What Extreme Athletes Can Teach Us About Overcoming Our Fears
The Triple Power of Trust, Preparation, and Mindful Engagement
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At twelve years old, when most girls her age were learning algebra and crushing on the members of NSYNC, Samantha Larson was preparing to conquer a fear that few adults would face: climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. By eighteen, Larson had also successfully climbed each of the Seven Summits, ascending to the tallest peak on each continent and, at the time, becoming the youngest person to achieve the feat.
The first time Larson felt real fear was at the bottom of Kilimanjaro, when she and her father (who completed all of the climbs with her) met a gentleman who had gotten sick because of the change in altitude and couldn’t make it to the summit. He warned them that they, too, would probably struggle. But instead of backing out, Larson committed to pressing forward.
“Fear is such a personal thing, but in a lot of situations, fear is just a reaction of the human brain, which is wired to convince us that what we may want to do is a bad idea,” says Larson. “When we face fear, we have to ask ourselves how badly we want that thing that we’re afraid of, and how can we learn to work through the fear when we feel it.”
Trust in the face of fear
We typically assume that the opposite of fear is courage or bravery. But according to the popular saying, it’s actually trust that arises when fear is absent. And this is certainly the case for professional slackliner Heather Larsen.
Slacklining is the process of walking across a tensioned cord that is suspended between two anchors, similar to a tightrope (but with more slack in the line, hence the sports’ name). So what’s the key differentiator between slacklining and the standard, circus-variety tightrope walking? Some slackliners, also known as highliners, choose to trek across canyons, carefully balancing on lines that are literally hundreds of feet from the ground.
Despite built-in safety mechanisms (participants typically wear a harness with a leash that connects to the line itself) highlining definitely falls on the extreme end of the sports spectrum, with risks that include fractures, sprains, broken bones, and even death. For Larsen, who was introduced to slacklining through climbing, the ability to overcome the fears associated with traversing a 2.5-centimeter wire high above the ground is based on her assurance that she will remain safe even if she falls.
“I trust the gear, my rigging team, and my partners, and I trust my skills and abilities to walk the line,” Larsen explains. “[When I first started highlining], I think I easily trusted my gear because of my familiarity with building climbing anchors in the past, and I trusted my friends because I was aware of their experience. I now also have the knowledge and experience to evaluate my environment and the teams I work with.”
Whether you’re an extreme sports athlete, a newlywed, or a startup entrepreneur, being able to rely on a partner or team to carry part of the burden and minimize some of the risk certainly helps to mitigate fear. But this trust doesn’t develop overnight—nor does it develop without personal effort.
“I am constantly learning from others in the slacklining community; my friend just taught me a new knot that is much easier to check and very clean for rigging highlines,” says Larsen. “I think that in order to develop and maintain trust, you have to be willing to be a student [of your industry] and the groups you work with, as well.”
Preparing for victory
Ultimately, the more you study, the better the perspective you have for your circumstances and the greater the likelihood that you will be able to adequately prepare for what lies ahead. U.S. National and World Champion powerlifter Robert Herbst admits that youthful exuberance may have blinded him to the fact that he could be injured while competing. But with age and a twice dislocated sacrum (due to scoliosis that developed when he was a child), Herbst credits preparation for the confidence he feels each time he hoists a bar—weighing more than triple his own body weight—over his head.