The haters and second-guessers need to stand down.
I don’t think you should criticize the gymnast, Simone Biles, unless you can look her in the eye and truthfully say that you have conquered every fear that you’ve ever had. And I’ll bet a dollar to a doughnut you can’t do that.
Most everyone has an opinion about her. Some would compare her to a patriot, or a soldier, who failed to do their duty for their country; others, more sympathetic, applaud her for calling attention to the mental health pressures that elite level athletes and even the general public must deal with every day. In my opinion, the woman has paid her dues: abandoned by her mother; raised in a foster home; homeschooled with ADHD problems; a full-time gymnast since an early age; endured sexual harassment; no normal childhood to speak of; lived her whole life in the public eye; yet she goes on to win more world championships and Olympic medals than almost anyone in the history of the sport. I think we can cut her a little slack if she felt uneasy about doing her eponymous trademark “Biles” dismount from the balance beam: a double-twisting, double-tucked somersault; not to mention the seldom tried “Fabichnova” routine, a double-twisting, double-back dismount on the uneven bars – both routines she has performed to perfection in major competitions dozens of times.
Now, I’m certainly not an athlete; in fact, I couldn’t even consistently make my high school football team, although I tried for four years. I can, however, relate somewhat to what Ms. Biles said she was experiencing in practice at Tokyo – specifically, the dreaded “twisties.” This is the mental phenomenon when a gymnast, in the middle of a demanding routine, experiences a temporary loss of air balance awareness. In layman’s terms, they can’t tell what is up or down. They lose situational awareness, much as John F. Kennedy Jr. apparently did when he crashed his airplane into the sea near Martha’s Vineyard a few years ago.
I somewhat experienced this feeling at the Army Parachute School back in the early 1960s. I’d come out of the airplane, particularly when we were jumping jets, like the C-141 Starlifter, and I’d immediately be blown upside down by the blast from the engines and go tumbling through space, completely unaware of my body position relative to my rapidly opening parachute. We’re talking a matter of seconds here, and the worst thing that could happen is that your streaming parachute wraps like a snake around your body and you turn into what everyone at the school refers to as a “roman candle,” except your landing becomes the big event and there’s no celebration, and the only fireworks is the arrival of the ambulance to haul your body away. That occurrence is so common it’s even addressed in the paratrooper’s “national anthem,” “Blood on the Risers:”
He counted long, he counted loud, he waited for the shock,
He felt the wind, he felt the cold, he felt the awful drop,
The silk from his reserves spilled out,
And wrapped around his legs
And he ain’t gonna jump no more.
Refrain: Glory, glory, what a hell of a way to die.
The risers swung around his neck, connectors cracked his dome,
Suspension lines were tied in knots around his skinny bones,
The canopy became his shroud; he hurtled to the ground
And he ain’t gonna jump no more.
The days he’d lived and loved and laughed kept running through his mind,
He thought about the girl back home, the one he’d left behind,
He thought about the medical corps,
And wondered what they’d find,
And he ain’t gonna jump no more.
If that wasn’t bad enough, we had to march around, keeping in step in the July heat, singing about some lying, cheating, cold, dead-beating, two-timing, double-dealing, mean mistreating, draft-dodging “Jody” stealing your girl back home. Of course, I never had a girlfriend for anybody to steal so they couldn’t hurt me there.
Nor did it help during Jump Week that one of the “black hats” (instructors so called because of the color of the ball caps they wore) would usually tell a story like this as we put on our chutes and checked each other’s gear: “This morning, we will be jumping at a height of 1500 feet, and if your chute fails to open, it will take the average man, weighing about 180 pounds, about eight seconds to hit the ground. For this average man, if he has average reflexes, it will take him about four seconds to realize that his main chute has malfunctioned and that he needs to activate his reserve chute. It will then take his reserve chute about three seconds to open sufficiently to break his fall without too much damage. As we load up the plane, I want you to do the math: eight seconds to fall; four to realize you are in trouble; three to do something about it; four plus three equals seven; eight minus seven equals one. The moral of the story this morning, soldiers, is that if your chute fails to open, you have ONE second to fool around. All aboard!” I always figured I was going to die, and I had made my peace with the Man before I got on the plane.
Actually, my biggest fear has been stage fright or speaking in public, which is a liability for someone who has had several careers in the public square. It started with me as early as the 8th grade when my well-meaning classmates voted me the “Quietest Boy,” not realizing I was afraid to talk. I’m not the only one. I’ve read where around 40% of Americans, or about 131 million people, suffer from “stage fright,” a term that was first coined by Mark Twain in his novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” Tom was poised to give a student speech and “a ghastly stage fright seized him, his legs quaked under him, and he was like to choke.” Twain also said, “There are two kinds of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” The medical term for fear of public speaking is “glossophobia,” which is not to be confused with “glossomania” or speaking in tongues which many also consider to be a form of verbal delirium.
