What can Rugby Players learn from extreme sport? Posted over 6 years ago

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What can Rugby Players learn from extreme sport?

Whilst being caught up in the rugby world it is easy to forget about what we can learn from other sports and how they push the boundaries of human potential. Much can be learned from other sports that can be applied from tactical and technical standpoint and it’s important that we don’t progress in isolation, but alongside those areas, we can also learn a lot about mindset and mental strength from the other performance domains. Perhaps the most intriguing is the extreme sport environment. These sports demand success. In fact, in most cases, you have to be at your best or there will be serious consequences. So the people who are able to perform spectacular feats of athleticism in super high risk environments can teach us much.

To the outsiders it can seem impossible, how can people seem to manage their fears to be able surf 50ft waves, hang precariously off cliff faces and fly down spectacular gorges? For most of us, the fear that we might experience in these situations is difficult to even imagine. In extreme sports its almost obvious that the most common emotion that athletes have to deal with is fear. That hugely unpleasant emotion that paralyses so many. The emotion that President Roosevelt famously stated many years ago: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself…”

Fear (or how we deal with fear) can be crippling and devastating when it comes to performance in extreme sport, so how do these people still perform when death is a realistic consequence of poor performance?

The pressure of taking a last second penalty kick when trailing by two points is one thing, but the pressure you face as you stare down at your own potential death is surely even more daunting!

Researchers have examined these types of athletes and uncovered some interesting findings. The first thing is the way in which fear is spoken about as a healthy and productive experience. If these people are feeling fear, then in many ways, they know they are doing something worthwhile (in their eyes). The emotion is normal. The feeling is allowed to be there. They get used to living and operating with that emotion being there.

Not only that, extreme sport junkies felt that fear, in many ways, kept them alive! Feeling fear is a natural human experience, and for many extreme sports people, they welcome, and often accept that if they are NOT feeling it, then something is wrong. Either a) they are doing something not worthwhile or challenging enough or they have lost touch with the reality of what they are doing, which is a very very dangerous place to be.

So what’s important is that slogans such as “no fear” and adjectives such as “fearless” may convey the wrong message. Everyone experiences fear (Yes, it is true, some people stronger than others) so pushing the message that if you want to be good at something risky, you have to be able to “get rid of” the fears would cause many people to hold back and avoid anything that has risk. Not to mention, they’ll probably develop quite a big fear about experiencing fear itself, so suddenly there is two lots of fear to deal with!

Believing that fear should be gone, before you can go and accomplish something primes you for an avoidance mindset. Avoiding the activity obviously gets rid of the fear that you are supposedly not meant to be feeling! So we get stuck, we live lives where we don’t do things that are important to us, but a bit scary, because we think that fear is a bad bad emotion to experience.

So let’s put that into a rugby example. Let’s say a 14-year-old promising young rugby player is avoiding putting himself in the position to make effective tackles in a game due to fear of injury. We can go with a traditional approach and tell him to “not be afraid” and to be “fearless” and try to get him to push all that fear out of his brain (good luck!). Or we can acknowledge it. We can talk about how the fear might come up for him and how he should take it with him on his journey. Discuss what it will take to feel the fear and move forward with what is important to him (hopefully getting better at tackling!). We can welcome it, show the player that it means he is testing himself and that if we are testing ourselves we are getting better at the game we love.

We can learn a lot from extreme sports people, even if we don’t want to go free climb El Capitan. We can learn that if you can develop a mindset that embraces and welcomes fear, and then create some space to be able to have it and still do what you need to do. Then you can truly develop the courage to go out and do amazing things.

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Zane works as a mental skills consultant with elite athletes at The Athlete Factory in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. He is a former professional player (Tasman Makos 2006-2009) who has extensive experience in coaching and education. He has a Masters degree in Sport Psychology from John F Kennedy University and produced research on team performance under pressure in Rugby. Zane works as a mental skills coach with the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union.

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