Mental strategies in extreme sports
The psyche is important in every sport, but extreme sports are distinguished by a high risk of an accident, also fatal. How do people who practice such sports deal with this threat and what mental techniques do they use to achieve success?
The article is based on qualitative research (interviews) with three groups of athletes.
Cedric Arijs interviewed 6 people who practice wingsuit proximity BASE jumping. All of them are experienced in the sport – each has done at least 1,000 parachute jumps and BASE jumps, and five of them have done more than 1,000 wingsuit jumps alone. You can see what is this sport about in the video below:
Sean Michael Chamberlain conducted a study of 9 freestyle motocross (FMX) participants. The video below illustrates what this sport looks like, although the study participants were less experienced than the persons in the film. They took part in amateur competitions and only some of them were able to do a backflip.
The third study, conducted by Shaunn Burke, included 10 mountaineers, each of whom had climbed Mount Everest at least once.
While each of these sports has its own specificity, some mental strategies can be seen in representatives of each of these groups. Some of the strategies (e.g. visualization, internal dialogue, short-term goals, routine pre-start behavior) are known from the psychology of traditional sports and used by athletes of many disciplines. What distinguishes extreme sports in the first place is that in the case of these sports, the psyche is important not only to achieve good results, but also not to die.
One of the skills athletes must have and use frequently is visualization. It plays an important role especially in technical sports, where detailed imagining the movements to be made makes it easier to do them in reality. One of the BASE jumpers (Bumblebee *) admitted that thanks to the visualization, when making a given jump for the first time, it feels as if he is doing it for the fourth time.
Mike, an FMX contestant, describes the role of mental imagery training as follows:
“You have to picture doing things like superman seat grabs or double grabs. You got to picture your hands going to that seat, when actually performing the trick you can’t just jump and look where your hands should go, you have to be aware of your bike and where your hands are when they go to reach for the seat. If you don’t have this awareness it could end up that you miss the seats and hit dirt. (…) Visualizing yourself doing that trick helps with this process because you think about it so much it just seems to become second nature.”
In extreme sports, where a mistake can result in serious injury or death, mental training not only helps you achieve better results, but also increases safety. According to Bumblebee, “visualization is a major part of staying alive.“
Visualization is also used by some mountaineers, who use it to overcome difficult parts of climbing.
According to the Holmes and Collins PETTLEP model, the visualization consists of seven elements:
P (Physical) – During visualization, we should use the physical elements related to the activity and use all senses. For example, BASE jumpers do mental training wearing a jumpsuit that they will jump into. One of them (Dakota) also explains how he uses his other senses, apart from seeing: “for instance visualizing my speed, that’s not just me watching the ground go beneath me, but I can also hear it. I hear the sound of my speed. I think about the feeling that you get, the pressure that you have when you’re pushing on your wings. When I sometimes go through the jump in my head, I’m actually holding my arms out and I’m doing the turns and the body movements”.
E (Environment) – Visualization will be more effective if we conduct it in the environment in which we will perform the activity. One of the BASE jumpers (Medusa) admitted that he stands on a cliff before jumping and “tries to read the mountain“. They also often imagine a skydive jump on the way to the top or use video recordings.
T (Task) – It consists in adjusting various aspects of the image to one’s own needs and preferences. For example, Pinky, who frequently skydives as a cameraman, imagines “placement in the sky relative to the others to create a pleasing background for the video.“
T (Timing) – Refers to the duration of the image. Some BASE jumpers visualize their flight at the same pace they will actually fly, but others fly in slow motion when imagining it.
L (Learning) – Visualization should be adapted to the current level of experience and tasks that lie ahead. BASE jumper Dakota adjusts the flight plan depending on his comfort level: “Say I have a few turns or there’s a few different obstacles I want to fly by during my flight, I’ll go over each of those in my head and visualize the flight going exactly how I want it to go. I’ll also go over plans like A, B and C. Plan A is always the safest plan. That’s always my first plan which is like just jump out, fly high, safe away from everything. So I jump out, fly high and then if I feel like the conditions are really good I have tons of speed, everything feels right, then I can go to plan B which is flying closer to the terrain or to the object that I want to fly next to. And then after that I fly past that object, then I’ll reassess and go back to plan A. ‘Do I have height, speed, everything I want?’ and then I can continue. I reassess after each part of the jump. I usually break it down in different sections. (…) I see all this happening in my head.”
