You Can Get Out When You Puke — The Discomfort Question — Part Three

Now, we’re going to get granular about embracing discomfort and how knowing what that entails helps you achieve greatness. In part one of this series, I talked about the tortures of my early springboard diving career and promised I’d tell you more scary things about it.

Every diver faces a very specific moment of fear on their path: a singular place where the vast majority of people fall out of the sport entirely: when you learn inwards and reverses. An inward is when you stand at the end of the board with your back to the water, and rotate forward toward the board. A reverse is when you take off toward the water and rotate backward toward the board. Reverses are even scarier because they’re “blind dives.” At least with an inward, you can see where the board is.

When you rotate toward the board, you have only the laws of physics to combat the sense that you’re going to kill yourself.

To understand this, we need a quick review of Newton’s third law… wait thirty minutes after eating before swimming.

Sorry, wrong law. Newton’s third is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

When you bounce on a springboard, the end of the board doesn’t only go down, it bends “in” toward the middle. It shortens as you bend it like any straight line. After you push it down and in, it pushes you up and out in reaction, following Newton’s law.

Diving boards are very law-abiding contraptions! In fact, it pushes you so far out that if you don’t compensate, you lose most of the height from your dive. And you need that height to perform all your tricks and look pretty. How do you compensate? You “stand up” rather than “fall forward.” Relative to the ground you stay perpendicular rather than rotate forward as the board bends. But relative to the board, you lean backward!

When you first learn this, you feel as if you’ll kill yourself by landing back on the board. Before you learn to trust that the board pushes you away, you think you’ve got jump away from the board so you don’t die. But your coach keeps telling you to “stand up,” “make it feel different,” and to “scare yourself.”

In other words, do exactly the thing that makes you feel like you’re going to kill yourself.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Most divers quit at this fear bottleneck.

You have to experience for yourself that the fear is not based on reality. How? By doing the thing you’re afraid to do and trusting the outcome based on the principles. The only way out is through. Sound familiar?

In time, you learn to pass the board on the way down about two to three feet away and not sweat it. But on the way there, it’s terrifying. And if you compensate the wrong way, you can and will hit the board.

And I did. Enough times to live in fear of it.

I never hit my head, fortunately, which is what most divers most fear. I figured “lucky” would just be dying. “Unlucky” would be paralysis. I worried about it a lot, and diving became a constant source of dread for me. One coach semi-jokingly called me a “head-case.”

What once was a passion and a joy became a nauseating depression around age fourteen, but I kept up appearances. I constantly felt like an animal in line for the slaughterhouse. I resisted, I procrastinated, I looked for the easy ways out. I fought with my coaches. But I was good. I won a lot. So, I kept going.

My senior year in high school I was expected to place in the top five in the state, but it was a difficult season for me. The advanced dives I was supposed to be learning I avoided. I got into conflicts with my coach. I didn’t take risks. I could win the small meets with scores of eights and nines on easy dives. I didn’t need to learn the harder ones, but to be competitive at the state level, I would have to.

About a month before the state meet, I crashed and burned a two-and-one-half somersault in a way that left me dizzy. I got lost in the dive and came out in a kind of flat spin, not knowing which way was up. Underwater, I remember not knowing which way was to the surface. My whole body burned and throbbed for about twenty minutes. But the dizziness didn’t pass. Anytime I moved my head suddenly, I felt dizzy for a minute or so. It happened when I looked from my desk to the chalkboard in school. It happened while doing flip-turns in the pool. And somersaulting in the air? Impossible.

I saw a series of doctors. Their best explanation was “labyrinthitis,” infection of the inner ear, therefore affecting balance. I don’t remember if they gave me antibiotics. I only remember I missed the state meet and tried to hide my secret joy about the idea of being done with diving forever. I don’t think I did it very well.

In college, the following year, I learned about psychosomatic illness. That’s what it was, of course. Sometimes fear is an indicator that something needs to be pushed through. Other times it’s an indicator to stop. How do you tell the difference? A question one answers with their lifetime, perhaps.

But the larger lesson is this:

Your relationship to fear and discomfort is the answer.

Now, what’s the question?

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