Posted On:
Tuesday, April 30, 2024
Updated On:

Coach Tip Tuesday: What if You Fly?

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SEVEN years!  For the 364th Tuesday in a row, it is Coach Tip Tuesday!

The Genesis of Coach Tip Tuesday

Seven years ago today, my good friend, colleague, and mentor Coach Brendan Jackson died suddenly and unexpectedly while running the Seneca7 relay race.  Devastated by the loss of someone who I loved and held in such high esteem, I dealt with my grief in one of the most therapeutic ways I know: I wrote about it.  Specifically, I wrote about something Brendan taught me so I could continue to share his words of wisdom with the world.

For the past seven years, I’ve made it a tradition to share something that honors him, his spirit, and the things he taught me on the anniversary of Coach Tip Tuesday.  Here’s a recap of what I’ve shared in those anniversary posts:

This year, I had a lot of different ideas about what I could write about for the seventh anniversary of Coach Tip Tuesday.  I seriously considered writing about how I don’t think you should pull up on your bicycle pedals; I thought that this would be funny to share as the anniversary post because what I think about pedaling a bicycle is directly counter to the advice that Coach Brendan used to give to his athletes.  (He was one of the many coaches who would dole out the advice to pull up on your bicycle pedals.)  I know that Brendan definitely would have seen the humor in my sharing something that we disagreed on in a post remembering and celebrating him.  But when it came down to it, I decided to share a message that embodies what Brendan’s spirit and philosophy was - both as a coach and as a human.

Face Fear

It’s extremely common for the athletes who I coach to tell me that they are afraid about something, that they’re worrying about something, or that they are concerned that something bad will happen in their training or in their races.  It’s my job to identify what is causing them to feel this way and to help them navigate what they are feeling.  A majority of the time, I recognize that their fears stem from the fact that they lack experience with (and therefore confidence in) whatever it is that they’re worrying about.

Sometimes it’s because they haven’t ever done something before (such as riding a bike outside or swimming in open water).  Sometimes it’s because it’s been a hot minute since they’ve done a particular something.  (Perhaps they were injured or they chose not to do something for awhile.)  Sometimes it’s because a distance or duration that they’ve never completed is on their schedule.  Sometimes it’s because they recognize that the intensity that is planned for a workout will be uncomfortable for them.  Sometimes it’s because the race that they’re doing is a new distance or discipline.  

You get the idea.  When something isn’t familiar to us or we’re facing something that is unknown to us, it’s honestly a natural thing to have some level of hesitation and/or fear.  And so it makes sense that athletes would feel this way when facing something that is new to them, something that has a bit of uncertainty surrounding it, or when it’s something that they don’t have mastery in.

Yes, sub-par workouts happen.  Yes, sometimes things feel hard.  Yes, sometimes it’s been a hot minute since you’ve done something.  Yes, sometimes things don’t go well.  Yes, sometimes you will feel physically sore.  Yes, sometimes you will see depths in your mind that you’ve never seen before.  Yes, sometimes negative things can happen.  This is all true.

But what is also true is that the opposite of what you’re fearing might happen.  Things might go much better than you’re anticipating or imagining.  You might find that you are stronger than you ever have given yourself credit for.  You might discover that soreness and discomfort aren’t The Worst.  Just because something is unknown or you lack experience with it doesn’t automatically make it an inherently bad thing.  Just because you are not familiar with something doesn’t mean that it automatically should be scary.

Because of these truths, I often share the following quote written by poet Erin Hanson with athletes when they are expressing fear or concern about a certain situation:

What if you fly?

“There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask "What if I fall?"

Oh but my darling,

What if you fly?”

I love this quote because it very succinctly illustrates how to approach something with curiosity.  Because yes, the truth is that you might fall.  But the truth also is that you might fly.  So, I encourage athletes to imagine that they might fly.  I recently heard that “Bravery is not the absence of fear, but action in place of fear.”  It’s okay to be afraid and it’s okay to simultaneously be open to a positive outcome instead of a negative one.  You can experience fear and take action to help yourself manage and quell that fear.  When facing something that is new or that makes you nervous, I’ve learned that it’s profoundly more positive and wise to take action and to approach unknown situations with curiosity instead of fear.

