Bicycling (South Africa)
THAT RIDE WHERE YOU WENT #FULLSEND
THE DROP WAS a bridge to nowhere, a gangplank to oblivion that ended in a big scary question. She would need to go fast. If she didn’t make it, if she landed in the five-metre gap, well… it was best not to think about that. Because Laura Slavin had made up her mind that she was sending it today. She had done the XL jumps here at Mountain Creek Bike Park, but the Red Bull Covenant drop was different. The consequences were serious. At the top of the run, she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking. All the way down, she took deep breaths. But as she came into the drop, her mind went quiet. She didn’t brake, didn’t hesitate. She felt nothing: no fear, no excitement. She watched herself fly. Her wheels touched the ground. Only then did the emotion rush over her. She screamed with joy and elation, throwing her bike down, and hugging her friend.
The Rush of Mindfulness
In Instagram videos, Slavin performs suicide no-handers over yawning gap jumps. Previously, traditional sports psychology would have described her as an adrenaline junkie. They would have said it was something about her personality and/or her brain chemistry, that she was a “sensation seeker”. But that’s not necessarily the case. “The traditional approach [to extreme sports psychology] is flawed,” says Eric Brymer, PhD. Brymer has spent years at the Leeds Beckett University in Leeds, UK, studying the psychology of athletes like BASE jumpers and free solo rock climbers, and his work is leading the way for a new understanding of extreme sports athletes. He says it isn’t actually the adrenaline rush we’re addicted to. As Slavin’s experience on Covenant reflects, right before the extreme task (big jump), there is fear and mental chatter. “But in the moments of the activity, things are quiet,” he says. “They’re peaceful. After, there’s adrenaline pumping, there’s this feeling of empowerment and well-being that keeps with you. But that quiet period is what people tell me is the real reason why they go back.” In fact, some of Brymer’s study participants even described the post-task rush of adrenaline as unpleasant. This quiet is part of what makes extreme activities so powerful: They can evoke what Brymer describes as a “non-ordinary state of consciousness.” In this state, participants report enhanced sensory perception – the ability to see and hear very clearly while travelling at high speeds – as well as a sense of total presence and clarity that is very similar to mindfulness. Not everyone experiences this, Brymer says – only people for whom the activity feels authentic.
Search for Self
Brymer’s research shows that there is no singular personality structure that defines an extreme-sports participant. But among long-time participants, he’s discovered a common theme: “It’s this notion of coming home. It’s a way of being true to yourself, of living the person you are inside.” We all find that sense of true self somewhere, says Brymer – some just find it when they’re sailing through the air on a bike. “Rather than a death wish, it’s a life wish: It’s a flourishing, an opportunity to realise our potential as human beings,” he says. Slavin is anecdotal proof. Prior to mountain biking, she wasn’t athletic. She smoked cigarettes into her mid20s. She was a self-proclaimed ‘science nerd’, devoted to her career as a chemist. But when her friend took her to the bike park for the first time in 2014, she went over a small dirt mound and caught some air. It spoke to her profoundly. “I’ve never been more thrilled and excited and happy in my whole life,” she recalls. There’s something powerful about being in the air. Brymer says the athletes he studies all talk about ‘floating’, a sense of being weightless and free. Even riders who love boosting small features can relate to the connection between flying and freedom. This might explain why the term ‘full send’ has caught on even among disciplines like road cycling. “I think ‘full send’ means just letting go and doing it,” says Slavin. “That’s how it resonates with people. It’s not necessarily catching huge air, but it’s the feeling of, ‘I’m just gonna commit to it, let go of control, and accept all outcomes.’”