Step Into Fear

by Sandy Nelson on November 23, 2011

Much of a lifetime ago, my uncle Hooch took me to East Thomaston Ball Park in my West Central Georgia home town to see the visiting Atlanta Crackers play. The Crackers were the minor league predecessor to the Braves. To stir up interest and ticket sales, they occasionally played an exhibition game or two in small communities around the Atlanta area.

Hooch, a ex-minor league player, got us great seats behind home plate. This was my first baseball game, and I was lost in wonder trying to understand the game and the scene. I must have been four or five years old.

During the first few innings or so, a batter tipped a high fly ball behind the plate. The catcher turned and began running directly toward the area where our seats were located in pursuit of the ball.

The moment I saw his mask, I was petrified. Not understanding that the mask was a protective device worn by all catchers, I saw it as the most frightening face ever beheld.

To tell the truth, I lost it. Screaming, crying and scrambling, I fought to find a way to hide under the bench seats, kicked and clawed with eyes slammed shut in hopes of escaping the monster before me.

Hooch, of course, found my shenanigans to be quite amusing. Great uncle as he was, he actually persuaded me to breathe and give another look at the catcher, and pointed out that when he took the mask off, he was a normal person just like everyone else in the ball park.

To make a long story short, from that moment on, I became obsessed with becoming a catcher. After hearing this story and seeing my fascination with catching, my father, took me to the pinnacle of sporting goods stores in the area at that time, Reeder McGahee on Broad Street, near Five Points, in downtown Atlanta. There, he bought me all the gear a catcher could ever dream of—shin guards, a breast protector, catcher’s mitt and my very own mask just like the one that scared me so badly!

From that point forward, I learned and played the position for years. Never again was I afraid of a catcher’s mask.

Decades later, I had the privilege of briefly studying the ancient Japanese martial art of Aikido with one of my most influential teacher’s and friends, Richard Strozzi Heckler Sansei at Two Rock Dojo. Two Rock Dojo is located, magnificently, in the coastal hills between Petaluma and Bodega Bay, California.

While my career on the Aikido mat was brief and undistinguished, I did learn a number of vitally important principles before and in between to the two concussions that led my bride to insist that I abandon the mat to follow other interests and pursuits. One of these is the concept of Irimi—the notion of entering or, put simply, stepping into an attack.

In the midst of an attack—figurative or literal—the place of greatest safety is engagement, not passivity or protection. In Aikido terms, stepping into and blending with an attack leaves one’s opponent nowhere to strike and opens the door for a successful counter. Safety and control emerge from engagement, not avoidance.

Connecting the threads, I now see that becoming a catcher was, for me, a perfect example of the power of Irimi. For whatever reason, I intuitively knew to step into my fear rather than retreat into protection and avoidance. As a result, fear was transformed into engagement, and engagement into leverage.

In life, fear is instructive. It let’s you know when the time has come to pay attention. When fear appears, as it inevitably will, engage. To gain and exercise leverage, step into the source of your fear. Do not avoid or protect. Ultimately, neither helps.

Think about it.

Sandy Nelson

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