What Gymnastics Taught Me About Facing Fear

What Gymnastics Taught Me About Facing Fear


Most competitive gymnasts would consider pain and fear our twin companions. I certainly did. Gymnastics requires that athletes constantly challenge themselves to do more, much more. Routines that were performed in the Olympics in 2000 are being done by 15 year-olds in 2011. To learn new skills, you have to put yourself in scary situations.

One of the most important characteristics of a great gymnast is the ability to overcome fear and do what needs to be done. The stakes are higher: if you mess up a layup or a serve, not much is going to happen If you mess up on a Kovacs (the skill pictured above and in the video below) you could hit your face or slam your chest into a metal bar. And trust me, that does not feel good.

Ultimately, fear is about a mismatch in your mind between what you are capable of and what the environment demands of you. So to reduce fear, you have to address each of the elements – the risk of the environment, your capabilities and your mindset.

Reduce Risk

Fear usually isn’t a bad thing. It’s your brains way of telling you that it thinks you are in danger – that you risking bodily harm. And when you’re just starting to learn a new skill – your brain is probably right!

So the key here is to reduce risk – both perceived and actual – and prevent that harm from befalling you.

Getting Spotted – this is when your coach uses his hands to support, hold, push and pull you through the skill. You’re lacking the speed, agility or power to complete the move on your own, so he helps you with the last mile. See this video as an example.

Protective Surfaces – a big part of your fear is that you’re going to eat it and slam into the equipment in the wrong way and hurt yourself. Often your coach or teammate can slide a mat, or somehow pad/soften the area that could otherwise really hurt. Of course this doesn’t always work.

(Video: Kovacs Crash. From the video info: “Me eating it hahahah it didnt hurt but it was pretty scary”. Turn down the sound .. there’s a loud rock song playing in the background)


So if you’re scared of something – find ways to reduce your risk. Are you afraid to talk to pitch an investor? Start by pitching your rich uncle. He’s less intimidating and fewer bad things will happen if you “blow it”. If you’re scared to do your routine of jokes at Open Mic night at your local bar, start by doing a few jokes at your next house party. Find ways to simulate the thing you’re scared of, but in a place where you feel more comfortable / safe.

Increase Your Capacity

After reducing the danger of the external environment, the next step is to build up your own capacity – to both do the skill and to absorb the consequences of screwing it up.

Get Better: This is generally an issue of skill acquisition. Develop your fundamentals, break the skill down into parts, practice deliberately and visualize.

Get Tougher: Have you noticed that most gymnasts are ripped? Our muscles help us perform these crazy hard skills – and also protect us when we crash. Gymnasts are also very familiar with pain. When you know you can take a beating and bounce back then things become less scary.


So if you are afraid of something, get better at it and build your tolerance for facing what it is you fear (rejection, pain, failure). Are you afraid of talking to women at bars? Practice. Get good at making interesting conversation with strangers. Do rejection therapy and toughen yourself up so that rejections don’t hurt you as much. Are you scared to ask your boss for a raise? Kick serious ass at work and make the raise a no brainer. Build up a savings account and a great reputation so when you tell him “More or I’m gone” you can mean it.

Step Up and Just Do It

The final thing I learned about overcoming fear is that you’ve got to step up and just do it. It works like this:

You do the drills. You practice with mats. You do the conditioning. You get spotted. And one day your coach steps back and says: “Ok, this one on your own.”

Even if you know you’re ready, you know you can do it and you know you can safely handle a mistake, you can still feel paralyzed with fear. One technique that works:

Have fun with it. Feel the fear, laugh, and then go do it.

Fear tightens you up. It makes you stiff. By taking the whole situation lightly and having fun with it, you get yourself limber, loose and flexible – and much more likely to make it, or recover from a setback. One person who laughs in the face of fear was Rico, a Stanford alumni.

In this video he has not been training gymnastics seriously for over 3 years and does a full twisting Kovacs and grabs with ONE HAND. This is nuts – no one does one arm grabs on purpose. He did it by accident the year before and then did it INTENTIONALLY that time. I was at this meet, it was incredible.

(Video: Kolman catch with one arm – Rico Andrade


Once you’ve prepared adequately for the thing you’re afraid of, created an environment where the risk was controlled and built up your toughness and resilience so you can handle a mistake, then the only thing left to do is go for it. Man up. If you feel yourself tightening up, find something about the situation to laugh at. If you can see the situation as fun, exciting and interesting, you will no longer be afraid. Just go for it!