E (Emotion) – Imagination training should contain not only images but also emotions. One of the mountaineers (No. 10) describes his visualization in this way: “I imagined myself getting to certain places on the mountain. I imagined how I was going to get to the Hilary Step, what I was going to feel like even though 1 couldn’t actually feel the emotion or the physical hurt because it was all in my head. I imagined what I was going to feel like, so when I got to that state and that was how I felt, I would know what it is and keep going”.
P (Perspective) – Visualization can take place from the internal perspective (seen with one’s own eyes) or from the external perspective (the observer’s eyes).
Energy and arousal management
It is the ability to regulate various emotional states (e.g., agitation, anxiety, anger, excitement, fear) in order to obtain optimal levels of mental and physical energy.
Like visualization, in extreme sports, emotional management is important not only for performance and progress in a given discipline, but also for safety. Several FMX players have pointed out that the fear of an accident and the uncertainty in performing tricks increase the risk that an accident will actually happen. Therefore, they use different strategies to reduce fear. Some people just try not to think about the risks or focus on something else, such as speed, instead of the trick. Listening to music helps several people achieve the desired level of arousal. Others admit that they feel anxious before getting on the motorcycle, but once they get off, all their stress is gone.
For some people, pre-race adrenaline makes them feel excited rather than stressed. Todd, recalling his first competition, said: “I am nervous before I compete but once I realized I was just having fun and I had the skills to do well and the crowd liked what I was doing, then I got into a comfort zone. Once I got into this zone I … wasn’t nervous anymore… the adrenaline I get from performing makes all my nerves go away.“
An interesting approach to the level of arousal has Hank, who pointed out that “a lot of people just blast loud music and try to get all pumped up but really you need to relax and clear your mind.”
This ability to calm down can be seen with BASE jumpers. Bumblebee describes his behavior and emotions before jumping like this:
“The most important thing for me personally is to not jump until I’ve calmed all my nerves. And [I] found a way to get my heartbeat to slow down to normal, by breathing deep, have that kind of feeling of zen and not be rushed into a moment of jumping before you’re ready. That’s probably the most important part, [to] have your mind in the right place before you exit. (…) I go from a point of nervous, where it feels like a pinball in my head, it’s bouncing around and there’s a lot of nerves and I’m excited and I feel the adrenaline, to eventually through breathing I get to a point of just a calm. (…) It’s not nervousness and excited, you’ve finally found a way to change that into what almost feels happy and warm. Like a place of peace.”
So Bumblebee influences his body through his mind. Other BASE jumpers use the opposite strategy and influence their mind through the body. Pinky describes it this way:
“[If] I’m trying to push something that I know I can do but it’s something new, I always tend to blow out my mouth and feel that my face is relaxed. Just to create awareness of my actual level of arousal, not the level I perceive I’m at. So by shaking my hands and allowing my lips and my face to be relaxed I know if I’m over-aroused or not. If I’m able to do that, me personally, I know that I’m in a really happy place, I know that my mind is aware, it’s conscious, it’s cognitive and I’m able to think properly while I’m doing something new because I like to actually be a little under-aroused.”
Dakota, in turn, in addition to deep breathing, performs a kind of “dance” that allows him to relax before jumping. He also uses a heart rate monitor to tell if his heart rate is too high and it helps him to lower it.
Pre-performance routines and safety checks
People interviewed agreed that it is very important to be properly prepared for a jump, ride or an expedition. Before the start, FMX riders go through a routine checklist that contains elements that they must check on their motorcycle and that ensure safety. Thanks to this they feel prepared and the efficiency of the equipment does not bother them while driving.
