Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Extreme sport motivation

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Extreme sport motivation:
What motivates people to participate in extreme sports?

Overview[edit | edit source]

On October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner, an Austrian daredevil, jumped out of a helium balloon in the stratosphere to Earth. Felix went skydiving an estimated 39 kilometres reaching a speed of 843.6 mph. The famous jump can be watched. This event is only one of the numerous jumps, dives, base jumps performed all around the world. Extreme athletes push their minds and bodies to the farthest possible limit while simultaneously risking their lives. What is their motivation behind these risk taking behaviours?

Extreme athletes[grammar?] participation in various extreme sports continue to be studied in order to better understand their individual motivations and beliefs. Some people continue to challenge themselves and keep coming up with more daring and risky missions to partake in. The thrill and adrenaline these athletes seek out is a fascinating concept that motivational psychologists seek to better understand. What motivates a person to want to jump out of an airplane, go bungee jumping, or surf the biggest waves in the world?

Classification[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Bungee jumping off the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge near Queenstown, New Zealand

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Origin of extreme sports[edit | edit source]

The [what?] term refers to certain activities perceived as having a high level of inherent danger[for example?]. They can also be referred to as adventurous sports or action sports. These sports often involve heights, speed, a high level of exertion, and/or require specialised gear to participate (Figure 1). The definition of extreme sport is not entirely clear, however it became popular in the 1990’s[grammar?] with marketing companies promoting the X Games and when the Extreme Sports Channel launched.

An attempt to classify what an extreme sport is requires both expressions to be defined:

  • “sport” : the participant has to dispose of considerable skill and/or physical ability to avoid poor execution of the activity
  • “extreme” : poor execution of the activity has to result in considerable risk of serious physical harm to the participant.

The origin of the term extreme sports from sports may date back to the 1950s from a phrase, attributed to Ernest Hemingway. The phrase is:

"There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games."

Motivational theories [edit | edit source]

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Risk taking[edit | edit source]

“... the greatest tragedy in life is to risk nothing at all ...”
-José N. Harris

Extreme sport participation can ultimately be linked with risk taking and the notion that participation is just a matter of some people’s need to take unnecessary risks. The explanations behind risk taking vary from being an evolutionary relic, a biologically predetermined force, a function of a specific gene, a personality trait, a pathological disease, a cultural phenomenon, a gender issue and a search for aesthetics[factual?]. Risk taking is more associated with negative views in the general population. Interestingly, negative risk taking is linked with delinquent behaviour, and the positive side of risk taking has been considered as “probably the most positive force in the human race: our creative side[factual?]. Individuals that demonstrate negative risk behaviours can often re channel their behaviour towards more positive activities.

Sensation seeking[edit | edit source]

The concept of risk is often associated with the idea of risk taking. The relationship between risk taking and extreme sports is often shown in the popular media[for example?]. Sensation seeking theory does not easily explain why it is that people will take risks in one area of their lives and not in others[explain?].

Sensation seeking has been defined as a trait theory that demonstrates the ongoing search for risky, complex or novel experiences as an innate need in some individuals (4). Zuckerman’s definition differs slightly as the seeking of varied, novel, complex, and intense sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical, social, legal, and financial risks for the sake of such experiences. Essentially Zuckerman’s theory suggests that sensation seekers require an arousal level that is higher than non-sensation seekers in order to maintain an optimal level of stimulation (5).

Various studies have been conducted on sensation seeking and high-risk sports. The most common psychological instruments for measurement is the Sensation Seeking Scale. (6). The scale measures experiences and intentions for 5 phenomena: A total score, Experience Seeking, Boredom Susceptibility, Disinhibition and Thrill and Adventure Seeking (7). A shortened version of Zuckerman's scale can be completed to determine if you seek higher levels of stimulation than others: [1]

Sensation Seeking Scale Components

Experience Seeking Seeking of sensations through the mind and senses and non-conformity
Boredom Susceptibility Person’s reaction to monotony and restlessness
Disinhibition Need for social stimulation and disinhibiton[spelling?]
Thrill and Adventure Seeking Seek out risky and exciting sports or other activities (for Zuckerman this included extreme sports)

Individuals who score high on the scales are considered to live out their tendency to risky behaviours either positively (eg. sports such as climbing) or negatively (eg. crime) (8).

