What Motivates Extreme Athletes to Take Huge Risks?

Dean Potter executes a free solo climb and fall with parchute in summer 2008 at Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland.
Dean Potter.Photo: Beat Kammerlander / Barcroft USA / Getty Images

Last weekend, famed extreme athlete Dean Potter, along with fellow climber Graham Hunt, died in a BASE jumping accident as the pair attempted a wingsuit jump off Taft Point, an overlook that towers over Yosemite Valley. And on Monday, a YouTube video surfaced of a 73-year-old BASE jumper named James E. Hickey, who died earlier this month after setting his parachute on fire, in what was supposed to be a stunt. These three deaths seem to confirm the inherently tragic implications of the extreme athlete’s impulsive, thrill-seeking personality – what else could explain a hobby that involves diving 7,500 feet off a cliff (with or without a flaming parachute)? 

These are, after all, truly dangerous pursuits. Wingsuit jumping, for the uninitiated, is a little like transforming yourself into a human flying squirrel: the suit has parachute-like flaps of fabric under the arms and between the legs that allow the wearer to “fly” along with the wind. It’s a form of BASE jumping — BASE standing for building, antenna, span and Earth (as in, the broad categories of very high things from which one can jump) — which is in itself incredibly risky, to phrase it mildly. One recent University of Colorado School of Medicine–led study found, for example, that 72 percent of the 106 BASE jumpers interviewed had witnessed the death or catastrophic injury of a fellow jumper.

So it makes sense to think that people who engage in these activities are taking foolish risks purely for the exhilaration of it all. (Potter himself lost Clif’s sponsorship last year after a documentary showed him taking chances the company wasn’t comfortable with.) But this isn’t an accurate depiction of the individuals Eric Brymer, a psychologist at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, has encountered in more than a decade of studying experienced extreme athletes. On the contrary, Brymer said his work has suggested that many extreme athletes are the opposite of impulsive; not only are they careful and thoughtful planners, but they actually avoid thrill-seekers “like the plague,” he said.

When he began his work, he explained, most of the scientific literature on psychology and extreme sports linked the activity to a certain set of characteristics, “and not very good ones at that — thrill-seeking, hedonism, that they were doing this because they liked risk.” And yet none of these things accurately described the people he’d met at the outdoor adventure company where he worked while in grad school. As he looked into it further, he found that the bulk of the research up to that point had been done on teenagers and young adults, who tend to be high in impulsivity and poor decision-making anyway.

But when he conducted research specifically on experienced extreme-sports enthusiasts, he found little evidence that participants are reckless, or have some kind of Freudian death wish. Instead, Brymer has found that “older” extreme athletes — as in, those who are past their mid-20s — exercise deep care in equal proportion to the high risk involved. “A lot of these people are highly intelligent people, methodological and systematical,” Brymer said. Those he’s interviewed don’t take one spontaneous trip to REI and then sail off a cliff; rather, they spend years studying the environment and the mechanics of, for example, parachutes, before taking any action, “in order to make it as safe as it possibly can be.”

If the approach is more thoughtful for these athletes than the rest of us might suspect, so are the motivations that drive them to extreme sports in the first place. They’re not just seeking an adrenaline rush, he said: rather, what keeps many of them coming back is something akin to the flowlike state achieved through mindful meditation, one in which “you’re so in the moment that everything else drops away,” Brymer said. “You’re focused on the here and now.”

Potter once described it this way to ESPN: “My vision is sharper, and I’m more sensitive to sounds, my sense of balance and the beauty all around me. … Something sparkles in my mind, and then nothing else in life matters,” he said. Athletes interviewed by Brymer have expressed similar sentiments. “The activity itself enables experiences that are beyond the everyday,” he said. “People talk about their senses being alive, about being able to see things much more clearly. It gives them a glimpse of what it means to be human as in the capacities they have that we don’t tap into in everyday life.”

Another common misconception about extreme athletes is that they must have a weaker fear response than the rest of us, who might feel woozy just watching a video of Potter slack-lining in a Yosemite mountain range. “People assume because you’re doing things like base jumping, you have no fear,” Brymer said. “In reality, fear is an important part of the experience.” It isn’t about the absence of fear, or ignoring it when the feeling does creep in — rather, it’s about learning to use that feeling.

People tend to divide emotions into “good” and “bad,” and the unpleasant anxiety of fear means it gets placed in the “bad” category. But that’s probably not the best way to think about the feeling. Fear wakes you up, making you more alert to the potential threats or things that could go wrong — all things that are very useful in a potentially dangerous situation. (Brymer has interviewed BASE jumpers who say they don’t like to jump with people who aren’t afraid.) If, when standing at the edge of a cliff, the jumper gets a little scared, this becomes a time to check in with the prep work: their physical readiness, the environmental conditions, the gear itself. If something isn’t quite right — if the wind isn’t blowing correctly, for instance — the seasoned extreme athlete will pack it in and come back another time.

But if, after ticking through that mental list, everything checks out, it’s time to push past that fear. “There seems to be a link between that experience of fear and being able to move through it with the proper knowledge and expertise and training,” Brymer said. “Instead of fear stopping them, it gets turned into this way of saying, Okay, I need to really pay attention and be serious here.” The presence of fear is, counterintuitively, what ultimately gives them “the ability to move through fear … it’s part of what allows them to have these experiences.”