Mind Games | How Scary Action Sports Are Good For Your Mental Health

New research into the psychology of action sports suggests that it's not all about thrill-seeking...

Words by Yashi Banymadhub | Lead photo shows wingsuit pilot Mike Swanson by Marcos Ferro

If you’ve ever stood at the top of a steep snowy couloir, palms sweaty as you wait to drop in, or gulped as you get ready to ride the huge oncoming wave that’s been building past your shoulder, then you’ll know how entwined fear is with action sports. You’ll also know about the overwhelming rush of euphoria that comes next, once you’ve dropped in and conquered your fear.

You don’t even need to be doing something super-gnarly to get that feeling, for fear is always relative; one person’s first go at singletrack might be another’s leap over the Great Wall of China.

“They’re often stereotyped as hedonists who’d routinely risk death just for kicks. This research shows that’s not the case…”

Up until now, people who do action sports have often been stereotyped as slightly goofy hedonists who’d routinely risk death just for kicks. But leading psychologists now suggest that facing fear in sport serves for much more than just stimulation. It can help athletes minimise their fears in everyday life, making them more rational and focused. In fact, it can have all sorts of positive effects on mental health and well-being.

What is fear?

“Fear is what would be considered one of the basic emotions. It is the body’s natural response to stress. The basic fight-flight syndrome,” says Dr Tim Woodman, head of the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Sciences at Bangor University.

When we are scared, our hearts pump faster, the body produces sweat and the muscles of the body tense up as we get ready to run from potential danger. This creates the feeling of excitement, which is one of the things that attracts people to action sports. But new research shows that there are benefits beyond the immediate buzz.

Urban explorers like Kostenn deliberately push boundaries. Photo: Kostenn

“Up until recently, it was almost an established fact that all [action sports athletes] were chronically-under-aroused and they are just seeking the next thrill around the next corner,“ says Dr Woodman.

But in actual fact, according to Dr Woodman, this assumption is false. The pursuit of that temporary sense of euphoria isn’t the only motivation for most action sports athletes. Nor is it the feeling of box-ticking sense of achievement from having done something new. He says:

“If you ask someone: ‘Why did you do this?’ They might well say: ‘To achieve something I didn’t think I could do’. [But] why wouldn’t knitting a jumper not provide them with a sense of achievement?” Instead, Dr Woodman says, the appeal of action sports is far broader – because fear does many other things to your brain too.

Irish surfer Easkey Britton says that fear is a useful teacher when tackling terrifying waves like this. Photo courtesy Easkey Britton

Dr Woodman’s research has shown that the act of combatting fear can have positive knock-on effects on the rest of an athlete’s life. He describes action sports as a “practice or training ground for real life” because they downplay the fear we feel in other areas like at work or in social situations.

He and his team monitored a group of people crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a rowing boat. The experience brought up a broad spectrum of emotions for the individuals, the most prominent of which was fear, and they found that these people were better able to deal with their fears and anxieties back home after having dealt with them in a more extreme environment.

Keep calm and embrace your fears

The positive effects of regular exposure to scary situations is something big wave surfer Easkey Britton appreciates. “Fear can be our greatest teacher and it feels more like a companion than a demon in bigger waves,” she says. Easkey was the first female surfer in Ireland to ride 15-foot waves off the cliffs of Moher. She’s won British and Irish National Surf Titles and was the first Irish woman to be nominated for a Billabong XXL Big Wave Surfing Award.

For Easkey, facing her fears when surfing big waves enables her to trust herself more completely, as she’s forced to put her faith in her long hours of training and practice. She says that it is a “total act of surrender” where she has to let go of all control and really listen to herself:

“Surfing, it teaches us to let go, to keep calm and not panic even when we are being washing-machined beneath a watery avalanche and your body is screaming at you to kick, to fight, to struggle… which is a little like life.”

“It teaches you to keep calm even when you’re being washing-machined beneath a watery avalanche and your body is screaming at you to kick, to fight, to struggle…”

Fear also keeps Easkey in the present and helps to allay irrational fears – both when surfing and in real life – in a similar way to mindfulness. “When I began to focus on the “what ifs”, the demons in my head creating (false) expectations, I overcame it using mindfulness. By really being present, taking it moment by moment, allowing space for what wanted or needed to emerge.”

The international longboard champion Sam Bleakley also extols the meditative benefits of surfing. In his new book Mindfulness and Surfing: Reflections for Saltwater Souls, he writes poetically: “Surfing immediately facilitates immersion in the present… When I take off on a wave, poised on a sliver of surfboard, I am both fish and bird. On each occasion of bliss and fear, I am educated into the complex ways of the sea – a constant lesson in mindfulness.”

Nathan Jones and his Project Base colleagues jump off the Aguille du Midi in Chamonix. Photo: Project Base

Another athlete who compares action sports to meditation is Nathan Jones, who first started BASE jumping in 2010 when he was 24. That summer alone he completed 250 jumps. Now he is part of the charity, Project: BASE, which supports local communities through fundraising.

Nathan has since graduated to wingsuiting, an even more hair-raising variation of BASE jumping, and has been the guinea pig for several terrifying descents. He was the first to fly a line in his adoptive hometown of Chamonix that he dubbed “The Cheesegrater” because “if you hit the wires you’d get grated like cheese”. He says that by repeatedly putting himself in scary situations, he learns to develop self-belief and calmness, which allows him to be more in the present.

