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Mind Games: The psychology of fear

  • By Chris Case
  • Published May. 30, 2013
After a bad crash, the doubts linger. How can you overcome the fear? Photos: Scott Mitchell/Getty Images from Velo magazine, December 2012

This should be an easy task for you: Imagine you’re a professional cyclist.

You’ve crested a climb 30 seconds back from the leaders, passed under the KOM arch with screams from the crowd making your arm hair stand on end; you’ve zipped up your jersey and flicked into the big ring. You’re wearing glorified underwear, a high-tech, candy-coated Styrofoam cup on your head, and just 23 millimeters of rubber are pasted to your plastic rims with a bead of glue. Still, you sprint in the drops and over the edge as a light rain starts to fall.

Good luck to you. You’re about to partake in one of the most potentially disastrous athletic pursuits.

The descent. Sixty miles per hour. Tucking, head down, finding the most aero pose, inches from the skin-melting surface of the road below. Heading for corners, pulling on the brakes, which, as you know too well, are actuated by tiny strands of metal, pinched tight (you hope) by nothing more than set screws. Too hot into a corner? Time for the tuck and roll. The slide and the scar. Or the ravine plunge. That is, if you’re lucky.

To describe a professional cyclist (or recreational cyclist for that matter) as “vulnerable” seems shockingly inadequate when you consider just what they put themselves through. But they do it again and again.

We’ve all marveled at the rider who has crashed, has slid across the pavement on a defenseless shield of synthetic fibers, tangled in carbon tubes and rivals’ limbs, who then extracts himself and immediately looks for the team car, hoping a new bike will arrive soon, licking his wounds as he waits. Their anxious body language and gesticulations would seem to indicate they just want to get back on. And more often than not, sometimes against better judgment, they do. But why? Why do they stand and, at least, try to deliver? And how do they overcome “The Fear” that would paralyze any mere mortal?

Life cycle

Sports psychologist Julie Emmerman, who once worked on contract with the Slipstream Sports organization treating riders during training camp through the Tour de France and beyond, believes it’s innate in some riders.

“When you spend that much time on your bike, that’s your safe zone, that’s where you’re comfortable, that’s where you know you’re supposed to be. ‘Like a sailor out to sea,’” Emmerman says. “So if you crash, even though you’re injured and uncomfortable, it is an instinct because you just know that, if you can be on your bike, that things are going to be okay and you can continue to meet the goals that you’ve set out for yourself. There’s definitely a strong sense of personal commitment as well as a commitment to the team goals that help foster that motivation — the thinking at that point isn’t necessarily about the individual who falls.”

Not every crash is so kind, however. There are times when a life is altered entirely by a crash, when riding a bike becomes inconsequential when compared to survival. Traumatic brain injuries and the resulting comas, broken femurs and the subsequent surgical and rehabilitation processes can often mean devastation for a rider and his family and friends. But, time after time, it seems that riding a bike again is just what the victim longs for. It is a return to normalcy, perhaps — a goal that fires their determination and work ethic. Riding a bicycle is what keeps a cyclist’s mind occupied.

“I’m not joking when I say [cycling] is a metaphor for life,” Emmerman says. “You have to do your best to be responsible for the things that you can control — your training, your side of it in all respects — and surrender to the hope that everyone else is doing the same.”

No longer on contract with Slipstream Sports, Emmerman still sees many of the same clients, whether they ride for Garmin-Sharp or have moved on, as well as a number of domestic professionals. She helped Timmy Duggan return from the traumatic brain injury he suffered at the Tour de Georgia in 2008.

“Julie really helped me break down the recovery process into manageable bits,” says Duggan, the reigning national road champion. “I’m used to breaking down a goal in cycling, but with my brain injury, analyzing my thought process before and after, then how to make changes, is a lot more subtle. With a brain injury, you need an educated person with an outside perspective to observe you, because you’re not totally aware of everything yourself.”

Emmerman has helped a number of pros overcome “The Fear.” There is a level of self-doubt that wells up, to a varying degree, in everyone who crashes. Can I come back? Have I lost something? Most talented, driven professional athletes are going to have the drive to come back from a crash. But there will always be a niggling voice in the back of their skulls: Is it going to happen again?

The fear

So what does overcoming “The Fear” entail? How does someone like Emmerman get inside the mind of a fallen athlete, looking to get back to the pinnacle of his or her ability?

“Most athletes tend to look at their thoughts and how they affect their behavior and mood,” she says. “Over time, our brains adapt so that we remember painful things and we know in the future to stay away from them. So it makes sense from an adaptive point of view that when you crash you have an adverse reaction to that. It takes some reworking to train yourself to remember that it’s okay, that it is safe, to have confidence in yourself.”

