When it comes to extreme sports, the majority believe them to be open only to those who are slightly insane. Why would anyone want to take such risks that could lead to injury or even death? Yet every civilisation was founded on an adventure, and without adventure how does one live? For some this adventure comes through knowledge, wealth, or power, but in extreme sports, it is usually the sheer love of the sport that has people hooked.
For some people fear can freeze them into inaction, for others fear can create the drive to do amazing things, and one of the by-products of this fear is adrenaline, one of the most intense sensations. This thrill of taking risks, with the fear that comes with self-preservation, is indescribable to those who have not experienced it, a rush that makes you want to repeat the experience. The higher the risk, the higher the reward.
An extreme sport is different from a casual hobby. It requires honed skills and technical knowledge with the understanding that learning never stops so that you have the best odds of survival. It also demands focus and a requirement to live in that moment. Extreme sports also opens up possibilities of interdisciplinary cross-training, for new challenges.
Another reason that people enjoy extreme sports such as skydiving and downhill mountain biking is that they take place in an uncontrolled environment, not in gyms or sports fields that are controlled. Extreme athletes have to use their skills in a continuously changing natural environment, applying the laws of physics to succeed.
How does it start?
Few people start out in extreme sports. Skiers will start on to ski on the low-level courses at ski resorts, and skateboarders will practice in local parks. Both will fall a lot. Yet some, once they get to a certain level of expertise in the basic aspects, get bored and want to push themselves further. This progression continues indefinitely for some, which is where extreme sports come in.
Whilst the above might sound like an extreme sports person is someone who is chasing the adrenaline rush like a junkie with heroin, those in extreme sports do not have a death wish. Any sport carries risks, and extreme sports more than most, but it still remains that whether it is in downhill skiing, skateboard racing or other extreme sport, that the individual does not take unnecessary risks. Whilst this may sound odd to those not involved in extreme sports – because virtually everything in extreme sports is seen as an unnecessary risk – those who are successful in extreme sports are not reckless, they take a well-calculated risk that matches their skill level and experience.
Benefits of extreme sports
Many of the extreme sports are dynamic balance sports, and some are gear-intensive, needing the person to have the technical interest of a geek. You need to process information on the fly, close focus on the immediate situation and an ability to keep it together to find a solution when the proverbial hits the fan at high speed. In return, there are many benefits from taking part in extreme sports including:
- Improved physical fitness
- Fear management skills
- Increased balance
- Calorie burn
- Rejuvenating to the mind
- Sense of achievement
- New experience
- Makes you brave
Feel the fear and do it anyway
Yet for all the talk of the adrenaline rush that comes from the risks that those in extreme sports are said to be chasing, there is another school of thought. Eric Brymer has since made a career out of studying what drives extreme athletes. His 2012 article with co-author Robert Schweitzer “Extreme Sports are Good for your Health” he states that although extreme sports are traditionally explored from a risk-taking perspective which often assumes that participants do not experience fear, yet his study shows the experience of fear, relationship to fear, management of fear, and fear and self-transformation were the themes that related to extreme sports. Participants in the study experienced extreme sports in terms of intense fear, but this fear was integrated and experienced as a potentially meaningful and constructive event in their lives, and that those in the study felt closer to nature, more self-aware, at peace and even transcendent, as he put it “a feeling of coming home.”
This may help explain why over the last three decades extreme sports have become increasingly popular when at the same time traditional team sports have declined. It may be that because extreme sports are challenging, that much of the satisfaction comes from the work needed to be successful, to succeed after one hundred failed tries.
Perception of risk
Also, many extreme sports athletes do not consider their sport risky in the same way non-athletes do. Extreme sports athletes spend a vast amount of time trying to minimise risks. In skydiving, they learn everything they can about the sport, about weather conditions, about the wind and what it does in and around cliffs, buildings and other structures, so they understand what is possible and what is impossible. The risks are mitigated through hard work and focus. Though the risks are real, the athletes do not have a suicide wish. Perhaps it is more about the feeling of having done something well and feeling deeply content.
John Duke, an Ironman legend, believes that anyone can be an extreme sports athlete. Even a person that does not have an athletic bone in their body can become successful in an extreme sport if they have the willingness to put in the time and work hard. Whether being able to accomplish an extreme sport is reward enough, or whether taking part in such a sport that demands so much physical, mental and emotional strength is rewarded by the view of the finish line, the lure of the podium or the respect and awe of spectators, the focus required to succeed is a buzz in itself. For others though, the feelings go beyond our comprehension.