Conquering Fear
July 12, 2004 1:07 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with fear when engaged in a sport that involves risk of physical injury or death?

I raced bicycles for a number of years, then quit after having a frightening experience with something that my doctor identified as a symptom of a benign sinus arrhythmia - felt like I was having a heart attack.

In a climbing gym, I fell and got flipped upside down and smacked into the wall several times and can't seem to give 100% anymore because I'm afraid of the same thing happening again.

Yesterday afternoon I had my first motorcycle crash - I'm fine, and the bike is mostly fine - and I'm now rather spooked. My gear worked well, the bike needs a new shift lever, and all I'm left with is some bruises and a newfound worry.

I feel like I'm spooking myself out of all the things that I really enjoy doing after having some reasonably benign experiences. So how do others who love sports or other activities that involve risk manage their fears and regain their willingness to push themselves?

Is it silly for me to ask this question?
posted by gkostolny to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Try taking smaller risks. Identify the risks inherent in your next activity. Prioritize those risks according to danger, and seek out the least dangerous ones first. Develop a strategy that enables you to overcome some of the least dangerous risks, and avoid the most dangerous ones entirely. As your confidence increases, move one or two risks from the "more dangerous" category to the "less dangerous" category.
posted by Kwantsar at 1:13 PM on July 12, 2004


And finding the right level of risk really adds to your enjoyment. For me, part of the fun of mountain biking is the fact that fast, rough downhill rides scare the bejeezus out of me and give me a chance to face up to fear. I suppose I force myself to do that facing-up through some sort of self-shame... you know, like "come on, you puss, you can do this, nobody else is getting off and walking."

Plus, over time, you start to recognize that facing up to said fear also leaves you with a really good feeling afterwards, and wanting to get that feeling becomes a motivating factor.
posted by COBRA! at 1:29 PM on July 12, 2004


Excellent question. Not sure there is an answer though.

I had every intention of getting seriously into rock climbing and then when I did it I found I was terrified. I just couldn't let go and go for the next hold, even though I knew the rope would catch me. I had to put my flying lessons on hold because I had a panic attack while soling and thought I was going to pass out. Not good.

I think the key is to read up on accidents in the sport. Most climbing accidents can be traced back to a mistake, or a series of mistakes. Learn as much as you can and promise yourself you will NOT make a mistake. Easier said than done, I know.

Those who do not have that kind of fear can not understand those of us who do. It really can be crippling.
posted by bondcliff at 1:37 PM on July 12, 2004


I feel like I'm in a good position to answer this question. I grew up surfing, snowboarding, skateboarding, and rock climbing. I've found that mental state is directly geared to success in these endeavors. As I get older (I'm almost 30) I also find that I am becoming more risk averse even when what I'm doing is relatively safe. Rock climbing is where I most often run into this problem. I've never had an injury while rock climbing (knock on wood) but I find that it is where I tend to bug out the most. Now, I can directly attribute success in climbing with my mental state. If I'm sketched I can find all kinds of ways to make a route a lot harder than it needs to be. When you are scared or anxious things become more difficult.

Now what I've found is that visualization is the biggest factor in overcoming this. If I can't visualize myself doing it, then I'm ussually unable to pull it off in real time. So, when I'm looking at a new route: before I put my shoes on or rope up, I'll stand back and look at it and try to visualize myself doing all the moves, expecially the crux section. The same goes for snowboarding. I need to visualize myself riding that chute before I drop in.

Anyway, I hope that helps. I read a book called Performance Rock Climbing by Dale Goddart. He has a lot of technics that will help you get your head straight. I use them in all kinds of realms besides Rock Climbing.
posted by trbrts at 1:49 PM on July 12, 2004


a couple of nasty accidents on mtn biking have stopped me doing that - i took it as a warning (and didn't want to start using a whole pile of body armour). there's enough to do in life that dropping one sport for another is no great deal (having said that, i managed to trip up while running and cut myself up so badly a passing taxi driver thought i'd been beaten up... i'm assuming that was an exception :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:51 PM on July 12, 2004


(having read the comment above about getting a buzz from fear - i think this must be something that varies from person to person. i don't, as far as i can tell. i once took a parachuting course - paid for 6 lessons in advance. the first jump scared me. the rest were worse because i already knew how bad it would be. there was no buzz, just unpleasantness. i was young/naive/weak enough - or didn't know myself well enough - to not have the guts to call it a day after the first jump and go do something more enjoyable. yet others clearly got a real kick from it. i don't enjoy horror movies either. maybe i have some chemical missing.)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:58 PM on July 12, 2004


Succinctly - Know the risks, mitigate the risks, accept the risks. Or not.

