January 2019 - ALPINE SKIING & SNOWBOARDING
FEAR - Or, How to Expand Our Comfort Zone
By Mermer Blakeslee
In my “Fear Workshop” at Windham Mountain, a woman confessed she was frightened of returning to skiing after a long hiatus, not because of the risk the sport posed – of falling or getting hurt – but because she had been a “really good” skier. Skiing was deeply woven into her identity and now she was scared of failing, of falling short of her expectations and being exiled from the “real skiers’ club” where, she imagined, the skilled and competent gloat. This is very common.
Fear of failure is the most prevalent fear I encounter as the “ski industry’s fear specialist.” Often we blame age, thinking of it as our enemy as slowly but relentlessly we are forced to let go of our physical prowess. It’s as if we want to carry a sign saying: I used to be amazing. Don’t look at me now. But fear of failure is also trained into us early on. As our recent obsession with testing school children shows, our culture does not value learning (where failure is possible), so much as knowing. Yet if we stay with what we know – comfortable, safe and even smug – we eventually dry up and get bored because when our comfort zone is not constantly massaged, it inevitably shrinks.
So how do we handle fear of failure in the workshop? We treat it like every other fear and start where we are. Sounds simple, but this is the biggest step: accepting not only the presence of fear, but also ourselves as we are now – older, slower, certainly wiser and more cautious, probably heavier, more wrinkly, less muscled, a bit harried from the kids or the job. Rather than accept our state, we often try to control or cure it, as if age and fear were pathologies and life without their presence were possible, normal or even desirable. But fear is and should be a habitual acquaintance in any imaginative, meaningful life, and we need to cultivate a conversation with it rather than engage it in a fight.
Accepting means acknowledging the borders between our current comfort zone and what I call our “yikes! zone,” which is different for every person and different for us now than it was ten years ago or maybe even last week. Only then with a gentle persistence can we begin to stretch our limits.
Over time, my students learn to utilize two simple qualities: rhythm and momentum. By moving in and out of their comfort zone – or synonymously, in and out of the yikes! zone – in a rhythmical wave, their comfort zone expands. But even a small leap into the yikes! zone demands that we build momentum – gradually, in small, patient steps.
It’s a simple concept, but few follow it. I have witnessed many intelligent people forcing themselves into the yikes! zone before they were ready – at worst risking injury, at best confirming their fears. Many stay in the yikes! zone too long, thinking of it as some medicine or perhaps even a hair shirt that will do them good. Either mistake will actually make their comfort zone contract. After a taste of yikes!, we should pull back, ease up, replenish our resources and allow our appetite to build again for another push.
As you probably have already guessed, this simple graph doesn’t reveal the whole story because skiing or snowboarding, like life, has more than one variable: an icy patch, a person cutting in front or a sudden whiteout. These are the stubborn givens of matter and laws of this earth that we need to respect. This sine wave is only a condensed simplification from a complex of variables.
The first variable that skiers or riders usually notice is pitch or steepness. You can hear the boasting in the bar afterward, someone having conquered this or that black diamond. But actually, the difficulty of a steep slope can only be measured in relation to other variables, especially snow conditions. The same run never skis or rides the same way if the snow has changed. Frozen granular, a marketing euphemism for ice, demands an entirely different mix of skills than a foot of soft powder. The slope’s length, its narrowness, the presence of rocks, trees or lift towers, even the vista can all add to its difficulty. To monitor the wave well, we should only go into the yikes! zone in one or at the most two variables. Besides pitch, a skier or rider has to consider the conditions, visibility, familiarity with the terrain, temperature (cold and wind almost always increase fear), the presence of obstacles or crowds, and possibly equipment, level of fatigue, group energy and so forth.
Pitting our skills against more than two variables at a time can cause a backlash in our confidence and learning. We emerge from the lodge in a post-lunch-coma wanting to revive the late morning fervor so we attempt the same steep trail we descended before. But now our muscles are cold, the conditions deteriorated, the light flat and the crowds peaking. Often, too many variables converge to create not a yikes! experience but a reaction akin to terror and this actually damages our confidence and – contrary to popular thinking – shrinks our comfort zone.
To learn the many variables of skiing or riding is a form of respect for the world and takes both attentiveness and time. At first, it might seem like merely accumulating a mental check list. But to understand how each variable affects us, to weigh its impact, to measure it in relation to our own momentum takes a cultivated wisdom. It becomes like dancing – listening to the energy and rhythm of the music and knowing just when to advance, just when to give. But often we find it hard to listen to the music that is actually playing. We pretend it is another song entirely. “I wanted to think I was still 30,” one woman told me, “But now, slowly, my fear is being replaced by respect … honest respect. Not only for what’s out there, but also toward myself.”
So whether we’re attempting something new or facing a situation more difficult than we’re ready for or returning to a sport we used to excel at, our first challenge is to accept where we are, our current comfort zone. Then we can slowly expand those limits by eliciting the qualities of rhythm and momentum, while being clear-eyed and respectful toward the world around us. What better way to spend our time?
Mermer Blakeslee (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Roscoe leads many lives, as a writer, skier, teacher and gardener. She’s an examiner for Professional Ski Instructors of America and a former member of their National Alpine Team. She has published three novels and her book on fear, In the Yikes! Zone.