If you’re BASE jumping, big wave surfing or solo rope free climbing you’re an adrenaline junkie with a death wish. That’s the myth at least – one that has just been debunked by Australian researchers at Queensland University of Technology.
For the study, Co-authors QUT Adjunct Professor Eric Brymer, who is currently based at Leeds Beckett University in the UK, and QUT Professor Robert Schweitzer defined extreme sports were leisure activities in which a mismanaged mistake or accident could result in death.
Professor Brymer said until now there had been a gross misunderstanding of what motivates people to take part in extreme sports, with many writing it off as an activity for adrenalin junkies.
“Our research has shown people who engage in extreme sports are anything but irresponsible risk-takers with a death wish. 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,” he said.
Professor Brymer said the experience is very hard to describe – in the same way that love is hard to describe. It makes you feel very alive where all senses seem to be working better than in everyday life, as if you are transcending everyday ways of being and glimpsing your own potential.
“For example, BASE jumpers talk about being able to see all the colours 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. People talk about time slowing down and merging with nature,” he said.
Professor Schweitzer said understanding motivations for extreme sports were important to understanding humans.
“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,” Professor Schweitzer said.
He said because extreme sports participants found it hard to put their experiences into words, the research project had taken a new approach to understanding the data.
“So rather than a theory based approach which may make judgements 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 the team 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, conceptualise such experiences as potentially representing endeavours 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.”
Professor Schweitzer said extreme sport has the potential to induce “non-ordinary states of consciousness” that are at once powerful and meaningful.
“These experiences enrich the lives of participants and provide a further glimpse into what it means to be human.”