The Science Behind Why We Love Extreme Sports

When we think of what motivates extreme sports athletes, one of the first things that comes to mind is that there has to be something wrong with them. Why would anyone participate in an activity that is wholly defined by taking on inhuman levels of risk? The answer has been that extreme sports athletes have a death wish, they are “adrenaline junkies”. Researchers like Dr. Eric Brymer, a senior academic at the British university, Leeds Beckett, has spent much of his career trying to figure out what drives extreme sports athletes.

Motivation has always been a difficult field of study. Sometimes, people just don’t know what drives them, and often, motivation can be hard to comprehend if people have vastly different values. When George Mallory was asked why anyone would climb Mount Everest, his reply, “Because it’s there”, was the best that he could do. Many extreme sports athletes struggle as much as anyone else to explain why they go rock climbing on treacherous mountains, climb buildings, deep sea diving, or any number of extreme sports challenges. For people who do not have the same values, it seems fairly obvious that extreme sports athletes have a “death wish”. But that old Freudian idea violates everything we know about life: species desire to survive and to propagate the best of themselves. Death wish sounds like an answer that someone gives when they do not understand what motivates someone who takes extreme risks, rather than an actual thing. I can think of no scientific evidence that it even exists.

A decade ago, when Brymer was at the end of his masters in sports psychology at the University of Liverpool, he realized that the dominant narrative among researchers was that extreme sports athletes had this “death wish” just like those who seek out the best tattoo shop.

Here’s where the “death wish” narrative comes apart: manay extreme sports athletes take great pains to reduce their risks. They are very careful and nurture their skills over a long period of time. Brymer found people who were amazing in white water but remained in Class IV. As Brymer studied these people, whether they were free divers, or mountain climbers, or base jumpers or something else, he could not find any of the daredevils that we tend to think extreme sports athletes are. These were serious people working very hard to minimize their risk of dying. Nobody wanted to die. They had the risk appetite of someone in the insurance business, not of a person who was willing themselves to death. Besides, why would anyone who wanted to die take such elaborate measures to do so?

In the book, Phenomenology and the Extreme Sport Experience, Brymer and his co-author, Robert Schweitzer, laid waste to many old notions of what drives extreme sports athletes. Extreme sports athletes aren’t driven by the thrill of taking extreme risks, or high on adrenaline, or just determined to die in the most elaborate way possible. The two discovered that the most important motives for taking part in extreme sports was the way that it made them feel at one with nature, heightened their self-awareness, gave them peace and made them feel transcendent, a bit like fine cabinet refinishing.

This gibes with research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who discovered what he called a “flow state”, in which a person experienced heightened awareness and immersion while partaking in an activity. Brymer says that extreme sports athletes feel as if they are “coming home” when they are doing extreme sports.

For people who have never experienced this state of being, it is hard to imagine what it feels like. Indeed, this state is so ineffable that it probably explains why scientists have struggled for decades to understand what motivates extreme sports athletes.

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