"Do one thing every day that scares you."
A few years ago, I was at my gymnastics club in the west end of Toronto, contemplating this quote while staring down a 15-metre runway. At the end of the runway was a vaulting horse that I was about to hurtle over, something that would not be considered remarkable except for the fact I was 47 years old. I'm pretty sure the person who thought up that quote wasn't standing where I was at the time.
For several years, I've been participating in a gymnastics program where teens and adults gather once a week to learn basic skills. I am easily the oldest among my peers, in most cases by decades. Although I did gymnastics in high school, doing it at this point in my life has a definite fear-factor element, which increases with each passing year.
"Would anyone like to try a handspring off the vault?"
Our first coach, Iriella, was standing to one side of the apparatus, trying to reassure us that she would catch us if we fell. We remained unconvinced.
"No," I replied on behalf of the group, "but thanks for asking."
Call me chicken, but there's something about flying upside down through the air at high speed that scares me. Iriella knew this; she could see the fear in my eyes, but she would not be denied.
As I rushed toward the vault, a single thought ricocheted through my brain: "Abort!"
For those of you wise enough never to have tried vaulting, there is a point of no return. Once you're airborne, you are committed. To give up then isn't just dangerous; it can result in permanent injury to your body and ego, as you invariably crash, your limbs and face contorted in ways you never thought possible.
Gymnastics, like any other high-risk sport, is best taken up as a youngster, long before you've had a chance to develop a sense of your own mortality. Kids don't stand around thinking about how they'll look if they mess up, or what will happen to them if they don't execute the skill properly. They never think: "Gee, if I miss the beam/bar/rings, I could break a leg/arm/neck."
As an adult, however, you are constantly evaluating the risks, always looking for the dark side of the equation. It is a fear grounded in self-preservation.
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On the balance beam one day, I was about to attempt a cartwheel. The beam was only a short distance off the ground, but it was enough to give me vertigo. My face was a portrait of single-minded concentration. My coach at the time, Adam, studied me and asked: "Are you thinking about seeing your foot land on the beam?"
"No," I replied. "I'm thinking that it's a good thing my life insurance is paid up in full."
I tried the cartwheel, missing the beam by a narrow margin of about a metre. "The reason you're falling off is because you're rushing to get your feet down to the beam." Adam said this like it was a bad thing.
"Damn right I am," I said with a snort. Who wants to be upside down on a narrow piece of wood any longer than they have to be?
Another thing I've been working on for several years is a back handspring, a skill that involves flipping backward from a standing position onto your hands, then landing feet first on the mat. It's been an uphill battle, and always evokes an approach-avoidance response in me.
My coach Lukas recently asked if I wanted to try a back handspring directly out of a round-off, which starts the same way as a cartwheel, but the feet join together mid-air. Fortunately, my trust in Lukas's ability to spot me on such manoeuvres is absolute.
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Like Iriella, Lukas can sense my fear (do they teach this in coaching clinics?) and says something that has an immediate calming effect: "I wouldn't ask you to try this if I didn't think you could do it." It's a good thing at least one of us has faith in my ability.
He runs through a laundry list of things I need to concentrate on during this skill, which I will have only a few seconds to complete. Since my aging brain can only focus on one thing at a time, I know I'm in trouble.
I give it my best shot, but despite Lukas's attempt to help me, I crash and burn; the only thing missing is the "Mayday" call. After catching me while I'm flailing in mid-air, Lukas stares at me for a few seconds, probably to reconsider what he's about to say. "Okay, that was pretty good." I'm amazed he can do this job with a straight face.
As I walk back to the end of the line, it occurs to me that this is the real reason I continue coming to the gym week after week for physical and psychological punishment.
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There is something to be said for the value of doing things that scare you, of overcoming your fear instead of being consumed by it. And as I get older, this need to overcome gets stronger. While I may never learn to embrace it, I have come to recognize it as a test of willpower, a character-building experience that provides an opportunity to learn from failure and deepens your sense of what it means to rise to a challenge.
And then another quote pops into my head: "That which does not kill you …"
Now all I have to do is find something else to scare myself with the other six days of the week.
Sandra Sagara lives in Toronto.