The truth about extreme sports – or is it?

January 5, 2009

If you do them well you are rewarded with the extreme rush that comes with extreme sports. An element of danger is all part of the game. The desire, the need, to challenge yourself to the limit is all part of the ‘game’.

Take free skiier Jarret Thomas for example. He is part of the younger generation who perform manoeuvers that their parents never dreamed of trying. As an amateur athlete, he isn’t paid to risk his life and most of the time only his friends are there to witness his daring tricks. But it’s not money or recognition that drives Thomas to try these dangerous stunts… it’s his passion for skiing and the natural high that comes from landing a big trick.

Like most extreme athletes, Thomas doesn’t ride the mountains alone. Instead he rides with a band of ski brothers, a motley crew of like-minded souls. The friendship among riders is part of the ski and snowboard culture that has quietly flourished for years.

“You want to be free when you’re doing it, says Dyland Wenzlau, the filmmaker of their crew. “You don’t want to follow directions from someone else telling you how to ski well. Everyone has their own style in freestyle skiing, that’s what makes it free style. That’s how we see all these new cool styles coming out,”.

This is the same for whichever extreme sport you take part in.

Take Ingrid Schroeder for example. By day she is a dedicated federal government worker, but in her own time… a passionate sky diver. “The minute that I’m out in the air, it’s just this crazy adrenaline rush. It feels good and you just feel like this freedom, and you feel like you’re flying,” she says.

Sports psychologists say that people who take part in extreme activities often have type-T personalities, which means they can display youthful and even rebellious attitudes that draw them to activities that involve individual expression and creativity.

“We are not superhuman. We are like everybody else, but you have to dig deep inside you. It’s there, bring it out,” says Dr. Farouk El-Kassed who runs ultra-marathons — races that can last up to a week and cover more than 300 miles. “You’re in touch with yourself. You’re in touch with your inner soul when you do these races. Dirt, and sky, trees and nothing else,” he said.

So what is it that pushes some to push themselves further than others?

“There’s an innate characteristic in some people,” says Justin Anderson, PsyD, a sports consultant for the Center for Sports Psychology in Denton, Texas. “Some people are turned on by that stuff; they get a lot of adrenaline by it, and they gravitate toward activities that give them that feeling. For some it’s jumping out of airplanes, for others it’s climbing Mt. Everest, and for others, it’s the Ironman. When they find that sport or activity that gives them that feeling, they say there is nothing better.”

What is it that makes a person push themselves beyond the limits?

Researchers suggest that the primary difference between extreme sports athletes and ‘ordinary’ athletes is that the goal was key, and competition was the second factor. The goal, whether it be crossing the finish line after a grueling triathlon or reaching the 29,035-foot peak of the highest mountain in the world, is the Holy Grail; accomplishing it with a competitive edge is what this small and elite group of people seek out.

It’s also knowing that you are one of very few who have dared to dream — and achieved that dream.

The adrenaline factor also plays a role in explaining why athletes reach for the outer limits.

An “adrenaline rush” occurs when the adrenal gland is stimulated through an activity that causes stress on the body, and certainly extreme sports, such as backcountry snowboarding and bungee jumping, fall into the category of causing stress.  For extreme athletes, this adrenaline rush is a feeling that can’t come often enough.

But why do extreme athletes always need to push it to the next level? Why are they never satisfied?

“Extreme athletes say that it’s the law of diminishing returns. Reaching the same goal over and over doesn’t bring the same amount of excitement as it did the first time, so they want to push the envelope and go for the next big goal.” says Anderson.

Take free diving, for example, explains Anderson. “People who free dive with no oxygen tank are always pushing deeper and deeper into the ocean with just one breath,” he says. “They’re never satisfied with their last dive.”

It’s the risk that is appealing, and the riskier, the better.

Now, I’m not a sports consultant, a psychologist or anything fancy like that – but I am uneasy with some of the information I’ve acquired here, particularly  “it’s the risk that is appealing, and the riskier, the better”… for I have spoken to, and been in communication with, many extreme athletes now, and they are not fools. I have the strong impression that although they are pushing themselves to the limit, they are certainly not going to, unnecessarily,  push themselves through death’s door. Correct me if I’m wrong please! To have used free diving as an example is, in my opinion, not a good one. Now if one was talking about basejumping or wingsuit flying I might be more in agreement with the above statement – again, my personal opinion!

“The mentality is that people who are drawn to extreme sports are risk takers,” says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in Beverly Hills, Calif., who was a member of the 1984 exhibition Olympic team in gymnastics. “It’s that they love to push themselves to the limit — physically, emotionally, and in every way possible.”

There is always another goal to be set and reached, and the bar just keeps inching upward.

“Each time they have a success they want to push themselves farther. Any great athlete tends to do that, but this is especially true in extreme sports,” says Berman. “Once they accomplish something, they will start to lose the rush, so they have to push themselves harder and set the bar higher.”



  1. Hi,

    They way you are describing freediving here is not the way any of the freedivers I know looks at the sport. Freediving is not about pushing as deep as you can. It is all about finding relaxation within yourself so you don’t have to push. It is the opposite of the adrenaline sports!


    • I quite agree Eric, which is why I put that last paragraph in. I took all the information from several learned discourses, but I was not completely in agreement with them. I have been in constant contact with a free diver in New Zealand and I know he would heartily disapprove of that statement too. I know what I’ll do, I’ll put that last paragraph back where I initially had it … just under the free diving comment. thanks for contacting me.

  2. Seems there’s a lot of very learned people here writing about a mentality that they don’t have themselves and not quite understanding it as well as they think they do. It’s like getting someone with vertigo to describe what a tree surgeon’s job entails!

    Also it seems, however much I read in discourses like these about Extreme Sports participants and the like, they never really get around to being able to say much anyway; the discussions spinning around increasing the ‘risk’ of activities to keep them being enjoyable, a little bit of creativity discussed …

    Like I say, I just don’t think you can write at length about the matter too well if you don’t understand it first-hand, with the free-diving, ignorant reference backing this up.

  3. I think you are right on the money regarding the freediver in New Zealand *wink*!!! and I agree Eric, it is about personal discovery, relaxation and the ability to push your own limits, but no one, and I really do mean no one in the freediving community intentionally pushes so hard they wont be able to dive again.

    I think its true that free divers are challenged by their own achievements and look to achieve and surpass their goals, and this is true of most people, not just extreme sports people.

    I also think that Free divers are generally HAPPY with their last dive, or their best dive, it is not that we are unhappy with our dives that we want to go further, deeper or longer, its because we have achieved a goal, and have now refocused, it is this mentality that sees new world records achieved across all sports, extreme or not.

    Did you know that there have been more men walk on the moon, than there have been deaths of competitive free divers in world history, you would expect a higher mortality rate if free divers were obsessed by the risk like Anderson and Berman would like to have us think.

    • Brilliant comment Joy, thank you.

  4. Loved your analogy l’il Pete: it’s like getting someone with vertigo to describe what a tree surgeon’s job entails! Very true.

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