Will This Hurt? The Psychology of Pushing Yourself

Words by Chris Moran. Photography by Matt Georges
It doesn’t matter how good you are at snowboarding – whether you’re an absolute beginner or just about to drop into an Olympic pipe – there seem to be two major problems with pushing your abilities: the fear of getting hurt, and the fear of doing so in front of others. Pain and stage fright. A horrible, damning, disgraceful combination which somehow invokes an image of being invited onto stage by Madonna for a sexy dance, only to receive a Sid-The-Sexist style kick in the knackers in front of the entire Brixton Academy. And yet, if it weren’t for pain and fear, our experiences would be dulled enormously, and we’d probably be so agoraphobic that we’d all be living in caves, listening to Steve Wright, and reaching for the last bit of Vienetta in a paranoid fog.

Think I’m talking bollocks? Well read on….

To understand why we push ourselves in the first place, it’s worth breaking the two factors – pain and humiliation – into more manageable chunks. The pain part of the equation is easy to de-construct. When faced with a gap jump, rail or steeper-then-we’re-used-to slope, there’s a voice in our heads that pops up and lets us know in no-uncertain terms that what we are about to do could result in egg-on-face – or a trip to A&E. Naturally, the voice points out a few of the worst case scenarios. “What if you catch your edge on the run up,” it says, “and front flip straight over the take-off, landing eyeball-first on the sharp bit of metal that is undoubtedly a centimetre beneath the snow?” The voice will almost certainly take the form of a figure of authority such as a parent or teacher (mine is Victor Logic from Viz), and run through a clip-board’s worth of equally dire and potentially fatal consequences. “You’re going to overshoot the landing,” it says, “and land arse-first on a Victorian, iron fence.”

Gigi takes a leap of faith. Frontside 900 Austria

The voice has good reason to dissuade you from engaging in horrendously dangerous activities. After all, the voice in your head is you – only it’s the absolute pussy version of you. The part of you that would much prefer to stay indoors, plug the Playstation in and spend the afternoon chasing mushrooms in a Super Mario go kart before having a pre-elevenses Müller Fruit Corner. If you listened to this part of your person, you’d inevitably end up so socially withdrawn that within a year you’d be living on your own in a safe, English village like Dibley, having the Daily Mail delivered by a paper boy that you suspect of being a ‘hoodie’.

The trouble is, of course, that the voice is often right, and – when someone dares you to do a cartwheel on the wall of the Tignes Dam for example – it’s worth listening to its advice. So how do you know when to ignore it? I mean, if you look at things rationally, we shouldn’t be risking life and limb for anything. And given the choice between a terribly painful death or, say, a gentle footscrub, what sane person wouldn’t be whipping off the socks and presenting our tootsies for their wriggly bubbly bathtime?

The real question, then, isn’t why we’re so reluctant to get smashed to pieces, but why we go there in the first place. What – in the name of god – is driving us towards potential death in the form of an acrobatic feat over an industrial-grade stair aid? Other writers have pondered this question. Bill Bryson, in his best work ‘Australia’, scratched his beard at a group of skateboarders he encountered who were engaged in the time-honoured pursuit of sessioning a handrail:

“I sat for a minute on a bench,” he wrote, “and with morbid interest watched [these kids] risking compound fractures and severe testicular trauma for the fleeting satisfaction of sliding along a banister for a distance of from zero inches to a couple of feet, before being launched by gravity and the impossibility of maintaining balance into space – in the direction of an expanse of unyielding pavement.”

And what did he make of it?

“It seemed a remarkably foolish enterprise.”

It is a remarkably foolish enterprise, so what makes us do it?

Gerben Werveij, BS 50-50

Well, I think it comes down to the simple glue that binds all of history’s great people – curiosity. As Albert Einstein himself put it, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Such is the situation when facing a physical challenge. It’s the curiosity of finding out whether we can do it or not that is driving us forward and gagging the wuss voice in our heads. “I wonder if I can make that gap?” we wonder. “You know what? I think I can – and I’m willing to literally place my legs as a bet to prove I’m right.”

Yup – you read that right. We’re betting our own legs against ourselves in a game of physical roulette that involves jumping a dangerous and tetanus-laden wire fence using only gravity, the gliding properties of chrystallised water and a wooden plank.

Crazy stuff, but we all do it.

The stage fright part of this whole madness is equally ridiculous when you think about it. Would we even contemplate jumping that same fence if there was no-one looking? In some cases the answer is ‘yes’. These people are to be avoided – they are true lunatics, and their wuss voice is likely to be metaphorically locked in a trunk somewhere with a plastic orange ball strapped to its mouth. For the rest of us, the answer is ‘no’. We like to push ourselves at snowboarding because we want people to see us. We’re nothing but shallow show-offs engaging in a sort of peacock-display of fuckwittery that has the potential to reap some pitying applause. We crave the praise of our friends, relatives and peers like a puppy that’s just learned to shit in a litter tray and is proudly standing next to a pile of crap with a cute grin on his face. “Oh look,” you hope they’ll mutter when browsing through your holiday photos, “you jumped off an enormous cliff. You must be mad!” Pathetic aren’t we?

Well… kind of. On the other hand, we have been blessed with a nature that is restlessly inquisitive, and it feels fantastic to indulge it once in a while. For those who are still with me, we’ve got some literary heavyweights backing us up. “Once conform,” wrote Virginia Wolf, “once do what other people do because they do it, and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and faculties of the soul.” She wasn’t alone. Samuel Johnson, the literary giant of the 1700s, was equally convinced that testing your limits was a worthy cause. “Curiosity,” he wrote, “is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous mind.” Yet perhaps the man with the finest grasp of why it’s best to trust your finer judgements and launch into the abyss of the unknown was the early 19th Century orator Edwin Chapin. “Whatever touches the nerves of motive,” he said, “whatever shifts man’s moral position, is mightier than steam, or calorie, or lightening.”

As a catchphrase to shout before dropping a cliff, it’ll get you props.

MFR FS Boardslide

And the reward of doing so? Ah! Well this is where we can understandably give in to a little bit of smuggery. Because if we weigh up all the possibilities and decide that we do have the skills to master our own particular demons – whether that be a 5-foot drop or a Hemsedal mega-booter – there’s a good chance that we’ll commit ourselves to trying. And when we put our bodies on the line, there is nothing – nothing – that approaches that level of commitment. For a split second, when you’re standing at the top of the run-in and staring at the kicker like it’s a snorting bull that’s staring back at you, and your inner voice is pleading on its knees for you to listen to it and to go back to the café and have a nice cup of hot chocolate – THAT’s when you find out what you’re really made of. So you stand firm, shush the voice, trust in your ability to do this thing… and then go. That’s the moment that you’re looking for. That’s why we snowboard. That’s the part of the sport that you can’t buy.

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear,” wrote Mark Twain, one of the most poetic writers of the 1800s. If we distill our reasons for strapping into a snowboard, we might be left with that pure, honest, truism. We go snowboarding because we’re looking for that moment of courage. We know it’s there, we want to believe we’re courageous, and we want to test our own mettle.

It has been said that fear is the dark room where negatives are developed. By exposing ourselves to some danger, we get to see our true character reveal itself. Sometimes we chicken out, and sometimes we drop in. Whichever it is, by exploring our curiosity – by pushing our abilities and jumping gaps, launching over snow mounds or sliding down bits of metal – we’re following in a fine tradition. We could well be keeping the flame alive. After all, as old Einstein wrote in the notes to his autobiography: “It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern world has not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.”

He’d have loved snowboarding. I’m sure of it.


Newsletter Terms & Conditions

Please enter your email so we can keep you updated with news, features and the latest offers. If you are not interested you can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell your data and you'll only get messages from us and our partners whose products and services we think you'll enjoy.

Read our full Privacy Policy as well as Terms & Conditions.