1) Try and understand in a rational and objective manner what the real risks are. In indoor rock climbing, the risk of dying is close to zero. The chance of banging your head really hard is rather high. So worrying about a concussion is normal and reasonable.

2) Do what you can to avoid those risks which are reasonable. This is part equipment, part training. Get a really good set of head gear. Learn to trust it. Have someone hit you in the head with a shovel. If you can't do that, you don't trust your helmet. Get one you do trust. And use your training as well. Learn to fall, learn not to fall. Know your limits. Know what to do if you exceed your limits. Which will happen.

3) Now decide if the pleasure you get from the sport is worth the reasonable risks. And of course it is.

Those who go for the gusto end up being battered and maimed. That's not a reason to avoid going for the gusto. I have many scars, my knees no longer work right, several concussions have taken their toll, and one of my fingers is a bit deformed. Still, I won't take back any of it. I had fun. The pain and risk is part of the experience. How much pain you're willing to risk should be part of the calculation in what manner of gusto you persue.

Plenty of people live long happy lives after messing themselves up really badly. But missing out on the gusto is something you can't ever replace. There's only one way to get that feeling, and you just have to go for it.

If that advise fails, I say just go for it. I personally am afraid of hieghts to the point where I sometimes start shaking and feel like I'm going to fall down. Fuck it. I'm not letting that stop me from going places.
posted by y6y6y6 at 2:01 PM on July 12, 2004


Good question. I don't know if this will help, but all I can relate is my personal experience with horseback riding. I've been riding since I was seven years old, I became reasonably accomplished quite early in life and was all but fearless well through my teens and into my twenties, but I found as I got older that I didn't bounce right back up and shake it off after a fall the way I used to, the third (or so) concussion left effects which took months to go away, and I wasn't fearless anymore. It was all too obvious to me that my body couldn't handle things the way it once could, and also, I no longer lived for horses as I had done when I was fearless, I had other things I enjoyed, and wasn't willing to risk being unable to do them for the sake of riding the way I once had. Did that stop me from riding? No way. But I accepted that there were some risks I simply wasn't willing to take anymore, so I adjusted the kind of riding I did to a risk level I was comfortable with. I stopped jumping cross-country, I stopped being willing to hop on any horse that was offered to me, I sold my hot-tempered horse and bought a more mellow one. I think you have to think about risk, confront it, and accept that it's normal and sane to be fearful of things which can harm you, it's simple self-preservation. And then you can start thinking about ways in which you can still do what you love, while keeping the risk to a level you're comfortable with. Good luck.
posted by biscotti at 2:07 PM on July 12, 2004


These are some really good comments.

The really important things are to be knowledgeable, and to stay within your comfort zone -- and to stay aware that that's where you are.

A while ago I took up scuba diving, which is generally pretty benign. Even so I had some anxiety on deeper dives; I found that it was really soothing to read up on some of the lurid descriptions of stupid, grisly accidents. They all tell the story of people who gave up control of their situation, either by being ignorant, or careless, or panicky.
posted by coelecanth at 2:47 PM on July 12, 2004


Gkostolny, I had my first motorcycle wreck last year. Same deal -- I only needed a new set of handlebars and a new set of riding pants. I ended up selling the bike after not riding it most of the year; I lost confidence in the bike (one of the causes of the wreck was brake fade due to heat and overuse, the other was target fixation) and I lost confidence in my own riding skills.

You and I have similar hobbies (Rock climbing, mountain biking, etc.), and have had similar scares. My scare was with mountain biking was allergen-caused athsma, though -- rode through a patch of queen ann's lace and then couldn't even breathe for hours. My scare with rock climbing is when a (now ex) girlfriend dropped me about thirty feet.

What I ended up doing was going back and NOT giving 100%. I now carefully choose which risks I'm going to take and focus on perfecting my technique rather than just being fast or just pulling hard when rock climbing. The scary thing is that since I got a new bike (A wonderful '93 white VFR 750) and changed my focus, I'm now faster in corners than most of a group of the litrebike squids that I used to have problems chasing... yet I ride at most 80% of my skill, and usually closer to 60%. Just like with rock climbing, brute force and ignorance (aka raw horsepower and placing a lot of trust in your tires) has it's place -- but making something that another rider or climber has to sweat look easy ends up making you feel better when you go home at night and usually has the same physical result as brute force -- without the exertion or sweat.