Straub (9) used Zuckerman’s Sensation Seeking Scale to test differences between [who?] certain groups of activities that were classified as high risk sports such as automobile racers and hang gliders and a control group of bowlers. The significant differences [explain?] came with general sensation seeking, boredom susceptibility and experience seeking. However, no significant differences were with the thrill and adventure seeking or the disinhibition scales (9). It is important to point out that in this study, defining what made a sport “high-risk” was not included nor was there any considerations to extreme sports.[clarification needed]

Self-efficacy[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Albert Bandura (1977) researched the role of self-efficacy beliefs in human functioning

The factor most responsible for the disinhibition [explain?] associated with risk taking appears to be self-efficacy[factual?]. Research conducted by Bandura (1977) suggested that when people judge themselves capable of handling an activity, they perform with assurance, approach threatening tasks with little anxiety, experience little in the way of stress reactions, and are able to direct all effort to the task in front of them rather than being distracted by thoughts concerning their own capabilities.

A study conducted with extreme risk taking participants and high risk taking control, when asked about their reasons for taking risk in some aspects of their lives and not in others, 68% of the participants identified the degree of confidence as the deciding factor[factual?]. This linked with Bandura’s findings that the study participants recognised the physical threat involved in their activities, but did not focus on potential problems. The phrase “calculated risk” is used to outline this concept. Performance attainment is the most effective way of increasing self-efficacious precepts. Most often risk participants describe building confidence through experience of successful performance as the factor which allowed the taking of physical risk. Bandura emphasised that precepts of self-efficacy are to a great extent situationally specific and not to generalise activities. 

Reversal theory and extreme sports[edit | edit source]

A study by Kerr (1991) looked at arousal-seeking in risk sports. The concept of reversal theory was used to explain participation in certain extreme sports for Australian, Dutch, and British populations (12). Kerr referred to the reversal theory approach as a structural phenomenological approach (13). Reversal theory refers to the study of motivation that includes both subjective experiences and the way in which those experiences are structured. For more information on this motivational theory, check out this page Wikipedia:Reversal theory.

The theory places a trait dominance (predisposition) to arousal seeking (patatelic dominance) or avoidance (telic dominance). The telic dominance scale is a trait oriented assessment tool, based on reversal theory. The scale measures individual differences in hope to gain arousal because it is felt to be pleasant (telic state) or reduces arousal because it is felt as unpleasant (paratelic) (Figure 3). There are three trait sub-scales that are measured: arousal avoidance, serious-mindedness and planning orientation. For an application with reversal theory, look at this chapter.


Figure 3. Reversal theory components

Kerr (12) found a significantly lower level of arousal avoidance for surfers, sailboarders, motor-cycle racers and parachutists. In addition, marathon runners and weight trainers were likely to be arousal avoiders.

Shoham et al (14) determined a low mean score for arousal avoidance for individuals participating in skydiving, rock and mountain climbing, deep-sea diving and gliding. These studies are worth noting since the results suggest that some individuals may find high arousal enjoyable. However, the argument may be counter-intuitive since the studies did not differentiate between extreme and high-risk sport participation. Additionally, such sports may have supported a change in such factors; all the person has to do is take the first step. 

Extended dramatic model: An interesting concept....

Celsei et al (1993) proposed an “extended dramatic model” to explain participation in high-risk sports. For this study in particular, sky-diving was the focus (16). They proposed environmental influences such as media attention, social specialization and technology, where participation was thought to be as a dramatic performance. For example in skydiving, the equipment used can be seen as props, the skydiving building as a set, and the participants as the players. However, there would be a limited reason to believe the dramatic metaphor as solely being linked to high-risk sports. A section of the study included a phenomenological study of individual meanings. The researchers examined individual feelings of time slowing down, relaxation and highs that lasted for a long time. Participants were quoted as working only to skydive and continuing to skydive was looked to be a function of group camaraderie, self-identity and heightened experience.

