Just the word is enough to stir up associations that in themselves can strike fear into peoples’ hearts and minds.

Classified as a ‘negative’ emotion that needs to be controlled, overcome, ignored, or let go, we’re told it equals ‘Fight or Flight.’ An ancient rudimentary survival mechanism that, depending on who you ask, is rooted deep down in either our lizard brain or chimp brain. Because of this, it’s now out of date and inferior to our more developed rational thinking brain departments who should really be in charge.

Performance psychology is awash with comments about how fear wrecks performance in almost every area where it counts - in business, in sport, in performing arts, even in education.

A lot of time and effort is spent in self-development techniques and popular psychology attempting to quell our fear.

If this is what we’re told, it’s easy to dismiss it as unwanted and unnecessary in modern day life.

And lets face it, fear can be extremely unpleasant so it’s not surprising if we want to stay away from it.

Is our common view of fear as accurate as we might think? And are there other areas of human performance that could inform us better about this?

In my coaching of athletes in the more dangerous areas of elite sports, fear is central to almost all the work that I do, but probably not in the way you might think.

Fear is also a positive emotion that guides performance in not only a good way, but an essential way too.

These athletes tend to talk about fear being a companion that they couldn’t be without. It keeps them focussed and concentrated, in the moment. It stops them overstepping the mark and they think it keeps them alive because of the attention it forces them to have on proper action (and safekeeping). Some may also talk about how the wait before an event is full of fear, such as racers at the Isle of Man TT, or competitors about to ride off the mountain at the Red Bull Rampage and that it is an essential part of the competitive experience.

During a recent coaching conversation, a World Cup Mountain Bike racer described how, if he was in touch with a sprinkle of fear, he would execute his ride very well. If he didn’t have this feeling, he might be a bit more sloppy in his riding, make mistakes or choose less effective lines.

These athletes are in touch with their fear and they know it well. I believe that there is a strong link between how well an athlete knows their fear and their success. The better they know it and can work with it, the more they’ll achieve

© Red Bull Media House

These athletes are also aware of the different qualities of fear and how they influence their performance.

We all know that we can experience different levels of fear which puts it much more on a continuum - we can fear a little or we can fear a lot. Sometimes the fear enhances what we do, sometimes it is a hinderance. The Fight or Flight element is merely at one end of the spectrum probably somewhere towards blind panic, but even then it has its value.

We also know that fear is irrational - we can be fine with one thing that might be risky but fear something else that poses no real risk to us at all. Fear is a personal, subjective emotion.

With this in mind, one might conclude that fear isn’t all that simple. And that it isn’t all that bad. Nor is it in any way a weakness. For those involved in pushing their own boundaries of performance and the perceived limits of achievement in their area, it is still as valid as ever. Could it not be just as valid in the context of business?

To find this out, we need to get to know our fear better. In my work this involves finding and exploring the right qualities of fear for the individual in the relevant context.

Here are some common patterns I come across in my work:

Performing at our best takes focus and concentration and the effort required for this can be exhausting. However, there’s at point at which fear naturally focusses the mind to enable a more efficient concentration on what is most appropriate in the moment. It appears that at this point, the effort required is reduced, making the process easier and more sustainable. In addition, this point of fear also tends to get the athlete somewhat out of their heads, releasing them to enable correct, smooth, fluid movements to happen, along with sharp, clear decision making. There is somehow an added sharpness to the experience which can also produce hyper awareness of sensory feedback. It feels like we have more time on our hands too. The general quality to seek is a sharp, clean, centred focus which extends throughout us - a bit like being bathed in clean crisp cool water - tinged with a bit of fear of course.

Whilst it would be both challenging and probably unhealthy to attempt to sustain this for long periods of time, it can serve as an exquisite ally during critical competitions and business events, for example.

In contrast, we have probably all had those experiences when in our minds something is shouting at us not to do something and there’s an internal chattering going on about it, along with lots of thoughts about what could go wrong. There’s a busy quality of mind to this and it often relates to things that rationally we may not have any problem doing at all, or at least don’t pose us any immediate danger. This quality is what I will call a head fear. It’s helpful to understand this feeling because it rarely brings much value and instead just stops you from trying things and achieving them. This is the kind of fear that is not really real, even if it feels like it. I think this may be the fear most people refer to when they talk about managing or overcoming it.

