Professional Lessons from Extreme Sports

“It’s the passion that keeps us alive”

There’s the old saying that goes, “find a job you like doing, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”  It is entirely true. However, in reality, we don’t always find such an opportunity, and no matter how much you may enjoy your job, you do everything you can to set aside time for your own recreation and hobbies.  Some of us find ourselves investing heavily into our own interests, with time, money, and even risk.

With the right talent and know-how, some people can successfully turn a hobby or interest into an investment, even to the point of making significant return.  Many of us do this on the side, pursuing it for our own passion more so than any financial return.  As of right now I am a senior in college, an outdoor sales representative, and an up-and-coming aviation professional.  I am also a whitewater kayaker.

I fell in love with the sport about a year ago, and as with anything, its had its ups and downs.  I do instruction, whitewater photography/videography, and have multiple sponsorships.  I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel around the country and co-run a collegiate club with a high level of financial and administrative responsibility.  I’ve also suffered various injuries, had equipment broken or lost, and been in situations that made me question my love of a sport that tries so hard to kill me.  Nonetheless, some of the most important friendships and interpersonal relationships I’ve had have come from this “side passion,” and there are a number of difficult life lessons I’ve learned through sports:

1. Fear doesn’t go away. But you need to push through it

Surprisingly, whitewater is a bit of a spectator sport.  People will line up on riverbanks and observation decks to watch you.  A number of them probably think we’re crazy.  After all, enthusiasts of all kinds love to show up to view and photograph waterfalls, then are awestruck to see people climbing up to them with plastic boats and drysuits.  We give off this impression that we are not afraid.  But in many of our first descents, we are.

If we let fear stop us, we would be robbed of the feeling of pride and accomplishment we gain after.  We would be robbed of every benefit this sport could potentially give us.  I say robbed because not only do we give something up, we let it be taken. Many people seem to let fear get in their way.  The fear of failure.  The fear of rejection.  The fear of loss.  Everybody seems to dream of starting that business, pursuing that promotion, making that big investment, making that big move across the country, but always stops short of doing so, for fear or uncertainty.  Very rarely does reward come without risk.

2. Reward comes from risk. But risk needs to be calculated

Unnecessary risk is a risk where the potential negative outcome outweighs the potential benefit.  Risk itself can be defined as the product of the potential severity of a negative result and the probability of its occurrence.  We all take various risks in our attempts to be successful, with different possible results.  We won’t huck ourselves over waterfalls without checking flow rates, scouting drop zones, and ensuring we have appropriate skill and equipment.  If you want to start that business you have always dreamed of, and you think it can give a very high return, go for it.  But don’t go for it until you have analyzed the market, ensured you won’t under-capitalize it, etc.

3. You absolutely do not know your own limits

I once heard somebody say “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.”  Yes, to some extents you may need to realize that some things are beyond your limits; see my aforementioned statement on calculated risk.  However, this is not a precise science, and we’ve all done many things that we thought we couldn’t do.  Most of us can agree that it is easier to get an effective workout by working with a trainer, being on a sports team, or through being in the military than by just going to the gym on your own without a plan.  It’s easy to give up when you’re tired, and think that you can’t go any further.  Which is fine, if you decide to lose your ambition and not have any desire to gain anything further.

4. The boat doesn’t make the paddler. The situation doesn’t make the person

It’s easy to try to blame failure or poor performance on external factors, such as lack of resources.  However, think of the opposite.  What would happen if you managed to succeed, despite a poor situation?  What if your manager saw that you could expand a program despite a lack of funding?  I’m a playboater, which in non-kayaking terms, is a kayaker that likes to do tricks in the water.  Maneuverability and stability are a trade-off; you can’t have all of both.  As such, these boats can be squirrely and unstable in the water.  It can be very frustrating, especially at first.  However, you get good, and you get good fast.  Sometimes your own skill and determination can take a less-than-desirable situation and bring out results better than you’ve ever seen.

5. Work ethic, work ethic, work ethic….don’t quit

Some things take practice and repeated attempts.  It’s especially annoying when failed attempts place you in an inconvenient and physically demanding situation.  However, you can take the possibility of negative results as either a motivation and deterrent.  There comes a time when you’re underwater and you think you might not be able to hit your roll.  It’s cold, you can’t breathe, and you’re tired.  You want to just pull out of your boat and swim.  However, what is worse: the temporary pain and difficulty followed by pride and glory, or the inconvenience (not to mention the danger) of swimming through swift-water, possibly losing equipment, then having to re-mount, re-launch, and get back in the mental game? Perfection comes with patience and perseverance.  I guess you could call that the “Rule of P’s.”

6. Stop and THINK

See my aforementioned comparison to being upside-down in dangerous whitewater and wanting to just pull out of your boat. People like to panic, then overreact without thinking.  That results in poor decisions and sloppy execution.  When I was in flight school, somebody told me that when they first learned to fly, they were told to look at their watch and count to three during emergencies.  Panicking can, and will, kill you.  In some situations physically, in other situations it can cause serious detriment or embarrassment.  Being able to keep calm under pressure is what makes somebody a leader, its what causes people to look to you in tough situations.  When I first learned to kayak, sometimes I couldn’t hit my roll, and I would pause, think, then go through the process slow and methodically.  Next thing I knew, I was upright and breathing again.

7. Somebody was always the first 

We like to look for precedents.  If somebody has done something successfully, how did they do it?  If somebody tried and failed, what did they do wrong?  After all, the phrase “tried and true” has its merit.  We study history for a reason, and that is to learn from it.

However, hasn’t somebody always had to have been the first one?  And if they did it successfully, what results did they receive?  If they were an entrepreneur, they are probably rather rich right now.  If they were a kayaker, they might have a rapid named after them, and maybe some media recognition.  Don’t be afraid to try something new.  As a civilization we grow by pushing our boundaries and discovering new things.  Not to mention, trying something new that nobody has successfully done before can teach you a lot about both the subject and yourself.  It may require analytical skills, research abilities, constant determination, etc.  Just because nobody has done something, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

Everybody has something they love and are passionate about, and maybe tomorrow you’ll find something new.  Regardless, whether we take something as a hobby, side business, or overall lifestyle, it is important to be proud of what we do, and see what can learn from it.  By learning and teaching, you may very well benefit yourself and society as a whole.


3 thoughts on “Professional Lessons from Extreme Sports

  1. Im thinking about this sport for a long time and I want to see if I can do that. But.. I don’t know where to start. Where, how, when.. My country is full of lakes, rivers, we have a sea, but it’s too hard to find a school for this. Personal instructor is too expensive. But I will keep looking and I hope I will find something. 🙂


    • Best thing to do is just find other people that do it, and look for clubs and organizations. It very well might end up being a combination of self-taught and informal instruction from friends and associates


  2. Pingback: “What if you die?” | Thoughts of an Outdoor Athlete

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