I watch in awe; the elite downhill Mountain Biker, the extreme rock climber, the world class equestrian eventer, the trampolinist, fearlessly executing their skills. Fear is everywhere, in sport and in everyday life. I recall walking into the lecture theatre to deliver my first ever lecture. It felt like I was ascending to the executioner’s block. Despite what the actions of the ‘elite’ suggest – no-one is immune to fear. What experience teaches us is specifically what we should fear and what we should not.
Sport performance provokes fear for four reasons – firstly it involves a performance, we have to do something – this something may have consequences if we make a mistake, we could hurt ourselves, physically or psychologically. Secondly the performance is public and that public will make a judgement on the basis of what they see – or so we allow ourselves to believe. Thirdly, the performance matters to us, we have much invested in the outcome. We have worked hard and spent hard earned cash to get the outcome we are striving for. We want to be seen as winners, to have yielded a return on our investment. Finally, there are specific details of every activity which will provoke fear – the fear of ‘hitting the wall’ in a marathon, the fear of marking a big, fast and skilful opponent, the fear of being outsmarted by student’s question.
What experience teaches us is specifically what we should fear and what we should not (I’ve stopped fearing being outsmarted by tricky questions – I just say i don’t know). The mind creates fear and therefore fear is subject to its control. The mastery of the elite is not in being immune to fear it is being terrified but able to turn fear into productive and useful action.
Fear allows us to tap a source of vast energy, but first we need to overcome the physical and mental paralysis it provokes. Our psyches have a distinct preference for control – we are happiest when we are operating within a zone of challenge matched by our skills. In this region we feel ‘in control’ of both our actions and emotions. But, in order to grow more skilful we need to accept more challenge – harder opponents, tougher routines, faster speeds and thereby give up control. We need to grow comfortable with giving up some control, trust that skills and preparation will allow accurate and efficient management of the seeming chaos and uncertainty that follows. Embrace the lack of control and focus on applying skills and preparation to the situation in that moment.
To ride or climb through fear is a profound challenge to skills and motivation. It is a ‘plane door’ moment. The novice parachutist knows only too well, to be a solo parachutist you have to open the door and jump. That is what all the preparation has been about. How do you ride or climb or bounce through the fear – you ground yourself in your skill – you go back to the very basics – ‘I am in balance’, ‘this is my target’, ‘aim for my take off point’ – all the time you are thinking about the task you are punching through the panic. If you are scared, take a small bite, successfully swallowing one small bite will encourage you to take another.
Often these ‘plane door’ moments turn into ‘is that all it was’ once you have successfully executed. This reinforces the fact that you are more skilled than you give yourself credit. It also shows you how important it is review what you do regularly.
When mind management fails and our desire for control of every aspect is not satisfied it creates an environment where fear runs unchecked. The downward spiral into panic is uncontrolled, irrational and unproductive. Panic blocks useful, productive and task relevant thought. In all performance domains panic undermines the smooth executions of skills, in extreme sport panic has the potential to kill you.
We can learn a great deal from the martial arts when it comes to managing fear. At heart all martial arts are really about the ‘conquest’ of fear. The non-contact arts such as Tai Chi teach us how to relax the body physically whilst the contact forms show that the slow development of skills develops competence and their accurate deployment builds confidence. Working with experienced teachers and fellow students who have the power to really physically hurt you if you are not fully focussed reinforces the critical importance of focus on the task. A key ingredient in many sports where it is very easy to ‘switch off’.
So I come back to the beginning – experience teaches us what to fear and what not to fear. If we fear something, it is tempting to avoid it. Instead we should apply our intellect and imagination to finding the parts of what we fear that we can control and preparing for them. (I always write down the hard questions students ask me – they will be asked again). Become more comfortable with less than 100% control. For example, we can’t control the thoughts and actions of others. We can only influence them with our own word and actions. Where there is less than 100% control, learn to manage thinking to task relevant, positive and active thinking.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is advised to do six impossible things before breakfast. Great advice, but I’d add, at least one things has to make your frightened!