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I assume this is a very atypical question for this community, but I believe it's on-topic, so, I'll go ahead with this.

I was hoping someone could help me resolve the problem of overcoming fear. To be more specific, I tend to have problems when training back flips or back handsprings. I always train them in a gym on very soft mattress, where I can hardly hurt myself. There's really no harm at stake. When thinking about it rationally, I do realise this fact. Also, I'm already in a stage where I can perform them at least in a way where I don't hit the ground in a wrong way, so basically, there's absolutely no reason why I should worry when training.

Yet, when standing there on the spot, seconds before performing a certain jump, I feel fear and I never give my maximum power to the jump, therefore never doing it as perfectly as I'm physically capable of.

I know that if I put my total maximum, I could do wonders, but my brain doesn't let me.

Any ideas how to overcome this fear?

P.S.: I'm 22 years old, I started late. I think it's connected. I'm not as agile as I used to be, so maybe that's the reason why I don't just "throw myself into danger" like 15-year-olds do.

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I've heard this is one reason why younger gymnasts tend to do better in elite competitions: they don't know enough yet to be afraid. –  Greg May 24 '11 at 22:49
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4 Answers

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The fear seems to be a pretty ubiquitous experience in gymnastics. I have heard advanced gymnasts refer to it, that momentary hesitation, before performing even relatively simple routines well within their capability. The reason seems clear from an evolutionary perspective.

As essentially forward moving upright animals it seems to be moving backwards and being upside down that illicit the strongest "Are you really sure you want to do that?" response. There are obviously some abstract mind tools you can employ to manage fear, most of which centre around not thinking too much: focus on the end result, just do it, etc. More practically, certain drills and practise can train the mind to better recognise certain key moments in a movement, and do so very rapidly. The more you can off-load competencies to the unconscious the more confidence you are likely to have in performing a movement, not least because it happens in that space before thinking, probably where the fear lives too. Some concrete examples:

  • Backward and forward rolls train the brain to recognise what the floor looks like at high speed, that is transferable to unfurling in somersaults or hitting rebound jumps and back flicks at the right time.
  • Foam rolls and inclined blocks allow you you to break a movement down. For example just hitting the backward lean and arch of a back flick by jumping on a roll and getting the shoulder before bum impact on an inclined block helps with the take-off angle. When you come to do the full movement your brain recognises the position and the conditioned response takes over.
  • Bridge-overs can simulate the the horizon inverting which is so disconcerting when moving backwards; bridge up with your feet near a wall, walk up the wall and kick over and kick back. Pick fixed points on the wall and opposite, see how fast you can switch from focussing on the point in front to the point behind. This should help train you to reacquire the horizon early after you flip.

I think building more 'safe places' in a movement with these sorts of methods can help reduce fear, but I'm not sure you'll ever convince a certain part of you that throwing yourself backwards upside down into the unknown is a good idea.

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Go jump off of a cliff.

No that's not really a joke. Fear is relative, and you might know this. But there is a difference between knowing and "groking". Knowing is intellectual. Once you've done something that you are more afraid of, such as bungee or the high dive, or what have you, the lesser fears shrink even further. It not the dissimilar to "how do I lift 20 pounds easier? By lifting 40."

You know enough to know why to be afraid and the body listens to that. But how much "serious fear" have you personally experienced? The more fear you conquer, the less fear conquers you. While it may be possible to build up with smaller fears, I have found that just hitting a big one is far more efficient.

If you are even slightly afraid of heights, falling, or even (like me) just that sudden stop at the bottom, taking a plunge is a one-fell-swoop affair that shrinks lesser fears.

Bonus: the rush you get might encourage your gymnastics since you'll get (I assume) a rush from accomplishing those maneuvers better.

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You never overcome fear, you just need to make sure fear doesn't overcome you. Easier said than done. Once someone fails or gets hurt the thought of that moment remains within us, no matter how many successful attempts were made before or after that incident. You ever wonder why Mike Tyson couldn't come back from his lose to Douglas? Most likely because he never thought of fear and once faced with it didn't know how to handle it (sort of the downside of people who start off with no fear). Overcoming a known/accepted fear is called courage.

Visualize (really visualize) successfully doing the back flips/handspring, over and over and push back on any thoughts of failing. Accept that you might get hurt and when you do, pick yourself up, shake it off and do it again. Remember others have done what your doing, remember when you've done other things that could have resulted in injury and then just do it. The strange and as far as I know unproven fact is, that the more you fear something, the greater the likelihood of you getting more injured from it (increased tension).

Summary: accept the fear, visualize success and just do it

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It seems from your description that you (your brain) has especially the fear from falling. You know rationally that the mattress is very soft, but your brain seem not to believe that. Maybe you haven't fall on it enough times?

I think you could benefit from training judo falling techniques for a while. The more time you fall, the more your brain will be comfortable with the idea of falling, the less your fear will be.

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