The symptoms of stage fright are classic and generally affect people in three major ways: psychological: sweating, altered heart rate, headache, upset stomach, chills, and nausea; cognitive: congestion and mental confusion, fear of failure and ridicule; and behavioral: urge to escape from the situation, stuttering, frequent or long silences. A psychologist would tell you that there are many moving parts to the origin of such fears: heredity; lack of self-esteem (a child’s self-esteem is usually set in place by the age of two); inferiority complexes; feeling as if you are an imposter about to be exposed; repressed experiences in your childhood, etc. Sigmund Freud would have a field day with this stuff, and I check most of the boxes.
If you experience some of these symptoms, what are some good ways to deal with them? There’s a lot more involved than simply visualizing everyone in their underwear or blowing into a paper bag. Lots of well- known people have dealt with the condition in ways that might surprise you. For example, after she forgot the lyrics to a song while performing on stage in New York City, Barbara Streisand simply refused to perform live again for three decades. Now, she is only able to perform if her every word is provided by a teleprompter, even her in-between song banter with the audience.
Sir Lawrence Olivier, probably the greatest Shakespearean actor ever, was so afraid that he had to be physically pushed on stage for each scene, and the other actors were forbidden to make eye contact with him so that he could perform with less pressure. No less an actor than Harrison Ford called public speaking “a mixed bag of terror and anxiety,” and must psych himself up beforehand. Samuel L. Jackson, the highest grossing movie actor of all time (over $27 billion worldwide), speaking of his own successful bouts with stage fright, said that he “grew up a stuttering black kid in Tennessee in the 50s and pretended to be other people who didn’t stutter.”
For we mere mortals, some strategies that often work are meditation, thinking positive thoughts, like visualizing your success; being well prepared; trying to make a connection with the audience beforehand; making eye contact with the audience; and being your natural self. Personally, I’ve also found that if I feel as if I’m in control of the situation, I’m OK; otherwise, I basically feel and act like Sponge Bob when he’s trying to pass Mrs. Puff’s boat driver’s license exam.
So, what’s the biggest stage you’ve ever had stage fright on? I shared mine with the President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, sank the Navy through his misguided and miserly defense budget, and Reagan vowed to rebuild it to at least 700 ships. The centerpieces of this effort were to be the four World War II-era Missouri class battleships: New Jersey, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri. I was privileged to be detailed as the recommissioning chaplain on the New Jersey (BB-62) in 1980.
After about a year in the Long Beach, California, Naval Shipyard, the ship was finally ready for sea, and President Reagan decided to attend the commissioning ceremony and be the main speaker at the event. As you can imagine, the anxiety level was off the chart since the Commander in Chief was coming aboard. At the dress rehearsal the night before the ceremony, the Secret Service representative casually mentioned that if any of the individuals near the President on stage the next morning “made any sudden or strange moves, they would probably be shot by the snipers on top of the pier warehouses.” Somehow, that reminded me of Winston Churchill supposedly saying, “Nothing clears the mind like a good hanging.”
Anyway, the script called for the President’s helicopter to land on the pier; for him to get in his bulletproof car; ride 50 yards or so down to the ship; get out and walk up the brow; and then salute the flag. At that point, I was to go and salute him, and then escort him to his seat. Next, I was to proceed to the podium and deliver a short, ecumenical prayer which had been pre-approved at least up through the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. Remember, now – I’m the guy who can deal with his stage fright if he feels he is in control, and my control here was less than zero.
Have you ever felt stark, abject fear? That’s the way I felt when I walked up to salute the President. Not only was I afraid of stumbling on the knobby, non-skid paint on the deck and getting shot by the snipers; I was terrified that I couldn’t get my mouth open when I got to the podium and faced the myriad of network tv cameras and radio microphones. I could see my career crashing in flames; my wife going to the poor house; my children going to the orphan’s home.
Have you ever been in a bad car wreck, or better yet, had someone trying to kill you – I mean really trying to kill you? – well, I have. And I can tell you, even if it just takes a nanosecond, it seems like your whole life passes before your eyes, the good, the bad, and the ugly. That’s what happened when I walked to that podium. But, somehow, by the grace of God, the fates lined up for me that day: I didn’t stumble; I didn’t stutter; I didn’t stammer; I didn’t forget one word. I may never do anything else, but on that day, on the battleship New Jersey, alongside pier two, in Long Beach, California, I stone cold nailed it.
In the meantime, don’t judge others and keep sticking those perfect landings;
- me, I’m just looking for a place to fall apart. Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.