If you are passionate about something that you want to become your career, give it your best effort. If it doesn’t work out, at least you can say you tried. If you choose a field like I did, where there was no standard path to follow, be prepared to constantly reinvent yourself.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewingDavid Fisher, THE ROPE WARRIOR.
The Rope Warrior has been performing his interactive and visually entertaining jump rope show all over the world for the last 28 years. Career highlights include performances for Presidents Clinton and Bush at their inaugurations, and for Boris Yeltsin at the opening ceremonies of The Goodwill Games in St Petersburg, Russia. David has made more than 100 national television appearances including America’s Got Talent! The Today Show, EXTRA! and The NBC Nightly News. He currently holds three world records, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! recognizes David as The World’s Best Rope Jumper. The Rope Warrior performs live for about 5000 school children/week throughout the school year as he brings his Ropenastics shows and workshops across the country. Recently, Meadowbrook Press/Simon & Schuster released his newest book, Cool Jump Rope Tricks You Can Do! David has also written a series of science fiction superhero books entitled, Adventures of The Rope Warrior. There is also information on the website www.ropewarrior.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. I have two younger brothers and two wonderful, loving, overprotective parents. I was loved, nurtured, encouraged, and monitored…constantly. My parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, in their own way, were all great role models. I often say that I feel I won the lottery being born into my family.
My brothers and I are all very competitive, and we would compete at everything… all the time. From sports like basketball, tennis, soccer, baseball, bowling, and ping pong to pinball, card and board games, and video games (in those days, Atari and then Intellivision), we played to be the best. Some of our most memorable experiences were when my father would join in, for example, competing against us pretending to be Wilbur Meechum — Robert Duvall’s character in “The Great Santini” (if you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend it, and you will have a better understanding of the atmosphere surrounding any family competition). Dad was nothing at all like “The Great Santini,” but he was a great trash talker and always fun to compete against.
I was a good all-around athlete but never excelled in any one sport. I spent three summers at Camp Ojibwa in Eagle River, Wisconsin. At Camp Ojibwa, I tested my athletic abilities in many sports, and got my first taste of the spotlight with starring roles in several camp productions, which I enjoyed a lot.
Back in school, I was among the shortest in my class, all the way to my senior year of high school. I had a small group of friends, and we would get together to play cards, basketball, two-on-two softball, pool, bowling, and video games for money. I lost more often than I won, but I loved the thrill of competing for high stakes! In high school, I wasn’t physically imposing, so no one took notice of my athletic abilities. I was a B+/A- student through high school in spite of watching more Brady Bunch reruns than studying, something my mother still often reminds me. I was socially awkward and shy, very good at math, and I played the cello for nine years.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
By my senior year of high school, I found a sport I really liked — VOLLEYBALL. There were no boys’ teams in high school volleyball in our area in the late 70s, so a group of us boys would scrimmage against the girls’ volleyball team during their practices. Our team name was “The Rats”. We would later find a coach and play in the Junior Olympics.
After high school, I headed off to Emory University in Atlanta and later founded the Emory Volleyball Club. Emory is a small liberal arts college, with a fraction of the number of students in large universities, yet our volleyball team beat both Georgia and Tennessee. I kept working to become a better volleyball player in the hope of playing on the Pro Beach Tour. That was my dream job! I always said, “The only suit I ever want to wear to work is a warm-up suit.” I had played against some Olympic volleyball players and felt that if I worked hard enough, there was (albeit a slim one) a chance I could realize that dream.
I started jumping rope at a class at the local health club in the hope that I could increase my 36-inch vertical leap. Jumping rope got me into great shape, but what caught my interest most was learning new jump rope tricks.
Over the next few years, I jumped rope for hours every day. I hung out with our country’s top rhythmic gymnasts and learned more tricks from them. I went to jump rope camps and jump rope clinics. I got my hands on any jump rope VHS tape (this was long before YouTube) I could find to learn new tricks. I adapted skills from martial arts, dance, poi, and the Argentinian Boleadoras.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I like to say my family was very “LOVINGLY DISCOURAGING” about my career choice. There was no one who believed I could make a living jumping rope. This only fueled my desire to prove everybody wrong. When I think back, proving I could do something people thought I couldn’t has always been a big motivator for me. I enjoy thinking creatively and coming up with a solution, or angle, no one else thought of. I was passionate about being the best jump roper I could be, so I concentrated on that while I tried to figure out how to monetize my skills.
