Are Extreme Sportsmen Special, Different or Just Plain Nuts?!

September 11, 2008

Why do extreme sports action seekers do the (sometimes) crazy things they do? We’ve talked about this before, but the deeper we get into this subject the more it interests us. Just look at the vid on Banana George at the end of this article and you’ll see why the subject never ceases to fascinate…

Are extreme sportsmen special, different, or just plain nuts?

What it is that drives some to embrace extreme risks, while the rest of us scurry for the safety of the sidelines?

Lester Keller, a longtime coach and sports-psychology coordinator for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, says that not everyone has the mental makeup to excel in dangerous pursuits, but others have a much higher tolerance, if not craving, for risk. For example, Keller points to Daron Rahlves, a top U.S. downhill ski racer who spends the summer off-season racing in motocross competitions. “He enjoys the challenge and the risk,” Keller said.

“The high element of risk makes you feel alive, tests what you are made of and how far you can take yourself,” Rahlves said in a previous interview with U.S. Ski Team staff.

“I’m not looking for danger. I’m in it for the challenge, my heart thumping as I finish, the feeling of being alive,” he said. “I definitely get scared on some of the courses. It just makes me fight more. … The hairier the course the better. That’s when I do best.”

The fear that drives many people away from the risks of extreme sports may be the same ingredient that keeps others coming back for more.

According to Chuck Berry – NOT the rock n’ roll singer – but a former aeronautical engineer from New Zealand who is well known for the risks he takes, “There’s a voice on one shoulder going why are you doing this? You’re scared and the other voice is going yeah but I like being scared. And the other voice goes what if your parachute doesn’t open? And this one goes .. it always does.”

Psychologists note that some people seem to have a strong craving for adrenaline rushes as a thrill-seeking behavior or personality trait.

According to scientists, adrenaline is closely linked with dopamine – the neurochemical that makes you feel euphoric – so what we think of as an adrenaline rush is also a dopamine rush. High novelty seekers tend to have low levels of dopamine and what this implies is that people undertake risky or novel type experiences in order to bring up their levels of dopamine.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Erik Monasterio believes that “When you look at the data within the population of extreme sports people there’s a small sub-population who are very, very extreme and I think they’re more likely to have all sorts of psychiatric complications.”

Yet what really astonished Erik was not that a few had signs of madness (!!! – my explanation marks) – but that the rest had signs of surprisingly robust mental health (that’s more like it – me again).

He adds that “almost all of them know at least one person who has died from their involvement in that activity. Despite all this adversity, they persist in their sport and that’s unusual. What that suggests is that extreme sports people are relatively immune to post traumatic stress disorder.”

Berry says “I’ve seen five people die indulging in these sports. And it’s always a sobering thing to see. But I just do my level best not to make those same kinds of mistakes.”

Shane Murphy, a sports psychologist and professor at Western Connecticut State University said the perspective of extreme athletes is very different from our own. “We look at a risky situation and know that if we were in [that situation] we would be out of control,” he said. “But from the [athletes’] perspective, they have a lot of control, and there are a lot of things that they do to minimize risk.”

As mountaineer Al Read, now president of the Exum Mountain guides, a pre-eminent guide service based in Wyoming, is quick to note, climbing and other “dangerous” activities are statistically not as risky as outsiders would assume.

Another key aspect of risk perception may be something referred to as “the flow” or “the zone.” It is a state in which many athletes describe becoming absorbed in pursuits that focus the mind completely on the present.

“Something that makes you begin climbing, perhaps, is that your adrenaline flows and you become very concentrated on what you’re doing,” Read said. “After it’s over there’s exhilaration. You wouldn’t have that same feeling if the risk hadn’t been there.”

People of different skill levels experience “flow” at different times. As a result, some may always be driven to adventures that others consider extreme.

Zorpette, who has written a book on the subject ‘Extreme Sports, Sensation Seeking and the Brain’ recounts on one of his own more extreme experiences and the euphoria he got from it. “I glanced at my depth gauge, saw that it read 200 feet (61 meters) and grinned. Breathing a mixture of helium, oxygen and nitrogen from two of the four large tanks strapped to my body, I was beyond the depths that could be visited safely with ordinary scuba equipment and techniques. I was oddly, ineffably elated.”

Here’s the promised video of Banana George – bear in mind he is 93 years old.

… well that’s a disappointment, I can only find an AOL and a Yahoo video of Banana George and I cannot get either to work here, but type in ‘banana george – 93yr old extreme sportsman’, into google and up it will come…

So, a last defining quote on why thrill seekers DO IT: “Oh yeah, it’s a rush. It’s one of those moments in life where whether you live or die is in your hands and when that is at stake there’s nothing else that’s anything like it,” Chuck Berry.



  1. […] unknown . Excerpt: Why do extreme sports action seekers do the (sometimes) crazy things they do? We’ve talked about this before, but the deeper we get into this subject the more it interests us. Just look at the vid on Banana George at the end of this … […]

  2. Thanks for the information…I bookmarked your site, and I appreciate your time and effort to make your blog a success!

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