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Extreme athletes gain control through fear – and sometimes pay the price

Extreme athletes gain control through fear – and sometimes pay the price.


From the 22 May 2015 post at Bangor University

Originally published on The Conversation by Tim Woodman, Professor and Head of the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences at Bangor University, Lew Hardy, Emeritus Professor, Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance at Bangor University and Matthew Barlow, Post-Doc Researcher in Sport Psychology at Bangor University. Read the original article.

The death of famed “daredevil” climber and base jumper Dean Potter has once again raised the idea that all high-risk sportspeople are hedonistic thrill seekers. Our research into extreme athletes shows this view is simplistic and wrong.

It’s about attitudes to risk. In his famous Moon speech in 1962, John F Kennedy said:

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked [by a New York Times journalist] why did he want to climb it. He said, ‘Because it is there.’ Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there …

Humans have evolved through taking risks. In fact, most human actions can be conceptualised as containing an element of risk: as we take our first step, we risk falling down; as we try a new food, we risk being disgusted; as we ride a bicycle, we risk falling over; as we go on a date, we risk being rejected; and as we travel to the moon, we risk not coming back.

Human endeavour and risk are intertwined. So it is not surprising that despite the increasingly risk-averse society that we live in, many people crave danger and risk – a life less sanitised.

Dean Potter exemplified that craving. He was a pioneering climber and base jumper, well known for scaling huge vertical rock faces without ropes and with only a parachute for protection. On May 16 Potter and fellow climber Graham Hunt died in Yosemite National Park after attempting a dangerous wingsuit flight, where base jumpers wear a special suit that enables them to “fly” forwards and control their fall.

Potter’s endeavours and those of George Mallory seem motivated by something very different from hedonistic thrill. Over the past ten years we have interviewed dozens of high-risk sports people and studied their profiles in detail with a view to trying to find out what that “something different” is. Our findings are surprising.

For example, it is now clear that sensation-seeking explains very little about the motive for many of these people. Many high-risk sportspeople do not crave excitement at all – yes they seek out risky environments, but only with a view to minimising any additional risk so that they can remain in control despite the apparent danger of dangling off cliffs or jumping out of planes.

But there are two more striking features of our recent risk-taking research.

From pawns to players

The first is something we call “agentic emotion regulation”. Feeling agency is similar to feeling in control, but more akin to the feeling “I want to be the person who decides how my life pans out”. Some high-risk sportspeople purposefully seek out danger in order to make some sense of their feelings of lack of agency. In other words, in everyday life they do not feel like the chess player of their life but more like the pawn on the chessboard – they feel emotionally constrained and passive.

Legendary climber Patrick Berhault, who later died traversing a steep face of Switzerland’s highest mountain without a safety rope, once said he didn’t think he’d do it if there wasn’t the notion of risk. “Ordinary life lacks intensity and attraction for me”, he said, “I can’t stand it; I believe we should live!”

The fascinating feature of this finding is that the lowest sense of agency is in relationships that are the most emotional: with loving partners. This feeling of low agency is made worse by the difficulty with expressing their emotions.

In this way, the relationship with risk serves as a proxy for the relationship with a loving partner, except that the risk-taker is rewarded – rather than penalised – for not expressing emotion.

July 22, 2015 - Posted by | Psychology | , ,

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