I rode my bike downhill on a traffic-laden major road in Bristol last Saturday. No big deal for many of you, I am sure. But it was a pretty big deal for me. I’m fairly new to cycling, and I’ve not been cycling on the road for very long at all. And it was a big deal for another reason: the hill. Because of experiences I had in childhood, the prospect of cycling down steeper inclines has been a bit of a hurdle for me. However, not only did I cycle on one of the busiest roads in Bristol, but I cycled down one of the bigger hills in Bristol, too.
So how did I get up the courage to do this? How did I handle fear and learn to do things that scared me?
Deliberate practice: the way to handle fear.
The answer is practice. I worked up to it (or down, depending on your point of view…). I spent a fair while cycling just on (flat) cycle paths in Bristol and Cardiff, learning to be comfortable on my little folding bike. Then I started cycling on quieter roads. When I felt okay on quiet roads I started using the busier roads, but at quiet times of day. Then I started cycling up and down hills on quieter roads…
Do you see the pattern here? I constructed a series of small steps that would enable me to build up my confidence, while all the time expanding the range of what I could accomplish. I also had some lessons early on that gave me some good professional advice, so that I knew the technical aspects of what I ought to be doing. And now I feel sufficiently comfortable to be able to make my way along steepish, busy roads in the centre of the city. Not bad going!
Deliberate practice in the performance arena
This is exactly the system that I use when I teach my courses on overcoming stage fright. I take a group of people who very often don’t even want to sit in front of a group, and through the delivery of some technical advice and a series of exercises I lead them, step by gentle step, to be comfortable giving off-the-cuff presentations or musical performances. And my students have the same experience as me: what they thought at the beginning of the course as being impossible, by the end of six short weeks becomes easy. They learn to handle fear in a constructive way.
This is the power of working in small steps. It is not for nothing that FM Alexander, the creator of the Alexander Technique, said that
Confidence is born of success, not of failure, and our processes in education and in the general art of living must be based upon principles which will enable us to make certain of the satisfactory means whereby an end may be secured, and thus to command a large percentage of those satisfactory experiences which develop confidence
Alexander is asking us to make certain that we construct for ourselves a pathway towards the goal we want to achieve. And we must make the steps in our pathway small, so that we can build confidence from each small success that we have.
Handling fear in three points
So if you have a goal you want to achieve, try to do these three things:
- know what the goal is
- construct a pathway towards your goal, with lots of small achievable steps
- get professional advice on any technical aspects you need to make success easier (like cycling lessons!)
And if you’re interested in overcoming stage fright, be sure to sign up for my next course. I’ll be running it in person and via Skype before the end of the year!
 Alexander, FM., Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, NY Irdeat 1997, p.384.