More important than who I am as an entertainer and athlete, I owe everything I am, as a person, to my parents and other family and friends who set great examples for me to follow.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Since I am a paid entertainer, as opposed to a paid competitor, I am going to tell a little story about FAME. Many years ago, my friend invited me to the grand opening of a martial arts studio, POW! in Chicago. It was a crowded event, and since I was single at the time, I immediately noticed there were some very attractive women. Not that I would ever try to socialize with anyone (as I mentioned before, I was very shy), but seeing them was enough to make me nervous about trying to strike up a conversation.
Later in the evening, we all gathered around to watch an incredible display of martial arts performances. Some of the top athletes in the world demonstrated their different styles and techniques. It was mesmerizing! After the exhibition, the host came out, thanked everyone for coming, and then he said, “At this time, I would like to acknowledge some special guests who are in the audience.” He held out his hand, gesturing to my right. “Elton…”
I looked to see Elton Brand, the Bulls number one draft pick. I thought, “Am I far enough along in my own career to be mentioned in the same breath as Elton Brand? Might that help my chances to meet someone?”
Like an elementary student hoping to get called on by the teacher, I straightened up and prepared to lock eyes with the host as he scanned in my direction. My heart raced. He looked right at me and said, “Dave.” I prefer David, but I was too excited to care. I’m sure my hand shot into the air, but in my mind, I slowly raised it to make it look like being recognized was an everyday situation.
To my amazement, some guy, in a jean jacket in front of me, raised his hand as well. I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking, “Buddy, just because your name is Dave doesn’t mean you get to raise your hand! Do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked at my career?!! You’re killing me!”
The host thanked everyone again for coming and told us to enjoy the buffet and the rest of the evening. The guy in the jean jacket turned around, and I realized he was DAVID SCHWIMMER, the actor who played Ross on “Friends”, one of the most popular television shows at the time..
I was so embarrassed and humiliated! But as the eternal optimist, I took solace in that it could have been worse — I could have been standing in front of him.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
If you are passionate about something that you want to become your career, give it your best effort. If it doesn’t work out, at least you can say you tried. If you choose a field like I did, where there was no standard path to follow, be prepared to constantly reinvent yourself.
There are quite a few world class rope jumpers and very few that make a living jumping rope. Why? Because in addition to being a good rope jumper, you need to be good at marketing, communication, public relations, and self-promotion (or you need to be financially successful enough to hire people to take care of those categories for you).
Rope jumping excellence is just the prerequisite for a career in rope jumping. I think what has made my show so successful is the interaction with the audience. I constantly keep them engaged by asking questions, bringing volunteers up to help me demonstrate, and playing some “jump rope improv”. There is a part of the show where the audience comes up with ideas, sometimes easy and sometimes challenging, for tricks involving two people with one rope. I work it out with the volunteers on stage. It is always a lot of fun!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Right now, I am cowriting a book of jump rope rhymes and preparing to record a third children’s/family CD of funny songs. The jump rope rhyme book will be curriculum based for grades K-6. One of my co-authors, Trish Wilkinson, is an expert on the benefits of combining learning and movement. She is also the co-author of Brain Stages: How to Raise Smart, Confident Kids and Have Fun Doing It. My other co-author, Darren Sardelli, is the founder of “Laugh-A-Lot Poetry”. Darren is widely known for his funny children’s poetry books and has been featured in many anthologies. The three of us make a great team, and this book will help children of all ages learn about different subjects while they exercise and have fun! Some of the topics include: telling time, bones in the human body, planets, counting coins, continents, clouds, animals, dinosaurs, order of operations, famous inventors, and many more.
Another one of my passions is song writing. So far, I have released two critically acclaimed children’s/family CDs. One of my songs, “J.U.M.P.”, was chosen to be on a national STEM related compilation CD. I was thrilled and honored to have a song included on a CD with top artists in the children’s music industry. My songs are filled with wordplay, puns, and jokes, and are enjoyed by a large age range.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
As a sports-related entertainer, there is no greater stress than doing a live appearance on national television. No do-overs, no redubbing — just lights, camera, action! Oh, and by the way, we want you to wear this portable microphone pack so the host/hostess can ask you questions while your jumping. “Wait…WHAT?”
