Over the weekend, I returned to flying trapeze for the first time since the COVID pandemic forced everything to shut down.
I was nervous about returning to fly, but also confident in my ability to navigate my “return jitters.”
Since I first started doing flying trapeze in 2003, I have had many “first days” back on a trapeze rig. Some have been new trapeze rigs in new locations. Others have been a return to flying after a long winter (before Trapeze School New York, where I fly regularly, had an indoor rig), others have been after long stretches of illness or injury, and I’ve also taken a few “mental breaks” from the sport.
Each time I return, it feels like I’m in a place where everything feels familiar yet foreign at the same time.
This is often the case with anything we haven’t done in a while; there’s a period of reacclimation to once-familiar surroundings. Dozens of little things that we used to do without having to think much about them now require intentional and deliberate attention.
The big difference is that on the trapeze, that reacclimation happens on a small platform 25 feet off the ground and while I’m hanging from the bar by my hands. The “risk of death” or other injury isn’t just metaphorical; it’s a legitimate risk.
So returning after a long break always makes me nervous. I didn’t feel the same level of fear that I felt the first time I climbed the ladder 17 years ago, but butterflies were flapping around in my stomach.
Over the years, I’ve relied on a few principles that help me when I’m returning to trapeze after a break. As I say often, “Circus is Life.” I’ve applied these principles when returning to workouts, work, social media, or other endeavors.
Here are my top 5 tips for returning from a long break.
(1) You Need to Have a First Day Back
The first day back is always the hardest, and resistance will give you many good reasons to delay.
As I walked to the trapeze rig, I almost turned around at least a dozen times. I was navigating subways and NYC streets in 90-degree weather, while wearing a heavy back pack and a face mask. I was exhausted.
There’s no way I can do this today, was the consistent refrain in my head.
My Resistance had valid points about the weather and valid concerns about my ability to breathe well with a face mask on. But she also was trying to delay the inevitable.
There’s no way around it: you will need to have a first day back at some point. The sooner you can have your first day back, the sooner you can have your second day back, and so on.
(2) Start Where You Are … and Meet Yourself There
No matter how I feel about my physical strength in general, I always feel a little fear before the first class back. In part this is because all training is specific. Although I can work on my strength and flexibility, there’s no way to build trapeze strength other than flying.
This time I was especially worried because during the quarantine period I haven’t had access to a pull-up bar or other equipment that I would ideally use to keep myself in “flying shape” as much as possible.
“Start where you are” is such common advice that it has become cliche, and the problem with this advice is that it’s really only half of the advice. The other half of the advice is essential to making “start where you are” work.
You need to meet yourself where you are.
Meet yourself where you are means accepting where you are in this moment and letting go of all the things you “should” have done or “could” have done in your time away.
As you return, remember to meet yourself with love and compassion. Trust that your body will remember what’s most important.
(3) No Judgments and No Comparisons
These go together because comparison is the gateway to self-judgment.
One of the things I love about flying trapeze is that it’s a group activity where each person progresses at their own pace. It’s also an encouraging and supportive environment. And… having other people around who seem to progress faster than you do, or who are working on more complicated skills, can invite comparison of where you are to where others are. This is especially pronounced when you’re returning from a break but others have been continuing their progress.
It’s also easy to fall into the comparison trap against yourself, comparing where you are now to where you were when you last left off. Even worse, we may have selective memory where we remember our best moments but not the struggles, which causes us to compare current lows against previous highs.
Comparison robs us of the ability to be in the moment. It also leads to self-judgment. I often begin to judge myself as not good enough, or strong enough, or generally “not enough.”
I adopt a mantra of “no comparison, no judgment” and remind myself of this every time I start to compare myself against someone else or a past version of me.
(4) Baby Steps Are Still Steps
Generally, we can’t just pick up where we left off before the break. If you tend to be achievement oriented, you might feel frustrated with this. You might notice your impulse to take big leaps in order to regain the ground you lost.
If you try to leap too far, too fast, you might set yourself back further.
To take it into a more relatable context for a moment, before everything shut down for COVID I was deadlifting 130 lbs. I know then when I get back to the weight room I will have to start with a lower weight to rebuild my strength. Trying to lift too much too soon will be counterproductive.
Remember that it took you a while to get to where you last left off, and you can get there again.
Give yourself permission to take baby steps as you reacclimate and rebuild.
Baby steps are still steps. Taken consistently and persistently, baby steps can help you rebuild with greater strength than you had previously.
(5) Have Fun
When you first start a new activity, especially if it’s complex, there is an uncomfortable period of figuring out what you’re doing before you get proficient enough to enjoy the process of learning and growing.
Returning to an activity after a break offers us a rare opportunity to experience the activity with a beginner’s mind and with enough skills that we have confidence in our ability to navigate the challenges. This is where it’s fun.
We can fully appreciate this opportunity when we remove the expectation to pick up where we left off and allow ourselves to have fun in the process of relearning and reacquiring the skills we had previously.
After all, if the activity isn’t fun for you, there’s no need to return to it. If you’re going to come back, remember that you love it and that you’re here to have fun.