The motivations for participation changed over time, to begin with thrill, survival and normative influence were critical. These changed into feelings of achievement, pleasure, and group identity and lastly to motivations of personal identity and flow. The researchers suggested that the novice’s motivation based on the thrill and excitement of the risk itself is akin to the nonparticipant view of skydiving. It is when the person gains an experience when the transcendent motivations can be understood.

Edgeworks[edit | edit source]

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Edgeworks - exploring the motivations of BASE jumpers[edit | edit source]

Edgework refers to examining the limits of one’s ability and/or the technology one is using while at the same time keeping control to successfully negotiate the edge (17). Essentially, the term refers to those who “push the envelope” or go past the limits of what they have done before. Edgeworkers can be referred to as voluntary risk-takers (17). The edge can be described as constantly challenged by the edgeworker. The edge represents a symbol for life versus death, or the border between the ordered and disordered sense of self (18). Edgeworkers are able to push past their comfort zone and closer to the edge. During this time, edgeworkers start to face their fears, even experience feelings of discomfort and chaos (17). Chaos happens when taking greater risks in the activity. Each individual has his or her own subjective view of risk.

Laurendeau (2008) noted that volunteer risk takers crowd the ‘edge’ by going as close as they can without losing control (19). The individual decides what their boundaries are since it is subjective. Voluntary risk taking is defined as “a behaviour that involves individuals’ participation in activities that they perceive to be in some sense dangerous, but are under taken deliberately, and from choice" (20). Within our society, risk is often accepted. The idea of risk avoidance and risk acceptance are portrayed differently in the world. In the [what?] literature, risk avoidance is looked as rational whereas risk taking is irrational or stemming from a lack of knowledge (20).

Some researchers suggest voluntary risk takers continue to take risks because they familiarise themselves with those risks and become desensitised from the level of risk. In order for the activities to feel risky again, a sense of danger must be evident (21);(22).

Figure 4. BASE jumper leaps into the 876-foot chasm from Ne River Gorge Bridge- West Virginia

Lupton and Tulloch (2002) studies[grammar?] other motivations including: for the sake of facing fear, displaying courage, pursuing excitement and thrills and achieving self-actualisation and a sense of personal agency (20).

Lyng created a model that described the practice of edgework in terms of three stages (23). This model is a good representation because it combines micro-social (example[grammar?] feelings) with macro-social (example institutional influence) elements of edgework. Lois (2005), described the stages:

  1. the preparation stage, nerves start to settle in
  2. the performing stage, during which edgeworkers suspend the reflexive aspect of the self, and act without thinking
  3. the aftermath stage, they begin to feel omnipotent and self-actualized (24)

Lois[grammar?] study of rescue workers included a fourth stage which was redefined feelings. In this stage, rescuers were able to maintain the illusion of control, even with the negative feelings they had with after “failed” rescues (24). BASE jumpers know of other people within their close community that have had mishaps, or have had injuries. This behaviour coincides with the rescuers[grammar?] decision, BASE jumpers are able to balance their feelings in order to plan for their next attempt. Figure 4 shows a BASE jumper during their decent.

Lyng (1990) makes note of 5 essential dimensions that must exist to understand edgeworkers.       

The dimensions included the following: 

  • acknowledging the socioeconomic and historical frameworks (e.g. advancements in technology) 
  • understanding the illegal/legal aspects of the edgeworker’s activity, in which ‘perhaps one of the sources of excitement is in fact to be able to overcome this added obstacle’ 
  • understanding lesser or greater levels of emotional intensity combined with intuitive reactions 
  • being in- and out-of-control 
  • the edgeworker’s ability to make sense of their activity by understanding symbols, imagery and reality. (23).  

Type "T" personality[edit | edit source]

The type T personality has been described by psychologists as a thrill seeking or risk taking personality (10). This idea was firstly determined by Farley looking at the concept of risk taking (11).  The “T” stands for thrills and includes risk taking, thrill seeking, stimulation seeking, excitement seeking, and arousal seeking (11). Farley determined both positive and negative aspects of thrill seeking and he considered that “risk taking is at the core of human creativity” (11). Type-t personality is considered biologically based and relatively stable over a lifetime. There is a distinction between type-T and type-t. The first one refers to arousal seeking whereas the latter is arousal reducing and avoiding.

