Psychobabble: Head game

| December 16, 2011 | 1 Comment

female kayaker

Overcoming fear in adventure sports requires mental and physical practice

By Erin Rottman

A merciless current pushes me too far left and I flip. It should have been an easy move: Stay to the left of the first wave, paddle through the rapid, set my angle before the boulder, and eddy out on the right. But I didn’t quite pull it off. Now I’m upside-down, holding my breath underwater. My heart is beating fast and I’m scared. I push my paddle to the surface and set up for a roll. I miss the roll. I try again and miss again. Instead of kayaking, I am now swimming in Ecuador’s Quijos River.

I am the paddler in the group who wishes the van rides were longer so the river runs could be shorter. I get nauseous when squeezing into my spray skirt. I ask my kayak-crazed husband, “What’s wrong with tennis?”

Adventure sports, perceived as riskier than activities like tennis, often create anxiety in people who are afraid they’ll get hurt. Yet research shows that the risk associated with outdoor sports like whitewater kayaking is more perceived than actual. One study published last year in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal found that college students were less likely to be injured kayaking and rock climbing than they were playing traditional sports like soccer and football. An earlier study in the same journal revealed that, although kayaking is becoming more popular, fatalities and injuries are uncommon.

Peter Sturges, who has run Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School on the California Salmon River with his wife for 30 years, believes that people’s perceptions greatly affect fear levels. Otter Bar used to include a mountain biking program, and Sturges says that with biking, unlike kayaking, they took clients to the hospital every month. Similarly, he adds, “Stand-up paddling is way more dangerous than whitewater kayaking, but people think that it’s less dangerous, so they aren’t afraid.”

Valid or not, fear in adventure sports is real and can affect the performance of the person experiencing it. I can personally attest to this from my recent kayaking mishap in the Amazon. But I am not willing to give up the sport yet. So I reached out to a number of expert kayak instructors and sport psychologists and asked them to share their strategies for helping to reduce fear.

“I don’t like to think of this as avoiding fear, but it’s developing the courage to confront it,” says Greg Chertok, a New Jersey–based certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Chertok introduces athletes to mental exercises that help them enhance performance. Athletes can confront fear with weapons like acknowledgement, self-talk, and focus on skills.

Okay, I understand the research and the misperceptions, and I know I should find peace in the green, lush foliage of this remote Amazon region. But I still fear that a rock will crash into my head and knock me unconscious, and I won’t be able to roll upright or pull my skirt to get out of the boat, and I’ll never ever make it home to my two girls. Why can’t I just buck up?

I, like many women, have no problem expressing this anxiety. “Men have just as much fear as women, but it’s just not fashionable to show it,” Sturges says. “Women are more open to expressing fear than men.”

When that ugly animal named Fear shows up on the river, experts say it’s helpful to simply acknowledge it. Say hi. “We are harder on ourselves in general,” says Anna Levesque, who leads women’s clinics through her paddling school, Girls at Play. “When we do feel nervous, we think that something’s wrong.” If you are going through a nervous phase and don’t want to paddle hard rivers, then just don’t paddle them, Levesque says. “It’s OK.”

Once in Ecuador—some 3,500 miles from home and tied to a group dynamic—I didn’t have the option to choose a tamer river, so I made sure to stay within one foot of my teacher, Mary DeRiemer of DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking, at all times. No way was I leaving her side. We discussed my goal for the week. I wanted to get out of my head and stop wishing that I was on a tennis court. DeRiemer nodded and smiled. “There are three things you need to say to yourself,” she said. “I am precise, I am powerful, and I’m having fun. Eventually, you will stop merely telling yourself and actually start believing it.”

Repeating a mantra in your head, or self-talk, helps athletes stay focused, says Chertok. “The body and mind are so powerfully interconnected,” he says. “Your thoughts are determined by how you feel, which affects how you perform.” Thinking about flipping can prompt our bodies to release chemicals that affect heart rate and muscular tension. Positive self-talk works, Chertok explains, because we associate words like “calm” or “powerful” with feelings that can cultivate encouragement and focus.

Chertok recommends that self-talk be short, positive, and goal-oriented. He also encourages self-talk outside the sport. “Practice is going to produce more favorable results,” he says, adding that uttering a mantra once at the top of a rapid won’t be very productive. Keeping a self-talk journal helps you to acknowledge any possible negative thoughts and determine whether they led to a certain feeling or behavior. “Those who write things down accomplish significantly more than those who don’t,” Chertok says.

After I swam the Quijos River with my paddle in hand and boat somewhere downriver, our group stopped for lunch. DeRiemer explained that my roll failed because I didn’t finish it. “No matter how bad the water is where you flip, you just have to tell yourself while you’re underwater, ‘This is going to be the most perfect finish I have ever done,'” she said.

More than a tenuous tip, her advice has a psychological foundation; knowing what to think about if you do find yourself upside-down or in any other less-than-ideal situation helps build confidence and dispel fears. “Have a plan,” says Steve Portenga, the University of Denver’s director of sport psychology. A strategy helps you stay in control. You may not be able to govern the currents in the river, but you can scout that water and pick a line. “Know what skills you need to use, then practice them,” he suggests. Someone who doesn’t have a clear sense of what to do is more likely to do it the wrong way.

Having a plan also helps because our brains generally have the capacity to think about one thing at a time, according to Portenga. “If we’re really engaged in some sort of thought process on edging and angle, there’s less room for us to be concerned about fear,” he says.

I guess I shouldn’t multitask on the river, nor should I try to avoid fear by sticking so ridiculously close to my teacher. Chertok insists that these lessons of acknowledgement, self-talk, and focus on skills are larger than the sport itself. “Trust the process. Enjoy the journey,” Chertok says. “It’s more about life—being able to control your thoughts and being able to manage your anxiety.”

Next time, I plan to put some distance between my boat and my instructor’s boat and then call upon those skills I have learned and practiced with world-class kayak teachers. I just scheduled another river trip to work on reading water and edging. Before leaving, I am practicing my mantra: I am precise, I am powerful, and I’m having fun.

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