BASE jumpers do the same, although their checklist, apart from their equipment, also includes two other things: the weather and themselves, and more specifically their skills – do they feel that they have enough experience to perform a given jump safely. Christopher describes his preparations for the jump as follows:
“Just calming your mind so having faith—like trusting the weather is good, trusting that the gear is good and trusting that you are good. All those things, if you can tick them off and take your 3 deep breaths and that’s you done, you know? If weather’s marginal and you start questioning it and that doesn’t help to calm you down. If you’re worried about your gear, that doesn’t help to calm you down. And the jump might be too technical for you, that doesn’t help calm you down either so. You add all those 3 things together and you got yourself a possible fatality, you know? So I use those 3 things plus the breathing. And if they don’t line up I walk away. It’s just a BASE jump you know? (…) I just walk away (…) Go and have a beer.”
The mountaineers also admitted that preparation for the expedition is very important. Knowing that everything is logistically well planned and that they are ready for any situation allows them to feel at ease. However, the preparation process for them is a bit different than for BASE jumpers before the jump or motocross riders before the competition, and it takes place much earlier. Already a year before the expedition to Mount Everest, the climbers planned how they would live for 2.5 months in the mountains, how much food to take, what equipment and how to logistically organize it.
In sports psychology, there are two types of internal dialogue – instructional, which helps to apply the appropriate technique and correctly perform, for example, a trick on a motorcycle, and motivational, the function of which is to increase self-confidence and add more mental strength.
All of the FMX players interviewed admitted that they use self-talk to increase their mental strength. For example, when Todd fails to perform a trick properly, he tells himself that “this trick is nothing” or “a million
people have done it, so I see no reason why I cannot do it.“
Among BASE jumpers, only two people use internal dialogue. Steve thus increases his self-confidence, while for Pinky self-talk helps to maintain an appropriate level of focus and arousal.
Cognitive skills – perception and attention
Extreme sports require high cognitive skills, such as fast information retrieval and processing, efficient and appropriate visual search behaviors, the ability to quickly predict probable events, and high attention abilities.
In the case of BASE jumping, the ability to perceive and interpret the appropriate stimuli is important already during the hike to the top. During his hike, Dakota observes everything that is happening around him – he looks at the clouds, at the trees, estimates the wind, observes how and where the birds fly, because all these give him tips useful during the jump. If, on the other hand, the jump is made from a helicopter, sometimes it is necessary to quickly change the flight plan because it turns out that the terrain looks different than it appeared from ground level.
It all requires proper information processing, but the most interesting thing is how the brain functions during the wingsuit jump.
“You’re like in a tunnel. This one minute seems to be 5 minutes. There’s distortion of time, you are super sharp in your senses. In fact to me it’s optimal focus with letting go of everything. Because you have to be in the present moment. There is no way you can multitask in such a survival based situation”. (Steve)
“It’s like the second you jump off of a cliff, everything calms down and it’s like you and your body and nothing else. (…) Everything else, every concern you had before, all that is completely gone. And it’s just you and the air and the cliff you’re jumping off. And I think because I get sent to such a focus, a pinpoint almost, that you’re (…) only assessing the things that really matter at that moment.” (Dakota)
Such a state of maximum focus on the task at hand, during which you have the impression that everything is happening automatically and effortlessly, is called the flow state in psychology. It can occur when there is an appropriate balance between the challenge we undertake and our ability to tackle the challenge. So the task must be difficult, but not too difficult. Such a condition was described not only by wingsuit flyers, but also by FMX competitors:
“Right before I hit the ramp tunnel vision appears, it is kind of fast and then it is crazy because I am able to slow my performance down. Being able to slow time down when I am focused on going off a ramp helps my
performance because I am able to control the sounds of the crowd, see what I am doing, and keep a clear mind”. (Aaron)
“Once I get out and start riding the contest, I get immediately into flow because I am relaxed and focused. When I get into the flow everything just kind of goes from there and tends to work out.” (Jake)
BASE jumper Steve pointed out that in extreme sports, the state of flow not only facilitates the task, but also determines safety or its lack.
