Fear And Learning In The Surrey Hills: How To Use Science To Overcome Your Fears

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Fed up of feeling fearful on your mountain bike? Adele comes out fighting with the help of science and a Redbull Rampage rider: here’s how to embrace the risk and put the fun back into your ride.

Mountain biking: it’s supposed to be fun. Yet despite fifteen years of mountain bike love, occasionally I get too scared for my own good. For instance, one of my nemeses is a rooty step, halfway up a short, steep roll-up – with a speed-sapping muddy approach. It’s clearly not easy and I’m so convinced that I am going to slip on it and hurt myself that I can’t even attempt to get over it. My terrified legs just refuse to turn.

My nemesis.

A very kind friend – a hugely capable and experienced rider – offered to show me how to ride it. With utmost patience he talked me through it. With utmost persistence, I consistently tried and failed until, eventually, I gave up and submitted to The Walk of Shame.

So while I may have successfully avoided injury, now I was dogged by the fear of looking like a bit of a waste of space in front of my mates – a feeling that tends to run riot once unleashed. Will everyone roll their eyes in despair when my name is mentioned in the pub? Will I be written off as ‘timid’ in a mountain bike world that only values hard-riding women who breeze over root steps with a flick of their flaxen ponytail? Should I just sell my bike and stick to knitting? God, that root has got a lot to answer for.

However, although I may be a bit of a wimp, I’m also sure that I’m not the only one who loves mtb but sometimes finds it messes with their head. So I wrote a blog post about it and, sure enough, received lots of comments from riders who sometimes struggle: crying in the van before an enduro, the only one on a ride who daren’t attempt a tricky gap jump, backing off because of responsibilities and mouths to feed – there was a long list of reasons.

After all, fear is triggered by all sorts of factors, and if you’re about to tell me that you’ve never struggled with it, then you are either very fortunate or not being entirely truthful.

So, in order to learn how to overcome my fears, I turned to science – enter stage left Dr Kieren McEwan, Social Psychologist at the University of Portsmouth (and mountain biker). I also got some advice from Redbull Rampage rider Pierre-Edouard Ferry (a man who is clearly not afraid of taking risks) when I met him earlier this year.

Here’s what I now know.

Fear is natural. It’s also healthy. It warns us that there is a potential danger and prompts us to do something about it, and quickly: fight, flight, or freeze.

The problems start when fear becomes irrational, often prompted by existing insecurities. It can then run riot and basically spoils what would otherwise be a perfectly nice ride out, for instance – rather than helping us.

Why not just switch to a less risky sport?

For a start, I ride for fitness, friendships, mental health benefits, endorphins, sunsets, vast open spaces and mini adventures. I don’t want to give that up, nor have a life ‘half lived’.

Also, we thrive on sensation seeking and risk-taking. As natural predators, our very success depends upon it. But when modern life basically reduces our risk taking options to choosing between low fat or normal halloumi cheese in the supermarket, the ‘deep play’ that is mountain biking offers a tantalising fix: exploring new trails, pushing our limits, finding ‘flow’. From the unpredictability of muddy singletrack to the on-the-edge speed of a dry trail, it’s intoxicating stuff.

There are however many reasons why some of us are more comfortable with risk than others.

For instance, according to Dr McEwan, some of us naturally possess a stronger sensation seeking trait: it’s linked to factors such as testosterone and dopamine levels, and the enzyme monoamine oxidase, with both of the former being higher and the latter being lower in high sensation seekers (and, not surprisingly, in younger men).

Then there are more obvious factors too – how often you ride, where you ride, who you ride with, and previous experiences on your bike, both good and bad.

And of course, it may not just be the trails that are triggering your anxiety. While mountain biking can certainly help distract us from the angst that life pelts at us, it can also ramp it up. Performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point. Too little anxiety/arousal and you won’t try hard enough, too much stimulus (aka stress) and it all goes Pete Tong.

So how do we hit the sweet spot?

How do we reach that perfect balance, where we know we are on the edge but still feel capable of riding whatever is ahead, brimming with feel-good endorphins, fist pumping the air?

First of all tell anyone who suggests you ‘man up’ or ’just do it’ to do one.

Then arm yourself with fear’s sworn enemy: self-confidence.

Redbull rider Pierre-Edouard Ferry

When I met Redbull rider Pierre-Edouard Ferry earlier this year and confessed that sometimes I was a bit nervous, he offered this simple piece of advice to me, ‘don’t worry about trying to be the best: instead aim to be the one that gets down the trail with the biggest smile on their face’.

Self-confidence isn’t about being the best rider. It is about being comfortably certain that you can handle what’s in front of you. Not necessarily perfectly, nor ahead of all your mates. Your ‘job’ is to simply execute the process of riding as flawlessly as you possibly can, and have fun doing it. And that is all.

