Working With Fear in Our Students


By Michael Smith, Program Director & C.O.O.

If you’ve been reading the newsletter or slack posts so far this month you’ve seen that we’re talking a lot about this concept of optimal experience, or what is commonly referred to as “flow”. Understanding this concept can have a profound impact on our approach to coaching others in outdoor sport (not to mention across our whole lives). The truth though, is that concepts like this often feel like they fail us when facing the reality of an experience. In other words, it’s great to think about putting our students or participants in their sweet spot for learning, but then the moment comes and you’re actually looking at someone who is frustrated, bored, or scared and as the instructor, it can feel really helpless.

Our hope is to move from conceptual to actual and start sharing some ideas for tips and tools that can help you out in the field. This time around, we want to look specifically at how we can work with students learning outdoor sport when they are beyond “flow” and into the realm of fear and anxiety. Before we do, I should say that for me personally, most of what I’ve learned about effective and ineffective approaches has come not from theory, but rather practice over the last 18 years. There really is no better way to figure this stuff out than to just get in there and work with others. That said, it’s worth understanding a little background to support our efforts and observations.

Learning is a neurological process, and without getting bogged down in the science, it’s important to understand that information tied to a strong emotion creates stronger learning. A strong emotional stimulus releases a flood of neurotransmitters and the result is that synapses fire faster and make it easier to commit things to long term memory. Too strong an emotion, though, and stress hormones take over, ultimately inhibiting learning and even damaging neurological structures.  So a learning environment that is too stressful isn’t just creating a negative experience, it’s inhibiting the exact thing we’re trying to accomplish as coaches.

How do we know if someone is “freaking out”?

Before we go any further it’s worth taking a moment to talk about how we know if someone we’re working with is beyond the optimal range for learning and is instead anxious or scared.

Observe - First, it sounds simple but we need to pay attention. Not always, but often, our students display obvious signs of stress. An otherwise talkative person might become very quiet, they might start asking a bunch of questions in an attempt to relieve their growing anxiety, or they might simply say something about being scared. The trick here is that being scared, especially in younger participants, can often present as something else such as indifference, anger, or feeling sick. This is because often they don’t have context for what they’re experiencing, so it gets replaced with

something they do know. When it comes to outdoor sport, not everyone is familiar with what it’s like to try something that feels scary. Biking through the woods, paddling a rapid, or skiing down a hill can carry with them a sense of physical threat that in our typically-comfortable lives we just don’t regularly experience. So the sudden onset stomach ache can feel like a real physical stomach ache to the student, but the cause may be emotional.

Ask - Second, it’s okay to ask our participants if they’re feeling nervous, anxious, or scared. I like to check in with students and find out if the thing we’re doing and the environment we’re in is working for them. Good coaching and teaching doesn’t need to be a magic trick. It’s not something we do to someone, it’s something with do with someone. Dialogue is our friend, and it’s amazing how honest and perceptive even the youngest students can be.

Of course it’s also possible that we know someone is scared because they’re evidently in tears. Obviously we’d love to avoid this, and like to think we wouldn’t ever put someone in that place. The reality is, though, that people of all ages are complex creatures and we all miss things. Sometimes people are really good at hiding their feelings until it just bubbles over. We may be teaching in an environment we assume is totally comfortable, only to later realize that just showing up that day had the student already freaked out.

I can still vividly recall going to my first swimming lessons as a little kid. I was scared to death, and would be almost petrified with fear just sitting in the car on the way to the pool. The instructor literally had to coax me out from behind the bleachers on the pool deck. So while I’m sure his progression of skills was totally appropriate, just being near the water had me too scared to function at first.

(I’m happy to report, by the way, that I got over my fear of the pool and the water…but I’m still a lousy swimmer.)

How can we help our students when they’re scared?

Okay so we’ve got some tools to help us be more vigilant about our participants’ emotional state, but despite our best efforts and awareness we find ourselves working with someone who is scared. Now what? The following isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list, but these ideas have proven useful time and again for us in the field.

Own It – First and foremost, it’s incredibly helpful just to acknowledge what our students are feeling, and make sure they know it’s okay. Fear is one of those emotions that we tend to work really hard to avoid, and understandably so. With fear can also come an unnecessary feeling of shame or embarrassment. We can unintentionally reinforce those feelings when we tell people “you don’t need to be afraid”, as if being afraid is wrong. Instead I like to talk openly about fear, and help people identify when they feel scared, and how much fear can be functional, even useful, versus debilitating. The reality is that fear is a tool we can use, but first we have to welcome it and understand it, not try

to stuff it away. I try to avoid telling people what they should and shouldn’t find scary as a way to put them at ease, and instead help them identify what they do and don’t find scary and why.