This is a quality of fear athletes fear as it means their head is getting in the way of their performance - it can lead to disastrous consequences when involved in complex, high pressure tasks. Like the below backflip across the canyon gap at the Red Bull Rampage - the last thing you need to be doing is ‘thinking’ about it. In business head fear can lead to multiple constraints on both performance and personal development in many different areas.

© Red Bull Media House

At the other end of the spectrum we have that special fear that marks the tipping point. It’s the kind of fear that says not to go ahead with what you’re doing because there is a real problem - and it’s likely to end in disaster, like serious injury or death. Now this one is very important and it is different in quality to the above head fear. This one is a deep seated intuitive feeling and you can almost feel it in your bones. There may not be anything rational about this intuition because your mind may not pick up on what it is. This is the fear that all those involved in extreme sports learn to listen to and obey.

It takes practice to distinguish between these qualities of fear, the latter two in particular. Unless we get to know our fear, we can run the risk of head fear blowing things out of proportion, or attempt to quell real fear leading to recklessness.

How to get to know our fear

Getting to know these fears for ourselves must naturally involve embracing the inherent discomfort and some doing of things. Whilst it is useful to explore our experiences of fear when sitting on the sofa or within a coaching session, the immediate experience is always most valuable because our fear is a reflection of how we relate to our environment through the activity we’re doing (developing in the moment awareness is important in this process too).

Our fear is a reflection of how we relate to our environment through the activity we’re doing

If you are onboard with my approach, my suggestion is that you first think about where you might be able to use your fear better. It can help to note down where you feel fear and in which circumstances. Then sense into your recollection of these relevant experiences of fear and seek to explore their qualities. Don’t judge or analyse any of them. For example, if you experience dreadful fear when approaching someone as part of a sales process or difficult management task, in taking a business critical decision, or embarking on a new personal or business venture it is all equally valid fear - it’s getting to know the quality of experience that matters.

Once you’ve achieved greater familiarity with your experiences, it’s time to take it out into the world. In the area where you’ve decided you want to improve your performance, begin to push your boundaries in that setting - gently. You might notice that fear begins to rise up within you, but as you’re doing this gently, you can sense into it to feel when you get to the point that focusses you in a useful way. Stay as much as you can within that space. If it is just a glimmer of a moment before you flee from it through discomfort or lose touch with it, that’s fine - it’s a process that may take time to develop, just like any other skill and this one is challenging (but worth it). You might find that to get to this space you have to pass through a kind of curtain of fear which was holding you back (e.g. through head fear).

The other two types of fear can similarly be explored in this way.

With head fear, it can be analysed to understand more about its patterns and the systems/environments within which it arises. In dealing with this fear, my experience (and client feedback) suggests it is most effective using approaches that get you out of your head such as awareness based body work, spending time in natural environments (e.g. in nature) and, of course, using coaching which has an element of integral embodied learning and knowledge. I draw on many years of Tai Chi training and Whole Person Learning approaches to inform this part of my work. There is research which suggests that some types of fear do not respond well, if at all, to rational/cognitive psychological approaches.

The tipping point fear is somewhere you may not want to go without guidance. It’s something that I only truly explore with athletes at the extreme end of the spectrum in their sport who have extremely high levels of skill and experience in their chosen field. Some athletes find that their point of clarity and focus lies very close to their tipping point and this gives little margin of error. Unforeseen events can easily take us past the tipping point and our reactions cannot always be predicted under those circumstances, even following extensive training. This is why it is so important to take guidance and training in this area very carefully.

Fear and our relationship to it applies to all areas of our lives, so whilst most of my experience comes from working with fear in sports performance, and to some extent in a clinical counselling environment, I have developed experience in its applicability to executives and entrepreneurs embarking on new forms of learning, change, transitions and decision making, for example.
(This article was updated on 7 January 2016)