This model includes a negative/positive dimension and a mental/physical dimension. The “type-T” physical personality may explain the “thrill of participating in extreme sports” (11).

  • A “type-T” positive individual accepts risk in a positive way. For example, one that requires physical risk should be urged to participate in extreme sports[say what?].
  • The opposite comes with “type-T” negative risk takers that those individuals that participate in a negative way, for example delinquency and crime. (10).The concept of participating in extreme sports has been related to risk taking and thus these personality types are more likely to engage in these behaviours.

Means-end theory[edit | edit source]

Means-end theory was first created in the field of marketing as a way to determine consumer motivations for buying a specific product (25). However, many studies have been able to utilise this theory and expand it beyond the field of marketing. These include examining recreation activities, analysing tourist attractions, challenge programs, rope courses, and outdoor adventure experiences. The main focus for this theory are[grammar?] the attributes, consequences, and values of services or products (26). The “means” can be compared to a product or service and the “ends” are the underlying consumer’s needs’ (27). The attributes of a BASE jumping experience could include: 

  • social interaction 
  • discovery 
  • curiosity 
  • escape from stress, or scenic beauty

  Gutman (1982) defined consequences as any positive or negative outcome that is indirectly or directly linked to a consumer behaviour (28). Negative consequences are defined as costs or risk, while positive ones are referred to as benefits (29). A BASE jumping experience could include  

  • Positive consequences such as adrenaline rush, control, or overcoming fear.  
  • Negative consequences such as physical injury, affording the newest technology, medical costs and travel costs or even death.  
  • Values are the last component in the means-end theory. Values are referered to as abstract consequences that outline desired end-states of being (30). 

External factors[edit | edit source]

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Danger[edit | edit source]

Another possible reasoning behind high-risk participation can be attributed to the validity of an adventure recreation model (31). The underlying concept is that participants positively value risk and danger. The model suggests individual attributes, level of engagement and activity or setting attributes as underlying risk recreation. Individual attributes refer to frequency of participation (low to high), level of skill, and locus of control. Activity attributes refer to the level of risk, social orientation, and environmental orientation. Overall, the levels of engagement shows the scales inherent in the individual and activity attributes. The levels include introduction, development and commitment. For example, the attribute of developed environment shows introduction and natural environment shows commitment.

This model seems to describe a pattern of participation. However, there is a lack of differentiation between different activities including extreme sports. Ewert and Hollenhurst were able to demonstrate that meaning and intensity of involvement are critical to comprehend individual involvement (31). This model doesn’t necessarily explain participation of high-risk sports, however it better looks at frequency, skill and locus of control.

Genetics[edit | edit source]

There may be a genetic connection to be the cause of excitement seeking, novelty seeking or risk-taking behaviour (32). Recent studies have explored the genome and have discovered a gene that may be linked to these behaviours. The DRD4 gene was discovered in experiments done in Israel and connected to such experiences as alcoholism (33) and drug abuse (34). The DRD4 gene contains a long allele that has been associated with so called risk-taking behaviours. Persson and colleagues (2000) made the association of the long allele with risk-seeking behaviours (35). There have been studies that have failed to replicate the initial findings, however some theorists believe that the DRD4 long allele as proof of a genetic predisposition. The genetic component often is difficult to study due to the high magnitude of genes in the human genome, it is hard to narrow down a single cause.

Psychoanalysis[edit | edit source]

Hunt (1995) used psychoanalytic theory to study the concept of extreme-risk sports. Wikipedia:Psychoanalytic theory Hunt considered the case of a deep-water diver who had experienced “injury” from decompression sickness. It examines the unconscious conflicts which appeared to drive the diver’s involvement in deep diving and to a near fatal incident. The group to which the subject belonged to viewed this injury as a function of incompetence. Individuals who took extreme risks and made mistakes were often socially sanctioned (36). This study revealed many interesting points. Hunt considered that part of the reasons the subject was diving was to get “something valuable that he felt he lacked from his father”. Hunt noted aggressive fantasies and compensation for a perceived lack of power and the use of the diving equipment as “masculine toys”. In addition, Hunt made notes on the subjects “masochistic conflicts, ego deficiencies, bi-sexual conflicts, and hostility towards his mother and wife. Hunt made a bold conclusion by stating that “all extended range divers had deficiencies in their relationships with their fathers (36).

