Niyati Sinojiya

 SY Bsc

Growing up, I always loved watching sports with my mother on the television. The joy of watching my mom scream and shout with all the ups and downs of the game and being amazed as she went crazy over the winners, made every match an unforgettable experience.However, we only watched racquet sports. Both of us share a strong dislike towards contact sports and extreme sports due to their sheer “violent” nature.  Our logic, I guess was , when there are so many sports in the world, why would you choose to get yourself punched in the face or jump off a cliff just to win a medal?

So recently, when I was trying to be more experimental with my Netflix viewing choices, I watched a documentary the other day titled ‘The Deepest Breath’. It is about freediving, and trust me, it made for quite a terrifying yet exhilarating watch. Now, imagine being in that athlete’s place, as most fans do in the case of other sports like cricket and football. Watching this documentary got me thinking about the psyche of these athletes and why people choose to participate in such highly fatal and high-stakes sports.

Well, initially, I thought it was just about the adrenaline rush.But I soon came to the realization that “adrenaline” is a very shallow reason often used to back much more meaningful motives of the athlete to engage in such a sport. It means much more to the athletes than just adrenaline.

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For Johanna Nordblad, an ice swimmer and a record holder, it is a way of getting away from all the negativity associated with the life they live above the surface. To them, swimming in ice-cold water feels like being one with nature. The water is like their gateway to a beautiful place, where time stands still.  It is a form of escapism. There is a deep sense of acceptance that rushes through them when the freezing cold water touches their body. And yes, it does hurt, but the acceptance and observation of the way the body reacts to the pain brings out a natural feeling of goodness. Unlike ordinary people, ice swimmers don’t fight the piercing cold water that feels like pins and needles on their skin; they simply accept it.

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Natalia Molchanova was a Russian free diver. They in fact have been  regarded as the world’s greatest free diver, having held 41 world records and won 23 gold medals during her career. They were reported missing in 2015 after giving a private diving lesson and have since been presumed dead.

You would imagine people like Natalia to be highly goal-oriented. Surprisingly, they had a very different approach to freediving. Freediving, to them, was no less than a spiritual practice. They used the technique of deconcentration of attention to help themself and others perform well, both psychologically and physically, even under the extreme pressure of both, the ocean and the spectators watching them.

Deconcentration of attention is a visualization technique used by freedivers to broaden their awareness and sharpen the mind. It is practiced by keeping the eyes left half open to get a blurry image of the things in your periphery. This is done because if the eyes are left wide open and focused only on the object in front of you, it will disrupt the relaxation process by taking away the focus from breathing. And if the eyes are entirely shut, it will relax the mind for the time being but will lead to panic, because of lack of awareness, once the eyes are opened for the actual dive.

Here is a picture depicting what this technique teaches.

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So, imagine you are driving a car, if you only look at the vehicle in front of you, you are bound to get into an accident. This technique helps in being aware of what is happening around you and gives you a better picture of your periphery and the world around you.  

According to Natalia, this technique helped them see the competition, not as the main goal of their life, but as something minimal compared to life itself. Their mindset was, “It is okay if you lose, so what? It is just a competition.” 

Going in a state of panic deep under water would mean that the mind would send signals to the body that it is under stress and the body would react by increasing the heart rate and tensioning the muscles  which could further lead to a blackout. The method of deconcentration of attention would help them in reducing the psychological pressure that comes with being involved in a sport so mentally taxing and physically demanding. 

Here is one of Natalie’s poems describing how they felt while diving deep into the sea-

“The silence of eternal dark,
And the infinity.
I went beyond the time,
Time poured into me
And we became
I lost my body in the waves
… Becoming like its blue abyss
And touching on the oceanic secret.”

My interpretation of what Natalie feels and expresses through this poem is that when they dived and held their breath deep under water, their mind was free from all the clutter and devoid of any thoughts. It was just them in the midst of the vast ocean and nothing else. 

Alex Honnold is an American free solo rock climber. They free soloed the gigantic vertical wall of  3000ft known to us as El Capitan located in Yosemite National Park, California. To them, free soloing is about pushing their limits and fulfilling their curiosity about the unknown.They get a deep sense of satisfaction from taking on a really big challenge and then making it happen. But it doesn’t always happen so easily, does it?. There is a lot that goes into the preparation for a free solo. It is more of a mental summit than a physical one.

Imagine yourself climbing one of those rock huge climbing walls in parks without a rope hooked on to you. Would you dare to free solo it? I wouldn’t. The fear of falling would definitely get to me.

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Now imagine doing it without a safety harness on a cliff like the one you see in the photo above.

The way Alex sees this fear is very different from how you and  I would see it. They don’t combat this fear (which I probably would by running away), they simply reframe and shift it to excitement. They don’t fight the negative thoughts; instead, they think through them ahead of time. This is particularly helpful and better than encountering these thoughts for the first time, while actually climbing and then being unable to handle the thought rationally. For example, the thought of their shoe slipping coming to them before the climb is good so that they can mentally prepare and visualize the consequences, rather than the thought coming to them during the climb. They take a well-calculated risk after years of preparation, both physical and mental. While climbing, they just do the climb and think about nothing else. Think of it as an extremely well-choreographed and practiced dance routine.

There is no doubt these athletes have very strong minds.However, stronger are the families of these athletes who support them in their relentless pursuits knowing fully well that things might descend into chaos anytime. As a result of this, there is debate about whether there should be restrictions and regulations on extreme sports. Sure, these sports are extremely dangerous and can have serious consequences if not performed with caution, but I think individuals should be free to make their own choices,Risky or not; if that is what adds meaning and purpose to their lives, they should be free to go ahead with these choices. After all, many people have found meaning in what they are doing through these sports, while some of us still struggle to find that even in our day-to-day so-called “safer” lives.

 I used to think extreme sports were reckless and irresponsible, but delving deeper into the psyche of these athletes has made me appreciate both them and the sport. We have so much to learn from these extraordinary people. It doesn’t matter if we are in their position or not, whether it’s free soloing, ice swimming, free diving, or any other extreme sport. Maybe we could use some of their mental techniques to tackle problems that we face in our daily lives, no matter how big or small they might be. At the end of the day, fear is quite a universal experience. It is also one disliked by everyone alike.Here I obviously quote Roosevelt, “ The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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