energizer bunnies (I’m dating myself, I know.)
As adults, even when there’s proof that you can do a skill, the amygdala still goes into overdrive. It knows that adults are not made of rubber, and that one wrong angle or motion can make a world of hurt for us. Adults also have a limited reserve of energy to keep practicing something over and over again, so we don’t get the same reinforcement those pre-teens benefit from. Thus, our progress is always much, much slower. Our recovery time is also much, much longer.
There’s another big difference between chronological children and adults who like to play like children: the big kids have family and work responsibilities, bones that are now more fragile, and joints that creak and moan just by standing up. We have no choice but to think twice about participating in physically risky behaviors. The fear factor rises exponentially because the last thing an adult needs is to cause real damage in our recreational activities that might prevent us from being able to execute our adult responsibilities. Being a geriatric gymnast means that we must find a safe balance between stretching our limits and knowing when to say when.
I can’t tell you how many stupid injuries I’ve sustained because I thinking like the child; my brain was too eager to acquire new skills before my body was ready to do so. Sprained ankles, broken fingers, plantar fasciitis flares, shin splints, rotator cuff inflammation – I’ve experienced them all. While I have learned (the hard way) to use fear as a cautionary guide, it is inevitable that some joint or muscle will get irritated. Currently, I’m being mindful of a rotator cuff irritation from over the summer. Every day, I have to check in with my shoulder and see how it’s talking to me. I’m training smarter, not harder (another favorite phrase of mine), because putting extraordinary physical effort into a workout now can have negative repercussions for a long time.
Mindfulness plays a huge role in the training rituals of the adult gymnast. Often, lower extremity injuries happen just by mindlessly stepping on a different or less stable surface, which happens all the time in the gym. How many times have I stubbed my toe or rolled my ankle moving from one surface to another? I once sprained my ankle stepping into a simple, slow roundoff on the tumble track, a long trampoline-like surface that enables you to practice tumbling passes on a bouncier surface than the floor. The injury wasn’t even on the landing – it was on the takeoff. Anyone who has sprained an ankle knows that it doesn’t heal nearly as quickly as we’d hope it would, and for me, teaching dance (my day job) was made much more challenging hobbling around in an air cast.
Nowadays, I am much more cautious and mindful moving from place to place in the gym. I’ll take those few extra moments to test out how different surfaces feel on my joints at that moment, because the first bounce of the day never feels the same as the last one. Adults need more warm up trials before we dive in to the flippy fun. Even if I’ve completely mastered a skill, I always look where I’m stepping and think about what each step will feel like before I go. I mentally plan, visualize what the skill looks like from beginning to end (a favorite technique of the elite as well), and start slowly. Once I know how the body system is working, I can decide how hard I want to push that day. Believe me, the few extra moments of forethought are worth it if you walk out of the gym uninjured.
When you are so eager to work on a new skill, and you get injured (read about my back tuck story from Chapter 2 – that was a doozy), fear takes on a whole new meaning. A real injury can set you back for months or even years, and sometimes halts you in your tracks from further pursuing that skill. I can only imagine what Simone Biles was thinking when she suffered a serious case of the “twisties,” completely losing her bearings during her last Amanar vault during the 2021 Olympic team final. Instead of the two-and-a-half twists that she had planned, she lost her way midair and completed one-and-a-half instead, unexpectedly stumbling out of the landing. The wave of fear she must have experienced in that split second stopped her in her tracks.
Thankfully, Simone had the skill to get herself safely to the ground so she didn’t actually kill herself. However, the experience rattled her enough to cause her to make the impossible decision to pull herself out of the competition until she could figure out what went wrong. If she had decided to “shake it off” and keep going, she could have done some serious damage to herself, and she knew it. Instead, her amygdala activated her self-protective mechanism, and she had the presence of mind to recognize it and pay attention to it on an international stage.
In my eyes (and to most gymnasts out there), she’s a hero, an extraordinary role model, and I strive to follow her lead in my own training. Even in the elite domain, where the skills are off the charts, smart athletes know how to strike a balance between the experience of fear and breaking through it to achieve new levels of mastery.
To be sure, that balance between fear and action is not something that is ever fully attained. Rather, it’s more like a continuum of effort. Like walking a tightrope (or balance beam), each step is mindful, often wobbly and corrective. Part of the process is learning to embrace the fear, and put it in its proper place so you can use it wisely. I listen to it regularly. I’ve been working on standing back tucks off of a short tower of mats. The other day, we set up the station, and I chucked my first one. I was working on a modification on the trampoline that I was hoping to transfer to the mat stack, and it didn’t help the way I was hoping. I under-rotated the move and landed safely, but not on my feet. I was set to try again, and I got that familiar, fluttery feeling – it was time to stop. Something wasn’t right; I was tired, I didn’t have the energy or power to land properly, and I felt slower than usual. All told, that skill was a wrap for the day and I moved on to something else. No harm, no foul, no injury. There’s always next time.
If you listen to your gut, which is dutifully informed by that almond-shaped amygdala, you can stay healthy and safe as you work on pushing your limits. It certainly takes patience; the frustration of not being able to perform a skill can be overwhelming. It takes thinking like an adult. Like the GOAT taught us, our overall well-being is far more important than any skill or event that we might desire to fulfill. Sometimes, pressing pause is the best thing we can do for ourselves.