This study suggested that physical abuse, verbal abuse, absence, passivity and sickness would have an influence on risk-taking behaviour. Hunt theorized that “the more risky and violent the sport, the more likely do issues of bisexuality, masculinity, aggression and sadomasochism appear to influence a person’s sport participation (36). Overall, particular attention was focused on the role of the diver’s father in the evolution of the preoedipal and oedipal fantasies and conflicts which appear to be linked with the injury.


In psychoanalysis, the Oedipus complex is a child's desire, that the mind keeps in the unconscious via dynamic repression, to have sexual relations with the parent of the opposite sex

However, despite these notes and findings, Hunt concluded by accepting that individuals react differently to childhood patterns. It is important to consider that the subject said other comments that could be influenced that were not published in the final paper.

Socialisation and risk-taking[edit | edit source]

According to the Coakley (1998): “Socialization is an active process of learning and social development that occurs as people interact with one another and become acquainted with the one another and become acquainted with the social world in which they live, and as they form ideas about who they are, and make decisions about their goals and behaviours”. Society shapes and moulds the young to fit in and contribute which can lead some to participate in more risky behaviours than others.

A study on deep sea diving (36), used information from unstructured interviews and fieldwork to describe how divers are socialised into expanding their risk-taking behaviours. This study differentiated between high-risk and extreme sports; where extreme indicated a high potential for death as a result of error and high risk indicated a high potential for injury. The sample included divers who identified diving being a higher priority than occupation and family. Hunt found that the adoption of “new technologies”, informal competition, positive and negative sanctions and anxiety neutralisation were among the main concepts that enhanced risk-taking behaviour. However, as Hunt noted not all divers who are exposed to the sub-culture give into these socialisation processes. Additionally, divers were negatively sanctioned if they attempted excessive risks.

Bratton, Kinear and Koroluk (1979) did interviews and developed a questionnaire in order to determine why people climb (37). Participants were members of the Calgary Alpine Club of Canada. They were asked to circle a scale of 0-5 for statements that outlines a possible reason for climbing. They categorised the results as a function of mean score and the number of times a phrase was highlighted by the participants. The findings indicated that hard rock climbers tended to be motivated for achievement and challenge whereas hill-walkers tended to be motivated by exercise and relaxation (37). Young climbers were more likely to climb as a relief from everyday routine. Other theorists suggest that a reason is to get an escape from everyday boredom. Bratton’s study is of importance for explaining risk-taking,[grammar?] it is worth noting that only 2 percent rated themselves as expert mountaineers and there [missing something?] no attempt to differentiate between extreme levels and average risk levels.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

It is crucial to research the motivation behind extreme sports (eg BASE jumping) to better provide insights as to why individuals choose to participate. It is also important to understand the values held by these extreme athletes. These athletes all have their own beliefs and motivations behind participating and it is fascinating and intriguing to examine further.

“Never ignore your instinct and you can always push harder. I get inspired when I think about people who have pushed their bodies to the limit.” – Rachel Atherton ( Downhill Racing Cyclist)

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

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Bratton, R.D., Kinnear, G., & Koroluk, G. (1979). Why man climbs mountains. International Review of Sport Sociology, 14(2), 23-36.

Ebstein, R.P., & Belmaker, R.H. (1997). Saga of an adventure gene: Novelty seeking, substance abuse and the dopamine D4 receptor (D4DR) exon 3 repeat polymorphism. Molecular Psychiatry, 2(5), 381-384.

Ewert, A., & Hollenhorst, S. (1989). Testing the adventure model: Empirical support for a model of risk recreation participation. Journal of Leisure Research, 21(2), 124-139.

Farley, F. (1991). The type-T personality. In L.Lipsitt & L. Mitnick (Eds.), Self-regulatory behaviour and risk taking: Causes and consequences. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishers.

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External links[edit | edit source]

Extreme wingsuit flying, leading edge of extreme sports