As for motorcycling, try joining a community of sensible riders (I know I've pointed you to sport-touring.net before) or taking a MSF experienced rider class in your state. As they say, there are two kinds of riders -- those that have been down and those that are going down. Welcome to the former group. We get older and wiser and that changes what we do. It's not slowing down, it's maturing, learning, and growing.

For instance, y6^3 is an immature asshat. He's right in that you need to accept the risks -- we all do things every day that could end our life very abruptly. Commuting to work, for instance... Anyway, he's totally wrong about ending up maimed. I wouldn't be happy in life without being able to ride, even if I have to ride a harley trike. I'm not going to do something that would make me unable to ride. I want to be the 80 year old guy I met last year who was scraping pegs through the St. Helens forest with a wife half his age on the back of an 80's goldwing and a big cigar clamped between his teeth. That's living, and being maimed at a young age will not help me get to that.
Oh, And if someone hits you in the helmet with a shovel, get a new helmet -- modern lids are only good for one impact and then they need to be replaced.

Ride safe.
posted by SpecialK at 2:54 PM on July 12, 2004


You might want to look into some kind of team activity such as rugby. The camraderie, beer, and knowledge that your team can win even if you die wipes those fears right out. Or you might just be a f---ing pansy. =]
posted by headless at 3:08 PM on July 12, 2004


Dude, I'd ride without a helmet before I'd play rugby or lacrosse. That's just crazy shit.

(Side story: My high school lacrosse team in Connecticut, where they take lacrosse very seriously, started out with 100 players ... for a 450 student HS. They ended up the season usually being able to field one string... sometimes they forfieted the last game or two. Why? By the end of the season, 80-90% of the team was on the injured list.)
posted by SpecialK at 3:12 PM on July 12, 2004


I don't know why we're making this personal.

"For instance, y6^3 is an immature asshat."

No, we just have different outlooks risk and adventure. Are people who do BASE jumping immature asshats? NFL players? Boxers? These are people who engage in sports which very frequently end in death, brain damage, or career ending injury. You don't like what they like, or your motivations are different. That doesn't make them immature asshats.

My motivation is/was to live life fully. I'm happy with how that came out, and no one else got hurt. How is that immature?

"Anyway, he's totally wrong about ending up maimed."

No. I'm not. The minimal risk of getting maimed shouldn't keep you from sports or adventure. Even at 60% you sill run the risk of being maimed while riding. Yet you still ride. That was my point.

"modern lids are only good for one impact and then they need to be replaced"

Yep. YMMV, but you won't trust it until you try it. Just try not to screw your neck up getting bashed in the head.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:20 PM on July 12, 2004


y6y6y6, what I called you immature for was simply saying, "Yep, I'm gonna end up maimed. People who live their lives fully do." There's acceptance and then there's MTV Jackass-style "This is gonna hurt, but I'm gonna do it anyway..."; there's a reason that show was called "jackass".
posted by SpecialK at 3:52 PM on July 12, 2004


When I was 25, playing rugby by day and tending bar by night was pretty darn cool (that's when I started dating my wife), but now I do wish I could raise my arms above my head now without wincing. (We won't even talk about how my ribs on the right side stick out all funny, and how I have to punch a hole in the sand under them to lie face-down on the beach.)

As a parent of two energetic little boys, this is a constant topic of discussion between me and my wife. Her assumption is that they're never going to play football (where I broke a finger so badly I had to re-learn how to type), judo (where I broke my nose so badly that I'm finally getting an operation to fix it) or rugby. Me, I think those sports were some of the most formative experiences of my life, and I wouldn't take them back for anything.

But you know what? As I start to push 40, I wouldn't play any of them again, either. (OK, maybe judo, for the workout, but I wouldn't use my face to stop the other guy's roll any more.) As my body's ability to respond and heal changes, I've definitely re-thought my idea of risk. 20 years ago, I could tear up all the cartilage on one side of rib cage, and go back on the rugby pitch in a couple of months--now, it would probably cripple me for good, and spoil my ability to tussle with my kids. No thanks.
posted by LairBob at 4:01 PM on July 12, 2004


Using a chest harness in addition to a regular harness makes it almost impossible to be flipped upside down while climbing. Just pass the rope through the chest harness.

