By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business, American Public University
My wife and I recently watched the movie “The Last Full Measure.” I won’t spoil any details for those who haven’t seen it yet, but it’s a great flick.
It highlighted the true story of Air Force pararescueman William Pitsenbarger, who sacrificed his life in the Vietnam War to save a platoon of U.S. soldiers pinned down by an enemy ambush attack and then mistakenly bombed by their own air support. The movie focuses on the decades-long push by the Army veterans who survived the attack to see that Pitsenbarger received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism.
The story is riveting from beginning to end, but for this article I just want to highlight one scene that struck a real chord with me. Late in the film, Pentagon staffer Scott Huffman (played by Sebastian Stan) comes to terms with both the profound courage of Pitsenbarger’s selfless actions and the uphill battle he faces if he decides to support the nomination.
Huffman discovers that Pitsenbarger’s Medal of Honor designation had been suppressed and ignored for nearly 30 years for reasons of political inconvenience. So Huffman wrestles with his conscience and the potential costs to his own career should he do the feather ruffling and pot stirring that are necessary to see the nomination through to the end.
At one pivotal moment, Huffman is discussing the consequences of stubbornly pursuing the issue with the powers that threaten his efforts, and he confesses to his wife, “I’m scared.”
She responds, “Fear is good. Fear is a survival instinct. You’re supposed to be afraid. Use it.”
This powerfully emotional moment caught me by surprise and resonated deeply with me. Interestingly, my first thoughts went to my motocross hobby as a point of relation.
Motocross: Enjoyment, Energy and the Motivation to Overcome Fear
Extreme sports are a mystery to many who don’t participate in them. “Why would you want to do something so dangerous?” they ask. “Aren’t you afraid?!”
Yes, of course I am. Fear is natural. But there is obviously an enjoyment factor to the activity as well. And believe it or not, there is a utility to the fear. It can be a source of energy and motivation to overcome that which makes us fearful.
For example, in motocross, when riding on a new track, every rider has to learn new obstacles and jumps. Some are small and easy, but other jumps — the bigger ones — can be challenging and intimidating. Trying to gauge how fast you need to go to clear a jump is often frightening when you attempt it for the first time.
Some big jumps are what motocross riders call “tabletops.” As the name implies, this is a large jump that resembles a big table, flat on top with a ramp to take off on and another to land on.
These jumps are not usually too scary because even if you don’t hit the jump with enough speed to clear it, the worst possible result is landing on top of the “table.” The impact can be jarring, but usually isn’t dangerous enough to cause serious injury.
But other jumps, however, are doubles and triples. They consist of two or three humps in a row, and motocross racers are expected to jump over the gaps between them.
Unlike tabletops, these jumps are much more dangerous — and consequently scarier. That’s because if you don’t take off with enough speed, you can come up short and “case” the jump; that is, landing hard on the incline of the second or third hump.
Casing a jump is like hitting a brick wall — all momentum stops instantly and it frequently causes crashes and injuries. The severity of the injury depends on the length of the jump and the impact of the landing.
Some jumps are short — just a few feet. But others can be massive, with 50-, 75- or even 100-foot gaps. Attempting a big double or triple jump for the first time is frightening.
Experience allows a rider to estimate the speed needed to clear such an obstacle. But you can never really know exactly how fast you need to go until you actually do it.
The Worst Thing about Motocross Jumps Is that Hesitation or Tepidness Can Seal Your Fate
Perhaps the worst thing about these jumps is that hesitation or tepidness can seal your fate. When approaching a big double or triple jump, you have to “commit” to it. If you take the approach halfheartedly or attempt to abort at the end, you’re virtually guaranteed to land short and get hurt.
So once you set off to tackle the jump, there can be no turning back. A half-cocked attempt is not an option.
I know from experience — including broken bones and stitches — that the consequences of screwing up can be very painful. Fear begins to set in. “What if I case it?” Your breath shortens, your chest tightens and your palms sweat. That familiar cold feeling washes over you.
But courage is born through redirecting that fear energy to focus. You choose fight over flight and zero in on the goal.
The physical response readies you for the leap. The anxiety is directed into a heightened sense of awareness. You roll over the jump several times to assess the ramp angle, distance and height. You double-check your estimates. You prep your bike, your safety gear and your mental state for the task ahead. And then…you commit.
If Your Commitment and Follow-Through Are Solid and Focused, You Land in One Piece
You don’t succeed every time. I’ve cased plenty of jumps.
But more often than not, if your commitment and follow-through are solid and focused, you land in one piece on the other side. Then you look back at the jump you just “sent” and the fear you conquered. And you recognize that the fear and how you used it helped you to succeed in that moment.
This lesson about conquering fear is obviously applicable to contexts far beyond motocross and extreme sports. Personal challenges, family crises, and any other fear-inducing stimuli can produce a sense of energy and alertness that you can put to productive use in overcoming obstacles in your way.
Despite fear’s unsettling effect on our poise and confidence, it can actually make the difference between success and failure. So don’t resist or lament fear. The next time you’re afraid — use it.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.