Courage is Rehearsed: Managing Fear During Public Performances

Courage is Rehearsed: Managing Fear During Public PerformancesThis week we welcome guest writer Paul Dumont to talk about lessons learned from coaching gymnastics and how those can apply to law school and the bar exam.

From 1988 until 2016, for fun, income, and my own development, I devoted more than 10,000 hours to coaching boys in the Junior Olympic Competitive Program, primarily at Redwood Empire Gymnastics in Petaluma, CA (1988 – 2002), attending approximately 150 competitions and leading 9 teams to state championship titles. During the same decades, I earned degrees in liberal studies, English composition, and law, passed the CA bar exam, and went on to a 20-year career in family law while teaching legal writing on the side. Both journeys were intimidating for a young professional.

Both professions required years of disciplined training and participation in challenging public contests showcasing a performer’s ability to perform competently under myriad pressures. Both professions required management of serious risk. Risks of injury. Liability risks. Risks to self-esteem, reputation, employment, and finances. Risks to ego and id. Success was measured through timed performances evaluated by neutral licensed examiners. All of the results were published. Glad I got into coaching before my legal training scared me away.

This post distills essential lessons gained over 30 years competing in two disparate public arenas, specifically the concrete steps I followed to manage fear during important performances.

Gymnastics ChampionshipState Bar Membership
Assessment MeasureSanctioned CompetitionBar Exam
Assessment SubjectChoreographed GymnasticsChoreographed Attorney
Ideal ObjectiveChampionshipPass After First Reading
Base ObjectiveStrong & Safe PerformancePass After Second Reading
 Indicative of Progress
Definition of FailureInjuries/Repeat LevelInjuries/Repeat Bar Exam
AudienceJudges/General PublicGraders/General Public
State of BodyHealth/Flexibility/StrengthHealth/Flexibility/Strength
State of MindStable/Coachable/OptimisticStable/Coachable/Optimistic
ElementsElemental SkillsLegal Theory
Acquire (memorize and execute) hundreds of dynamic and static skills& progressionsAcquire thousands of legal definitions/concepts
SkillsPerformance SkillsApplication and Communication
 Master the mandated skills and present to another professionalApply law to hypothetical fact patterns and communicate analysis to another professional
RepetitionsPractice RoutinesPractice Exams
 Gymnast shows practice routines to coachAttorney writes practice exams to reader

Write practice exams. There is a direct correlation between the number of prior repetitions/rehearsals and the ability to manage fear during any performance.“Repetition is the mother of skill” is the controlling metaphor in reaching mastery because it is the process of acquiring difficult skills that promotes the self-confidence, growth, and high expectations necessary for any courageous action. A skilled performance evidences something greater within.

Courage dissipates fear. Studies demonstrate that roller coaster riders experience far greater heart rate increases on the first ride than on subsequent rides when the brain is better able to predict and accommodate an increasingly familiar reality, triggering more manageable levels of fight or flight hormones. Accordingly, repetition not only enforces the neural recall pathways to stored data, but tempers the anxiety and panic of fresh fear or first fear by reducing the amount of adrenaline released during the performance. The prepared brain manages fear based on the familiarity and continuity of repetition. Courage is rehearsed. Practice.

Rule ComplianceChoreography/TimeChoreography/Time
Subject MatterGymnastics CodeLaw
FormBody PositionsWriting


Rule Compliance: The most direct path to a poor performance is failing to follow the express rules of the competition. Your professors teach doctrine and critical thinking, and most would be appalled by the practice of “teaching to the test.” Not so with athletic coaches and bar tutors. We proudly teach to the test because the test controls the definition of success. Each competitor must master the rules of the test and perform only the requested skills.

Subject Matter: Every competitor studies the same subject matter from the same books. Every competitor takes the same test. Each competitor must be able to recall instantly the assigned subject matter.

Skills: Athletes move. Attorneys read. My gymnasts trained intensively in 3-hour blocks approximately every other day with no off-season for periods of 4-10 years. My job was to keep them moving. During school terms, I read at least 30 hours per week in addition to classes, commuting, and other related obligations. The busier weekdays mandated 6-hour (two 3-hour periods) reading blocks every Saturday and Sunday which made for a number of sad and lonely weekends over four years.

Technique: If subject matter and skills are the “what,” technique and form are the “how.” In gymnastics, technique encompasses facets of movement such as speed, shapes, amplitude, continuity, and virtuosity. The bar evaluates an attorney’s ability to spot contestable factual and legal issues, instantly recall applicable legal doctrine, and communicate deductive and inductive analysis to a decision-maker. Technique takes time.

Form: A gymnast could perform each skill of the routine and nonetheless receive a poor score if these skills were presented with improper or “bad” form. So too on the bar exam. An attorney could spot every issue in an exam, quote applicable law, and still receive a failing score if the writing is disorganized, under-developed, or unfocused. Each word needs to pull its weight.

Cross-Training: Regular workouts and practice exams are not the only way to “get your reps in.” Many of my gymnasts participated in other sports or activities to supplement training. Participating on law review or as a law school teaching assistant can serve as cross-training vehicles for bar exam practice. I did both. The 9 months I spent writing a note on evolving standards of reasonableness in sexual harassment litigation were helpful in preparing my mind for the performance test (PT) while leading class sessions and providing written feedback on hundreds of student exams over 3 semesters put me in the shoes of a pretend bar grader.

Compassion: Employing fear to manage fear throws gasoline on a fire. Had I yelled at and threatened my kids to accomplish our practice objectives, they would have quit and I would have been fired. Likewise, adult legal training requires internal and external sources of inspiration, compassion, and forgiveness. A child resides in all of us. Protect, love, and educate. In that order.


Concerned about your law school grades? Get the feedback and support you need to succeed.

Check out our law school tutoring options at the Law School Toolbox.

Get started, and ensure you’re spending your time wisely!

Got a question? Drop us a line. We’re here to help!

About Paul Dumont

Paul loves school. For the past 30 years, he has played the role of student, tutor, coach, and teacher at universities and colleges throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, earning a B.A. in Liberal Studies and an M.A. in English Composition Theory before entering law school in 1995. As a law student, he received an American Jurisprudence award in Legal Writing and Research, worked three semesters as a teaching assistant for Contracts and Torts, published a law review note, served as a law review associate editor, graduated in the top 15% of his class, and passed the California Bar on his first attempt. For the past 20 years, he has practiced family law while teaching and tutoring on the side, but recently retired from family law to devote his full attention to assisting students seeking to become licensed attorneys in California. In 2016, he retired from coaching gymnastics after a career that spanned four decades.

Speak Your Mind