Motorcycling? For those who really love it, but are afraid of the risks of the street, take it to the track. That way you have a controlled environment with other consciensous riders, no cars to hit, and an ambulance waiting nearby should anything untoward happen.
posted by gen at 4:27 PM on July 12, 2004


gkostolny, your situation sounds a lot like mine. I guess I do some dangerous stuff I've always done, but as I've gotten older I've scaled everything back in terms of risk and while I'm constantly pulling muscles that take days to weeks to heal, I have a growing fear of really messing myself up that keeps me from pushing it much anymore.

If you're really freaked out by activities but you still want to do them, perhaps considering seeing a shrink at some point might help you mentally deal with the risks, if you see the fear as taking over.
posted by mathowie at 5:17 PM on July 12, 2004


I think it's important to listen to your feelings about these activities. A mishap makes the theoretical risks of your sport more real, and you can be expected to re-evaluate the risk/reward ratio in the context of your own life. If you lack confidence in your abilites, or are too fixated on unpredictable external factors, it'll detract from your performance and could lead to more problems. On the other hand, if you feel crappy about the idea of quitting something that makes your life complete, then maybe you need to work your way back onto the horse.

After six years of active skydiving, and watching a few people cream in under small, fast, twitchy canopies due to a small misjudgement on final approach, I finally did the same last summer. I was pushing my envelope and jumping a much smaller canopy than I had for years, and when I found myself in a tough spot, I didn't have the experience to deal with it properly. I shattered my femur, and sat out for several months of tough physical therapy.

As for whether to return: Yes. I don't know what could take its place. I don't ever expect to use such a small, racy canopy again, as I've learned how little leeway I have in unexpected landing situations. I can give up the rush and risk of a grass-skimming, high-speed landing -- in exchange for the exits, the freefall, the videos, the cameraderie, and everything else about the sport. There are still other ways to get hurt, and freak accidents that can happen, but I found ways to accept and manage those risks a long time ago.

Stuck in a hospital bed in pain, I asked myself if it had all been worth it. After a year of missing the lifestyle, sulking on sunny days, and aching for freefall, I've decided it was.
posted by Tubes at 5:19 PM on July 12, 2004


I guess it comes down to how much you enjoy doing the sport. If your enjoyment overcomes the fear, then do it. If the fear is greater than the enjoyment you get, then don't. If your aim is to overcome the fear, the most important thing (IMHO) is to prepare yourself well, understand exactly what the risks are and analyse the probability associated with the risk then decide how much you are prepared to risk. After more than 20 years of racing power boats, I am well aware of how much risk I am prepared to take and I know that, if push comes to shove, I would rather concede the racing line if I consider the risk too high. I prepare myself mentally before every race, analyse the competition and the other drivers so I avoid having to make survival-level decisions on the fly as much as possible. Having a set routine I go through in my head as well as physically before each race removes a lot of the unknowns from the equation.

In my experience, there are two kinds of people who are most prone to accidents - those who think they are invincible and therefore see no risk in trying 110% and those who are consciously fearful of accidents, because they are always looking for things to go wrong. Be positive about your abilities, know what your limits are and acknowledge the risk while taking whatever preventative measures you can.

Above all, have fun If you are not enjoying it, then don't do it.
posted by dg at 5:22 PM on July 12, 2004


I suggest taking a MSF rider training course. You'll be hauled right back to the basics. The first track day will likely bore you to tears if you can't make the mental adjustment to treat it as a fun test of extreme(ly slow!) riding, but it should also help you get your confidence back. And you can't be too skilled when it comes to motorcycles.

I'm heading into my mid-late thirties. I find myself becoming more conservative in my adventures: I just don't recover from injury nearly as well as I used to, and I've old injuries I've now realized are going to be with me forever. Sigh.

Still, I'm riding like a maniac when I get offroad. So far I've never bit it bigtime on my bike. Either I'm way more skilled than I give myself credit or I'm wisely not actually pushing my limits despite the gripping exhiliration. I rather suspect it's a combination of skill and outrageous luck...
posted by five fresh fish at 7:30 PM on July 12, 2004


It is absolutely NOT silly to ask these questions. But it WOULD be silly to let things you enjoy slip away from you due to an inability (or unwillingness) to put things in the proper perspective.

It is all about understanding, mitigating, and accepting risk.

I'm a dirt bike rider from childhood, and currently am an avid street bike rider, clocking about 10,000 miles per year, which admittedly is not serious distance riding, but places me firmly above "casual" I would think.