As I made more television appearances, I became more comfortable, but it was still intense. First there’s the physical element of doing a choreographed routine. I never put any trick into my routine that I couldn’t do perfectly, or at least 98 out of 100 times. Mistakes in a jump rope performance are pretty easy for everyone to detect.
Before the music starts, I remind myself to look like I’m having fun throughout the whole routine. Then I let muscle memory take over, concentrate on one trick at a time, and try to make the moves I’ve practiced thousands of times fit perfectly in sync with the music.
In stressful situations, I’ve found these five strategies work best to optimize my performance:
- Think of pressure as a welcome challenge, offered by people who respect my skill set. I do my best to look at high pressure situations as an opportunity to show what I can do rather than something I have to “get through.”
- Prepare for the event. I carefully plan jump rope routines, practice until they’re perfect, and rehearse answering an interviewer’s possible questions. I’ve sometimes presented in front of friends and shot videos before an event. The more prepared I feel, the less power stress has to influence my performance.
- Visualize a good outcome. I picture myself doing a perfect routine and following up with an entertaining interview. Mentally seeing myself successful before the real deal goes a long way toward making it happen. This strategy has helped me in sports competitions, live performances, and even business negotiations.
- Build confidence with positive self-talk. “Give it everything,” “Be strong,” and “You got this,” are some phrases I often tell myself before an event.
- Have a physical pregame/pre-performance ritual that is consistent, familiar and calming. Any great golfer, free-throw shooter, batter, field goal kicker, business negotiator, or performer has some kind of routine that helps them settle down and focus. For example, my pre-performance ritual is to practice dribbling a ball with my feet while jumping rope. The skill, while not too physically demanding, requires a lot of focus. It serves a practical purpose too — I can check the air pressure of the ball at the same time. The next thing I do is practice some rope release moves, which familiarize me with how my spinning, or tossed, rope looks against a new background. Finally, I lay out all of my ropes and props for the performance to ensure I have everything I need, each item is in its proper place, and the ropes are untangled. Everyone’s process is a little different, but preparation and putting ourselves in a positive mental state seem to be the key ingredients for success.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
We have all heard how slow, deep breathing helps you relax and slow down your heart rate. This can really come in handy when you’re nervous. I slowly breathe in through my nose, and then just kind of let everything go when I exhale out of my mouth. If I am wearing a microphone for a live television performance, I need to adjust a bit, because you can’t do any huffy, puffy breathing techniques. Also, after a performance, I need to be able to quickly catch my breath and slow my heart rate so I don’t sound like the routine just wiped me out.
When I prepare a routine for television, I like to know roughly how long I will be performing. This way, I can put some of the visually entertaining, but less physically demanding, tricks at the end of the routine. Then I can slow my heart rate and be ready for the interview. It also helps that with so many hours of jump rope training, my resting pulse has been as low as 27 beats per minute. Interviewers have always been amazed that I am able to speak normally after a difficult routine.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus and clear away distractions?
I stay focused by reminding myself to smile, concentrating on one trick at a time, and, most important, connecting with my audience. Live audiences fuel my energy and enthusiasm. Even when there’s just a camera and a talk show host, I connect with the unseen audience at home — maybe with a smile or a facial gesture during a trick. Focusing on how I serve my audience removes all distractions for me.
If I make a mistake in a routine, which rarely occurs, I continue like nothing happened, and listen to the music to place the choreography where it goes in the song. After the routine, I remind myself to slow my breathing, get ready to take whatever question the interviewer asks me, and do my best to spin my answer in a positive direction (my publicist taught me that).
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
In the beginning of my career, I jumped and practiced tricks for hours every day. It was very sport specific training. You want to be a better rope jumper? JUMP ROPE!
The busier my performance schedule became (sometimes as many as 25 shows in a week), the less time I had for practicing. As I have gotten older, I have learned that the most important thing is to prevent injury. At 56 years old, about to enter my 28th year of jump rope performances, I work on core stability (strengthening abdominal muscles and lower back) and my range of motion (sitting in a car for hours driving from one gig to another does not help). I do a lot of Pilates, use ice constantly, and have always been a healthy eater.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
The habits I’ve developed over the years for focused practice, physical fitness, healthy diet, visualization, and positive self-talk have been absolutely integral to my success. But being the best you can be requires two important overarching habits: discipline and hard work. The key is to find a profession you REALLY care about. Then discipline and hard work come much easier.
