Fear Can Be A Powerful Friend If You Treat It Right

You might expect extreme sports athletes to become immune to fear, but the truth this: they have learnt to harness it, not squash it…

We don’t often get the chance to encounter moments when we feel directly, physically scared for our lives – this is definitely a ‘good thing’, but has social progress meant we’re missing out on a key testing ground, in which we can face our fear, and learn how it might be our best friend, rather than our worst enemy? There’s a small percentage of the population who routinely face deadly risks, and extreme sportspeople are among them, such as freeriding mountain biker Darren Berrecloth who told RISING, ‘I use fear as a guide and a channel – fear is going to keep you alive.’ We spoke to some high-speed and high-stakes, gnarly dudes, who have a nodding acquaintance with death, to find out the six reasons why fear is nothing to be scared of…



1. Fear Guards Against Becoming Complacent

You might think that pro downhill mountain bikers like Mick Hannah, used to riding flat-out over massive jumps, firing through handle-bar wide gaps in trees, and battering their way over boulder fields, would become so used to risk that they would become complacent. And you’d be partly right, but they also rely on fear to tell them when they’ve not been paying enough attention.


After drilling one super-fast run at the world’s hardest MTB race, Red Bull Hardline, Hannah was visibly shaken up; not by a crash, but by the fact that he almost stacked it because the race-computer in his brain had mislaid some data… ‘The thing that really rattled me was I came out of the woods at the bottom and hit a super-strong sidewind. I had forgotten that it was windy and the lip of the jump is in the woods, but the landing is out of them. So the wind just took my bike – I was so close to hitting the ground and it’s a big jump. The fact that I spaced out that piece of information is what scared me the most – I made a mistake.’ So if you’re feeling scared, in any situation, then ask yourself – what data am I missing here, what have I forgotten?


2. Fear Helps You To Hold On

Of course, fear has a evolutionary purpose in that it triggers our fight or flight response, where the body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, making you hyper-aware and giving you a spike of energy. The problem with this, in today’s information society, is that we rarely get to exercise this response to a real, physical threat. It can often be triggered when either fighting or sprinting away isn’t possible, such as when a passenger in a car. So we train ourselves to freeze, rather than scraping or scarpering. Not so the freeriding biker Berrecloth, who takes the high-speed and high-consequences of big mountain free-skiing and transfers it onto two wheels. On a 2016 trip up from Southern British Columbia to Alaska, Berrecloth dropped into a super-steep, 90kph line that was more rock than dirt. ‘It’s like dropping in on a sheet of ice and you’re just trying to survive!’ he told RISING. ‘It was by far the sickest line I’ve ever done and afterwards I was ecstatic because I had survived but also: “Wow that was absolutely intense!” You look at it from the helicopter a few times, and it always looks so much different, but then you’re on the ground riding it and thinking “Oh damn it,” but you’re dropped in, and you’re hanging on for dear life for the ride.’ He bit off way more than he could chew, in a no-exit scenario, but by previously training his fight or flight response, Berrecloth was able to instantly channel his fear into live-saving performance, while under intense pressure; he got away with it, basically.



3. Overriding Fear Is Dangerous

We often don’t give our minds credit for the power they hold – it’s perfectly possible to override your fear response, using 100% focus to push away the awareness of deadly risk. It’s called disassociation, and top rock climber James Pearson knows all about it. He made his name putting up new routes in the UK’s Peak District, where climbs on rounded rock with minimal holds can have deadly ‘no fall’ zones, requiring cat-like reflexes to survive. At the start of his career he used to have to drill hard routes, climbing them in safety on a ‘top rope’ until he had them dialled. ‘Because as soon as I went on the lead, suddenly I’d start to shake, I’d make mistakes.’ The fear was holding him back. But with time it became the opposite – he couldn’t actually climb the hardest routes on top rope because he needed the fear and pressure to push his body into The Zone and climb out of his skin. Pearson came unstuck when he tried another next-level, but longer UK route on sea cliffs in Devon, called Walk Of Life, going from one-to-three minute routes to an hour-long one.


