My 8-year-old daughter has been waiting since the beginning of the school year for the day when she’d finally get to move up from her little-kid tumbling class to the big-kid gymnastics class. But now that it’s time, she is suddenly terribly unhappy about the whole idea. She moped around for a few days, talking about quitting, before she finally told me one night at bedtime exactly what was troubling her. She’s worried, she said, that she’ll be the worst person in the class. She’s worried she’ll fall off the equipment. She’s worried that everyone will laugh at her when she can’t master the moves.
I’m not a gymnast. I can’t imagine falling off the balance beam because I can’t imagine a situation in which I’d have the guts to climb up there in the first place. So how to ease her fear of failure?
A few years ago, when I was living in Jordan with my diplomat husband, I decided it was time to get my middle-aged self back in shape. The gym at the embassy was tiny, without much room to maneuver around the stacks of weight plates, the racks of dumbbells, and the boxing bag. It was mostly military guys and federal agents in there, big guys with tattoos who were busily curling dumbbells that outweighed me. I was the smallest, weakest person in there day after day, and I felt out of place as I did my push-ups, squats, and dead lifts. Nobody in there really seemed to notice me, but I was aware that I stood out in that crowd of weightlifters, and I felt sort of silly. Still, I showed up, because I could tell I was making progress – I was getting stronger. I liked that feeling, so I persisted, mostly keeping to myself.
One day I was on my favorite machine, one that nobody else in the gym ever needed to use: the assisted pull-up machine, which let me go through the mechanics of a proper pull-up without requiring me to haul all of my weight up to the bar. I had just finished a set when this huge guy, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel whom I kind of knew but had never really talked to, walked up to me and asked, “Why are you always doing assisted pull-ups?” I looked at him, embarrassed, searching for an answer. “Because I can’t do real ones,” I finally admitted.
And he laughed at me. But not in a mean way. More in a don’t-be-ridiculous way.
“Yes, you can,” he said. “I’ve seen you. You’re strong. Get over here, and I’ll show you.”
We walked over to the “real” pull-up bar, and he explained “reverse” pull-ups: Instead of pulling yourself up, you start at the top and slowly lower yourself down. He watched me do a couple. Then he told me to come back the next day and try a real one.
So I did. And I did! I had no idea I was strong enough to do a pull-up because I’d never tried.
“Keep practicing,” he told me. “By the end of the month, you’ll be able to knock out four or five.” And then he went back to his task of slinging huge dumbbells around the gym.
After that day, I felt I had a cheering squad in there, with the others at the gym watching to see if I could boost my pull-up numbers and congratulating me when I did. I started to love going to that gym. I was still the smallest, weakest one there. But I could do pull-ups! First two, then five, then nine. And when I stopped worrying about looking foolish, I started asking others questions, and I learned all sorts of things. The Army major helped me fix my dead lift. The federal agent and I talked squats. The Jordanian kickboxing champ taught me to punch things, and Lauren, one of my few women friends at the gym, showed me what those crazy TRX straps were for.
The point is, nobody was laughing at me. (Well, except for the time I tried to land a kick during my kickboxing lesson and I kicked my other foot right out from under me, landing hard on my rear end. But even I could laugh about that, once it stopped hurting.) There were teachers everywhere in that gym, once I was willing to humble myself and ask for help.
By the time we left Jordan for a new assignment in Moscow, I could knock out 10 pull-ups, easy, and I had been certified as a personal trainer, so I could teach other women what I’d learned in that gym.
And so it will be with my daughter. She won’t be the best gymnast in the room. But if she shows up, if she lets her desire to learn how to do a back handspring overcome her fear of landing on her face, she’ll learn something, both about the sport and about herself, every time she walks into that gym. She’ll have teachers and friends and competitors there. She’ll just have to ignore anyone who might laugh at her efforts and seek out the ones who will push her to be better.
And – heck – as an 8-year-old, she can already do almost as many pull-ups as me.