How I Recognized My Fear of Failure and How I’m Mindfully Overcoming It

“The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source. Instead of trying to escape from our fear, we can invite it up to our awareness and look at it clearly and deeply.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

One week prior to her eighteenth birthday, my daughter started tumbling lessons. Her dance skills were well-known, having started dancing at the tender age of three. She was also taught roundoffs and cartwheels in those classes. She wanted to perform the harder moves, such as the backwalkover, during her annual recital.

My wife wasn’t interested in watching our daughter repeatedly and blindly dive backward in a bendy arch, each time hoping her hands met the ground firmly enough to slow down the momentum of her trailing head and torso. It was me that was curious.

Her dancing wasn’t exciting to me at that point because the skills involved weren’t physically challenging yet. It would be easier later. Each back walkover proved to be a possible disaster, which made them interesting.

Tumbling classes aren’t cheap, and it was apparent to me that a single class a week was a slow way to acquire a skill. We agreed that we would spend at most a small amount of time practicing what she learned in class each day. If I did not have any background in coaching athletes, tumbling or coaching tumbling, this would be like father-daughter time. The majority of the learning would come from me.

The YouTube Tumbling Coach

Obviously, there’s no technical challenge too complex that it cannot be mastered by watching two or three related YouTube videos by experts whose credentials you have not bothered to verify and are not qualified to assess.

That’s where my training began—with good intentions and numerous short videos of young girls in leotards plunging backward into smooth backbends while their lead legs fluttered up and over their bodies and their trailing legs followed seamlessly after in a graceful full-body hinge.

My YouTube account synched to my computer at work, and the clips I had made were embarrassing. As I explained to students the reasons for video recommendations, which followed a TED Talk that I showed them in class on a projector, I was unable to speak fluently. The students collectively groaned.

I was able to coach my daughter bridge kickovers, backbend and back walkovers without any prior knowledge. Every week, she would suddenly be able to perform skills that were impossible the previous week. That was something I enjoyed.

Without consulting my daughter or wife, I was able to assemble a trampoline within a few months.

The basement’s piles of assorted clutter were repositioned to make room for a large gymnastics tumbling mat. Later, a smaller version was made from the leftover clutter that was donated to local charities. A third would eventually stretch the combined mats the length of the room diagonally with the last section rising vertically against the far wall as a protective barrier against my daughter’s growing gymnastics awesomeness.

With the basement a de facto shrine to her hobby, I was emboldened to live vicariously through my only child’s growing list of technical accomplishments. Which I’m to understand is always completely healthy and never a problem…except when it is.

Not Too Mindful

My daughter and I met relatively early on our partnership. This would not be my last.

But she kept on working with me. She wanted to continue practicing and improving, even though she would sometimes make fun of me for being a stereotypical high-school football coach. This willingness to listen quickly made a difference.

We both found it difficult to conquer the back handspring as well as some of the others. Our practice sessions were a lot more enjoyable than ever because her back was so heavy that her arms couldn’t support it. It was the same for me.

I enjoyed being an inexperienced, non-qualified tumbling coach. The less successful version just felt painfully aware that he wasn’t experienced or qualified to know how to address a repetitive breakdown in form. Are you going to yell at her hands? Do you think it is possible to get an appendage motivated like a drill sergeant. This was an unsolved mystery.

It is hard to remember how many YouTube videos, messages board suggestions, or conditioning drills she was subjected to during that period. I was frustrated by the sheer number of YouTube clips, message board recommendations and conditioning drills that she endured. It made it difficult to be with her. However, I had to face the fact that my coaching abilities were limited one after another.

This was the best period in our partnership and for my development as a coach. My only option was to encourage her to persevere, even though nothing was going right.

I was able to improve my own mindfulness skills through my practice. I would also be able to see the negative impact fear had on my coaching.

A win is to recognize the fear of failing

The basement turned into a place where I could practice my mindfulness. Six months had passed since our first collaboration. My daughter was losing faith in her abilities and this process. Just bringing my full presence to her in that atmosphere was a challenging spiritual exercise—especially when I assisted her with repetition after repetition of back handsprings and every part of me wanted to shout at her bending elbows for failing us both.

This practice began with a simple move: go to the basement and practice mindfulness.

True, mindfulness maximalists like myself are trying to cultivate a greater awareness of what they are doing. Clearer intentions can be helpful in more difficult situations.

The next step was to analyze the reactions I was feeling.

These emotions included emotional body sensations and mental images. It is helpful to notice the feelings that I feel when frustrated.

Third, I wanted to draw my attention to the most prominent sensations.

I believe that thinking can be described as a feeling. In these practices, I would like to have a better understanding of my internal chatter and visuals. Fixing a reactive sensation in attention while supporting your daughter’s lower back as she leaps backward is a bad idea, so I would consciously pause between repetitions.

Sometimes, the body’s frustrated emotions can become embarrassingly extreme. Sometimes I felt angry at the world for failing to honor my efforts. Reality didn’t understand the amount of time I had spent using YouTube.

Importantly, I didn’t dismiss or dispute the content of my thoughts. My approach was to accept and not engage. This assumes that resisting emotional resistance will only lead to more resistance. It’s like trying dry leaves to put out a fire in a bush.

It was my fourth movement: to be at peace with myself.

Except when I couldn’t. Then, I attempted to find equanimity despite my inability or unwillingness to feel the emotions I felt. In my inability to feel equanimity, I attempted to find equanimity. I was all about equanimity.

My final and fifth move was to recognise insight.

Sometimes it is tempting to ignore some of the insights and dismiss them as just common sense. You might miss an opportunity to learn or grow, especially if there are emotional immature responses to being made meaner by reality.

My mindfulness practices during this period of stagnation led me to realize that I was afraid failure.

Fear was my greatest fear. My daughter and I were both afraid we would lose our jobs as coaches. It was too late to make a difference.

I was maybe most afraid that I was teaching an eight-year-old hard work doesn’t always pay off, your best isn’t always good enough, and it isn’t always worth the time and effort to learn how to do hard things.

Those lessons aren’t entirely wrong, they’re just beside the point. My greatest fear should have been for her to no longer enjoy doing something she wants to do…because of me.

It was obvious from watching the ineptly YouTubed season she coached her soccer squad a few years ago that even young children can still have fun with the things adults mistakenly make less enjoyable. It was different.

My fears weren’t just making me less effective as a coach; they were sending the message that our time together could only be enjoyable if she was making clear progress. I didn’t believe that and didn’t want her to believe it either. I pledged to alter my way of thinking.  

My daughter had learned to do back handsprings and coaching was a way of being with me. She would be encouraged to examine her limits and celebrate her achievements, even if they were not visible.

Even though it has been many years since I received the encouragement, my practice of being fully present often fails to meet my expectations. Being fully present for another person, even for a brief moment, requires that we also be open to seeing our difficulties. These features are often difficult to look at with compassion due to fear.

We all descend the staircase to the basement as different individuals. Be generous with the tumbling coaches. They are doing their best. You can fix anything with patience and consistency.

Michael Vastola

Michael Vastola, PhD, is a grateful dad and husband, writer, self-described “mindfulness maximalist,” and longtime educator who is fortunate to now offer individual coaching for mindfulness, emotional wellness, and personal growth. His favorite part of working with clients is when they are going through difficult transitions, or times filled with doubt and uncertainty. His personal explorations of this terrain have given him a lot of experience and he is an enthusiastic co-adventurer.

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