Thrill Seekers, Explorers or Odds Beaters

A good few years ago now I was a newly minted sports psychologist. I’d done 3 years of supervised experience after my MSc and was looking to get involved as soon as possible applying all that knowledge and theory I’d been studying. One of my first roles was working with a motorcycle racing team, a very interesting setup. I was working with youngsters from 13 and 14 up to senior riders, all of whom were connected through the manufacturer team. The youngsters raced in single make series 125cc and 250cc depending on age, moving into supersport and finally for the talented few, GP.

So, the first meeting with the team I mistakenly went in with a few assumptions, classically making an ass of me if not u….. (Ass-u-me;) one of which was I’d have to deal with issues about the dangers, the speed, the risk. Perhaps having to manage concentration blips caused by mental high jumps (cognitive intrusions in psych parlance), after a moment of control loss, a competitor running them wide etc. Nothing could have been further from reality. The same false assumptions are often made when people find out I cave dive or engage in deep technical diving. I am looked upon as an adrenaline junky or thrill seeker. When I tell them I love diving with sharks, then the person I’m telling shows their idiot meter goes through the roof. At that point although I try to explain, any attempt to show how much care I take to be safe, merely looks like I’m either a fool who doesn’t get the risks the uninitiated clearly know better than me, or I’m a hero in rubber and latex…. Hmm…

Anyway, my experience to date in training with and diving with some of the worlds pre-eminent cave and technical divers has shown me huge parallels with the motorcycle and rally drivers with whom I worked. None of them are thrill seekers, in fact the opposite. This does not mean they ignore or blank out the risks either. They coldly and calmly assess the risk, they formulate strategies and responses to respond to and deal with these risks and, satisfied they have been managed, the conscious and subconscious minds are free to focus on the objective…. Accomplishing a successful dive mission or winning a race. Interestingly rally has a great saying, to finish first, first finish! The same in diving, to have a successful dive, finish alive!

So want does drive technical and cave divers to set and pursue their goals. Well for some it’s clearly the challenge of exploring their personal limits. In any field of human endeavour, this is a great driver and motivator. I see these guys as students, working their way up through the levels until they hit the outer edges of certification programmes, but then after a couple of years or less, they drop out, or fall back… Job done, goal achieved.

For others it’s about the love of what they get to be, the element of uniqueness and individuality involved in being in that level of the sport, the passion to be an individual, to be excellent, in a society that these days seems to pander to the average or worse, the lowest common denominator… Thanks McDonalds, we know the coffee is hot, if it wasn’t I’d ask for a refund, but because one moron burnt a lip, every cup carries a warning! I can empathise with this driver, it is a boost to the self esteem to be a little bit different, to be unique, to be part of a small and select group.

For many, it’s the Everest story “it’s because it’s there”. That feeling of discovering a new wreck, of exploring a virgin cave and laying new line, cannot be beaten for some. Hardships will be suffered, the edge of acceptable risk will be pushed and sometimes exceeded, but the first human to set foot on a ship since it sank over 100 years ago or to ever see a new cave passage or rock formation, will be the reward that pays back again and again.

It’s not a question of whether this rewards or satisfies the ego, for some it’s all about the task and the process. Both ego and task work well as positive drivers. A person who is both highly ego driven and highly task driven is the most likely to succeed, in fact it’s a key predictor of talent in sport and business and indeed in diving.

There is also a huge satisfaction to be gained in simply beating the odds. For some this is exultation, for others relief. Depends on whether part of your motivational make up is linked to a need to achieve or a fear of failure. For me, when I played rugby, winning was a relief first and foremost. A vindication of the training, the preparation and the hard work. After that was the celebration. I feel the same coming out of a deep dive or cave. A relieved satisfaction at having managed the odds, then I can enjoy the ‘success’ of the dive.

Conversely the things that cause the greatest stresses are dealing with sponsors, the travel and strange hotel rooms, the legal and insurance issues. Family and friends. That’s where the real work as a psychologist is done, making sure none of that interferes with concentrating on the task in hand.

Whatever reason you dive for, whether because it’s there, or because you like to be individual, or because you like to coldly and calculatedly beat the odds. Good on you, dive safe. Stay away from the thrill seekers. Oh, and those of you said they dive to get some peace and quiet from the spouse, I can only assume the spouse doesn’t read your Facebook feed, else the odds would have been well and truly beaten by now.

Stay safe, stay focussed.

matt-in-cave