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Brymer, E. (2010) Risk and Extreme Sports: A phenomenological perspective, Annals of Leisure Research, 13(1&2), 218-239
Statistics suggest that participation rates in adventure and extreme sports are growing faster than traditional recreational sporting activities such as golf. Between 1998 and 2001 participation rates in extreme sports far outstripped any other sporting activity and this trend seems to be continuing. Interestingly theoretical perspectives that have been used to explain participation still focus on the notion that participants are a minority and assume that participation is about risk-taking. Participation has been explained as a function of a genetic or chemical status that differentiates participants from the norm. Researchers and theorists have also drawn on non-normal and even pathological personality traits, antisocial youth cultures, masculinity and narcissism to explain why some people are drawn to undertaking activities deemed to be socially unacceptable. In summary, a variety of theoretical perspectives present an argument that personality traits, socialisation processes, and previous experiences work to compel a participant to put their life at risk through extreme sports. From these theoretical, risk-taking perspectives extreme sports participation is: 1) a need or search for uncertainty and uncontrollability; 2) a pathological and unhealthy activity that results in self deception; and 3) a focus on undertaking an activity where death is probable for thrills and excitement.
However, evidence suggests that risk is not the focus. Participants do not seem to demonstrate typical risk-taking behaviours or display typical personality characteristics of someone who would want to take irresponsible risks due to a pathological problem. Studies indicate that experienced participants display low levels of anxiety, a strong sense of reality and emotional control. One study found that participants exhibited self-responsibility and were deemed to be resourceful, energetic and adaptable. Men and women shared personality characteristics that included above average intelligence, above average desire for success and recognition, above average independence, self-assertiveness and forthrightness. Another study on Mountaineers found low neuroticism and high extraversion. Extreme individuals are also generally more relaxed and less governed by super-ego than the average population. Any assumption that participants might take risks through overconfidence or overestimation of their abilities would also be erroneous
Statistical comparison between the death rates of motorcyclists, BASE-jumpers and climbers also suggest that extreme sports may not be risk oriented. A study undertaken in the UK found that the death rate for climbers was 1:4000 which compares favorably against motor cycle riding where the death rate is 1:500. An analysis of 20,850 BASE-jumps in Norway over 11 years and found that the death rate was 1:2317 and while the injury rate was high they were in the main linked to sprains and bruises. Perhaps then the tendency to focus on theories that search for labels involving ‘risk’ and/or ‘thrills’ is entirely missing the point. That is, extreme sports are not synonymous with risk and participation may not be about risk taking. Theoretically driven methodologies that focus on risk may reflect judgments that do not relate to participants lived experience and might actually be more about researcher assumptions.
Current risk oriented perspectives on extreme sports are limited in their ability to explain participation. Only last weekend I was part of a radio talk show with 3 wonderful people who had experienced extreme events. None of these people deserved the risk-taking label. This assumed relationship between extreme sports and risk needs to be rethought. Risk-taking is not the focus. Participants acknowledge that the potential outcome of a mismanaged mistake or accident could be death, however, accepting this potential outcome does not mean that they search for risk. Participants argue that many everyday life events (e.g. driving) are high-risk events. Participants undertake detailed preparation in order to minimise the possibility of negative outcomes because extreme sports trigger a range of positive experiential outcomes. The downside of this negative risk taking focus is that we may be missing something vital, something that can add to human experience and help us understand what it means to be human.
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