As mountain bikers, we spend a fair bit of time dealing with fear. Let’s face it, what we do is risky, and the fear we experience as beginners never really goes away (it just tends to get focused on specific things like drops or gaps).
Although many of us get better at dealing with our fear as we become more skilled, it often stops us from riding well (or at all), especially after an accident or injury (see https://flowmountainbike.com/features/the-soapbox-getting-your-mojo-back).
Even though we get better at dealing with it, sometimes the fear we experience on a ride is more than just ‘self-doubt’ when checking out a feature. Sometimes it’s genuine “shitting bricks” fear that paralyses us completely and shuts down our ability to ride. So today I’m going to talk about how you can learn to deal with those sorts of overwhelming feelings.
Genuine fear isn’t just nervousness, it’s a complete take-over and shutdown of functioning.
If you’ve experienced it, you’ll know that genuine fear isn’t just nervousness, it’s a complete take-over and shutdown of functioning. For a while (as little as a few seconds or as long as a few hours) you lose control of your ability to make reasonable decisions, take effective action, or even to communicate what’s going on. Often, this paralysis can be accompanied by intense physical and psychological discomfort: your heart beats rapidly, you hyperventilate, your guts churn, your throat and chest get tight, and your vision narrows. Sometimes, you’ll feel dizzy, experience an overwhelming feeling of dread, and find it virtually impossible to speak. Outside of mountain biking, most people would describe this sort of experience as a panic attack – when you’re riding, it doesn’t really matter what you call it, it’s going to stop you in your tracks and make it pretty hard to keep going.
It’s not that hard to understand why this happens to us. Our brains evolved over a long time period and, at their core, are primarily systems for helping us survive in dangerous (or potentially dangerous) situations. When our brains perceive danger, the automatic response is to act in a way that will increase the chance of survival. Because, for most of our evolution, survival meant not being eaten, the default response is “fight, flight, or freeze”. In other words, the system reacts to potential danger by doing what works best against predators: fight back, run away, or stay really still and hope they don’t see us.
As far as your ‘survival brain’ is concerned, mountain biking (especially mountain biking that has potentially big consequences) is the opposite of survival.
Of course, in the modern world, this reaction is pretty much useless, especially when it comes to activities like mountain biking. Evolution takes a while to catch up, and it’s a lot slower than mountain bike development. As far as your ‘survival brain’ is concerned, mountain biking (especially mountain biking that involves exposure, steepness, drops, air or anything else that has potentially big consequences) is the opposite of survival. So its job is to stop you from putting yourself in harm’s way (and here’s the frustrating bit) even if you want to. When you experience fear that stops you, you’re experiencing your survival brain taking over – you’re no longer in control. As you’ve probably experienced, this is not only unpleasant, but potentially dangerous – as those of you who’ve grabbed a handful of brake before going over a jump will attest to.
There is some good news though. Despite their weird tendency to screw things up for us, the coolest thing about human brains is their ability to override core programming. This means that we can override the fear (to a certain degree) by training ourselves to get used to it (strategy 1 below), by recognising it when it happens and learning to function alongside it (strategy 2 below), or by bringing ourselves back when we’re in the grip of full-on, pant-wetting panic (strategy 3 below).
The trick is finding the right balance between prudent caution and the ability to ride the things you want to.
I’m going to stop for a minute here and point out the blindingly obvious: sometimes fear is a really good thing. Sure, it can get in the way, but chances are it’s got a point (in that there probably is a genuine risk of harm). The trick is finding the right balance between prudent caution and the ability to ride the things you want to. Getting over fear is great, but not if the cost involves an extended hospital trip. What I’m really saying here is: keep pushing yourself but know your limits.
So, when it comes to fear when we’re riding there are three main strategies we want to take. The first one is mitigation: desensitising yourself to a fear response through careful ramping-up of stimuli. The idea here is to get your brain used to something that it finds dangerous by increasingly exposing it to things that activate a fear response. The trick is to never go big enough to activate the freeze factor, whilst staying fully conscious of the experience.
i) Find somewhere to practise (a skills park or a section of your local trail is ideal), and start well below your threshold (i.e., something you find a little bit challenging but not too scary).
ii) Deliberately relax (breathe, focus), and commit to your chosen section or feature, making sure that you don’t let your brain override your actions (e.g., make a conscious decision to not touch the brakes). If you do freak out, take it back several notches.
iii) Ride it over and over again until it’s easy, then ramp it up to the next level.
iv) Keep doing this over time (you won’t train yourself in one or two sessions) keeping in mind that you need regular consistency both to train and maintain the effect (because it’s unlikely to last beyond a few weeks without ongoing practice).
v) Over time, start taking these skills out onto the trail and applying them to features that have stopped you before (always ramping up carefully). Make sure that you never scare yourself to the point where you freeze (this will often take you back to square one).