‘I didn’t realise this at the time but, with hindsight, what happened is that the whole skill set I had built up was based around very short, intense efforts, so this way of finding myself in the zone and being able to stay calm in dangerous situations didn’t work.’ He ended up freaking out, and even after finishing the route he over-graded it – as the hardest route in the world – temporarily trashing his professional reputation in the process. So if you’re taking risks but are feeling no fear, then check yourself before you get caught out.


4. Sharing Fear Helps You To Evaluate Risk

RISING has been with mountain biking brothers Gee and Dan Atherton at the top of some truly terrifying gap jumps and hucks in the Utah desert, and we’ve seen how the brothers have a dynamic to approaching a new, dangerous challenge.


The jump or line won’t have been done before, so there’s an element of doubt as to whether it’s rideable. The consequences of it going wrong will be high. So, what to do? ‘I train with my brother and that competitive side is good – it’s always there and we’re always trying to outdo each other and go faster,’ Gee tells RISING. ‘But I’ve had so many times where if I had been on my own, at the top of something, I would have been: “Right, I’m not doing this, I don’t think it’s possible.” But if Dan’s there and saying it’s doable, and he’s up for doing it first…”’


One of the brothers will usually be more confident in their chances, but neither will just charge into it. They will both sit on their bikes at the top of the jump, discussing it, visualising the elements and the landing. It’s a process of sharing doubts, processing uncertainties and checking confidence levels. It’s basically a risk assessment, which draws on years of experience, distilling the scenario down into a gut feeling that goes one way or the other. Then when one of them drops in, they always nail it, to the point of making it look easy. But that can only happen because the doubts and fears were shared in the first place.


5. Fear Helps You To Properly Commit

When it comes to putting your body on the line, trials rider Danny MacAskill thinks nothing of trying a bruising trick hundreds of times to get it right once. But his front flip off a cliff into the sea in Cascadia was the ultimate in ‘committing’. ‘The end drop was a bit intimidating. The scaffolding wasn’t built until the end of the day and we were really running low on light,’ he says. ‘When you get to a drop and it’s more technical – say you’ve got to front flip off a drop – then you’ve really got to commit into it before you leave the edge. You start to get doubts in your mind that you’re going to bottle it, just as you commit, which is the worst thing you can do – it’s never happened though!’ It took MacAskill over 40 minutes of run-ups to commit to the jump. ‘It’s mental torture. Because you know you’re going to do it, it’s just a matter of when you’re going to get yourself together to do it. There’s usually a good reason for it – it’s usually something you haven’t done before or you’re really pushing yourself.’


So, fear can prompt you to process the doubts out of your mind, to dissolve the kind of mental block that could see you unconsciously pull out of a high-risk scenario, just as you commit, which would probably end in disaster.



6. Engaging With Your Fear Leads To Long-Term Success

James Pearson re-discovered his love for climbing, and professional success, when he took what he learnt from ‘ambushing himself’ with his long-suppressed fear on The Walk Of Life, to new challenges. Rather than disassociating from his fear he faced it head on, and worked out what it would require to temper it, ahead of his high-risk climbs, into something he was aware of but could control too. Now he uses a combination of route-specific training with visualisation of the moves in a route beforehand, to get him in the best possible physical and mental shape. ‘I can really imagine myself in the route, in the rests, the hard section, the breathing, everything that goes with it – it’s like I have been there before.’ Now when Pearson enters The Zone it’s to master his craft, rather than lull himself into a false sense of security. But he would never have learnt his new skill set without being re-connected with his terrifying, mortal fear.



WHAT NEXT? Go skydiving. OK, so it’s risky and you could potentially die, but tandem skydiving is still the safest way you will ever jump out of a perfectly good aeroplane. As Will Smith says about his recent skydiving experience: ‘All of the best things in life are on the other side of terror.’



Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.