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Turning Fear Into Fuel

By Gordon Corsetti, US Lacrosse, 01/08/19, 12:00PM CST

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If you are afraid of using your off hand during the game, because you are pretty sure you will drop the ball, then start practicing with your off hand.

My favorite book of all time is Dune, by Frank Herbert. Now, why write about a science fiction book on a lacrosse blog? Well, I learned a powerful lesson from Dune that helped me overcome my fears on the field.

Lacrosse can be a scary experience for kids. Especially those just starting. I remember being afraid of screwing up or disappointing my coach. I was especially afraid of looking like I didn’t know what I was doing.

I was nervous, which was perfectly normal for a young kid learning the sport. The more I played and practiced, the less powerful those fears became, but I also gained resolve from The Litany Against Fear, a key mantra from Dune. It goes:

          I must not fear.

          Fear is the mind-killer.

          Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

          I will face my fear.

          I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

          And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

          Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

          Only I will remain.

Eight short lines with a powerful message. Face your fear and let it pass until only you remain. Sometimes, I would repeat the first line when I was especially nervous. “I must not fear,” told my mind that fear was natural, and that by facing my fear, I could reduce, and even eliminate, the power it had over me.

While my playing days are over, I still have the same fears as a lacrosse official. The fear of screwing up, and the fear of looking like I have no clue what I am doing. The question is how can we teach the internal alchemy required to turn fear into fuel?

Most people reading this will be familiar with the sensation of “stomach butterflies” before they do something they feel is very important. Even after eleven years officiating, I still get butterflies every time I step on the field. If you get butterflies, try this:

Close your eyes and imagine the butterflies flying in a pattern. A circle, or a figure-eight, or whatever pattern you really like.

This thought-experiment works to reduce fear and anxiety because the human brain loves patterns. Visualizing butterflies shifting from chaotic bumbling into a defined pattern, allows you make order out of disorder, certainty out of uncertainty, fuel out of fear.

Another trick is to replace the phrase “I am nervous,” with: “I am excited.” Replacing the negative thought of nerves with the more positive thought of excitement, reframes how you perceive the sensations coursing through your body. This idea is explained more deeply in the book Peak Performance where the authors, Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, write:

“We learned that many of the best performers across various fields use this technique. It's not that they don't feel nerves or sometimes even fear. It's that they channel these sensations and heightened perception towards the task at hand rather than trying to block them out.”

Just like when you practice throwing and catching to get better at the game, you can practice these mental skills to get better at life. If you practice enough, mental skills, like physical skills, can become almost automatic. The only requirement is to turn into your fear and face it.

If you are afraid of using your off-hand during the game, because you are pretty sure you will drop the ball, then start practicing with your off hand.

If you have trouble catching the ball over your shoulder, then start practicing those over the shoulder catches.

If you are fearful about messing up a call, then study the rule until you know it forward and back.

One more tip. If fear creeps up on you: start moving. Action tends to create more action, whereas inaction allows your mind to dwell on the negative.

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