Perform in spite of being scared

Lessons from extreme sport athletes


A phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport

By Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer

Let’s be honest- when we see the photo above, we think “those people are crazy!” They must be unhinged… a little off. According to this study, perhaps the more accurate word is enlightened.

Eric Brymer and Robert Schweitzer sought to better understand why people choose to participate in extreme sports like base jumping, mountaineering and free climbing (rock climbing without a rope). They interviewed 15 extreme athletes between the ages of 30 and 70; they stayed away from risk-taking young’ns to prove their point. They asked the participants how they experienced and worked through the most frightening moments in their sports, and then questioned

Why do you do it?

Experience of Fear

The participants explained their experience of fear just like you or I would: they felt overwhelmed, miserable, blocked and even experienced the physical effects that come with anxiety. The difference was that they were aware of the other side of fear: the amazing feeling you get when you conquer it. They respect the experience, realizing that

fear is both a threat and an opportunity.

Though softball doesn’t typically present life-threatening situations, there are certainly fears involved: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of disappointment, etc. The intensity of these fears can range from mild to severe, from decreased performance to debilitating anxiety. In order to re-frame our negative experience of fear, we must adjust our perspective and focus on the opportunity it presents.

Relationship to fear

These extreme sport athletes described fear as an important part of the process. To them, the fear literally helps keep them alive. We may not have the same need for fear, but it can actually be useful. Fear can help us focus, give us a sense of urgency, and even energize us. Think of the players who thrive under pressure. The ones who want to be up at the plate in a tied game with two outs and a runner on third. Those players likely feel the fear and anxiety of the situation, but they don’t let it get to them. They see the value in being the “clutch” player, or the hero of the moment, and they work through the fear.

Managing the Fear

Extreme sports pose the threat of extreme bodily harm, but these athletes deal with the fear the same way we should. First, they address its presence. Yes, this is scary as ____. Then they use techniques such as self-talk and relaxation to calm themselves down. Finally, they fall back on experience and trust in their preparation. Sound familiar? We can use these exact same concepts. A pitcher- facing a hitter whose last at-bat was a home run- can move past the feeling of “oh no, not her again,” calm her mind, and focus on getting her out.

Fear and Self-Transformation

The final theme the researchers uncovered when talking with these athletes was how fear shaped their lives. They said they felt empowered by these experiences. Because they had conquered their fear, they earned a sense of achievement and felt their potential expand. Making it through something extremely stressful gives you perspective when you come out the other side. It’s like that first time you beat the team that has always had your number: “They ARE beatable!”

If you face your fears head-on, they can actually help you grow!

So what are the takeaways from this study?

  • YES, fear is real and experiencing it sucks… AND it’s an opportunity to grow
  • Re-frame fear as an important part of the process
  • Address it, calm yourself down, and fall back on experience
  • See the potential benefits conquering your fear, and be empowered by it

Want some ideas for team-building activities to help your girls face their fears?

We’ve got that and more in the


I hope you enjoyed this post and got mentally stronger today!



Brymer, E.  & Schweitzer, R. (2013) Extreme sports are good for your health: A phenomenological understanding of fear and anxiety in extreme sport. Journal of Health Psychology, 18(4),477–487.