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Taming the Risk: Fear can be overcome, but accidents will always happen

Sometimes we over look the danger of outdoor activities but dwelling on the possibility will ruin the excitement to come.



As I sit here with a chipped tooth - the bizarre souvenir from a group road ride a few days ago when a rock shot out from under another rider's rear tire like a BB and nailed my front tooth - and having religiously watched this year's Tour de France, which was rife with an outrageous number of crashes, I can't help but think of the risk-versus-reward element of playing outside.

While the pros get paid to take those risks, it's still difficult to watch them suffer catastrophes like Chris Horner's serious crash in Stage 7 of this year's Tour de France, which forced him to abandon the race for which he trained diligently and smartly. Another, particularly acute incident for many cyclists, given our primal fear of cars, was the horrific crash during Stage 9 that occurred when the driver of a media vehicle swerved into a rider, who collided with another rider as he tumbled across the pavement. In both cases, the riders remounted despite significant injuries and finished the stage.

We know the inherent perils of participating in our chosen sports exist, and we sometimes acknowledge them; like wearing a bicycle helmet, for example. Other times, we push our fears away, because they're a little too unsettling to think about on a consistent basis.

As a cyclist, my overwhelming fear is of being hit by a car. However, I try not to think about it too much. If I considered it on every single ride, I don't think I'd have very much fun. Unfortunately, when an inconsiderate - or downright hostile - motorist buzzes me, I'm forced to realize I just dodged a one-ton bullet. But I think of all the niggling injuries I've sustained over the years, the broken elbow (group ride), the separated ribs (Ben's Trail) and the road rash (too many times to count), to name a few, it's obvious I've analyzed and accepted the risks associated with riding.

"To me it's silly not to think about it in advance," says sports hypnotist Steven Davis. "And silly to not have a conversation with yourself where you say, 'I love doing this, I know there's a potential of injury, but I'm thoughtful and I'll be as safe as I can.' But like everything in life, there is a risk."

We don't always blithely accept all levels of danger in our given sport. I'm not the most gifted mountain biker. When I hit the trail, I know there's a good chance of biffing, especially if I try to push myself. It's easy to look at a technical section lined with jagged lava rocks, where falling will certainly result in pain, and not go for it. And yet one of the prime motivators to improve one's skill is self-preservation. The more adept we become, the less we get hurt.

Conquering fears is essential for athletes who want to progress, and Davis says we usually overcome them by happenstance. Although you might find yourself in the same circumstance that once drew blood or broke a bone, if you're in the moment and having fun - and maybe even possess a subconscious memory of doing that same thing well before you got hurt - you might just do it again without getting injured. And you've just replaced a bad memory with a good one.

But that doesn't work for everyone. So how do you convince your brain, which is sounding the alarm, to tell your body to huck the rock pile that just last week claimed some skin from your arms and legs when you attempted to ride it but failed?

"The other option is to do an enhanced visualization where you have an experience that your unconscious mind and your physical body believes is real," explains Davis. "Instead of fixating on the fear, you remember the joy."

In other words, trick your grey matter. Davis uses hypnosis to help athletes trump their fears, and also to imagine themselves competing successfully in their sport.

"Your mind is your ally or it's your critic, and it's so fabulous when it's your ally," says Davis. "Your performance is so much better and it's so much more fun.

Fear, even under the guise of subtle timidity, isn't always the byproduct of injury alone. I tell Davis that the older I get, the more cautious I become. I used to love riding in a pack at high speed. Now I question every wheel I follow. A noticeable lack of abandonment has occurred since I became a mother. I don't enjoy bumping elbows in a sprint as much as I used to. Am I losing my competitive edge?

"I think it's appropriate," says Davis. "I think if that didn't happen I'd be concerned. When we're in our late teens we feel invincible and we've probably never been touched by the loss we might experience later in life. Then, when you're a parent, you not only feel more responsible, but you have a reason not to get injured... or worse."

My dad, a tough-as-nails, old-school bike racer, didn't offer much sympathy when I, as a novice cyclist, crashed. He believed that, almost always, the person who eats it either did something to cause it or didn't do something to prevent it. I used to argue vehemently with him on this point, but after decades of riding and racing I tend to agree with him. Somewhat.

But even he has come to admit there are accidents that are nothing more than stupid misfortune. When I told him about my tooth, my father, who once knowingly drank degreaser out of a water bottle during a long, hot road race, figuring there was some hydrating property within, was genuinely sympathetic, acknowledging there was nothing I could have done to avoid it, except to have ridden alone, or with my mouth closed. And we both lamented the carnage of this year's Tour, thankful that cycling's heroes were in one piece.

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