Lessons Outside of Sport: An Astronaut on Fear

Lessons Outside of Sport is an Inside Rival series on what athletes can take from other areas of high performance in the world.


“In my experience, fear comes from not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. When you feel helpless, you’re far more afraid than you would be if you knew the facts. If you’re not sure what to be alarmed about, everything is alarming.” - Chris Hadfield, first Canadian Astronaut to walk in space.

Imagine you’re outside the International Space Station (ISS) conducting a space walk to work on the ship when something gets in your eye. Because you’re in space, your body’s natural reaction of crying to clear out the substance doesn’t work - there’s no gravity for the tears to fall. Instead, the tears form a cloudy bubble in front of one eye that slowly blobs over to the other eye, completely obscuring your vision. All of a sudden, you’re floating in space unable to see. This is exactly what happened to Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield on his first space walk.



A significant portion of mental performance consulting is dedicated to mental rehearsal, anticipating competition nerves or setbacks, and how to manage them when they arrive. This preparation is what allows athletes to practice resiliency when they encounter obstacles and that ability to respond vs. react is a competitive advantage. If you’re an athlete and you’re wondering how do I overcome the fear of (insert here) in my sport? Then you need to understand what could happen and prepare for it. “We don’t just practice things going right,” says Chris Hadfield, “we practice things going wrong” (Hadfield, 2013).


1. Work The Problem

You may have heard the phrase as recently spoken by Matt Damon in The Martian but it actually is one of NASA’s mottos. In Gene Kranz’s “Failure Is Not An Option”, a memoir about the Apollo 13 mission and the crisis real-life astronauts faced, he warned “Let’s not make things worse by guessing. Work the problem.” Work the problem is NASA-speak for methodically looking for a solution through a decision tree framework until you overcome the obstacle. Hadfield explains, “In order to stay calm in high-stress, high-stakes situations, all you really need is knowledge”. A decision tree is a problem solving, tree-like model with possible options and their consequences (good and bad/pros and cons) that help people accomplish tasks by breaking them down into one step at a time. Chris made the decision to vent a little bit of oxygen out of his suit to clear up what was obscuring his vision inside his helmet. Because he understood his suit so well, and because he remained calm, he confidently navigated the problem and got the job done. In enacting a plan and taking steps to actively handle the problem, he retained control over the situation which, in turn, acted as a buffer to fear. Chris made it back to the space lock safely where his teammate then proceeded to provide basic first aid to his eyes and the scary scenario became nothing more than an opportunity to try something else when things seemed to be going wrong. In order for a decision tree to work there’s a significant amount of forethought or planning in advance that goes into structuring it before needing to use it in real-time. In sports, mental performance consultants and sport psychologists “work the problem” by having their athletes utilize different strategies to help manage cognitive or somatic anxiety:

  • Pre-performance routines

  • Biofeedback

  • Self-Talk & Refocusing on Controllables

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

  • Breath Control

...and more. Other strategies work to systematically desensitize the athlete and increase distress tolerance ahead of the event. One of the most popular stress management techniques is stress inoculation training, what we call a ‘Cope Ahead’, and it has been found to be effective in reducing performance anxiety and enhancing performance in a sports setting (Weinberg & Gould, 2019).


2. If You’re Afraid, Just Do It

Astronauts adopt stress inoculation training as well. When Chris went blind in space, he was already prepared for, not specifically blindness, but a ‘what if’ scenario to a teammate being incapacitated outside the space station. He was already trained on how to navigate back to the space lock so well that he could do so without seeing. He was prepared for the stress of handling a pop-up crisis while on his space walk. Prior to his space walk outside of the ISS, Chris Hadfield underwent simulated training underwater and in virtual reality to help him anticipate and practice what to do in the face of fear.


The four-stage approach to coping ahead (Weinberg & Gould, 2019):

  1. Prepare for the stressor

  2. Control and handle the stressor

  3. Cope with feelings of being overwhelmed

  4. Evaluate your efforts


“The danger is entirely different than the fear. The key is by looking at the difference between perceived danger and actual danger. Where’s the real risk? Where’s the real thing that you should be afraid of and not just a generic fear of bad things happening?” (Hadfield, 2014). He insists that in order to override that fundamental human reaction of panic you have to put yourself in that situation and practice doing the opposite of your instincts; “What I do each day determines the kind of person I’ll become” (Hadfield, 2013).


3. Attitude is Everything

Optimism is a skill that creates a courageous mindset. This doesn’t mean imploring wishful thinking but to not get so wrapped up in the negativity, especially when it’s something that’s outside of your control; “Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction” (Hadfield, 2013). When you can change your reactions to planned responses it allows you to perform in ways that would otherwise be on another level to you. And through this training you begin to realize you’re more capable than what you were previously giving yourself credit for. “Feeling ready to do something doesn’t mean feeling certain you’ll succeed, though of course, that’s what you’re hoping to do”, writes Hadfield in his autobiography. “Truly being ready means understanding what could go wrong – and having a plan to deal with it.


Watch and listen to Chris Hadfield’s TedTalk “What I learned from going blind in space” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zo62S0ulqhA (And yes, he does play guitar and sing Space Oddity at the end of his talk).



Resources:

1. Hadfield, C. (2013) An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. Penguin Random House.

2. Kranz, G. (2000) Failure Is Not An Option.

3. Weinberg, R. S., & Gould, D. (2019). Confidence In, Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (7th ed.) Human Kinetics.

4. Hadfield, C. (2014) What I learned from going blind in space. Ted Talks. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zo62S0ulqhA


 

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