One January morning last winter, freeskier Shane McConkey stood atop a 200-yard slope near Lake Tahoe's south shore, surveying his line below. At the bottom of the slope was a 420-foot cliff, with a small McConkey-built kicker on its lip. His plan was to strap a parachute to his back, ski the slope, hit the jump, hurtle over the cliff, kick off his skis in midair and yank the ripcord as he fell back to earth.
Renowned as one of the "free-est of freeskiers, McConkey is rarely rattled, but this stunt gave him the willies. Before pushing off, he paused. "When I'm really scared, I'll stop, think the whole thing through, think about the dangers and work it out, he says. "Or maybe I'll think the fear is well-founded, and I'll walk away, he says. In this case, when he contemplated the stunt, his apprehensions dwindled while his focus and confidence grew. "I thought, 'I'm going to stick the snot out of this.' Within seconds, he was flying off the cliff. "It was a pretty sweet feeling, he says. "I couldn't wait to get back up and do it again. I don't attempt something because I like fear, I do it because of how I feel after sticking something that makes me scared.
Whether you're a kamikaze cliff-hucker or a speed-thirsty cruiser, fear is a factor on the slopes. Ignore it, and you'll face consequences: perhaps falling short of your ski potential or suffering an injury from reckless behavior. But if you learn to use fear to your advantage, you'll ski better and enjoy it more. Don't count on guidance from ski schools, though. "The whole psychological world gets ignored in instruction, because it's easier and so much more fun to talk about the technical aspects of skiing, says Mermer Blakeslee, a ski instructor and author of In the Yikes! Zone: A Conversation with Fear.
If an instructor does delve into the mental realm, the goal shouldn't be to eliminate fear, but rather to teach skiers how to manage it. "There's such a fine line between fear and thrill, Blakeslee says. "If you take the fear away, you take the thrill away.
Fear starts in the mind, but its effects radiate throughout the body: Sudden fear shoots a danger signal to your brain's hypothalamus, which in turn stimulates your adrenal glands to produce epinephrine, norepinephrine and hydrocortisone. These hormones trigger a chain reaction designed to help you survive: Your pulse quickens to move more blood to the vital organs, your breathing speeds up to provide more oxygen to the blood, the muscles tense for action, and the mind becomes more attentive. To your body, fear is fear: It responds identically whether you catch a ski-edge, leap out of an airplane or watch a midnight airing of The Shining by yourself in a remote mountain lodge.
How each person handles fear, however, is different. "It can motivate you to act, to run, to fight or even to change your life, says Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University. He calls a person who seeks out the rush of fear—McConkey for example—a thrill-seeking or "Type-T personality. "Everyone shows fear under certain circumstances, but for Type-T's, the thrill comes from overcoming the fear, he says. "Risk-taking is a way of life for them.
On the other end of the spectrum are people overwhelmed by irrational fears. Farley labels them "Type-t (or "Little-t). "Many of them live with an accumulation of little fears that are just paper tigers, he says. They avoid thrills and seek predictability.
Most skiers land somewhere in between the two extremes. Sometimes they forgo the fun of taking risks because of excessive fear. Other times they endanger themselves because they don't heed the messages fear sends. But by following a few basic tips, you can turn fear from foe to friend and learn to—as McConkey so delicately puts it—stick the snot out of what scares you.
EIGHT WAYS TO STOMP FEAR
Analyze it. Does fear cause you to rush or lose your form—or retreat altogether? You first need to understand how fear affects your skiing before you can explore how to deal with it, Blakeslee says.
Take modest steps. "Push your comfort level, suggests Travis Mayer, silver medalist in moguls at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. "Ski terrain that's more challenging each time, but not so challenging that you might not be able to handle it. If you jump into something really scary and you're way over your head, you'll never want to try it again.
Relax. Take some deep breaths from way down in the gut, Farley advises. "It's amazing how this calms you down, and it doesn't take sessions of psychotherapy to know how to do it.
Prepare mentally. Talk yourself through what you're about to do. "Say, 'I've been building up to this moment, I'm in control of my skills, and I want to do this,' Farley says.
Focus on what you can control. "Think about the line you're going to take, your stance and your fundamentals, Mayer says. "If you do, you'll be much more confident.
Think positively. When choosing your line, "look at where you want to go, not where you might end up, says Charlotte Moats, one of the world's top freeskiers. If you think too much about what can go wrong, it's bound to happen.
Know your limits. If your fears are sending loud and clear messages to stop, obey them. In one freeskiing competition a few years ago, Moats quit at the top of a run. "When I got down to my line, I saw that it was all solid blue ice. My fear level was higher than my confidence level, because the conditions were different from what I expected, she says. "I have no regrets that I hiked out.
Don't fear failure. Mayer was 19 and new to the U.S. Ski Team when he competed in Salt Lake. In the moguls finals, he saw fellow competitors vomiting from nerves and fear. "I decided I wouldn't care about failure, he says. "You've got to ski for yourself. You can't please everyone, anyway. The more at ease you are, the better you'll perform.