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Coaching Video Series - Overcoming Fear

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Communication & Overcoming Fear


Featuring Michelle Yozzo Drake

"Jump off the building and rappel down the side - that's your final exam." Michelle Yozzo Drake heard those fateful words from her ROTC college instructor. Despite her fear of heights, she did indeed jump off the building - thanks to the masterful communication style of her instructor and her own ability to overcome fear!

Communication and Overcoming Fear
Or, Jumping Off the Building


When I was in college, I never got to my statistics class because it was held at 8:30 a.m. What college student can get up after a night of pizza and partying for a class at the ungodly hour of 8:30 a.m.?! Rather than miss out on valuable credits and have to pay for a class that I was unable to attend, I had to figure out another class to substitute. The only class available that looked remotely appealing was called "ROTC: Leadership" - and the best part was that it didn't meet until 10 a.m. I had no idea what ROTC stood for; I figured it was some obscure branch of the history department. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that ROTC stood for Reserve Officer Training Corp!

All I knew was that the class was on leadership, and I thought, "No problem! We'll study leaders and leadership styles; I'll write a few essays, take a few tests - no problem!" And then I went to my first class.

My first inkling that something was horribly wrong came when I discovered that the class was not being held in a traditional brick building filled with classrooms; it was in a big shed - an ROTC hut, I learned - in the back of one of those familiar buildings. When I walked in, there were boys as far as the eye could see: I was the only girl, decked out in pink courdaroys, no less. The instructor for the class, in full military uniform, went to the front of the "classroom" and barked out his name and told us to address him as "captain." He went on to explain the high points of the class, and I knew I had made a huge mistake. I wasn't supposed to be training for the military; I was a business major!

For the next few weeks, class was a torturous mix of running in the mud, shooting guns, and dragging ourselves through obstacle courses. But I survived. I wasn't going to let those boys or "Captain Evil" get the best of me. My only concern became: how am I getting graded on this stuff? When I asked the captain, he replied, "Your final exam will be your grade. Pass it and you get an A; fail it and you get an F." Thinking that the final would be an essay on our weeks in training, I felt relieved. I could write an essay easily!

The exam was to be held in the science building, and as I approached it, I thought to myself, "Hallelujah! We're finally going to be in a real building!" But my happiness was short-lived. When I opened the door to the designated exam "classroom" I felt a warm breeze and realized that I was standing on the roof! The captain grinned at us and said, "Jump off the building and rappel down the side - that's your final exam." Jump off the building??!!

With my fear of heights, there was no way I could jump off the building. The boys were pumped, eagerly hopping over the side and down to the ground. Soon it was just me and the captain. I judged the distance to the door, wondering if I could reach it and scamper down the stairs before the captain could stop me. He caught me eyeing the door and shook his head. No way. So I tried every trick in the book to get him to let me off the hook.

I offered to write that essay. His response was to yell at me, "You can do this! You can do this! You see those boys? They're off the side of the building! You gonna let some boys show you up??" Yup, I thought. I have no problem with that. But the captain was unrelenting, even when I cried, begged and threatened to faint and/or vomit. He was unmoved as he continued to scream in my face. His mistake was that he was thinking like a man. He thought that if he got in my face and yelled at me, I would respond like the boys did and I would do what he said. But that wasn't happening.

Then, all of a sudden, the lightbulb went off in his head, and he got very quiet. He croched down so he was eye-to-eye with me like you would do with a child. He said softly, "I've seen you do everything that you thought you couldn't all semester. I believe in you. I know you can do this." And that was what I needed to hear. I didn't need to be yelled at; I needed someone to connect with me and make me believe in myself.

And I jumped of the building.

When I got to the bottom, the power that I felt was amazing. I could practically see it shooting out of my fingertips, it was so strong! Ever since then, every challenge I've faced, I've cued up that moment and said to myself, "I can handle this. This is nothing. I jumped off a building."

The big lesson in this is: understand who you're speaking to and how you're going to connect best with them.

If the captain hadn't understood that and hadn't been able to connect with me, I would have never jumped off that building. What a waste that would've been. I would've let my fear of heights control me, and that could've been a template for the rest of my life. Instead, the connection he made with me through altering his communication style helped me to overcome that fear and all the fears and tragedy that followed.


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“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson