Balanced ‘Madmen’: Psychology of Extreme Sports

Main balanced madmen psychology of extreme sports

When it comes to adventure sports, taking carefully calculated risks versus thrill-seeking could mean the difference between life and death. Most people chalk every life-risking maneuver up to madness, but two elite freeskiers, and tons of empirical data point to other influences at work. It’s time to set the record straight on the motivation of extreme sportsmen and why the challenges they seek may be healthier than we think.

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Push speeds of 200 miles per hour around a racetrack, go sky diving or mountain biking, or send yourself rocketing down a steep snow-covered slope near Matterhorn Mountain—you know what risk is. But what the heck is going through your head?

Athletes, in general, score higher than the average population in sensation seeking—that much is true—according to 2014 research by Erik Monasterio, MBChB, senior clinical lecturer at University of Otago and mountaineer himself. But it’s not just about the short-lived buzz of adventure. Those drawn to extreme sports may initially hunt out the thrill, as research into trait differences between newbies and instructors suggests; but as you progress in these sports something else entirely takes over. In fact, research published in 2004 in the journal Kinesiology found that high-risk athletes scored highest in emotional stability, conscientiousness, and energy compared with non-risk athletes and non-athletes.

So what gives? What makes some drawn to adventure sports and others shy away? Motivation to take risks or do an extreme sport can be as simple as needing to get away, to carve your own path. Research by Bruce Ogilvie Ph.D., sometimes referred to as the Father of North American Applied Sport Psychology, suggested that risk takers push their physical, emotional, and intellectual limits to escape the tensionless state associated with everyday life. And according to 2013 research in the Journal of Personality and Psychology, feeling trapped or stressed out are some of the most common reasons people continue an extreme sport, in addition to the physical sensations and the “buzz.”

Still, some just manage fear differently than the average person and see no problem with their chosen outlets. “I see a lot of us as artists, actually,” says freeskier and Line of the Year 2014 winner Cody Townsend, 31, who clearly colors outside the lines.

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Risk takers’ brains may be naturally lower in levels of dopamine and/or serotonin, according to research from Monasterio. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps manage your brain’s reward and pleasure centers, plus regulates physical and emotional responses. The neurotransmitter serotonin regulates a variety of psychological and bodily functions, including mood regulation, sexual desire, sleep, and social behavior. When out of balance both can lead to depressive feelings, fatigue, anxiety, and more. But instead of sitting on the couch and brooding, some athletes go out and “fix it” with physical challenges. Problem solved, for now.

But that doesn’t mean they are fearless. Compared to the general population’s levels of harm avoidance (12.4)—aka desire to not get hurt—mountaineers HA levels were a still-beefy 9.1, according to 2014 research in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine. The difference: some let fear hold them in more narrow boundaries; others wield their fear to their advantage and work around it. Richard Permin, 29, one of France’s best linecatching freeskiers who appears in Red Bull Snow’s Days of My Youth, puts it pretty succinctly: “The moment you lose fear you put yourself in the most dangerous situations.”

“I think you’re always scared. You don’t lack fear—you have to have fear out there. That’s what keeps us safe and helps us make the correct decisions. For most people it’s going into a bad neighborhood at a certain time of night that may be scary,” Townsend adds. “I just think we play on a different scale.”

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Self-directedness and willpower are character traits that high-risk athletes such as mountaineers also score high on, which explains their propensity to go against the grain—with the confidence they will come out the other side. Like those who enter their first Spartan Death Race or the 400-mile Patagonia Expedition Race—clearly, they might die on the course. Numerous waivers say so plainly. But instead, solid beast-mode training and pushing fears aside gets them through with only a twisted ankle, a chunky medal, and roaring memories of accomplishment to show for it.

Research from Dominika Kupciw MSc in The Sports and Exercise Scientist shows that the intense training sessions adventure athletes engage in leading up to big races and challenges represent precautionary risk rather than unconsidered, reckless risk—a necessary distinction that separates the wheat from the chaff in adventure sports. Building confidence through training allows athletes to manage the risk. So the “reckless athlete” rap is undeserved in many cases.

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Adventure sports actually require the ultimate planning and agonizing over fine details—that’s the boring reality. Cyclists and climbers analyze every minutiae of a long route and their gear; BASE jumpers and skydivers endlessly check wind/weather conditions and all their rigs meticulously; and backcountry athletes practice traversing countless smaller feats, getting rigorous intel from guides and mountain experts, to progressively take on larger mountains.

“Where we go in the mountains, we have a guide, we have a helipilot, we have other people who really know the mountain, so if something goes wrong we’re in the best case scenario. We drop into routes less than half the time, because conditions aren’t exactly right,” Permin explains. “The risk for us at that level is actually less than someone who goes off next to the slope in some ski areas.” Kupciw agrees: Evidence suggests that attraction for high-risk sportspeople may be the management and control of risk rather than risk itself.

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Still, for some, self-expression and self-determination are a catalyst. “In cities you have crosswalks, sidewalks, elevators—you’re told exactly where to go at all times. And you don’t even interact with the environment. Whereas when you get to the bottom of a mountain, you think, I can go up any way I want, and it’s up to you and your own imagination on how to get down,” Townsend points out. And though few outside high-risk sports would peg artistic expression as the primary catalyst for Tour de France racers or slalom skiers or kite surfers or Base jumpers, the second you clip into gear needed for these sports that connection becomes immediately apparent, in addition to the athleticism of the moment.

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It’s true, certain sports are riddled with danger. But that’s a risk taken to avoid the greater risk: living a life without adventure. The chances of injury and even death are very real, but calculated, smart, precautionary risk is a good athlete’s catalyst, based on skill they’ve accrued over time. Mahatma Gandhi once said “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” That’s especially true for adventure athletes.

There is no crush to discern the minds of those society deems as thrill seekers. The research on the psychology of extreme sports is unsurprisingly thin. But for some, focusing on the positive aspects of how athletes and explorers push their limits, highlighting their inspiration, really does make you wonder. If our ancestors hadn’t had adventurers in their midst when striking away from humanity’s origins in East Africa, where would we be today? Those resting in their caves may want to know, while adventurers go out to find it.

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