The Method to Our Madness: What Makes Extreme Sports Athletes Tick

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Anyone who doesn’t practice extreme sports on a regular basis usually doesn’t think twice when asked to define the qualities that make up extreme sportsmen and women: the most frequently mentioned quality is an addiction to risk; a flirtation with death that borders on the obsessive, so much so that it instills the athlete with an insatiable need to conquer the highest mountain, perform a new death-defying BMX trick or chase Mavericks, just like surfing legend, Jay Moriarty, who at the tender age of 16, made history when his infamous wipe out was caught on film.

Yet deeper reflection reveals that the qualities that make up an extreme sportsman or woman are much more varied and intricate than an obsession with tempting fate. This makes sense when one considers how varied extreme sports are in terms of their respective objectives, risk factors and time frames. Climbing an ice mountain patiently for eight hours, for instance, offers a vastly different experience to a five-second BASE jump. In the end, the courage and passion for testing one’s mettle are sparked by a number of qualities including the following:

  • The Desire to Overcome Fear: An interesting study carried out by the Queensland University of Technology indicates that facing and overcoming intense fear transforms the athlete, instilling a powerful sense of self and confidence which considerably increases their quality of life and psychological well-being. This sense of confidence can be applied to other aspects of life, and can lead one to make important beneficial changes (such as leaving an un-fulfilling job, travelling the world or becoming an entrepreneur). The benefits of facing and surviving one’s biggest fears are highly beneficial to the human psyche.
  • Reaching for Higher Ground: An excellent article entitled Transcendent Benefits of High-Risk Sports reveals that BASE jumpers, skydivers and mountain climbers alike describe the experience of jumping, free falling or traversing a glacier in similar ways – during these few, precious seconds, they experience what can only be described as ‘flow’: a sensation of freedom, timelessness and complete involvement; the athlete feels like they are free of all self-limitations and self-awareness: “Flow represents a release from conscious constraints, such as self-doubt and socially imposed limitations and therefore results in at least a temporary realisation of an unencumbered self”.
  • An Appreciation for the Sense of Community: The bond that unites extreme athletes who practice the same sport, is hard to define. Sharing the same unique passion makes for unique relationships that unite people from different religious and social backgrounds.
  • The Openness to Deep Change: In her article for LIFE, journalist Claude Glenn Dowling, who didn’t manage to make it to the top of Everest, but who gave it her best shot, said, “ I have climbed a bit of Everest… And the world seems great and magnificent that it could have such a mountain in it. It changes you…It makes you a better person. But the feeling only lasts about two weeks. That’s why you keep going back”. In this way, extreme sports are highly addictive, yet of course, they can also be highly beneficial terms of fitness, strength and stamina. It is not surprising that sports like mountain biking are being adopted by many upscale drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres around the world. Extreme sports can be used as part of a programme to detox fromhydrocone and other harmful substances because they require such a high degree of concentration and commitment to the sport. Additionally, success at this type of sport can greatly increase the youth’s sense of self-worth, which often plummets when issues like alcohol, drugs or violence are involved.
  • A Desire to Compete Against Oneself: For many budding athletes, one of the most frustrating things about traditional sports like football or basketball is the emphasis on competing against others and on points-based results. In extreme sports, the focus is by necessity on survival – on competing with oneself and perfecting one’s own skills. Of course, there are competitions for sports like BMX, but merely improving one’s own time or performing a new acrobatic feat is extremely satisfying and is often an end in itself. The athlete can often be so competitive with him/herself that even after suffering from an accident or slight mishap, the first thing they desire, is to get right back on that bike/plane/mountain. When it comes to extreme sports, the sky truly is the limit.

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