I was recently asked the above question at a Duratus team delivery session. I had offered up the opportunity to quiz me on anything that I had covered during the previous session. That group topic was ‘performance under pressure’ where I had discussed at some length what fear is and why we feel it. Now the person asking the question may have assumed that those doing daring deeds don’t suffer with fear and he probably expected some machismo answer. But if honest, I was initially a little stumbled by the question, as in all truth I had never sat and pondered which the scariest moments of my life were.
With an extended career within Special Forces behind me, there were a number of particular moments where I genuinely felt my life and the lives of my colleagues were on the line - but how could I possibly rank those? Then there was the moment during my first daughter’s birth when she was rushed into the emergency theatre as things weren’t going to plan. There were also countless experiences as a child when I didn’t want to go up the stairs on my own in case the bogeyman was hiding under my bed!
Most of those events were vivid memories if I tried to think about them, but they had been locked away in my mind’s memory banks – quite possibly for this very moment in front of this audience. Or had I held onto them for the reason that they would help during a future similar event which presented itself and the memories would serve as a good guide to my safest response.
But in what was likely only a matter of seconds, I rated all my deepest, darkest and scariest moments. Reliving them all on fast forward and then plumped for a couple which I literally couldn’t split.
My first mission to Afghanistan
The initial one I described was from my very first mission in Afghanistan. It was during a night time arrest of a known criminal commander. Now I had been on many missions before in the Middle East and other more discreet operations. So, what was so scary about this one? Well, it was because of the thoughts ruminating inside my head in the considerable build up to the event. For many months before the event I had been listening to fellow colleagues’ stories of daring and danger in this particular theatre of operations. It sounded very different to any previous experiences. More remote, more inhospitable, much more dangerous and more extreme.
Friends were being regularly maimed, some killed even and some of those that I personally rated as ‘the best’ - most certainly better than I at that time. My imagination of what was to come would naturally run wild. In addition to this, a few weeks before my deployment, one of my closest friends was killed in action. An event completely out of his control and one he would have been completely unaware of. I got the call to tell me of this tragedy whilst sat on a sun lounger sipping an ice-cold beer during a programmed period of relaxation prior to my forthcoming deployment. This event naturally just compounded my worrying thoughts.
On our eventual arrival at our remote base, the team we were due to replace were beat up. Their eyes and body language, along with their detailed accounts of their hairiest moments, told their emotionally draining stories. They were very ready for home. But that same evening, with little to no time to adjust our body clocks or recoup from travelling, we set off on a helicopter flight for a number of hours. Cold, windy, bumpy, pitch black and noisy was my world for the duration of the flight.
Living in my head and going over what was about to happen, feeling pressure as every man behind me would rely on me to perform optimally, but all the permutations of what could go wrong were bouncing around inside my mind. Hoping also of course, that on our arrival to our defended destination that we weren’t shot out of the sky.
A night dive off of Australia's coastline
The second event was in Western Australia’s coastline. I had been asked to retrieve a particularly expensive piece of equipment that had been dropped into the dark waters by other colleagues as I was the nominated rescue diver that evening. Straightforward? Yes, except for a 3m bull shark, a known man-eater, which had been spotted in the same area of the coasts river earlier that day. Therefore, as I descended into the river’s murky depths on my own, it was unsurprising that the haunting Jaws theme tune of my childhood memories was ominously playing on repeat in my head. My mind was racing with vivid Steven Spielberg-esque scenes of my imminent death from a swift shark strike. The powerful torch which I needed to help with my search only seemed to exacerbate my dilemma of not being as stealthy as I would have liked at that very moment.
On finding the said piece of equipment, the planned ascent at the recommended safe speed of 'no faster than the slowest bubble’ quickly disappeared into a race to the surface with complete disregard for my own well-being. I was moving faster than a submarine torpedo and on reaching the surface I am still reminded of my super human ability to ‘salmon’ into the boat wearing over 30kg of dive gear!
Fear is learned
When you have the bodies full adrenaline support, it’s truly incredible what you can achieve. But incredible also doesn’t equal optimal when it comes to performance. So why was I receiving my bodies full adrenaline support on both of these occasions? Well that all comes down to just an almond sized part of the brain called the amygdala.
It all comes down to just an almond sized part of the brain called the amygdala.
The amygdala, a part of the limbic system, allows the brain to detect and respond to threats. It is responsible for our imagination’s repeated attempts to throw perceived threats at us. It is designed to protect you, not to educate you. Some of these ‘problems’ may indeed be incredibly scary but that is because of how you frame them from all the previous data you have put into your head. Clearly my examples above had allowed for considerable thoughts prior to each event. But where do we get our reliable data from to influence these deeper thoughts?
Fear is learned. Joslin et al (1964)1 found that wild monkeys had a fear of snakes, yet the same breed of laboratory monkey did not have a natural fear of them. Cook et al (1989)2 took this a little further by exposing laboratory monkeys to wild monkeys and discovering that fear could be socially learned. Fear can also be unlearned, more commonly referred to as ‘fear extinction’.
What it teaches us
So, what about my experiences mentioned and what could I have done about them? Well, both of my experiences involved much social learning. Some through the TV screen and a few childhood interests of Great Whites. Others through various colleagues’ incredible passion for story-telling and the seeming desire to never let the truth get in the way of a good one! But there is always some value to be gleaned from others, we just have to apply some filters and understand our own biases. People who have lived through genuinely life threatening events are rare and are great sources of valuable learning regarding performance psychology.
The amygdala will give you thousands of thoughts a day, many of these will be completely irrational and complete fantasy. But these thoughts can and do seem very real - sometimes they can be debilitating!
Now your most scary events may be a large public talk, an important executive board meeting, a cup final penalty or even the paralysing fear of the bogeyman under your bed!
Sports psychology has developed some great tools and when combined with experienced coaches, an optimum performance mindset is genuinely on hand for anybody desiring to work at it.
1. Joslin J, 1964 – A comparison of the responses to snakes of lab and wild reared rhesus monkeys. Animal Behaviour, 12, 2-3: pg 348-352.
2. Cook M, Mineka S, 1989 – Observational conditioning of fear to fear relevant versus fear irrelevant stimuli in rhesus monkeys.Abnormal Psychology. Nov, 98(4): pg 448-59.
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