Planning on falling

I’ve been watching the Olympics this week, and a big highlight of these games, as always, is the gymnastics competition. I don’t know anything about gymnastics except that the people who perform them at this level are astonishing to watch, and I’ve been enjoying both the women’s and men’s competitions so far.

I was watching the women compete on uneven bars a couple of evenings ago, and wondering how they ever learn to do it. Not merely how to swing loops from a single bar (difficult enough!) but how to switch from one to the other on the fly and back, how to throw themselves high over the bars and catch them on the way down, and turn and loop and switch and twist and trade bars and trade back again. It’s such a dynamic thing, and it depends on momentum to work — you have to learn it on the go, learn it by going. They must fall off a lot, I thought.

That idea caught my attention. Of course they fall off a lot; all of gymnastics involves falling a lot. Every beautifully polished routine in these games must represent so many falls, so many misses and not-quite-theres and not-even-closes. Gymnastics training centers are full of thick mats and pits full of foam blocks, because falling a lot is taken for granted. It’s an integral part of the program.

I still find myself thinking about the grace of those training rooms, filled with mats and foam. How it’s so taken for granted that learning gymnastics skills means doing a lot of falling, and thus the means for falling safely are provided everywhere. Go ahead and fall; get up and try and fall again. With those big foam pits, falling might be as much fun as succeeding.

It’s no secret that gaining success in any arena means falling a lot, falling and failing as many times as it takes to perfect the needed skills. One has to take some risks, and that means risking falls, figurative ones at least. I find it so hard to do, and thinking about gymnastics makes me realize that I put down no mats for myself, build no pits for soft landings. There’s no possible floor surface but concrete, in my mind, nothing to break a fall, and so a fall must break me. Better not try anything risky. Maybe it’s best to just sit down and keep still. I don’t often fall down when I’m sitting still.

How do you lay out mats for yourself, when the falls are metaphorical ones rather than physical? Can you learn how to make it safe to take some chances in life — dare I say, is it possible that some falls could be as fun as tumbling into a pit full of foam blocks? I don’t know, but I hope so.

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