However, I believe a consistent work ethic serves us in all areas of life. I am intentional about being the best person, husband, father, son, brother, friend, performer, teacher, and example I can be.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
I make it a habit never to give advice…
Humor aside, I don’t think habits are developed as quickly as some of the self-help gurus would have you think. As I mentioned before, the more you care about what you are doing, the easier it will be to start forming habits that will help you achieve your goals. I think this is the first time I have mentioned goals. They are important! I often remind our boys to set high goals for themselves, and if they reach them, GREAT! Now raise the bar again — set a higher goal! For day-to-day practice, I am a big believer in checklists. I write down things I want to accomplish. Then I can look at my list and prioritize. At the end of the day, I have checked off some tasks, and I can add new items to prioritize tomorrow.
As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging and meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
I think for someone to experience a state of Flow, or “being in the zone”, there needs to be the right set of circumstances. You need to have confidence in your abilities and be able to free yourself from distractions. Also, if you engage in a sport where your opponent can impact your effectiveness, compete against people who can bring your game to its highest level.
However, there are many areas where I have found myself in a state of Flow. I’ve been “in the zone” during live television appearances, when I play Boggle, throw darts, write a song, or record a song in the studio. A rather strange activity where I get into Flow is when I assemble beaded jump ropes to spread my passion for the sport (kangarope.com). For big orders that need to go out, I challenge myself to break my records for assembling jump ropes and enjoy a state of Flow for hours!
My advice to people who want to be in the state of Flow more often: find something you love to do, practice it, challenge yourself to keep improving, and measure your abilities in a pressured situation. There are all kinds of activities where you can experience a state of Flow: sports, playing a musical instrument, teaching a class, knitting, performing in an improv group, leading a prayer service, playing a video game, singing karaoke, the list goes on and on.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
In times of physical or emotional pain or stress, I conjure a soothing image. I close my eyes, regulate my breathing, (warning: this next part may sound weird) and I visualize a thick, pink liquid being poured over my head. The liquid gives me a sensation like someone is lightly running their fingertips from the top of my head down the back of my skull and sides of my face. This practice has gotten me through many intense situations, from high-pressure performances to excruciating injuries.
Many of us are limited by our self-talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
Make the decision to believe in yourself, and start challenging yourself to improve! When I read this question, I thought about times when I’ve felt inferior to someone else. At some point, I decided to view someone else’s superior knowledge or skill as a huge opportunity to learn! Okay, here is a story where I was completely inferior, in a high-pressure situation, and found myself in a state of Flow!
I was asked to be a judge at a songwriting contest at the Acorn Theatre in Michigan. A talented country singer/songwriter named Andrew Salgado was the MC, and the producers of the event wanted me to do a jump rope performance at the end of the contest. I knew that I was invited because of my jumping abilities, being that I was a fledgling songwriter at the time. I had recorded a CD of funny children’s/family songs with clever lyrics, but I was unsure of my ability to judge other people’s songs. Contestants and their families had come in from different parts of the country, and the event was sold out.
When I arrived at the theatre, I was taken to the green room to wait for the other two judges — Jim Peterik and his son, Colin. Some of you may not recognize Jim’s name, but you know his music! He has written 18 top 10 hits, including “Eye of the Tiger” for Survivor, “Vehicle” for Ides of March, “Hold on Loosely” for 38 Special, and many more. The list is mind blowing! His son Colin is someone you will be hearing from. He does it all — song writing, vocals, production, editing. Colin is super talented!
There were more than a few moments of “WHAT AM I DOING HERE!” but then I started focusing on the task of evaluating songs. I had my pen, paper, and the lyric sheets from the contestants. All I had to do is figure out something intelligent to say to each contestant and a theatre filled with onlookers. Adding to the pressure, I learned that I would be the last judge to speak. Not only did I have to come up with something incisive to say, I would have to try to say something unrepetitive. I soon realized that though I was in WAY over my head, I knew enough from my own experience to at least present an opinion.