Change the Environment – If we think back to our formula for flow, it takes matching opportunity with capacity, or another way to think of it, matching environment with skill. Justin gave the example in this month’s newsletter of a pro skier getting bored on the bunny slope, and a novice getting terrified on a double black diamond trail. If we’re dealing with later, one of the easiest things we can do is seek out a mellower environment. You might think you picked the perfect place to work on downhill step turns on XC skis, but maybe any amount of downhill is too much for one particular person. Can you take them back to the flats and start there?

Simplify the Task – Alternatively can you make the task easier at first? Maybe that downhill is what your student needs, but they should start by sliding with parallel skis, or even sliding on their butt, before trying to step around a corner.

With whitewater kayaking, one of the ways I often simplify the task for a student who is feeling fear is by taking away the paddle and just having them float downstream. You might think that would increase anxiety for someone, and it might if the environment isn’t right. The goal, though, is to bring them back to basics. In this case it’s about taking calm breaths and looking around. The paddle can be a place where new paddlers focus energy and anxiety and in turn make things harder for themselves. By removing it, I’ve simplified what they need to focus on, and in turn it helps them actually find more comfort in their environment. It’s worth noting, though, to do this requires making sure we’ve selected the right environment where a student can just float in the current. If we haven’t, we’ll need to revisit the previous concept above.

Remind Them of Choice – Few things can make a person, of any age, feel more scared and anxious than feeling like they have absolutely no control. If we’re working with someone that can’t seem to get out of the red zone it might be helpful to remind them that they have a choice. They don’t have to do the thing we’re giving them an opportunity to do. This concept is one worth exploring in more detail (popularized and often referred to as “challenge by choice” in experiential education circles). For now though hopefully everyone can get behind the idea that we don’t force people to do things. There’s power in choice, and reminding a student about that can help them make the choice to step back, or make the choice to recommit and work past their fear in that moment.

Take a Break and Come Back Later – As stated earlier, learning is neurological. And neurological processes take energy and can be exhausting. Add in strong emotions and students can get incredibly fatigued. Sometimes the best thing to do is decrease the dosage and give people more time to get comfortable with what they’re experiencing through some recovery and reflection.

What Not To Do?

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the approaches to working with fear that should be avoided. And right up near the top of the list, yet so often used with our closest friends and loved ones is as follows –

“Look it’s easy” – Nothing could be more useless for you as a teacher or your students than telling them something is easy, not hard, or not scary. It’s like getting the age-old worthless advice of “don’t worry about it”. Never in the history of humankind has this advice made someone not worry. Likewise telling a person who is scared or anxious that doing the things they’re scared about is easy, or not to be feared, only discredits what they’re feeling and makes us appear less-than-empathetic. Whatever you think about a specific task or environment is irrelevant, what matters is what’s real for our students.

Push Through It – We’re all familiar with the classic Hollywood storyline of someone overcoming their fear and discovering a personal sense of strength and power. Because we’re all good people, and we care as coaches, we want this so badly for everyone we work with. The problem is that desire of ours can obscure what our participants actually need. We might know there’s positive benefit on the other side of the fear someone is feeling, but it’s not our place to get them there on our time frame. Our job is to support them through their journey on that path. It might take someone five minutes, it might take ten years, and it might never happen. I’ve seen all three. Letting go of the outcomes we so desperately want for students is one of the hardest and most important pieces of being a good coach. As a mentor of mine once said “we can’t be privy to all the learning that occurs”. We might feel like we failed because we didn’t get that student to run the rapid, bike down the trail, or reach the peak, but we may have helped them find profound learning nonetheless. It’s not our place to know.

Don’t Give Up On Someone

If you spend enough time teaching outdoor sport, eventually you’ll come across students that experience fear and anxiety, and struggle to work through it. Sometimes despite our best efforts, even with all the approaches outlined in this piece, it can feel like we’re hitting our heads against a brick wall. It’s easy to think “maybe this sport isn’t for this person”.  The reality is though, only the individual in question can make that call. Not everyone is going to love the outdoor sports we share, and they don’t need to. If someone self-selects out of something like skiing or kayaking because they find it to fear-inducing, that’s okay. The most important thing we can do as coaches, though, is to meet them where they’re at, support them, and help them figure out how far they want to go. It’s too easy to look at someone who appears to be freaked out about an activity and conclude they won’t go far with it.

My first swimming instructor would probably chuckle to know I would eventually spend much of my time in the water, both personally and professionally. Surprised or not, I’m glad he didn’t force me out from behind the bleachers, and I’m glad he didn’t leave me there either.