In a safety-obsessed culture, why do some people throw caution to the wind and pursue sports where a wrong move often means instant death? Clues come from a series of interviews conducted with a group of 15 extreme sport participants (aged 30 to 70; 10 men) about their relationship with fear, including BASE jumpers (who launch themselves off high buildings), big wave surfers and waterfall kayakers.
Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer transcribed the interviews and looked for emerging themes. Contrary to traditional accounts of extreme sports enthusiasts as thrill seekers with a death wish, the interviewees described fear as an aversive, bodily sensation that the rest of us can recognise. A “gut-wrenching, terrible experience” was how one BASE jumper put it. “If you want a true slogan for these sports,” he added, “it is Oh please don’t let me die!”. However, the interviewees also described how they face their fears and “push past” them.
Also contrary to some of the “devil may care” stereotypes that have dominated scientific and media portrayals of this group, the interviewees spoke of the importance of fear as a “healthy emotion” that “keeps you alive”. Indeed, another of the themes related to “managing fear”, with several participants describing their “fascination” with controlling their fear so as to avoid panic. “Fear is both a primal emotion and an experience to be savoured, confronted or broken through” the researchers said, “rather than as a stimulus for retreat.”
The last theme on “self-transformation” was the most intriguing. The participants described how experiencing, controlling and pushing past intense fear left them positively changed and better equipped to deal with the tribulations of everyday life. A mountain climber described dealing with fear as “empowering” and “feeling very at peace” afterwards. A BASE jumper described the pursuit as “the ultimate metaphor for jumping into life rather than standing on the edge quivering”. She also captured poetically the sense many of the interviewees had of becoming one with nature at the moment of most intense danger, as if “just a leaf in the wind: you’re totally vulnerable and totally part of the environment at the same time. It’s about accepting that you’re mortal … very vulnerable … like a piece of dust … in the wind.” Another participant talked about a transformational “aura” that stayed with him “for as long as you care to remember.”
According to Brymer and Schweitzer, these accounts “provide a critique of fear” as it is usually understood in conventional psychology, as always associated with dread. For the extreme sports enthusiast, fear is a useful emotion that aids survival but which ultimately can be transcended leading to personal growth and change. “By facing our greatest ‘true’ fears,” said Brymer and Schweitzer “whether they be death, uncertainty or something else and taking action despite these fears, we transcend our own limitations and invite new possibilities into our lives.”
Brymer, E., and Schweitzer, R. (2013). Extreme sports are good for your health: A phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of Health Psychology, 18 (4), 477-487 DOI: 10.1177/1359105312446770