For most people, the idea of participating in sports that are dangerous or extreme triggers a strong, dissuasive fear response. But for some, pushing the limits of their minds and bodies is a challenge they can’t deny. Because of their propensity for danger, extreme sports participants are often pigeonholed as reckless daredevils with a death wish who are unperturbed by the concerns and worries of their loved ones. Science tells us this just isn’t the case. In studying the psychology of sports fans, researchers found there’s a lot we can learn about courage and humility from extreme athletes.
Fear is our Friend
Fear is healthy; fear keeps us alive. Our fear response is an evolved mechanism that serves to deter us from taking unnecessary risk. Extreme sports participants choose to confront their fears and transcend them. By pushing through the fear in the sport, many find that they are better able to face the challenges life puts in their way. Researchers have found solid evidence that extreme sports and dangerous activities can boost your mental fortitude.
According to a study found in the Journal of Health Psychology, Australian researchers have found a correlation between extreme sports and transformational changes in confidence and sense of self. Eric Brymer, study coauthor and Ph.D. of Psychology at Queensland University of Technology, attributes this phenomenon to the origins of fear itself. He asserts that fear stems from a lack of faith in one’s ability. By pushing through a fear, a person concretely demonstrates to themselves that they are capable. This creates a ripple effect of confidence that permeates other areas of the person’s daily life.
Extreme sports athletes aren’t lunatics; they’re experienced adrenaline junkies who revel in pushing themselves just a little further with each outing. While humans have evolved a drive for self-preservation, the human brain is also equipped with reward mechanisms that are activated when subjected to extreme situations.
Dopamine and adrenaline both play large roles in extreme sports. Adrenaline, or epinephrine, regulates heart rate and is a key component of the fight-or-flight response, which is a reaction that occurs to an event or situation perceived as harmful. The release of adrenaline triggers a rush of dopamine and endorphin, which can act as natural pain killers. The chemicals also increase the rate at which muscles perform respiration, thereby heightening strength and other senses.
This chemical release stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain. In a way, the fear brought on by extreme situations is the body’s natural drug. Once the fear has subsided, extreme athletes are left with an almost euphoric sense of accomplishment. Most report that even if they felt they were in mortal peril at the time, in the afterglow they completely forget how terrified they were.
The risk involved with a specific activity can vary from individual to individual. Risk is redefined by athletic ability and experience. Extreme sport participants typically come to their sports gradually. They are often experienced athletes in other areas; it’s not like someone wakes up one day after living a sedentary lifestyle and decides to compete in the luge.
That’s not to say that extreme sports hold no risk for accomplished athletes; activities like BASE jumping, waterfall kayaking and motor cross are still very dangerous. However, those experienced in the sport and who are imbued with physical strength and athleticism are more capable of assessing and reacting to situations as they arise.
Furthermore, people who seek extreme sports see fear differently than others. At an intellectual level, these athletes are aware that their leisure activities may result in death. They see fear as a positive thing, as an opponent that drives them to succeed and push farther. And some may not even see fear at all.
For example, Garrett McNamara recently set the Guinness World Record for largest wave ever surfed, and later told Anderson Cooper that he didn’t ever get a rush from it. This is rare, even in the world of extreme sports. Fear experts theorize that McNamara may have numbed himself to fear; he has exposed himself to so many dangerous situations and survived that he may have effectively snubbed out his fear response.
The Science of Fear
Psychologists and scientists alike study both chemical and behavioral responses to fear. If you’re interested in further exploring this and related topics, a bachelor’s degree in psychology may be the right path for you. Continuing your education online is painless; there’s no reason to show fear.
- Extreme Sports are Good for Your Health (kimkircher.com)
- Inside the Mind of an Extreme Sports Enthusiast (mindborrower.wordpress.com)