How fear influences athletes—and what you can do to have a healthy relationship with it
- Former professional skier Kristen Ulmer teaches us why conquering fear won't work and what we can do instead to succeed, in athletics or in life.
Fear is one of the common threads that ties people of all backgrounds together. From children trying something for the first time to professional athletes performing their craft of many years, fear finds a way to manifest itself. In a new book titled The Art of Fear, former professional extreme skier Kristen Ulmer explores the complicated relationship we all have with it.
She simplifies the four “levels” in which people handle fear, shedding light on a handful of athletes who use fear as a vital tool for their success. Ulmer spoke with SI about her work and journey that led her to grasp how so many athletes are strapped down by fear.
Connor Grossman: How can fear influence athletes?
Kristen Ulmer: From working with thousands of athletes, I’ve found that more than 99% of us repress fear in order to perform the way we want to. Over time you wind up inadvertently abusing yourself, with fear getting louder and louder in your ear, screaming if it has to, until the athlete ultimately ends up quitting their sport because they can’t handle the fear anymore. It may not even show up as fear. It may show up as anger, under-performance, injuries, insomnia or panic attacks. I can’t tell you how many athletes reach out to me and they had some sort of terrifying incident and they keep trying to block out the fear and they’re now starting to have panic attacks. That’s a sign of repressed fear.
But when you bring that to a psychologist they’ll tell you if you have a panic attack you just need to rationalize it away, which is yet another form of repression. If repression is causing this issue we’re now treating it with more repression. It just becomes cyclical and it becomes a bigger and bigger issue until the athlete quits their sport or is burnt out.
CG: How do people repress fear and why does it happen so often?
KU: The first time you said, “I’m afraid,” to your parents, it usually starts. Because what do they usually say? “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” There’s a lot of what I call “fear shaming” going on. People will say there’s just a lot going on in your mind, it’s unwarranted, that you just need to push it aside and move on. Among the people that influence our lives when we’re younger and then as we get older, specifically to athletes there’s coaches, sports psychologists and more, everyone is on a worldwide slander campaign against fear.
We see fear as something to be embarrassed about. We see fear as a problem to be solved. We see it as a sign of weakness. We don’t think we can be the athletes we want to be until we get rid of fear. It builds and builds from childhood and its almost universally taught to rationalize fear away. I was victim of that like I think most people are. I felt like to be the person and the athlete I wanted to be, I had to repress fear and I was really good at it.
CG: Why did you decide to write this book?
KU: I decided to write the book because I realized I had been approaching fear in a way that was hurting me during my skiing career long-term. It gave me short-term relief from fear but long-term it caused a lot of problems for me. Then I became a mindset sports coach helping a lot of athletes deal with fear and other issues. It fully dawned on me that almost every underperforming issue that I witnessed in other athletes was because of their approach to fear as well. It became crystal clear to me after 30 years of first being a professional athlete and then a mindset sports coach that our relationship to fear is the most important relationship of our lives.
Especially for athletes and taking risks, if you don’t have a healthy relationship with fear, then you’re going to have some problems. I wanted to help people not have those problems or alleviate those problems.
CG: When did you fully understand how big of an issue fear is with athletes?
KU: When I retired in 2003 I had a whole host of problems, including PTSD, flat line cortisone levels, injuries that weren’t healing, and I hated my sport. I was burnt out. I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. I met a zen master and partnered with him to do a mindset only ski camp. My first 10 minutes with him I realized that I had been repressing fear, fighting it, conquering it, overcoming it, rationalizing it away. This is what it seems like everyone is doing and I was just really good at it. But I realized in the first 10 minutes that that had caused all my problems. You can get away with avoiding fear for about 10 years and then things start to really go south.
Then by studying with the zen master and doing these ski camps, I slowly started to heal my own issues. Finally after 15 years of studying with a zen master felt I was clear to write a book about it.
CG: Can you explain the different levels you believe people deal with fear?
KU: Level one is when you repress fear in order to perform the way you want to. It seems to work but you’re not taking advantage of the incredible resource that is fear. You’re sending a lot of energy to avoid this part of you, a lot of energy that could be spent elsewhere.
