Preface: I wrote this as part of a training manual for a different company, it applies to all high-performance sports.
Fear is a very powerful feeling. It governs much of our natural behaviour; it is at times an engine for behaviour, and as such, often misunderstood. It is seen by many as something that we need to eradicate from our experiences or that by some philosophical reason or other, we should not have. This idea is patently false. Fear is healthy. Being afraid of bumps in the night, wrestling in the tall grass, and thunderous noises has ensured the survival of our species for the last several hundred-thousand years, and to an extent it still does. While many of these can apply to athletes in all fields, what follows is in my opinion a list of five fears trampoline and gymnastics athletes need to overcome, especially those athletes in competitive programs. The first two of this list are common fears that can be dealt with by simple progressions and the last three (three different manifestations of the same fear) are not to be downplayed or underestimated. Whenever possible, seek the assistance of a professional when dealing with fears exhibited by an athlete.
1 Fear of heights – Fear of falling
While this may seem extremely obvious to those who have witnessed the sports of trampoline and gymnastics being performed at high-performance levels, it is more prevalent than most would think. Fear of heights is common to most human beings; it is the innate understanding that falling from a certain height can cause injury to the body – another useful gift from nature. Successful trampolinists are not immune to this; they have simply learned to regulate the fear of falling through training. If an athlete is afraid of jumping high the intensity of their jump should be increased gradually in efforts to see the higher bounces as a natural, logical progression. Do note that as coaches, we want our athletes to respect height, and to control the fear of falling as this will keep them safe even when attempting skills of high degree of difficulty.
2 Tachophobia – Fear of speed
Something more obscure than the popular fear of heights, yet very common according to psychological research. Tachophobia is the fear of speed, and while it is often associated with speeding vehicles it also applies to fast paced physical movement, or even social and life changes. Trampoline and gymnastic athletes will experience fear of fast motion in instances of acceleration due to gravity or force exerted on equipment such as spring boards, trampolines, tumbling floors. Swinging on bars because of the position of the head and eyes can also result on experiences of tachophobia. Let’s remember that this particular fear is closely related to fear of heights and as suggested in that section, it should be dealt with a gradual increase in the intensity of the exercise being performed.
FEAR OF PERFORMANCE
This section must be segmented into three parts as the implications of being afraid of failure are vast. Much more than these paragraphs are required to cover the psychology of performance; here I have condensed some of my understandings to shed light on the issue.
3 Fear of failure – internal expectations
Being afraid to “try” something new and not being able to do it right is also a natural part of behaviour. The issue that makes this condition so difficult to deal with is that there isn’t a commonly accepted definition of failure that we can study and use to determine the value of an individual’s performance. Take for example a trampolinist who while in competition executes a good enough routine to acquire qualifying scores but feels unhappy about his performance. Does this athlete have a good reason to feel like he has failed? Based on this example, it is impossible to tell. Perhaps he knows that his execution could be better, or that he could have done more to maintain his height to the end of his routine; all of these may be valid arguments for his perception of failure. What this tells us is that failure is determined only by the meaning it has to the individual. We more often than not fear not meeting our own expectations. As I’ve said before, these are not circumstances that should be taken lightly. The best way to deal with a general fear of failure is through clear communication about the expectations an athlete has from his training and from himself. It is not advisable to measure the complexity of this fear with a general rule.
4 Fear of failure- external expectations
Outside of expecting a certain level of performance from ourselves, we are often aware of the potential others see in us. This fear can be quite debilitating as it plays on our need to maintain healthy and strong circles of sentiments with those close to us. Most of us don’t want to let our friends and family down. Similarly, this condition is best dealt through communication. However, the psychology of parental expectations is very complex; I would not advice that a coach, in any discipline, tell the parent of an athlete not to expect particular success from their child, but that the expectations of the athlete, their training, and the relationship of these to progress needs to be a constant topic of communication.
5 Fear of being afraid
Fear of fear itself sounds like a redundant and cheesy way of explaining away weakness. But we know that fear is an essential, almost vital response to possible emotional and physical danger. This response usually manifests in avoidance of the object of our fears: if we fear heights, we stay low; if we fear speed, we move slow; and logically if we fear Fear, we move away from it. This condition has been the reason for many wonderfully talented athletes to abandon their training. The phrase “I don’t want to be afraid anymore” was to me all too common in my years working with the Regional Bahavioural Team of the board of education (RBT). This statement was made by kids and young adults who suffered from several of the phobias mentioned in this paper. Some of them had failed in various aspects of life because of them.
In conclusion I would advise all coaches to maintain the lines of communication open, and to pay close attention to what their athletes are saying at all times. Human beings are afraid of many things – this is natural – and showing their fear in one way or another is also part of this natural process. As coaches and educators it is part of our job to look at behaviour and to do the best with the feedback our kids are constantly giving us.