Fear is a topic that isn't often publicly discussed in mountain biking. Admitting to feeling it can cause us to feel insecure, uncomfortable, and isolated. It wasn't until the Q&A session at the Crankworx Fox booth last year when Claire Buchar and Katrina Strand fielded a number of question about managing and overcoming fear in mountain biking, that I realized how common of an emotion it is in our sport. It also became clear, the more I spoke to athletes about it, that feeling fear is neither a limiter or predictor of success.
Fear is simply energy - an emotion. We can encounter it multiple times in a day from crossing the street to dropping into a new line. Fear is built into us as a survival mechanism, but more often than not these days, we choose to activate it. No longer are we living in caves where mortal danger lurks around every corner, instead we pursue and engage in activities that create fear. And with this transition comes new options for managing it so that fear doesn't prevent us from performing to our fullest potential.
"Fear can keep you safe from physical injury and it can push you to be better. Sometimes it wins, but sometimes you overcome it and it's very rewarding. Either way, it's always there," says Claire. Being very aware of her mind and body and having the benefit of years as a professional athlete, Claire is able to offer some insight from her personal experiences, "You can't feel exactly the same every day when you wake up in the morning, so you have to learn to recognize how you're feeling and decide if the timing is right. And it's all about knowing your capabilities and what you can manage to push through." Knowing yourself this well is a result of spending the time to gain the knowledge - and hit the dirt a few times, which is why Claire advocates for slower progression. "Build your skills. Particularly the skill that scares you. By building your skills, you gain confidence and confidence brings fear down."
Jesse Melamed agrees. "Experience. That's the only tool I can trust and it's a painful learning curve, but I know from experience when my fear is correct in telling me I shouldn't do something." As a professional athlete, however, sometimes he doesn't have the choice to back down. "When I come up to a section that scares me I analyze it and see if it is actually possible for me to ride. Once I decide it's possible, I go through the different outcomes and figure out the likelihood that I will make it. If I think the reward is worth the risk, I will send it. People think I do some stupid stuff, but I don't do anything unless I really think I can do it." A key component in Jesse's success is visualization. "It's huge, if you can't visualize yourself doing it, then you shouldn't do it. Try to take small steps and tick off some tamer sections before hitting the big one you're thinking of. Do things a little different or a little bigger each ride to gain confidence in your riding, being confident that you will ride out of something goes a long way to riding out of it." Jody Radtke
is a Clinical Counsellor with a focus in sports - and an athlete herself. "When we see something that triggers the fight or flight response, the associated physical symptoms like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, tense muscles are going to show up. That's what the autonomic nervous system is designed to do. And that's also the good news because we can use that information as an opportunity to notice that we're activated and then choose to do something about it rather than get on the unconscious ride to fight, flight or freeze. We can do things like breathing and visualizing. We can get off our bike and step away and do what we know to do to re-center ourselves. There are things we can do to bring ourselves back to the present moment and remind ourselves that our neurological system has just taken off. It's gone onto autopilot and that's okay. It's a good thing, it's a survival thing, except that it can stop us from doing what we want to do." Jody also believes it's possible to reframe fear in a more constructive way by backing off the mental construct we put onto it. "Typically, when we label something with fear, we really quickly tend to follow right into 'I can't, I shouldn't, I won't' - all these sorts of negative connotations. So, if we can back up from that and label it as energy, or a feeling, or an emotion, then we can back off of it into the sensation; and maybe it's just butterflies. Butterflies can also mean excitement, 'there's something really cool and positive that I might get out of this experience.' That just takes it out of that fight or flight brain, the survival kind of zone, and brings it back into our conscious processing brain. And from that brain, we have a choice. And maybe we are still going to say, 'that's a bad choice, I don't have the skills for that, I'm not okay with the consequences of that.' Those are really logical choices to make, but they are now based on something. They are based on your assessment of what your riding skills are, or how you woke up and the energy level you have today. You can factor all those pieces in, rather than just being driven by your emotions."
Darren Berrecloth and his brother Ryan have recently dug into the topic of fear in their upcoming film, Reverence.