“I think sport psychology is really based on more traditional sports. And for me what’s missing, but I think we’re getting there, is working more on the state of hyper-awareness that we can have in survival sport or extreme sport or high-risk activity, you name it. (…) Because you’re so close to your mortality, your brain is functioning completely different than the mainstream people. (…) Being in a state of flow in a sport like ours is a question of survival. It’s like flow or die. If you’re not perfectly in the present moment, if you’re not ultra-connected with your environment like an animal who’s hunting, you take much more risks. (…) Because all these extreme athletes—I’m not talking about myself, I’m gonna go very large like big wave riders free ride skiers and all these guys—they are ultra-connected with themselves, they are hyper-reactive.”
During the flow state, concentration of attention is automatic, but in extreme sports there are also situations when it is necessary to consciously enter into a high state of focus. Jeremy recalled how important it is to be able to turn off during FMX competitions and return to high concentration after consciously for a moment out of focus.
“I block out the crowd by looking at what I am actually doing and not pay
attention to anything else going on. (…) When you are riding you have to block out the crowd for the most part, but sometimes the crowd can pump you up and that is good, but then you have to be able to focus back on your riding and block everything out again.”
The mountaineers also mentioned the important role of concentration of attention. In their case, the ability to focus is especially important when descending from the summit, when you are already very tired. Internal dialogue can then help to maintain attention and increase motivation. One of the climbers (No. 10) describes his way from the top of Mount Everest:
“I found that the descent was in a sense harder than going up. After reaching the goal of summiting Everest, and putting so much energy in it, there is a sudden sense of wanting to let go of the effort. I was aware of this because we had talked a lot about what to do if/when you get to the top. What not to do is drop your guard because at the top of a mountain, you are only half way to the real goal, which is getting back down safely. Nonetheless, I used a lot of energy to reach the top and it then became a question of managing my reserves to make it down safely. I was incredibly tired going down, exhausted but aware of my surroundings. I kept telling myself concentrate, one step at a time, your not done yet, breathe. (…) I was putting all my thoughts on getting back to camp 4.”
During the difficult challenge of climbing Everest or competing in extreme sports, it is worth setting short-term goals – think only about the next day, or even just about the next jump, the next trick or the next step. One of the climbers (No. 4) told how while descending from the summit he focused only on taking the next step. The light from his headlamp formed a circle about a meter in diameter, and it was only this area that he focused his attention on. Thanks to this, he was able to maintain his concentration and not let himself be overwhelmed by the thought of the enormous distance he still had to walk.
Setting short-term goals is just as important on your way to the top. Another Everest conqueror (No. 8) shared the following tips:
“I visualized one step at a time. (…) You definitely want to be focused on summiting, but you really need to focus on the day to day and that is the key to being successful. (…) You can’t focus only on the summit. It is kind of like the forest metaphor and the trees. You have to look at what is in front of you. You have to look at the pine needles before you look at the tree before you look at the whole forest. I have seen climbers who are so focused on the summit that they can’t focus on doing a good job and getting through the ice fall safely.”
Building mental toughness
Motocross riders and climbers mentioned the importance of mental strength in interviews. When practicing FMX, self-confidence is often required to perform a planned trick, while in high mountains, resistance is essential in order not to succumb to the hardships of the expedition and be able to withstand the suffering that often comes with climbing the highest peaks. Climbers build mental resilience by participating in other difficult expeditions and gradually crossing their limits. As the climber No. 1 says:
“The greatest most single thing is to experience hardship. And, I have suffered a lot on other expeditions before going to Everest. People often ask me what it takes to do Everest and to be honest it is a life time of suffering. (…) Climbing Everest is like an aching tiredness that goes right into the depths of your soul. So, the first time hardship shows up on Everest, and it is a very long suffering period, you are able to endure because you say “yes I have suffered like this before and I have suffered for protracted periods of time.””
Several people, especially BASE jumpers, show high awareness and the ability to observe their own emotional states. Instead of fighting and trying to take control of their internal processes, they merely observe their thoughts and feelings without judging them. In psychology, this process is called mindfulness.
