Breaking the shackles (2011 story)

The lights, the chatter, the music and even the coach’s voice fazes out of Andi Hofer’s consciousness as he steps up to the horizontal bar. Amidst the silence forged in Hofer’s mind, there lingers an entrenched voice that demands his attention.

Hofer’s Husker gymnastics teammates and parents are not the voices that circle him. The voice of self-doubt consumes him. Self-doubt eats at his very core until he finds a way to shrug it off.

Hofer stands upright to the bar and stares down the task at hand. What’s the task? The judges expect perfection. A few flips, twists and jolts on the horizontal bar without hesitation and stiffness. Yet, his challenge begins before he swings on the bar or twists on the pommel horse. His challenge begins in a little complex thing called the mind.

***

Overcoming adversity is nothing new for German native Andi Hofer. Gymnastics can physically and mentally overwhelm combatants. Dislocated shoulders, ligament tears and fractured bones are a way of life for gymnasts. Already, Hofer, 24 and a senior at University of Nebraska-Lincoln has endured five significant injuries. In all five knee, foot, shoulder and elbow he found a way to overcome them. Yet, one injury lingered that was not always visible to his coach’s, family’s or close friends’ eyes. Throughout his junior career, his fear of failure plagued his mind and his performance. The fear of failure is a motivating tool for some athletes but for Hofer, there was nothing worse.

***

At the 2006 German National Championships, 19-year-old Hofer competed with the senior national team for the first time. He was no longer competing with boys.

Hofer who was club captain from the 1 Budeslinga League, the highest gymnastics league in Germany, walked to the gates of the competition arena. Hofer stood barrel-straight with his chest out, ready to explode into the arena. His eyes circled the packed arena as he strode on the competition floor with his teammates to warm up. Immediately, his posture slumped, his chest tightened and his muscles clenched. All eyes in the arena beamed directly at Hofer.

Or that’s how he felt. The raging crowd and the game-ready opposition drew one screaming thought from Hofer.

“Get me out of here!”

Hofer’s coach noticed the worry in his tense-looking face.

“What’s wrong with you, Andi?”

“Don’t know, coach,” replied Hofer.

Hofer’s generic line response did the trick. His coach accepted his answer and moved on to speak with another gymnast. As if a one-on-one psych-analysis was needed on one of the most important days of his gymnastic career. Any rev-up, even an Al inspired speech, wasn’t going to free Hofer’s mind.

He finished 13th overall. Not terrible for a gymnast competing in the seniors for the first time. Yet, statistics doesn’t always tell the whole story. Sometimes, as spectators, we must dig a little deeper than the bottom line.

Underlying Hofer’s performance was hesitation in his mind and body movements. Before every routine, he felt the walls closing and felt the crowd’s anticipation. He felt that little voice at the back of his head.

“It affected me. That competition stands out as an obvious moment where my mind let me down,” Hofer said.

The fear of failure consumed him.

***

In 2009, Hofer’s life and gymnastics career changed course. Hofer left his hometown of Heidelberg in Germany to become an international exchange student at University of Nebraska-Lincoln for one semester. His close friend, David Jacobs, an American, a self-proclaimed army brat and fellow Husker gymnast, recommended Hofer to apply for UNL.

Hofer arrived for the 2009 fall semester expecting the typical exchange student experience. Enjoy a different culture, learn the language, meet new people, preferably a blonde American girl and of course, go to a Husker football game at Memorial Stadium. These are the activities that international students look forward to when they come to UNL.

 His plan was simple; attend an American college for four months. Make a few new friends. See an old friend. Then fly back home to Germany to complete his international business major. And of course, further pursue his gymnastics career.

He was so wrong.

A few workouts with a club team and heads began to turn. And bang. The Husker coaches liked what they saw and they offered Hofer a scholarship.

“I emailed my parents because I didn’t know how to take that,” Hofer said. “My parents said to take it. Take advantage of the scholarship for a year. If you like it then stay. If not, come back home.”

***

America was a new opportunity for Hofer. He packed his warmest clothes in anticipation for Nebraska’s notoriously cold winters and his fear. He arrived in Nebraska “scared of messing up” in competition.

Learning a new culture can open one’s eyes. It can break down political, social or religious barriers. For Hofer, embracing American culture did more than just improve his English or his understanding of American football, it strengthened his state of mind.

You don’t have to look any further than Lebron James, Andy Roddick or Rex Ryan to understand how large a factor self-assured confidence plays in the American sporting landscape.

“The mentality that Americans have. They are proud of what they are doing and what they have,” Hofer said.

During training sessions and meets, he would observe how every competitor moved and talked. He paid particular attention to the way his close friend, David Jacobs, would perform at meets. Chest out, head high and a keen willingness to throw himself at every routine.

Jacobs is the polar opposite athlete of Hofer, as Hofer sees things. Jacobs possesses no self-doubt. Confidence has “never been a problem” for him, Hofer explains.

Jacobs noticed Hofer’s transformation as a gymnast in just Hofer’s first season with the Huskers.

“The way he competed in Germany to the way he competed here, there is nearly no comparison,” Jacobs said.

***

As the 2011-2012 gymnastics season draws near, Hofer sets his sights on that first day of competition at Colorado Springs. There’s nothing quite like that first meet for Hofer, the lights, the crowd, the music and Coach Chuck Chmelka’s pre-game talk.  When the sound drowns out and Andi Hofer turns to face the judges for the first time this season, his shackles will be freed.

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