The second level can be explained through a client I had who was a triathlete. He was ready to quit because he couldn’t stand the fear beforehand. It was so much work to fight it and overcome it, it was torture. He loved triathlons and the training, he just couldn’t stand the fear. Just by making a simple shift to level two, which is realizing that fear is natural, which can be a huge shift for people. It’s just realizing, yes, everyone’s afraid. It’s natural to feel fear and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.
The second part of level two that the emotion of fear will come in and out of your system in a span of 10-90 seconds. If you just allow yourself to feel it, it’ll be gone as soon as you start performing. At level two you use your intellect to not see fear as a negative, but as a positive, natural part of this experience that’s here to help you come alive.
Level three is a big, big shift for people. That’s when you’re willing to feel the fear. We think that fear is in our heads when really it’s in our bodies. It’s a sensation of discomfort in our bodies. Why it starts to feel like it’s in our head is if we repress the fear, it then goes into the basement and goes covert. In order for fear to get its message out, because it will not be denied, it hijacks your mind to run its agenda like a loop in your system. That’s why somebody that represses fear may not be able to sleep well at night. Instead of thinking about fear, we’re actually willing to feel it. Level three is when we’re willing to explore the sensation of discomfort in our bodies and feel it.
Level four is another step where we’re going into your body by feeling the fear, and the body is the bridge that we cross to go from our minds to the “zone”—a place beyond your own limited view of the world where you now become intimate with the fear. You talk to Laird Hamilton, Jesse Richman, Jeremy Jones, all extreme athletes at the top of their craft, they had an intimate relationship with their fear. It’s like a girlfriend or boyfriend, you become connected in a way that there’s no separation between you and it. You become stronger together versus apart.
CG: How can fear lead to burnout or injury for an athlete?
KU: Let’s start with burnout. If you have declared war against the primary part of you called fear, and that war is now playing out in your mind, you’re spending a lot of energy fighting that war. That doesn’t leave a lot of energy for you to compete in your sport. In many ways, over time that war becomes exhausting. In order to get away from that war, people will quit their sport. And people feel like they’re burnt out on their sport but really they’re burnt out on the repression of fear and how much energy that takes.
As for injuries, here’s an example. When I first got injured I blew my knee out. My first reaction was relief. You think I would’ve been horrified or in denial, but instead I was relieved. A very strange reaction. Because I was pushing down fear, I was abusing myself. My will and determination was just trying to make these parts of me a slave to whatever I wanted to accomplish. They were just so desperate for relief from that excessive control I was exerting on them, they were relieved and so was I. It was like, “Oh my God I can finally have some relief from all of this repression.”
CG: This is a significant part of the teaching in your book, so could you explain your tool on dealing with fear, “Shift: The Game of 10,000 Wisdoms?”
KU: We have 10,000 different employees that make up us, a corporation called [Your name]. One of these employees is called the voice of fear. Fear is a big part of what makes up the human experience and reality. When I learned this first from my zen master, he said, “May I please speak to the voice of fear?” I couldn’t find it. I looked and I looked, and I said, “I don’t appear to have any fear.” He said, “I thought so.”
He told me I had pushed fear down in the basement, 10 feet below cement underneath the basement. Whatever you try to control ends up controlling you. Whatever you try and repress becomes your repressor. If you avoid something you make your life all about avoiding that thing. My life had become a shrine and testimony to just avoiding fear. That’s all that I was doing anymore. It was time for me to take a look at that fear. Take it out of the basement and start a healthy, conscious relationship with it. That would heal my PTSD, adrenal problems and my relationship with skiing.
CG: What do you want readers to take away from your book?
KU: What I hope people take away from my book is that there are other options. If what they’re doing is either not working or they’re looking for a higher level, if they’re willing to explore my message I think that they may find what they’re looking for.
I’ve worked with thousands of athletes, and usually they come to me looking to resolve a problem. I’ve found that 99% of the time, even though it doesn’t seem like there’s a fear problem, if they heal their relationship with fear, they end their problem. It’s really a profound realization that I had