As the contestants each took their turns, I wrote as many notes as possible, while still enjoying each performance, and concentrated on areas where I was most familiar — things like stage presence, poise, and showmanship. I brought attention to the audience’s reaction to the performance as well as what came to mind when I heard the lyrics or the melody. As the night went on, I became more comfortable talking about more elements of the song. I also, when applicable, complimented contestants on meter, alliteration, and internal rhymes. Before I knew it, my nerves had calmed, and I felt that I was really contributing to the discussion. At the end of the evening, one of the contestants came up to me and told me that my comments about his lyrics were the most encouraging thing that anyone could have said to him. Later, I got pictures with Jim and Colin Peterik, Andrew Salgado, and the contest winner, James Neary. They were all so talented and nice! It was an evening I will never forget!
I guess the lesson here is when that voice comes up for you, the one that tells you how you’re not qualified to do something, or whatever negative garbage enters your brain, take a deep breath, tell yourself you’ll be okay, and do it anyway. Courage isn’t about living without fear — it’s doing things in spite of being afraid. I would have given up so many opportunities in my life if I had given in to negative thoughts.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have purposely designed my program to be as inclusive as possible. My shows, workshops and clinics are designed to empower people of all ages and physical abilities. I have taught Ropenastics skills to blind children and children in wheelchairs. When I visit schools, teachers often tell me how one, or more, of their students were positively affected by my program. Those are the accolades that mean most to me.
For example, I was in the middle of my show at an elementary school, the part where I call up volunteers for double-dutch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the heaviest fourth grade boys I had ever seen making good eye contact and energetically raising his hand. As I moved in the boy’s direction to call him up to volunteer, I caught a glimpse of his teacher behind him. She gave me a sign with her hand and a slight head shake as if to say, “Don’t do it.”
Being that I’m a bit rebellious by nature, I figured if he couldn’t jump, we could at least demonstrate the steps for teaching the skill, so I picked him anyway. Some of his classmates gasped and laughed. As he stood up and made his way to the stage, the laughter in the audience became contagious. It didn’t seem to upset him, so I didn’t address it. Instead, I went through the instruction for double-dutch as I normally do and let Tommy be the fifth of six jumpers (I always have volunteers say their names into the microphone).
I picked up the two ropes and began turning. One by one, the jumpers got in and, with my help, were somewhat successful. When it was his turn, Tommy came over and stood next to me. Still outside the ropes, I asked him to “Let me see how you are going to jump” as I had with the others before him.
To my delight, not only could Tommy jump high enough to clear the ropes, he also had a consistent rhythm. I started up the ropes again and counted down: “Ready, Set, GO!”
Tommy’s timing getting inside the two spinning ropes was perfect, but he didn’t quite make it to the middle, and he got all tangled up. Before the crowd could react, I raised my hand and yelled, “MY FAULT!” I slowed the ropes a little, made a positioning adjustment on my end, and we tried it again.
Forty-five seconds later, to the eruption of the crowd, Tommy broke the school record for double-dutch jumps. As he went back to his seat, he high-fived his classmates, at their request, and got a pat on the back from his teacher, who had tears in her eyes.
When I think about Tommy, and all of the other Tommys over the years as well as all of the Tommys yet to come, I am thrilled to give them the opportunity to be successful in front of their entire school.
My program, Ropenastics, works well for children and adults who have had limited success with other fitness related activities, either because of feeling intimidated or they generally don’t enjoy most forms of exercise. I’ve come up with a lot of ways to support the “differently abled” who quite often have difficulties adapting activities to meet their needs. Ropenastics gives P.E. teachers lots of new ideas for fun and fitness for a wide range of students. In fact, the program was designed to build confidence in children and adults, and to give families a physical activity they can all do together. My life’s work has mostly evolved into helping people become more active, healthier, and more confident.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
My favorite “Life Lesson Quote” comes from Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”
As a public speaker and teacher, I have always tried to make every performance, workshop, class, or clinic as interactive as possible. People answer questions, volunteer to demonstrate learning new skills, and I give them opportunities to contribute their own ideas, which often enhance the show.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them. 🙂
Over the years, I have been very humbled and honored to meet many of my heroes in the fields of sports and entertainment. I decided to pick my hero from the sports/entertainment/business world, Mark Cuban. Mark seems like someone who genuinely cares about people and enjoys imparting his knowledge and advice. I am a sports/fitness/entertainment-related entrepreneur, and if I won the breakfast/lunch lottery, Mr. Cuban would be my first pick!