I've yet to have a serious accident in either medium, but I would hope that unless it was catastrophic I would get back on and continue riding. The joy I reap from riding is almost immeasurable. I can't see voluntarily giving it up.

If you've not gotten professional instruction, do so. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has classes for both beginning and advanced riders. I've taken their street class myself, as well as 5 close friends, and all have found it immensely useful. I'm slowly recruiting more and more of my friends to riding, with so far unanimously positive results.

Wear good equipment no matter what. Yesterday it was in the low 90's here, and very humid (as TN is known for) and I rode for a good portion of the day, all while wearing a full face helmet, armored (vented) jacket, long pants, boots, and gloves. If you do have an accident, your gear goes a long way towards making something an annoyance or agony.

The Hurt Report is the most in-depth and widely regarding study ever conducted in the US about motorcycle accidents. The findings in it are usually quite surprising to people who are unfamiliar with it.

The link is above, but some key stats that deserve special attention:

The motorcycle riders involved in accidents are essentially without training; 92% were self-taught or learned from family or friends. This is why I reference the MSF above. Take it. Even if you have 20 years of riding experience, take the MSF. If you took it years ago, take it again, or take the Advanced riders course. If you've taken that already, take it AGAIN. Many experienced riders take a MSF class every 5 years just as a refresher. The advanced class is only 1 day, and you use your own bike.

Almost half of the fatal accidents show alcohol involvement. By simply not drinking, you've made a significant reduction to your risk. I do not drink, at all, on days that I ride.

The median pre-crash speed was 29.8 mph, and the median crash speed was 21.5 mph. In other words, it's usually not when you're hauling tail. It is when you're going to the store or going to get dinner. Be cautious at all times. Assume that cars do not see you, and react accordingly.

The most frequent accident configuration is the motorcycle proceeding straight then the automobile makes a left turn in front of the oncoming motorcycle. This is counter-intuitive. The driver is looking right at you, and yet still turns in front of you. If you have not made deliberate eye contact with the driver, they have NOT seen you, and EXPECT them to pull out in front of you.

If you enjoy motorcycling, then you should pursue it, and not let an accident, which may never happen again, or may happen next week, hamper your enjoyment. Thousands are involved in auto accidents every day, though that dissuades few people from driving.

You have to find a level of risk you are comfortable with. The risks can be mitigated to a degree with training and equipment.

Keep the shiny side up.

On preview: SpecialK, are you also known as Special$K$ on a particular "planet"? :-) If so, my name is the same. Good to see you. If not, sage words anyway.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:43 PM on July 12, 2004


If you do the MSF course, consider the ERC, which is the Experienced Rider Course, especially if you have a few years of riding under your belt.

I would also try one of the track schools. My favorite is Reg Pridmore's CLASS school because it is the one that has the strictest regulations (i.e. no passsing on the inside, etc.)
posted by gen at 11:28 PM on July 12, 2004


Ynoxas - SpecialK on FP, RC, katzke on www.sport-touring.net (a website you should check out, you'd like it there -- safety-conscious long distance riders), and various other names in various other places, but not on any MMORPGs.

One note about the Hurt report is that it hasn't been updated in twenty years or more. I can't remember when it was done initially. Things might've changed (esp where speed is concerned) in the past twenty years.
posted by SpecialK at 8:23 AM on July 13, 2004


Thanks for all the great responses! The risk/danger vs. reward equation was on my mind and I'm glad that it was pointed out here repeatedly. I think that in large part I need to scale back how much I push my boundaries at one time. I'll improve, just a little more slowly and (hopefully) more safely.

SpecialK: I've been checking out sport-touring.net on and off so thanks for your pointer.

gen: Thanks for the tip on the Pridmore school - I'll look into that. I'm not sure I'm ready for the ERC just yet - I've only ridden around 4000 miles total.
posted by gkostolny at 9:06 AM on July 13, 2004


SpecialK: There is a fellow motorcyclist known as Special$K$ on the forums at katanaplanet, that was the "planet" I was referring to. I've been by sport-touring.net a while back and I need to setup more permanent residence there. Thanks for reminding me of that great site.

Hurt report was 1981 as I remember. It very well could be that median speed has crept upwards, as have speed limits in many areas.

I hate to reference such an old report, but nothing more recent has superseded it. I'd love it if they did like a "25th anniversary" of the Hurt report or similar.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:10 PM on July 13, 2004


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