“When I go for a wingsuit jump, people assume I get a huge adrenaline rush and my heart is racing but actually BASE jumping is like air meditation to me. It’s a calming feeling because you’re so focused on what you’re doing that it is the clearest my mind will be during the day,” he says, “I enjoy doing an extreme sport because you get into this really nice flow state of just being so present with what you are doing that there is nothing else going on in your mind, which I think is a really healthy thing.”

Nathan also says that feeling fear in a high-risk environment can alter people’s outlook on life and can help them to disregard little things in life that usually stress them out.

He says: “It keeps you in the present and stops you getting tangled in a web of thoughts about what you need to be doing, where you’ll be in a few month’s time, what other people think of you and so on.”

Be smart, go jump off a cliff

The idea that something as dangerous as wingsuiting can be meditative – or have positive mental effects – might seem strange to some. Statistically it’s one of the most dangerous things a person can do. A 2012 study by University of Colorado found that a jumper will suffer a severe injury on average once every 500 jumps. All too often these severe injuries are fatal.

Among the unlucky ones was Shane McConkey, a skiing legend who took up BASE jumping and wingsuiting before pioneering the “ski-wingsuit-BASE jump” a specialty which involved skiing off a cliff before flying with a wingsuit and then finally opening a parachute. On 26th March 2009, McConkey died in Italy after his ski binding got stuck, sending into a spin which meant he couldn’t deploy his parachute on time.

But despite being known for his naked back flips, out-there alterego “Saucer Boy” and crude practical jokes, McConkey was far from just a crazy thrill-seeker. He was also described as a “scientist”, “brilliant mind” and “innovator” in the 2013 Red Bull-funded documentary “McConkey”.

“Like a lot of medical doctors and engineers, these athletes are intelligent, switched-on people who know full well that if they mess up they’re dead,” says Dr Eric Brymer, a specialist in the psychology of extreme sports from the Leeds Beckett University.

Nathan Jones confirms that far from being an impulsive act, there is a lot of thought and planning that goes into BASE jumping. He says: “People go on about adrenaline junkies, but if you start to break down extreme sports and the way people approach them, the people involved are more like nerds than adrenaline junkies.”

Legendary freeskier and BASE jumping pioneer Shane McConkey in action a few years before his tragic death. Photo: Ulrich Grill / Red Bull

Rather than rewarding irrational thrill-seekers, it seems action sports encourage calm, rational decision making. Participating in dangerous sports can have other positive mental effects too, according to Dr Brymer.

“Time can slow down or you can see more vividly. One BASE jumper saw all the colours and cracks in the rocks even though he was travelling at 200mph”

“The[se] activities [can lead to] positive experiences like time slowing down, [or] the ability to see and hear far more vividly than you would in everyday life. I’ve spoken to a BASE jumper who could see all the colours and cracks and nooks in the rocks even though he was travelling at 200mph,” says Dr Brymer.

“Fear keeps you asking yourself ‘What’s going on here?’ What we’re finding from extreme sports is that fear is information telling you to take something seriously and if you’re able to work through it, then the realisation that fear doesn’t hold you back is liberating.”

Learning from fear

Treating fear as “information” that must be factored into rational decision making is certainly something that seems widespread among action sports pros. Olympic snowboarder Jenny Jones, who won a bronze medal at the most recent winter games in Sochi, consciously uses fear to inform her decision-making processes.

She says: “I first assess the type of fear I am feeling. Am I just feeling nervous and excited about attempting a bigger jump? Or am so scared that I am losing all the feeling in my body to the point that I won’t be able to do the jump and then I’ll crash? If it’s the latter, then it’s too soon to try that trick yet so I’ll stop there and try something easier and then go back to it.”

“I think technically about what I’m going to do and I try to visualise it which helps me to override the fear. Visualising how it looks or watching someone else do it always helps me because I try to repeat each step in my head and try to follow that ingrained instruction.”

In short, it’s never a question of just hucking yourself off a jump and hoping it will end up fine. Action sports are much more about calculated risk than blind optimism.

“There is a misconception that […] people who do these sports only see the reward,” says sport scientist Dr Woodman. “But in fact, it turns out they are very high in [what’s known as] ‘punishment sensitivity’, because they know full well what the worst case scenario can be.”

A rationalist who’s an expert at processing information from multiple sources, takes a nerdy approach to preparation and enjoys the calming, meditative effects of their favourite pastime? It sounds more like a description of a chess-player than a BASE jumping enthusiast. And yet, according to the experts, these are the kinds of people that make excellent action sports athletes.

Of course, that’s not to say that combatting fear doesn’t engender a feeling of euphoria. As anyone – pro or amateur – who’s pushed themselves while surfing, skateboarding or skiing knows, the buzz of getting through a challenging experience safely is definitely real. But when you’re taking part in action sports there’s a whole lot more going on in your brain than just that feeling.

Snowboarder Jenny Jones uses fear to inform her decision making when tackling huge jumps like this one. Photo: 9 Queens / Vanessa Andrieux

Participating in action sports – or indeed, doing anything that scary – is actually a good thing, with all sorts of knock-on positive effects on your mental health and wellbeing. So whether it’s learning to climb, picking up a kite to try kitesurfing or getting on your bike to hit the trails for the first time, it’s worth getting out there and trying something that scares you. Because remember – fear is your friend.

Read the rest of the features from Mpora’s Fear Issue here

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