Written by: Neola Wilby
When I was knee-high to a grasshopper with the wonkiest pigtails you ever did see and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Sneaker Snappers on my shoe laces, I spent many a summer’s day with my older sisters in the tiny patch of grass in our parents’ garden, kicking up into freestanding handstands, dropping back into bridges (we called them crabs), flinging our legs into different shapes and challenging each other to come up with crazy new leg shapes.
Each different handstand variation we ‘created’ was christened with its own special name—the ‘teddy bear’, the ‘scissors’, the ‘bug catcher’—and we’d spend hours practicing them over and over again.
Fast-forward to my early thirties. I hadn’t done a ‘teddy bear’ or been upside down in any way, shape or form for over 20 years.
What the hell happened? For some reason, I hit puberty and stopped playing.
And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.
We don’t stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing
Thankfully, training in pole, yoga and calisthenics has brought play time back into my life. I’m upside down on a daily basis and #lifeisbetterupsidedown is firmly (and kinda annoyingly, if I’m honest) etched into my phone’s autocorrect.
It’s funny that a big part of my pole training bears such a huge resemblance to those hazy summer days on my parents’ lawn, giggling, falling, getting back up and trying again. Experimenting with shapes, getting creative with names. Loving life.
Except that now I’m 35, not 10.
Not only do I now have a mortgage to pay, a niggly hip to consider and the deep sadness of knowing that I can no longer pull off turtle-themed accessories, but I also have ‘the fear’.
‘The fear’ is that inevitable aversion to risk that has been slowly creeping into my mind-set like the dislocated TV-dwelling girl from the Grudge as I’ve got older.
People who ‘Facebook know me’ (you know… those ‘friends’ you’re not sure how the hell you met but you’ve seen all their Majorca ‘16 holiday snaps, know what they had for dinner last night and you’ve been Facebook friends for so long it’d be rude to unfriend them now). Well, those people, they know me a LITTLE, but they don’t REALLY know me. They think I’m brave. They send me links to Ninja Warrior clips and people freeflying into the Grand Canyon wearing winged suits, saying “Neo – you’d be great at this.”
Dammit, I wish I’d done a sky dive when I was 18; no way I’d dare do it now! I practically shat my pants at Go Ape, and the highest obstacle there is only 35 meters.
Some days, I struggle to flip a damn pancake. Honestly, the post-pubescent fear is real, people!
Conquering the fear
Of course, when we were mucking about as kids, we didn’t think about things like shoulder mobility, core engagement and warming up with wrist extension drills before doing our handstand ‘training’– we just knotted the sleeves of our neon shell-suit jackets around our hips and jumped right into it.
But a little bit of fear is good. The fear stems from a logical place, right? When you’re dangling from a single knee-pit 10 foot in the air from a metal pole, you do need your wits about you.
However, there is a big difference between respecting the dangers of pole and being held back in a prison of your own mind.
If you know you’re strong enough and experienced enough to pull off a move—you have crash mats and spotters and the worst thing that could happen is that you might plop onto a pillowey crash mat, your fall broken further by your instructor’s trusty biceps—but you just can’t get past a mental block, the fear may have you in its claws, too.
The body is willing but the mind is not
The fear is something that I constantly have to work on in my own pole practice.
For me, it’s dynamic moves that give me the heebee jeebies… kicking up into handstands, handsprings, flips onto and off the pole, holly drops, bridge drop backs… basically, any move that requires me to pull up my big girl panties. Give me a deadlift over a flip any day. I’m basically a control freak.
But other people feel the fear equally with more static moves as well – a lot of people when they first start inverting, or if they have fallen before in a particular move, or if they are about to perform on stage.
In an effort to increase my bravery, I have read a LOT about athlete mind set. Whilst a lot of the advice on this subject is aimed at fighters preparing for an epic boxing match or basketball players getting ready for a career-defining game, I have learnt a few mental training techniques that I want to share because they have helped me and I hope they will help you too.
Whenever I feel that little pang of pole anxiety, I go through the following steps in the order listed.
They might not all work for you, or you might think I’m a raving hippy lunatic, but if you practice these techniques regularly I swear on my crystal chakra healing stones (I don’t really have those) that it will help you to stop feeling like the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz and free your mental blocks so you can perform at your best on the pole.
Step 1: Relaxation – 4-7-8 breathing
Breathing has an important influence on your mood and thought processes. There are tons of different meditation and breathing techniques out there. The 4-7-8 method is just one. I use it because it’s quick, so you can whip it out of your fear-battling arsenal at any time to centre and calm you in a matter of minutes.
- With the mouth slightly open, place the tip of your tongue gently against the ridge behind the top front teeth.
- Breathe in through the nose for a count of 4.
- Then hold your breath for a count of 7.
- Now breathe out through your mouth for a count of 8, keeping the tongue in place, pressed against that ridge behind the top front teeth.
- Repeat this 4 times through.
Try and focus only on your breath. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the breath and continue.
Step 2: Imagery – find your happy place
Now your body is relaxed and your mind is calm, the second step requires you to vividly recall a moment in your life when you felt invincible / conquered a fear / felt proud of yourself or even just felt elated with happiness.
It can be any moment – the birth of a child, the first time you got a crucifix, the feeling you got after bossing an important presentation – any moment of happiness that you can easily recall.
For me, strangely (considering I’m no longer a lawyer), I use the moment I got my exam results on my post-grad legal practice course. I aced it and won 4 awards, including one from the Law Society for Outstanding Achievement. Whoop! I think back to that moment, the feel of the paper in my hand, the surge of overwhelming joy and confidence I felt when I read the words on that letter.
Close your eyes, replay that moment in your mind’s eye with as much detail as you can muster and continue your deep breathing as you do it (but you don’t have to count your breath during this part).
Step 3: Self-belief – mantras and power poses
The fear comes from a place of self-doubt and its enemy is self-belief. So step 3 is where we do some positive self-talk to summon our inner confidence.
To do this, you need to pick two or three positive attributes that you love about yourself so you can create a little mantra to play inside your mind. It might go something like:
“I am strong”. “I never give in”. “And my ass looks frickin amazing in these pants”.
Also, this might sound a little goofy but power poses are a great way to give an immediate boost to self-esteem too, so if you close your eyes and recite your mantra whilst standing with your hands behind your head, elbows wide and chest proud, it will give you an instant feeling of confidence.
With practice, this whole process should take less than 5 minutes and done immediately before class/training will help get you in the right frame of mind to kick some serious pole ass and #flipthedamnpancake. J
I’d love to know – which moves scare the bejeezus out of you? And what techniques do YOU use to overcome the pole fear?
About the author
Neo is a fitness writer, pole instructor and online personal trainer at the Pole PT. A former lawyer, she left the legal profession to pursue her passion for fitness and is now much happier lifting weights, playing pole and writing about all things strength and fitness.