If you want to become a world-class cliff diver, there’s only one real way to do it: love it so much that you’re willing to alter the course of your entire life to make that tiny platform your office, your stage, your home.
A good cliff diver is a master of their own world, managing their emotions and exerting precision control over their body and mind. In that time between the moment they step off the platform to the split second they enter the water, the world is a small, simple place and the only thing that matters is the movement.
It’s a feeling of focus, of being in-the-moment that is otherwise impossible to experience.
But it isn’t easy to get here. And those who do make it, by necessity, learn a lot about the psychology of fear.
A natural fear of heights
Imagine you’re standing at that competition height at Red Bull Cliff Diving. You’re looking down at the water, impossibly far away. Maybe your toes are curling over the edge.
First, let’s put the numbers into some kind of perspective: 21m above the water for the women, 27m for the men.
27m is the equivalent of an eight-story building and for a lot of people, just the thought of looking down from such a great height makes them start to feel a little sick. There’s a reason why. At any given point in time, your brain is processing a number of signals just to help you keep your balance – the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, the vestibular system in your inner ear and of course, vision. It’s vision that gets a little confused when you look down from a great height.
Using our depth perception granted to us by having stereo vision, we’re used to determining distance on the horizontal plane. We do it all day, every day, as we walk, ride a bicycle, or drive. But point our head down and it becomes a different story – the eyes can’t judge the ground’s position with any real accuracy. The brain isn’t sure what signal to trust. That’s why you feel funny looking down from a great height. Just one more thing for a cliff diver to manage before taking a breath – and taking off. And this might be where a little bit of bravado comes into play: if you think you might screw it up, you might’ve already screwed it up. Confidence is incredibly key!
When it all goes right, cliff divers will spear into the water like a needle through cloth – with the least resistance and no real pain. When they resurface, it'll be to the cheer of the crowd, the marks from the judges and with feelings of pure joy and jubilation. If it goes wrong, well – the rescue divers are there for a reason and that reason is usually a concussion.
That tiny little platform way up high – the 25-year-old Canadian from landlocked Winnipeg never wanted to be there. In fact, during her collegiate diving career, she used to barter with her coach to get out of doing the 10m dive. She’d swim extra laps. She’d clean the locker room. Whatever it took to avoid jumping from 10m.
Now she’s preparing to dive from much, much higher.
As it happens, Aimee is a great person to talk to about the psychology of fear, as when she’s not competing she's doing post-grad study in behavioural science. We asked her to step outside of her own mind and talk about dealing with the fear.
“Cliff diving is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental,” she says. “You know you can do these dives. The physical part isn’t the problem – you need to be constantly convincing your mental system to come on board for the ride.”
Cliff diving is 20 percent physical and 80 percent mental
Aimee’s take is interesting – because her mental approach has changed significantly over her career as a diver.
Her approach doesn’t work for everybody – she knows that some divers simply like to block out the fear – for her, she’s got to acknowledge it and work with it. “I started with the ‘you’ve got to conquer the fear’ approach – now I’m in the ‘acknowledge the fear and deal with it’ camp.”
Curiosity and courage
There’s no real ‘career track’ you can follow to put yourself in such a precarious position, but most people’s stories go something like this: they started in the pool, often with competitive swimming – maybe through a swim club or school programme. At some point, they saw the diving platforms and got pretty curious. For the multiple men’s champion Gary Hunt, in his own words: “It just looked like the divers were having more fun!”
At some point, that curiosity combined with courage (and that part is really important) and they gave it a go. Some of them got hooked and began competing – the 1m springboard, the 3m springboard and platforms or various levels up to the 10m platform, the 'Olympic standard’, which is important: if you wanted to turn diving into a real job, historically that had been pretty much the only way to go, or, at the very least – the most respectable one.
So how does one make the metaphoric and literal climb to 21m and 27m? Well, for most people, there’s a bit of a detour. Remember that part about having to love it? Well, aspiring cliff divers have to love it so much that they’re willing to run away and join a circus – almost literally.
The thing is, there are very, very few places in the world where you can dive safely and regularly from such a height. There are a few ‘natural’ spots, but you still need spotters, rescue divers, observers, because a short blackout when you hit the water is not all that uncommon. The easiest place to get that experience is at high dive shows. They take place at amusement parks, water parks, as a bit of a side entertainment at a local fair, or actual circuses. You might find a permanent show in a place like Las Vegas, but the gigs are hard to come by, pay relatively little and naturally, come with high risk. But they’re the only way to get hundreds of dives under your belt. So, as said – to do this, you’ve really got to love it.