From the perspective of psychological therapy, that means offering a new set of challenges.

“You work with an athlete by asking him, ‘Well, how many times have you ridden your bike when you didn’t crash? How many times have you done that same descent, even in a race, without a crash?’ You’re challenging the emotional response with more concrete, factual data,” she says. “That person might say, ‘ Yeah, yeah, yeah, but…’ Then you can break it down into pieces and say, ‘Okay, if you crashed when you were descending Flagstaff [in Boulder, Colorado], imagine what you feel like when you’re going through that same turn where you crashed.’ Most athletes are so in tune with their body that they can tell you what they’re experiencing viscerally. You give them tasks in appropriate doses to go out to that same area and rework that. In that regard it’s not that complicated; it’s just time, willingness, and their motivation to get over that fear.”

While Emmerman may make it sound simple, some athletes have a long road in front of them after a severe crash, one where the mental aspect of recovery is as difficult, if not more so, than the physical demands of rehabilitation.

“It’s important to make some quick improvement if you can, because with a brain injury it’s very easy to become frustrated with slow progress and lose faith in your recovery and what you’ll be able to do,” Duggan says. “Wthout Julie, it would have taken incredibly longer.”

Even with those initial improvements, therapy can last years, if not a lifetime.

“That sense of self-doubt needs time to breath. Because if that self-doubt is there, then the slightest hesitation is, sometimes, all it takes for another crash to be caused or that break to be missed,” Emmerman says. “Once a client, always a client. But this isn’t a traditional psychotherapy environment where I’m seeing them once a week for a year. It’s more intermittent. You can give people skills to practice. It’s very important to make the athlete feel his or her sense of empowerment. I have a lot to offer, but that person needs to take it and run with it. I’m not here to foster dependency. Here is a person who is self sufficient, who is extremely powerful in his own right, something has happened like an injury, now let’s supplement the toolbox so he can be on his way.”

The tools on offer are myriad, including imagery techniques, which allow a psychologist to bring the athlete back to the time and place of the incident, in the safety of the office.

Looking inward

But what about the cumulative effects of fear, the fear of fear itself? What happens if someone becomes frustrated, or scared, by the fear responses that they’re having? In that instance, Emmerman relies on a school of thought known as mindfulness theory.

“The mindfulness theory training I give involves teaching people to notice their reactions without such judgment,” she says. “If you can just deal with the feeling that you’re feeling in the moment, and you don’t have to have that secondary, ‘Oh my god, there it is again,’ or ‘ Shit, I’m freaking out again,’ it’s so much easier. If you can notice it, not judge it, not indulge in it, then it helps people because they realize it’s just a feeling, they can stay above it. I often use the analogy of the CNN screen: your goal is in the main screen with Anderson Cooper, and the distractions are the ticker tape underneath. So as you’re approaching the scary descent it might be harder to stay in that main screen because your fear wants to jump down, but if you practice simply noticing that process and recognizing that it’s happening, you can keep things in perspective.”

Ultimately, the work from both therapist and client is what drives the recovery process. But there comes a time when it all comes down to how willing, diligent, and conscientious the athlete can be.

“Sometimes you do just have to tell an athlete, ‘Buck up!’ It’s not all such sophisticated psychology here,” Emmerman says. “Sometimes you do need to say, ‘You’re really not taking responsibility for this and I know that you’ve come to me for help, but you need to — you can insert a number of phrases here — and unless you do, it’s not going to work no matter what I do.’”

An innate ability to surrender, to trust, and to vacate the mind of fear is part of what makes the best cyclists so great. When crashes happen, whether through carelessness or no fault of their own, the best cyclists rely on another part of that professional constitution: their capacity to keep a blue-collar mentality, do their homework on the bike and off, and commit themselves completely to the task of overcoming “The Fear.”

“Crashing is a part of the sport. There is a total acceptance. It’s as much a part of the sport as putting on a chamois,” Emmerman says. “It’s just gonna happen. Of course there’s that reaction of disappointment, anger, but at their level, they automatically start thinking of the best rehab they can get, what they can do, who the best doctors are, and what they need to do to get back on track as fast as possible.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Velo magazine.

FILED UNDER: Sports Psychology / Training Center

Chris Case

Chris Case

In the fluorescent light of a neuroscience laboratory, Chris Case decided the study of photography, film, and journalism might be better suited to his creative passions. In graduate school, he rediscovered the bike, and quickly became enamored with the sport in all its forms — the history, culture, and stories that make it rich, and the places that it took him. He joined Velo magazine as managing editor in 2012 after five years as editor and designer of Trail and Timberline magazine.

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