Whoop and swoop!

While P.E.F and his somersaulting colleagues are, I suspect, hardwired in a different way to me, they also spend a lot of time honing their technique – and, crucially, are confident that eventually they will get it right. The fact is people with a high level of self-efficacy – those who believe they can achieve a task – tend to keep pushing their own personal risk envelope and, if they possess the necessary skills, this often leads to success.

‘Everyone takes risks,’ explains Dr McEwan ‘but the level of risk you are willing to expose yourself to is dependent on your skill level, and a belief you can achieve the task in front of you. When you take a risk and are successful, you will then seek more risk to avoid becoming habituated to the experience.’

Lower levels of confidence, meanwhile, make you much more likely to give up.

Confidence is, however, a skill that needs to be practised.

Everyone will have different pathways, but here’s what has helped me become a more confident and less fearful rider:

First of all I told my Superego to f**k off and stopped giving myself such a hard time: I don’t have to be a perfect rider and it’s unlikely that anyone will cross me off their Christmas card list because I can’t a ride a root step. If they do have a problem, then frankly I’m better off without them and I’ll go ride with someone else.

I reminded myself that I am very fit compared to just about everyone I know, and I should be proud of that. If climbing big hills came back into mountain bike fashion, I’d be the queen of everything.

I brushed up my mountain bike skills with some tuition, which proved to be pretty challenging. It turns out that it really is hard to teach an old dog new tricks and this is because the brain operates two types of memory – focusing on learning new technique relies on slow-moving working memory. Riding like you have for the last fifteen years uses much faster and automatic procedural memory. And when it comes to controlling what you do, the latter is out for the win. So I took myself off into the woods and sessioned the basic stuff over and over again. Now I have moved on to bigger, bolder challenges (including root steps!). Sometimes it doesn’t work out but that’s okay because mostly it does. It feels good every time I tick another nemesis off the list: and that keeps me coming back for more challenges. By the way the approach to the root step I mentioned above is currently a bog, so I’ll return to it next summer. Good things come to those that wait. And practice.

I made sure I had absolute confidence in my bike and its set up (this is a whole post in itself) – for instance, I swapped my flat pedals to a spikier Burgtec Penthouse pair to banish my fear of my feet slipping on lumpy descents.

Riding and smiling

I take everyone’s perfect ride lives on Instagram with a pinch of salt. And remind myself of what I was told by a former pro rider who will remain anonymous – that she knows riders who have been reduced to tears trying to achieve the perfect ‘air’ shot that the sponsor wants on their timeline.

I watched P.E.F. casually ride a sandy switchback on a near vertical section of singletrack and, frankly, I have more chance of flying to the moon than bridging that skills gap. However watching riders who are a bit better than me tackle technical sections is a good way to look at how they have succeeded, and be confident that I can ride them too.

If you’d like more inspiration, then the 12 strategies suggested at the end of The Brave Athlete are worth investigating. They range from sensory management to ‘finding your f*ck it moment’ and expand on the whys and wherefores of managing fear in way more detail than I have room for here. I heartily recommend it.

Finally, I am winning at finishing the ride with a smile on my face.

To read Adele’s review of The Brave Athlete, hop on over here.

Comments (3)

    Great article. Love P.E.F.’s advice of “don’t worry about trying to be the best: instead aim to be the one that gets down the trail with the biggest smile on their face’.”. I’ll definitely take that one onboard.

    Great article!
    I also tend to freeze up when afraid and my body seems to forget that I could easily ride the stuff my brain tells me to be afraid of.
    Sometimes I think having a vivid imagination of what would or could possibly happen doesn’t help improving my mountainbiking skills. But then, I came rather late to mountainbiking and I can’t afford (job-wise and family-wise) to be taken out by injury.
    But as you wrote, once you realize that you don’t have to (and probably never will) the fastest, most awesome shredder in town and that you are just riding for the fun of it, it really gets better.


    Brilliant article, thanks for writing and posting it. I’ve been mucking around on off-road bikes for over 40 years, and am no longer the main earner in the family, so guess I don’t get so bothered by my inner chimp when on the bike. However, I do think I’ve always unconsciously employed P.E.F.s advice for most of my riding. A good friend of mine once summed up our approach as “not about distance or miles an hour, it’s about the smiles per hour” – and this is from a former XC racer and someone who has completed the Trans Alps! I guess he’s got nothing to prove to anyone, so he just has a laugh on his bike. If people want to prove to themselves and others that they can ride faster or more technically challenging terrain, fair enough – but I couldn’t give two hoots. I think once you can stop worrying and comparing yourself to others, and just ride to have FUN, then everything seems to just fall into place.

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