It’s important to note that, as mountain bikers, we’re often really poor at this training process. Rather than working on our weaknesses by developing our skills or getting actual lessons, we teach ourselves bad habits by just riding. If you want to be a better rider and to deal with fear more effectively, just riding isn’t going to cut it. No matter how good a rider you are, some skills training with someone who knows what he or she is doing will make a big difference.
The second strategy is knowing what to do when fear starts to ramp up. Most of us aren’t really monitoring our physical and psychological arousal levels when we ride, so we usually go from “good” to “oh crap” without any intermediate steps. Imagine an internal, personal arousal gauge, ranging from blue (low arousal), to green (ideal arousal), to orange (on the edge), to red (pant-wetting time). The trick here is to train yourself to observe your arousal levels while you’re riding, and to keep yourself out of the red zone (the point where you freeze up and shut down).
i) When riding, keep a little mental process going that checks your arousal levels. I usually edit it down to a single word like “blue”, “green”, or “orange”. This shouldn’t take much mental effort and certainly shouldn’t be distracting. Over time, you’ll get a pretty good idea of your usual arousal levels on different types of trails and features, the effects of these levels on your performance, and your optimal ‘zone’: the point at which you’re operating at your best.
ii) Once you’ve got a handle on your arousal levels, start intervening when you notice yourself creeping into the orange zone. Instead of ‘white-knuckling’ it, back it off a notch, and focus on your technique, the trail ahead of you, and your form on the bike until you’re back in the green zone. If you’re too tense, loosen up, breathe and refocus. This is a great time to stop and practise riding ‘that feature’ a few times (especially one that corresponds to something you’ve been practicing in the skills park) rather than just going around it.
When the survival brain takes over, it pretty much shuts down higher brain functioning, meaning that, for a while, there’s not much of ‘you’ left.
The final strategy is learning how to come back when you’re freaking out (when you’re well and truly in the “red zone”). This is both the hardest to learn and the most difficult to address in real-time, mostly because we don’t often get much of a chance to practise – after all, who wants to expose themselves to jock-soiling fear on a regular basis? The trick here is learning how to pull yourself back from the panic (red) zone and into a realm of at least some rational thought. It’s particularly hard because, when the survival brain takes over, it pretty much shuts down higher brain functioning, meaning that, for a while, there’s not much of ‘you’ left.
i) If (or when) you find yourself in a state of overwhelming fear or panic, the simple realisation that you’re panicking is extremely helpful, because it lets you access some higher-brain functions (that is, at least a bit of you is capable of observing what’s going on and intervening). If you’ve been practicing the two strategies above, this will be a bit easier.
ii) Rather than trying to ‘push through’, stop for a minute and try to focus on something (anything) that you can control. A great tip is to squeeze your grips really tightly for a few moments and to focus really hard on that sensation (as opposed to the big sensation of fear or panic). Take a deep breath, loosen your shoulders, and assess your arousal level until it’s back in the orange or green zone. If the fear returns, stop again and repeat as often as required.
iii) Once you can, get moving and past the thing that freaked you out. Don’t try and talk yourself into riding it – now isn’t the time. Instead, flag it for the future, go back to strategy one (above), and practise some skills progression as soon as possible.
iv) Don’t beat yourself up. You can’t control when your survival brain kicks in, you can only reduce the likelihood of it happening, and improving your response when it does. Instead of getting shitty with yourself, help yourself by getting more practice.
Regarding that last point, here’s an important extra tip: most of us can be pretty hard on ourselves after a fear experience. This usually comes out as angry self-talk, alongside frustration with ourselves, and anger at the people around us. This is pretty normal, but it makes things a lot worse, especially around the macho, BS attitude that some riders (especially male) feel they need to take. Keep in mind that the survival brain doesn’t do well with being forced to do something it really doesn’t want to – in fact, that’s a really good way to traumatise yourself and put a much bigger roadblock in the way of future progress. Instead, try being a little bit more compassionate with yourself and others when it activates. After all, it’s only trying to keep you safe when you do something that it thinks is going to kill it!
About the author:
Dr. Jeremy Adams has a PhD in sport psychology, is a registered psychologist, and director of Eclectic Consulting Ltd. He divides his time between mountain biking, working with athletes and other performers, executive coaching, and private practice.
In past lives, Jeremy has been a principal lecturer in sport and performance psychology at a university in London, a senior manager in a large consulting firm in Melbourne, a personal trainer in Paris, and a scuba instructor in Byron Bay. He’s also the author of a textbook on performance in organisational management, a large range of professional and popular articles, and a regular blog about the joys and perils of being human (www.eclectic-moose.com).
Jeremy lives and works in Hobart and can be contacted through his website (www.eclectic-consult.com) or on (03) 9016 0306.