Working With Our Fear


By Mike Smith, OSI Executive Director

If you’ve spent any time around us as coaches, you know we like to talk about optimal experience, or what is commonly referred to as “flow.” Understanding this concept can have a profound impact on our approach to outdoor sport and our entire 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 being in our sweet spot for learning, but then the moment comes and you’re actually frustrated, bored, or scared and it can feel really helpless.

This week we want to go from concept to action and start sharing some ideas for tips and tools that can help you find your flow. Specifically, in this post we want to look at what we can do when we are beyond “flow” and into the realm of fear and anxiety. Before we do it’s worth understanding a little more about the learning process.

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, like when we cross from flow into fear, 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 actually working against us.

How do we know if we are “freaking out”?

Before we go any further it’s worth taking a moment to talk about how we know if we’re scared. That seems obvious right? Not always…

Observe - First, it sounds simple but we need to pay attention. Not always, but often we display obvious signs of stress without being aware of it. Perhaps we become very talkative, or very quiet. We might start asking a bunch of questions in an attempt to relieve our growing anxiety, or we might check out. Simply paying attention to our breath can tell us a lot about how we’re actually feeling. Are our breaths suddenly shorter and shallower? Are we maybe not even breathing at all? These are natural signs of stress or even anxiety from our nervous system that we might not even be aware of.

The trick here is that being scared, especially in a new environment, can often present as something else such as indifference, agitation, or feeling sick. This is because we might not have any context for what we’re experiencing, so it gets replaced with something we 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 it 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 us, but the cause may be emotional.

Check In With Yourself - Second, it’s okay to ask ourselves if we’re feeling nervous, anxious, or scared. Taking a moment to develop some self-awareness can be hugely beneficial.

Of course it’s also possible that we know we’re scared, especially if we’re petrified or in tears. Obviously we’d love to avoid this, and like to think we wouldn’t ever be in that place. The reality is, though, that we are complex creatures and we don’t always know what is going to set us off. Sometimes we can hide our feelings, even from ourselves, until it just bubbles over. We may think we’re 100% okay, only to later realize that just showing up that day had us near redline.

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 ourselves when we’re scared?

Okay so we’ve got some tools to help us be more vigilant about our emotional state, but despite our best efforts and awareness we find ourselves scared. Now what?

Own It – First and foremost, it’s incredibly helpful just to acknowledge what we are feeling, and make it 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’re told “you don’t need to be afraid”, as if being afraid is wrong. Instead I like to talk openly about fear, and identify when I 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 – In our formula for flow, it takes matching opportunity with capacity, or another way to think of it, matching environment with skill. You’ve probably heard the example 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 where you’re at. Can you take it back to the flats and start there?

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

With whitewater kayaking, one of the ways I often simplify the task for someone 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 just focus on 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 the environment. It’s worth noting, though, to do this requires making sure we’ve selected the right environment where a person can just float in the current. If we haven’t, we’ll need to revisit the previous concept above.

Remember, You Have a Choice – Few things can make us feel more scared and anxious than feeling like we have absolutely no control. If we’re in the red zone it might be helpful to remember that we have a choice. We don’t have to do the thing we’re attempting right at this moment. There’s power in choice, and reminding ourselves about that can help us make the choice to step back, or make the choice to recommit and work past our 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 we can get incredibly fatigued. Sometimes the best thing to do is decrease the dosage and give ourselves more time to get comfortable with what we’re experiencing.

What Not To Do?

This discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the approaches to working with fear that should be avoided.

Operate Scared – We’re all familiar with the classic Hollywood storyline of someone overcoming their fear and discovering a personal sense of strength and power. We may want this for ourselves, but the problem is that desire of ours can obscure what we actually need to be successful. We might know there’s positive benefit on the other side of the fear we are feeling, but forcing ourselves to do something when we can’t focus and perform well isn’t the answer.  All this does is reinforce a physical and emotional pattern where we equate being freaked out with performing. Instead we want to be able to focus and relax to find our best performance.

I might be nervous looking at a line I’m about to paddle, ski, or bike, but those nerves should fade away the moment I make my first move. If they don’t, I’m dealing with too much fear, and it’s not a productive space to improve in.  This is a difficult yet critical lesson to learn as we progress as athletes.

Do It For The Social Media Post – This goes right along with operating scared. It’s worth mentioning though that the boost of energy or motivation you might get from thinking about how cool something will look online doesn’t actually override your fear. So again, if you can’t find focus and relax into the task you’re performing, you’re not reinforcing a physical and emotional pattern that will help you improve. And no amount of likes or comments is going to help you perform the way you want.

Don’t Give Up On Yourself – If you spend enough time learning outdoor sports, eventually you’ll 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 me”.  The reality is you might not decide to pursue every sport you try, and you don’t need to. The most important thing we can do for ourselves though, is to be honest about where we’re at, be patient with our progress, and be okay with stepping down a notch or two if we’re dealing with too much fear.

It’s easy to be freaked out about an activity and decide we won’t go far with it. The real fun starts, though, when we discover our fear and lean into it.

Team OSIAmy Falcione