Practice Hard and Get Goofy

Last year, I was terrible at hurdling. I nearly slowed to a stop every time I reached one. And when it came time to go over the hurdle, I basically threw myself over it. I looked like a spaz. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone over a hurdle and wondered if I was going to tear the meaty stuff around my ribs.

(To clarify, a hurdle is a waist-high barrier used in track races, whereas to hurdle is basically to leap over a hurdle).

Fast forward to last week, and I was still terrible at hurdling. Originally, I thought it was due to pain I dealt with last year. Now that the pain has gone, however, clearly there was another issue in the way.

I knew basic hurdling technique. I didn’t need a lot of education. The problem was not ignorance, but rather, fear. Fear and hesitation.

The key to success in hurdling is momentum. As you get closer to a hurdle, you must speed up. The faster you’re going when it’s time to hurdle, the smoother and easier the maneuver will be. It’ll feel more like a quick step than a jump, and it’ll take less wind out of you.

I, however, would do the opposite. As I got closer to the metal frame that awaited me, my steps would get smaller and smaller. All the momentum I had gained since going over the last hurdle was lost. After each hurdle, I’d have to start over again. In a race, I could never get going. I would do this over 35 times and have nothing to show for it.

What was happening was that I slowed down due to fear. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t know the technique—rather, fear made me incapable of executing that technique.

I decided that I would overcome this fear by sheer repetition.  I would have to practice hard, making the same movement over and over again until I could do it without any hesitation at all. I would have to do whatever it took. If that meant scraping my knees down to the bone and falling on my face time and time again, then so be it.

That was the only way through this. I had to do the hard work. I had to face my fears. I had to throw my ass to the fire.

Hard Meets Fun

Not long into my practice, however, I found there was another piece of the puzzle. My goal, essentially, was to stop making a big deal out of hurdling. I wanted to internalize the attitude of, “It’s just a hurdle on a track.” To accomplish this, I didn’t just have to practice. To bypass fear, I would have to get goofy.

Getting goofy meant doing more than just going through a single robotic motion over and over again. Getting goofy meant being able to make that motion under any conditions imaginable. In short, it meant playing around.

I found there are many ways to do this thing we call hurdling. Why, you can do it however you please. Do it while walking. Do it while sprinting. Do it with two hurdles stacked on top of each other. Do it with three hurdles stacked on top of each other. Do it with a splintery, wooden hurdle.

Do it at the next highest height. Now, do it at the next highest height—the mens’ height. Do it at the next highest height… OK, that’s a little too high.

Do it on the grass. Do it on the track. Do it on the pavement. Do it on a slight incline. Do it on a slight decline. Do it where the ground is uneven. Do it blindfolded.

It turns out that if you’ve got the technique down, hurdling blindfolded actually isn’t that hard. The key is just finding the hurdle. Once you’ve got that figured out, you just make the same set of motions that you always doing when going over hurdles. It’s automatic.

Let me tell you—hurdling blindfolded is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made while practicing. I started off with covering about 50% of my visual field, and I kept upping the ante until about 95% was covered. When I finally removed the blindfold and restored my vision to 100%, I felt so incredibly confident—and it showed. I surprised myself. I had no idea I could feel that way while doing this activity.

That was the tipping point. With that one decision, I went from painfully walking over the hurdles to actually getting some forward-momentum.

That certainly was not the end of all work. But I was finally able to start getting results from that work. I wasn’t on a fruitless treadmill without end anymore.

Stacking multiple hurdles on top of each other was helpful, too. The steeplechase is similar to races with hurdles, except that a steeple-race uses barriers instead of hurdles. Barriers are considerably thicker than hurdles. When just practicing with hurdles, I would feel OK about how I did—it seemed like it would work well enough. But when race day arrived, I’d get psyched out. The barriers were just so big and meaty.

To practice for that, I decided to lay one hurdle right on top of another, since the track I went to doesn’t have steeple barriers. When I got fairly comfortable going over two hurdles stacked together, I added a third. I looked at the triple stack from the side and realized it was about as thick as a steeple barrier. That was eye-opening for me. I thought, “Oh, a steeple barrier is just three hurdles put together… OK. That doesn’t seem so big and bad.”

When you’re afraid of something, it can be helpful to break down the feared-object into small, simple bites. A steeple barrier is just 3 hurdles glued together. A test is just a group of questions, printed on a piece of paper. A beautiful girl is just a bag of jelly and bones—with a brain, of course (usually, anyway).

Getting over a triple-stack of hurdles turned out to be easier than I expected. Once I got comfy, I decided to try that blindfolded, too. Again, that was a fabulous decision.

So was raising the height of the hurdles. To go over the hurdle at the mens’ height, I had to put a hand on the hurdle. I’m sure I looked ridiculous jumping the way that I did, but I could do it. That was very validating for me. If I can do it at the mens’ height, the womens’ height is cake. Women are pipsqueaks!

I had a lot of fun playing around like this. Normally I would have been scared to try something like making the hurdle taller, but I actually enjoyed it. I wanted to keep trying it.

I did indeed practice hard. I got goofy, too. And it paid. By the end of this single several-hour session, I could get over a hurdle without slowing down.

I still have a ways to go. All the philosophizing in the world won’t take the place of continued action. Yet, I have made a very important piece of progress. What once felt like a hopeless situation is now subject to improvement. Zero results suddenly turned into mega-results. The floodgates have opened.

To Get Unstuck, Get Unsexy

Is there a situation in your life where you feel hopelessly and forever stuck? Getting unstuck will require a lot of action—hours of hard practice. It will also require that you lose your fear about the situation: to lose your fear, you will have to get goofy.

Get some help if you can, too. Just a 15-minute crash course from someone with basic competence can be incredibly helpful. Being around their attitude of, “It’s just a hurdle on a track,” is empowering. Seeing someone demonstrate such confidence about something you think is such a big deal will remind you that you can feel that way, too. It’ll just take a bit of work is all.

Practice hard, get goofy, and get some help. The premise of long hours of practice may sound unsexy. But you can bring creativity to the practice. You can inject your unique sexiness into it (my oh my). Once you do that, you’ll forget that this situation was ever “unsexy” to begin with.