Approach with Curiosity, Not Fear

When athletes are worrying about something, I find that they are almost always exclusively considering the negative things that could happen in a given workout, situation, or race.  This emphasis on the negative is the root cause of their concern and worry.  They are almost never considering the possibility of success, joy, or positive outcomes.  It’s so, so important to remember that nothing in life is all bad - or all good for that matter.  There is yin and yang; there is balance.  

The philosophy behind yin and yang (which I believe to be true) is that all things exist as complementary forces that are inseparable and contradictory opposites.  Light and dark.  Hot and cold.  Day and night.  Health and disease.  All of these things (and more!) exist together simultaneously, never as one exclusively.  And so this is in endurance sports: There may be times when the balance shifts, but things are never exclusively great.  Most importantly: Though it tends to be exactly what we imagine or what we fear, though the balance may shift, things are also never exclusively bad.  Good and bad, light and dark are all existing simultaneously.

I strongly believe that the ability to understand that conflicting things can be true simultaneously is a sign of maturity.  Specifically, I believe the ability to hold two conflicting viewpoints as true simultaneously is a sign of maturity.  In athletics, I have observed that mature athletes understand that there is always a risk that things may not go the way we want or expect.  But not going the way we want or expect can go either way: It can go worse than we expect and there is always an equal - if not better - risk that things will go better than we expect.

I have learned that things exist on a spectrum, on a sliding scale.  One day, things may be tilted toward the negative.  The next day, they may be tilted toward the positive.  Humans are wired to focus on the negative; it takes at least three heartfelt, positive emotional experiences to outweigh a single negative experience.  When we look at our history and evolution, this is actually a good thing.  We needed to remember the negative things (such as which foods were poisonous, which animals posed a threat to us, what the weather and seasons mean, etc.) so that we could survive.  But in the context of endurance sports, it’s rare that we’re facing life or death survival situations.  In endurance sports, we can disrupt our negative thought patterns by reminding ourselves that it’s possible that things may go well.  That it’s entirely possible that we may fly.

All too often, athletes who are fearing something are actually deciding ahead of time how it is going to go.  In essence, they can help contribute to the situation becoming exactly what they fear; it can become a self-fulfilled prophecy.  I encourage athletes to seek to self-fulfill positive prophecies.  For instance, instead of saying “This is going to be hard and I am worried about how it will go”, you could say “I wonder how this will go?” or “I look forward to seeing how this new experience goes.”

You Can’t Manifest Everything

Now, let’s be clear; I am not saying that anything and everything can be dealt with by thinking positive thoughts about it.  Just because we wish for something to be true does not automatically make it so.  (There’s a reason why “blind optimism” is called what it is.)  That being said, what we think and our thoughts do matter and have an impact on how we interact with and experience the world.  

What I am saying is that if we interrupt and disrupt negative thoughts that we might be having as a result of fear (whether those thoughts manifest as internal self-talk or external talking to others) and realize that there are multiple possibilities - positive and negative - that may be our outcome, we can open ourselves to experiencing more possibilities than we might originally foresee on our own.  We can open ourselves to the positive experiences we might expect and to outcomes that we may not even realize exist due to our lack of experience.

The Bottom Line

Brendan Jackson relentlessly encouraged others - his peers, his friends, and the athletes he coached.  He always saw and believed in the best version of who someone could be.  If I’m being honest, I think that this is an ability that he and I shared; this is something I’ve always believed as well, and my friendship with Brendan only reinforced the idea that endless, positive possibilities exist for athletes.

Yes, you may fall.  But (perhaps more than you expect!), you will likely fly.  Remain curious and open to the possibility that you may fly and that you may succeed far greater than you can currently imagine.  It’s simultaneously liberating and empowering, and what isn’t there to like about that?


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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