A little on fear
Today, let's talk about fears.
In this post, we will do over a general overview of fear, highlight how fear can affect us, some strategies to help overcome fear (particularly in the context of parkour.)
Fear is common to us all; we all have various fears that can affect us in a whole spectrum of reactions. Many of us see fear through a negative lens, or as something that we should try to avoid. We shouldn't seek to avoid fear, but rather embrace it, and use fear to seek improvement
Fear is an experience that we share with many beings. In nature, fear is a survival mechanism. In humans, it can be much more complex. Fear can be caused by life-threatening situations, or by situations where we are at the edge of our comfort zone. Experiences of fear can be amplified by self-doubt, imagination or even social and cultural influences. As we have evolved, fear has been useful to keep us alive. Today that same primal system remains with us in our modern lives, as sometimes limits us in our actions or ambitions.
Events that trigger fear enter through various sensory systems into the brain, and this information is then split into two paths. One feeds into consciousness, where we can observe and remember it. The other flows through the subconscious or into automatic responses.
We can see an example of this automatic response during a stack or bail in parkour, or any situation where a person falls, slips or screws up a movement. Through reflex, the person can adapt while falling to save themselves from becoming seriously injured. “I did it without thinking.”
It takes an estimated half a second for awareness of an outside event to enter the conscious mind.
According to neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, the part of the brain dealing with fear (the pathways of the amygdala) can receive sensory signals from the eyes and ears in just twelve-thousandths of a second.
When in fear, the brain releases a bunch of chemicals, such as norepinephrine and epinephrine, which are types of adrenaline. These chemicals, along with other body responses, make the mind alert and active, when attention is essential.
This focus is essential for training, and reducing risk of injury. If you are more focused on what you are doing, then more attention is being paid to the fine details of the movement.
Have you ever been in a situation (while training or otherwise) where you were scared but did the movement or action anyway? Unless you are super new to parkour/ life, you have likely been in this situation. Think back on that moment. I would take a guess that leading up to doing it, you were very focused.
Now, let's look at the other end of the spectrum. If a person is too relaxed, or has too little fear, this can lead to a lack of focus and increased risk of injuries. Fear can help give us focus and concentration.
The experience of time seeming to slow down time is one the most striking effects of fear, and one very commonly reported from people who experience mild to severe fear. Any parkour practitioner can relate to this feeling: when attempting something that is causing fear, time can sometimes appear to slow right down. What is actually happening is, due to the adrenaline and other chemicals coursing through the body, the brain creates a more detailed memory of the event, meaning reaction times are quicker and (again) focus is heightened.
Fear is with us always, in training and in everyday life. We are all afraid of things; some we are not even consciously aware of. Being completely without fear is not realistic, or even desirable, given the uses and benefits. Being aware of your fears, and how they affect you, is important to the process of overcoming them.
Overcoming fear is similar to many other aspects of training. If you are thoughtful, patient and committed to progress you can find a way to train through fear. Here are four approaches to fear that may be helpful for you, alone or in combination with others.
1. Conditioning, or "I have done this before I can do it again"
One technique to overcome a fear of a particular jump or movement is to believe in your previous training. Through conditioning, and repetitive practice of a movement, your understanding of that movement improves, and the movement patterns associated with it become familiar to the brain and body.
So when you come to a challenge that scares you, think back on past training of similar movement or on comparable obstacles. This process can help you realise how similar the current challenge (which is scary) is to a previous challenge (which you overcame!) You have already done it, therefore can do it again.
If you are thinking to yourself "What if I haven't practised this technique or faced this particular fear before? No need to stress.
2. Break it down into components (and go slow!)
By simplifying the needed actions, and going slower, we can gain a better understanding of our own capabilities, and so gain confidence. The scary thing becomes less scary.
An example here is a cat pass. Many people can be scared of cat passes when starting out; scared of catching their feet, or landing badly, or even scared in an inexplicable way. In that case, try to break down the technique into its component parts. This could mean trying the movement on the ground (as a kind of quadrupedal movement) or on a lower obstacle, which removes the fear of falling. Or it could mean breaking down the movements into smaller pieces, maybe working on the jump up (monkey up), and simply trying to push the feet a little further each time.
3. Visualise (or Make a mental picture)
Visualising is a process of creating a mental image of what you want to achieve, in as much detail as you can: going through each step you need to take and imagining the end result as you want to see it unfold. This technique improves focus, and getting a person mentally prepared for activity.
Visualising alone can have beneficial effects on attention, perception, motor control and memory. Mental imagery can even have similar effects on the brain and body as physical actions. The more vividly you visualise; imagining the sights, feelings, sounds and actions; the higher the benefits of this approach.
4. Support network (or Bring your friends!)
Having someone to train with, or to spot you while attempting something, scary can help improve your confidence. Having someone around to encourage you, or talk through the process, or to be there just for support, can help with processing the fear of the movement.
There are many more approaches and techniques for overcoming fear. Training parkour itself can help put many fears (from other areas of our lives) into perspective. By looking at fear in a different light, or as a challenge to overcome, we can train to get through fear to help us progress.
For further reading on the subject, Parkour Generations has an excellent article on moving through fear. This article was part of my inspiration to write about fear. I highly recommend reading if you haven’t already
Main sources for additional information
Fear, Psychology Today
How Fear Works, How Stuff Works
The Psychology of Fear, verywellmind
Class 23: Fear, Meditation Visualisation Techniques for Athletes, verywellfit
Sports Visualisation: the secret weapon of athletes, Peak Performance Sports
Seeing is believing: the power of visualisation, Psychology Today