While the word ‘extreme’ can refer to doing something greater than most others have done before, it can also simply mean doing something greater than you have personally ever done before. In this way, do you regard yourself as an extreme athlete, or aspire to be one?
In my mind, there are several dimensions to the definition of an extreme athlete:
- What you invest in preparation for the event
- What your effort produces
- What it costs you
- What message you send to others
Let’s briefly examine each of these dimensions.
What do you invest, in terms of time, energy, and attention (= your limited resources), compared to your other activities, commitments, and responsibilities?
When training and the event itself demand just a reasonable part of your resources that are shared with your other activities and responsibilities then it may be regarded as a more moderate investment. When it demands more resources compared to what is required by your other activities, commitments, and responsibilities, then this is more extreme.
We might expect that a professional athlete will limit other activities, commitments, and responsibilities so that there is less competition for their resources – it is their main occupation after all. There are recreational athletes who have the means or make choices to not have other responsibilities and therefore are free to spend most of their resources on their sport. And then, there are those who are trying to do both: they give a significant amount of their resources to their sport as well as to their other commitments and responsibilities (e.g. their work, school, relationships, meaningful causes, etc.).
Your investment could be regarded as extreme in how much you give to your sport compared to other areas of your life. Or your investment could be regarded as extreme in how far you try to stretch your limited resources among many commitments and responsibilities.
What result in your event do you get from that investment?
- You end up barely surviving the event. It was highly stressful and physically painful and/or psychologically negative. It might even be traumatic to some degree. Pain here refers to actual damage being done to your body or the serious threat of damage.
- You end up with a relatively comfortable achievement. You did it with relatively low physical strain and a positive psychological experience.
- You end up with a personally competitive achievement. Not only did you do it with relative comfort, you did it better than before.
- You end up with an elite achievement. You produce a result near the top of your competitive peers.
When you make the necessary and sufficient training investment, over months and years, you go beyond surviving the event to thriving in the event. Your body has adapted well to the demands of the training and event.
Extreme can be defined in either subjective terms – achieving something personally amazing compared to what you’ve experienced before, or objective terms – achieving something amazing compared to what most other peer athletes experience.
A person can produce an elite achievement in a way that is positive physically and psychologically, or do it in a way that is negative. They are approaching the limits of their body and while the limit is reachable by different paths, those paths are not equal in terms of their cost.
A person may make an inadequate investment in training, end up barely surviving their event, and yet feel proud that they made it. But I would not promote this approach for reasons explained in the next two dimensions.
There is the consideration of the short-term cost or debt, and the potential long-term cost or debt to the training investment and to doing the event itself.
The signs that debt is being accrued is in the negative impact the training or event is having on the body (which includes the mind, in my view). Is your body becoming more capable and eager to engage in this activity or less?
When your training and the event itself impose daily, weekly, and yearly wear-and-tear on the body that can be recovered from with daily, periodic, and annual rest cycles – what I call ‘short-term debt’ – this would be regarded as a moderate cost. When your training and/or the event itself impose wear-and-tear on the body that takes an unreasonably long time to recover from or accumulates damage that later (prematurely) restricts one’s physical and/or psychological ability to participate in the activity pain-free and with enjoyment that others of your age are able to – this would be regarded as an extreme cost.
An athlete accruing only short-term debt and limiting, then carefully paying back long-term debt can maintain their athletic life for a long time. An athlete accruing long-term debt is going to be shut down much sooner.
From this dimension, there are two extreme positions to caution against:
There are those who choose the personal-competitive and elite athlete lifestyle, and are, by design, pushing the limits of their body for many years – they are racking up long-term debt that may or may not be recovered from later. While there are inspiring stories of individuals coming out of a professional extreme sport apparently without lasting physical or psychological damage, we may be confident that, statistically, far more are not. I trust or hope that these amazing people have considered the future cost of their path and have thoughtfully accepted the trade-off.
Then there are those who, sometimes later in life, start to pursue an activity or choose an event that demands much from the body, but they do not really understand or appreciate the process and years of preparation required to do it safely and competently. Competency here means the kind of physical and mental skill and strength that allow one to finish the event comfortably and even competitively while avoiding much long-term debt.
Because many extreme sports are now so common in our culture, the appreciation for what makes them truly extreme seems to have diminished. Many years ago, when it was not common, those who engaged in these difficult activities tended to understand them to be so, and by their training, demonstrated their respect for the demands. Professional athletes still do.
But now it seems that the more common, popular perception regards extreme activities as more attainable than ever, while the understanding or respect for what is required to do it safely and competently has decreased on average. Attend a popular extreme event and observe the people who do not finish or barely do so. Listen to a bunch of teenagers who’ve just binged on Youtube clips of amazing athletic achievements.
When you look at your peers and friends who are doing an extreme sport or activity, or when others look at you doing it, what message is being sent? What role model is being set?
If people are being encouraged to go for it, are they being shown how to pursue that achievement on a path that leads to a desirable outcome at a cost they are willing to accept?
An extreme athlete does not need to be one with a shortened lifespan in the sport. A thoughtful athlete can pursue relatively extreme achievements by considering the dimensions of what makes the activity potentially extreme for them and then consciously choosing a training path that fits their values. A longevity athlete will invest the necessary years into a responsible training process that systematically builds competency and leads to positive achievements without incurring irreversible long-term debt, and by this, they set a good example for others to follow.
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