It's a topic near and dear to Darren's heart. "Fear held me back for years. I would have all the skills and tricks to win at competitions but fear always got in the way." The emotion has ebbed and flowed throughout his career and has morphed again now that he is a husband and father. "Family is a huge factor, with no dependents you don't have to think the same, it's a different mentality. I see things differently now - when I was younger, I would take risks all the time. Now, I evaluate the risk and decide if it's worth it or not." Darren has worked hard to intuitively develop ways to manage his fear and to find new ways to understand how to work with it to progress his riding, rather than having it hold him back. "Practice makes the difference. Practising letting go of your fears on a daily basis allows you to exercise that muscle."
I was lucky enough to see Darren speak publically about the topic at Multiplicity in Whistler last year. When I asked if he was nervous speaking in front of the audience, he told me that his only focus was on whether or not he had a good speech. The physical act of being on stage didn't bother him at all. Akin to dropping into his line at Red Bull Rampage, preparation is everything for Darren. "Once you get to that moment of dropping in, the hardest work should be behind you. It's all mind over matter. The hardest part is putting your foot on the pedal and letting go, once that happens, the stress goes way down. Once you hit the jump, it's a Zen moment."
When Darren and Ryan settled on this topic for their movie, they were immediately excited about its potential and the depth to which they could explore it. "I hope the audience walks away with a greater understanding of fear. And also, an understanding that we all experience it the same, whether we are moms picking out cereal for our kids at the grocery store or professional mountain bikers dropping into a line at Rampage."
Reverence will feature not only Darren's personal story, but also those of James Doerfling, Matt Macduff, Cam McCaul, Tyler McCaul, Rachel Atherton, Gee Atherton, and Dan Atherton. Each athlete digs into their personal relationship with fear; how it has impacted their career and how they have learned to work with it. "I think why I said yes, was that the film gave me a chance to revisit a deeply personal battle, but with all the ammo I never had the first time around, an opportunity to close a door that was left open for years, and a chance to move forward and grow. Something I will never say no to," explains Matt Macduff. "Fear is one of my favourite topics and mysteries. I feel it almost every day in one way or another and have spent a large chunk of time studying the emotion and its effects on people."
Matt has developed a science-based relationship with fear. "I put in the work and remind myself every day with real data that I am constantly improving, growing, and changing. When you work hard enough, see the results, feel and trust them, then eventually over time, fear has no place. If you brush your teeth 100 days in a row and your gums bleed one day, should you be scared of brushing your teeth? My process works. My confidence builds with each victory and my experience grows with each failure." This approach and mindset are what continues to get him through as he makes huge gains recovering from a massive injury; a 40-foot fall that left him with 10 fractures in his right wrist and 3 fractures in his right ankle. Reverence is his first big project back into the public domain since his accident. "It was tough to be so vulnerable in front of so many cameras. I had a massive mental break down and confronted some of my deepest fears throughout the shoot. I'm so thankful for the experience because I feel like I grew but damn. . . it wasn't easy."
A slow and methodical approach like Matt's can be frustrating, but it works, explains Katrina Strand, "it really takes a lot of patience to manage it, as fear can just linger. But if you fight it and let it frustrate you too much, it'll just fight back and stick around forever." Katrina recommends trying a compare and contrast approach. "As in, 'this jump is a lot like that jump that I have done before, or this rock face is similar to that rock face I rode last week,' it can help with confidence as you've had parallel experiences." And if that isn't working, sometimes just giving yourself a break. "I remember years ago I developed a fear of step ups and it just pissed me off because I didn't understand it! Eventually, I let it go, put them aside for a while, and came back to them on a day that I felt great on every level. It worked. The great thing about mountain biking is often the features that we come across aren't going anywhere for years. So, we can always come back on a better day."
Everyone - myself included - would love an answer to overcoming fear that was akin to snapping my fingers. But the truth is that slow incremental progression, a wealth of experience to draw on, an arsenal of tools to calm your mind, and a developed relationship with your instincts is what will get you the furthest. It can be easy to want to simply be better at what we do, but we have to put in the hours, just like the pros have. "Repetition," advises Geoff Gulevich. "Continue to scare yourself and your level of comfort will grow. If something is tough, hike back up and ride it again. Get comfortable and have fun, not fear!"
If you are putting in the time and still struggling, then consider speaking to a sports psychologist to help to tune in your inner voice, to learn and practice some of the well-developed techniques available, or to find out what else might be holding you back. And go watch Reverence
when it comes out to understand that you're not alone and that fear is no longer taboo.