Now, that may inspire a question: what is there to love? The crowds, the short but sweet moments of flight, the adrenaline rush of success? Absolutely. But everything else that goes with it is something that most normal people think of as rather, well, unpleasant. Heights and exposure. Tension and waiting. Above all, fear. And while cliff divers are certainly on some level abnormal people, they’re also just… normal people who have to learn how to deal with all that – and for most of them, it’s a process.
Coping with stress
Gary Hunt likes to juggle. In fact, he does so before almost every dive. It’s his way of managing his stress, calming his nerves and focusing his mind. Why does it work?
The power of routines and rituals in cliff diving
Most of the time, the first time a diver will do a planned dive is the day before competition – there are just so few opportunities to practise at that height; plus, every contest location is different. There’s always a warm-up day before the competition, where they’ll have the chance to try their dives out. So how do you train for a dive you can’t do? You do it in three smaller parts – the entry and approach, the main part of the dive and the exit/landing – all from a 10m height. Then, you put them together for the real thing and since there’s not really time to think about it, you let muscle memory take over.
"If you don’t think muscles have memory, you’d be right," Aimee says.
“All that's happening in the brain and nervous system,” she adds. “Every time you do a movement, you’re building neural pathways. Over time, those get ingrained into your memory – although it’s a different kind of memory than, say, remembering what happened five minutes or five years ago.”
Not convinced? Quickly try this: if you’re on a phone, open up a new email – then just close your eyes, and tap out your name on the keyboard. Autocorrect or not, there’s a good chance you got it right. That’s muscle memory. Cliff divers are doing the same thing, spinning through the air while dropping at speeds approaching 90kph. In fact, some parts of the dive rely so heavily on muscle memory and non-visual perception, that they even close their eyes. Other parts of the dive may require them to spot the water to count a rotation and the process is different for every diver.
Every time you do a movement, you’re building neural pathways
Understanding the risks
Few people have spent as much time on a diving platform without jumping off it as Dean Treml. The photographer from New Zealand has been the go-to shooter for Red Bull Cliff Diving since the event began back in 2009. When we asked him about the divers' demeanour and emotional state in the last moments before a dive, he had to think for a bit. “I always check with the diver if it’s OK if I’m on the platform – and they almost always say yes. You see whether or not they want to engage, or be left alone – the Polish diver Kris Kolanus, he’s very concentrated and quiet. I shut up and give him my space. Others are more relaxed.” How relaxed? Dean laughs. “Well, I remember the first time I was on the platform with a very young Orlando Duque. I very politely and cordially introduced myself and asked if it was alright if I was there – he looked me right in the eye and said “I don’t give a shit!”
Dean’s recollections of the early years are interesting. “Back in the early days of Red Bull Cliff Diving, it was just a bunch of guys who did this for fun or as a side job,” he says. “Then all of the sudden there was this global tour and they were travelling worldwide. They simply couldn’t believe their luck.” Back then, he said, there was a lot more hijinks and hilarity on the off-days – and it was less serious and less competitive than it is now.
But what hasn’t changed is that it’s still a band of brothers (and since 2014, sisters). There are few other sports where the competitors spend so much time worrying about each other’s safety – and the worry is real, because entering the water even a couple degrees off means it’s going to hurt quite a bit more. Enter a lot of degrees off – like 90 – and you’ll have done what the divers call a ‘smack’. Before a dive, you’ll never hear another diver tell another, ‘Don’t smack’, like actors or actresses tell each other to ‘break a leg’ – the risk is just too real. After a diver gets themselves safely and uninjured out of the water following a crash landing? As it is in any fraternity, let the ‘smack talk’ begin.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about most cliff divers is that very few of them think of themselves as adrenaline junkies or thrill seekers – in fact, the sport is just too full of risk for people with that mindset.
Cliff divers are some of the only athletes in the world who have the chance to understand such a reality – and that’s what makes the sport so great. Years of planning, training, thinking, meditating, all incredibly necessary, for the privilege of turning it all off for three short seconds and simply feeling the rush of pure movement. A moment where somehow, while you’re spinning hundreds of degrees per second while dropping faster than you normally drive a car, time seems to simply stand still. Fear? That was something you left behind on the platform. Don’t worry – if you’re smart, you’ll find fear again – in just the right dose to keep you safe.
Splash, the dive is over – you stop spinning, and the world starts turning again.
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