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It’s not just “because it’s there”

Mountaineer George Mallory may have quipped that people climb Everest ‘because it’s there’. In fact, the reasons why people seek extreme sports such as high altitude mountaineering are far more complex. Sport psychologists at Bangor University are recognised world-leaders in establishing the psychological motivations for taking part in extreme sports.

In untangling the complex reasons that drive people to take part in extreme or risky sports or prolonged endurance challenges, it seems that conquering the stress caused by the challenge is more important than the achievement alone because of the emotional gain that it provides.

Dr Tim WoodmanDr Tim Woodman“Mountaineers will often recall how they overcame their fears and anxiety during a particularly challenging expedition rather than recalling how they actually successfully climbed a peak- it seems that summiting the peak is not as important as conquering their own emotions, which are often strong and negative” says Dr Tim Woodman of the School of Sport, Health & Exercise Sciences.

Dr Woodman explains that people who take up extreme sports experience the same intensity of emotions as the general population, but their expectations of life  appear to be higher. As a result, they seek out extreme sport to experience a heightened emotional response.

Research based on extensive interviews and questionnaires conducted by the Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance at the School of Sport, Health & Exercise Sciences, reveals that two elements are involved. One they call ‘emotion regulation’. The paradox is that while most people seek enjoyable emotions, those taking part in extreme sport often seek to experience negative emotion  such as anxiety in order to gain control of that emotion and ultimately to turn the negative emotion into a positive one - with the feelings of euphoria that follow.

The other aspect they describe is ‘agency’. They have established for the first time that people who take up extreme sport do so to make up for a lack of ‘agency’ or influence in other aspects of their lives, such as their emotional partnership. They can gain ‘agency’ or influence in a particular aspect of their lives through their actions in their chosen activity. In other words, people will feel that they can be the driver of emotional experiences in the mountains rather than feel like the passenger of those experiences in everyday life.

Tim Woodman concludes by saying that these types of people are responding to a psychological need, and that they often make good leaders.  “They’re often quite level-headed as you need emotional stability to cope with the pressure that you place yourself under in these extreme situations.”

Publication date: 29 December 2011