Also some mountaineers admitted that they try to observe and be aware of their physical condition, which is often not easy and requires experience. As one of them said (No. 7):
“I learned to perceive pain as information, not necessarily as the warning alarms we were programmed to think it was. I would respond to the information by slowing down, drinking more, altering my sleeping arrangements, or eating more. The biggest challenge was discerning the harmless pain from the warning bells. What is danger pain and what is just plain discomfort? More experience led to more confidence in my ability to judge.”
Some BASE jumpers also admitted that they had moments, such as after the death of a close friend, wondering if it was worth doing. It is important for them to be aware of why they are doing this and to act on their values. This can be related to the mindfulness-acceptance-commitment (MAC) approach. The authors of the approach, Gardner and Moore, distinguish three factors that contribute to better sports performance: mindful, non-judgmental awareness and focus on the present moment (mindfulness); accepting inner experiences and taking them as natural (acceptance); willingness to stay in touch with one’s internal experiences and values (commitment).
The ability to set boundaries
I left it for the end, although in fact I think that in high-risk sports it is the most important skill because it allows you to survive. The topic of security has already appeared in other mental strategies, and many interviewees mentioned the importance of knowing your own limits, being able to judge if you have enough experience, and not to be reluctant to quit if it gets too dangerous.
It is not an easy skill. As noted BASE jumper Steve, “you have to know yourself really well to be able to judge this (if you have experience). And stay very objective.
Bumblebee speaks of an “inner animal” that needs to be controlled:
“The only way to survive this sport is to learn how to control the animal inside. Because you can tell yourself everything you want when you’re on the cliff edge, but once you jump and you start flying, most people have that animal take over where you [tell yourself] “You can make that turn, you can make that corner, you can make this” and you just “Go go go charge!”. And the people that live through this world are the ones that in that moment of nanoseconds and the surreal experience, you’re able to have the mental power to realize that your inner animal is trying to convince you to maybe push it too far.”
Christopher, who says “you’ve gotta leave your ego at the door” explains that he never jumps 100% himself, but 50-70% to be safe. For example, on the last bridge jump, he made two somersaults, although he knew the skill would allow him five.
The BASE jumpers who were interviewed were concerned about their observations of other, less experienced jumpers who often do not know their limits, try to progress too quickly or overstep the boundaries to post a cool video on YouTube. Also experienced BASE jumpers need to remember about their limits and not be too complacent.
“What I’ve started realizing is a lot of people have no idea what their limits are in the mind (…) and they always wanna do something that takes the little over-arousal to the max and we know that you don’t function optimally when you’re over-aroused. (…) We learn from our mistakes. A lot of the top guys have all broken themselves or narrowly escaped death through their learning process, but once you get to the top, (…) you’ve got your ten years’ experience. (…) So once you’ve passed that lack of experience factor that’s gonna kill you, now you’ve just gotta stop being complacent. And if you can just keep your shit together and listen to your intuition and not be an idiot and know your limits and know when to say no, it can be a long and prosperous life and every day you can keep pushing as long as [it is] within your limits, and you can always come back the next day and come a little closer. But you can’t come back the next day if you’ve gone too close.” (Pinky)
What I like most is Steve’s opinion that “the big problem [is] when your lust for life is getting smaller than your lust for attention.“
* Research participants appear under pseudonyms or under a number (mountaineers) and I use the same designations of individual people in my article.
- Cedric Arijs (2014). Mental Skills and Techniques and their Development in Extreme Sport Athletes – The Case of Wingsuit Flying. Thesis at Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, University of Thessaly, Trikala, Greece.
- Sean Michael Chamberlain (2011). Extreme sport athletes’ perceptions about sport psychology and use of mental skills. Thesis at College of Health and Human Services, California State University, Fresno
- Shaunna Burke (2001). Mental strategies of elite Mount Everest climbers. Thesis at School of Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa, Canada.
Author: Maja Kochanowska