New research debunks the myth that those who participate in extreme sports are adrenaline junkies with a death wish.
Instead, researchers at Queensland University of Technology say that those who participate in extreme sports do it to have an experience that is life-changing.
In extreme sports, such as BASE jumping, big wave surfing, and solo free climbing, one mistake can lead to death. Even so, their popularity is surging.
“Extreme sports have developed into a worldwide phenomenon and we are witnessing an unprecedented interest in and engagement with these activities,” said Dr. Eric Brymer, an adjunct professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, currently based at Leeds Beckett University in the UK.
“While participant numbers in many traditional team and individual sports such as golf, basketball, and racket sports seem to have declined over the past decade, participant numbers in extreme sports have surged, making it a multimillion dollar industry.”
He says that, until now, there has been a gross misunderstanding of what motivates people to take part in extreme sports.
“Our research has shown people who engage in extreme sports are anything but irresponsible risk-takers with a death wish,” he said. “They are highly trained individuals with a deep knowledge of themselves, the activity and the environment who do it to have an experience that is life-enhancing and life-changing.”
“The experience is very hard to describe in the same way that love is hard to describe,” he continued. “It makes the participant feel very alive where all senses seem to be working better than in everyday life, as if the participant is transcending everyday ways of being and glimpsing their own potential.”
“For example, BASE jumpers talk about being able to see all the colors and nooks and crannies of the rock as they zoom past at 300km/h, or extreme climbers feel like they are floating and dancing with the rock,” he explained. “People talk about time slowing down and merging with nature.”
Understanding the motivations for extreme sports is important to understanding humans, according to QUT Professor Robert Schweitzer.
“Far from the traditional risk-focused assumptions, extreme sports participation facilitates more positive psychological experiences and express human values such as humility, harmony, creativity, spirituality, and a vital sense of self that enriches everyday life,” he said.
He added that because extreme sports participants found it hard to put their experiences into words, the researchers had to take a new approach to understanding the data.
“Rather than a theory-based approach which may make judgments that don’t reflect the lived experience of extreme sports participants, we took a phenomenological approach to ensure we went in with an open mind,” he said. “This allowed us to focus on the lived experience of extreme sport with the goal of explaining themes that are consistent with participants’ experience.”
“By doing this we were able to, for the first time, conceptualize such experiences as potentially representing endeavors at the extreme end of human agency, that is making choices to engage in activity which may in certain circumstances lead to death,” he said. “However, such experiences have been shown to be affirmative of life and the potential for transformation.”
Extreme sports have the potential to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness that are at once powerful and meaningful, according to the researchers.
“These experiences enrich the lives of participants and provide a further glimpse into what it means to be human,” Schweitzer said.
The study was published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research and Practice.