This is a subject I love talking to the kids about when I’m invited to speak at school events and sport’s awards evenings (yes it happens) etc. I’ve done my best to distil my usually ad-libbed waffle into a coherent piece of writing that I hope provides you with interesting and useful insights.
Getting over fear yielded medals for these athletes. Igls, Innsbruck was the scene of my first ever bobsleigh experience where, because it scared the shit out of me, I considered quitting after my first run. 3 years later, I took a 2-man GB record silver medal with Brad Hall.
Be Afraid, Darwin Said So. Evolution And That.
At times, we all avoid the stuff that scares us. That’s pretty normal. We’ve evolved with a fear response to those things we perceive as dangerous. Charles Darwin concluded that we evolved this response to survive. He’s on the British £10 note, so he’s probably not far off the mark.
Our smarter ancestors who decided not to play baseball with venomous snakes or cliff dive onto solid ground passed on their survival instincts and thus we evolved to feel rational responses to perceived danger.
The context I’m going to discuss is less through the lens of genuine life or death examples like the silly ones above, however.
I’m going to talk about it from a, ‘what the hell am I going to do with my life’, or ‘why am I back at the top of bobsleigh track’, sort of example.
This, for many of us, can still be every bit as paralysing as a Jeep Wrangler barrel-rolling towards our picnic.
Good for you, I’m not. Bobsleigh taught me that.
For the longest time this sport scared me. Genuinely. Anyone that says the sport doesn’t scare them, even occasionally, is either heavily experienced with no nerve-endings left, Friedrich is their pilot, they haven’t slid Whistler or they’re lying.
I don’t judge anyone who comes into this sport and admits they’re frightened. I would much prefer knowing where my teammate’s head is at so I can help to reassure them.
This being a preferred alternative to them ‘sandbagging’ (bobsleigh term for a poor push performance), or acting negatively because they feel anxious and alone with their fears.
Having said all that, I am now at a stage where I’m used to the process and the bump and smash.
I’m happy to be thrown in as the ‘potato sack’, to take the big hits whilst the pilots relearn an old track or get to grips with one they’ve not been to before.
I used to do this anyway - I just wasn’t happy about it.
Now I accept that this is all a part of this particular game.
But when I started, the sport genuinely frightened me.
Largely because I had no frame of reference for what might happen if we crashed. I was balancing an already precarious sprinting career - what if I broke my leg? What if I broke something else?
The whole point of getting into bobsleigh initially was to give me a new focus for the winter, some confidence representing my country again and a bit of a turbo-boost back into sprinting for the summer.
In the end, ironically, it was sprinting that always injured me. Bobsleigh beats the shit out of you, but it’s different.
Ok, Bring It Back.
So yes, fear.
It always makes me laugh, the marketing campaigns and the best-intentioned coaches and parents who tell their charges to ‘be fearless’.
It rolls off the tongue I guess and sounds punchy and inspirational. There was even that brand who capitalised on this mentality, ‘No Fear’ (are they still around? Sweet skater belts.)
But when you dig into it a little bit, where’s the reward in being fearless?
There’s nothing impressive in doing the things that don’t frighten us. Emptying the dishwasher and wiping your arse, (for most of us), are not Insta-worthy achievements to show the world.
To feel fear, to be genuinely frightened of the task ahead requires one separating force.
Still Innsbruck I think, maybe La Plagne. Either way this is a typical bobsledders view - not bad
Courage. Mut. Drosme. 勇気. мужество. 勇气.
To feel fear and approach the insurmountable hurdle, to dig deep and get over it, requires bravery. You have to be brave to get things done in this world.
We’re all sitting at home right now struggling to comprehend the future. For one, what the hell is it going to look like?
Plus all those goals we had in mind for the year 2020 (it’s gonna be my year, ‘yaas queen’ and all that), are on hold.
But that doesn’t mean it ain’t gonna happen.
I’m endeavouring - with every fibre of my being - not to devolve into clichés. I will, however, reluctantly use one - ‘the destination hasn’t changed, just the route.’
In a sporting context, for us winter sportspeople at least, the destination remains the Olympic Games in Beijing 2022.
We might not be able to train as we normally would at this stage, but we still have time.
Spare a thought for the elder, summer athlete who was looking to end their career at Tokyo 2020 and now has to hold on for another year to realise their sporting swan song.
It’s a scary prospect having everything you’ve worked for suddenly pulled from you. But we have to control the controllables and let go of what we can't. Stay as healthy as possible, eat well, train the best we can within our current limitations, and not worry too much about the future.
Be like Buddha
Live in the now, be present and all that Zen stuff.
If you’re fortunate enough not to have been affected personally by the virus that locked down the globe (still feels like we’re living in a movie writing that sort of thing!), then be grateful for what you have.
If you have been affected, then my deepest condolences. I have competed and trained carrying the weight of personal trauma and felt all the conflicting feelings therein.
Back in the summer of 2011 (my first competitive season), my mother was on her deathbed with sepsis from clinical negligence. During a major surgery, her doctor had unknowingly perforated her bowel.
How the old crone survived is a miracle, but at the time I struggled with justifying competing while she spent months fighting for her life in intensive care.
In the end I was lucky that she pulled through to tell me that regardless of what happened to her, she would never have wanted me to give up what I was working so hard for.
We laugh about it now but at the time it was stressful.
That’s not 100% true actually, we laughed about it then too. When she was out of intensive care on the regular ward, the poor woman was emaciated and needed a zimmer frame to get to the toilet.
On one occasion, as she shuffled along, we made eye contact and both cracked up laughing. It was something about the fact that it was absolutely NOT funny what she had been through, combined with the, frankly funny, image of her rattling along with a zimmer frame. My mum and I have always been on the same wavelength in that respect. My brother on the other hand was not pleased, “I don’t know why you’re laughing, I don’t find it funny at all.” Which made us laugh harder.
As any of you who are engaging with my content are beginning to learn, I digress a lot.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that we all experience innumerable and varied difficulties in our lives.
Whether carrying the personal trauma of a bereavement or sick relative, the pressure of making company decisions that affect hundreds of jobs, starting a new business or carrying the fear of having committed to a sport that makes you extremely uncomfortable (there we go, back to bobsleigh), we all have the capability to draw upon our courage to overcome.
Through thoughtful planning, talking to our support networks and digging deep, we can achieve more than we know, not just in spite of our difficult circumstances or fears, but through them, because of them.
It feels like stating the obvious, but perseverance through fear and suffering make our achievements infinitely more valuable.
So I’ll say it one more time for clarity, if you’re uncertain and doubting the path ahead:
Don’t be fearless - be brave.
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