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lessons from adventure and elite sport

In the years since my solo voyage around the world, I’ve had the incredible privilege of meeting a wide range of sports stars, from surfers to cricketers and rugby players. What’s more, I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with and count myself friends with a crowd who have an impressive appetite for pain, suffering and isolation: adventurers. And I’ve come to an interesting revelation about this crowd of overachievers: they are very often not the gung-ho, adrenaline junkies you might expect. Many have overcome fears to achieve what they have.

Recently, any remaining illusion that these superstars might be fearless was torn apart when I had the opportunity to join a unique gathering of elite sportsmen (sadly not women). I won’t tell you their names as the discussion was held on the condition of anonymity, but I can assure you that an enthusiastic autograph collector wouldn’t have been disappointed.

One after another of these men shared, in gruff manly tones, their experiences of feeling scared. Each had their own unique fears and strategies to manage those fears, but I was struck by the similarities that emerged, and the extent to which these strategies mirrored strategies that I have also used.

Despite what many assume, I was also—and to this day—not fearless. As a kid, I was just about the last person you would have expected to do what I did. I was scared of just about everything, talented at nothing and my struggles with dyslexia only made me more timid. But what I did learn to do was to manage my own fears.

And I have since discovered that what I learned about fear is just as applicable to personal and professional fears as it is to those fears faced by sports people and adventurers. I believe anyone can follow these steps to turn fear into courage.

Firstly, you have to identify the fear that holds you back. This might sound obvious, but all too often we don’t realise that a fear is holding us back, stopping us achieving the things we hope to. Just last year I found myself in a situation where it took some time to realise that my fear of failure was stopping me from throwing myself 100% into the project as I needed to.

Then the next thing you need is a ‘why’, a reason to get off the couch, out of your comfort zone and face up to the thing that scares you. This is your inspiration, your motivation and it has to be strong and specific because, at that moment when you're faced with your fear, you have to be able to tell yourself very clearly why you are there. And it’s clichéd, but it’s the selfless motivations that are often the strongest.

Finally, managing fear comes down to something very simple: a choice. It is the one and perhaps the only thing that we can truly control. The incredible philosopher Viktor Frankl says it far more eloquently than I can; ‘Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.’ We can choose the way we react to fear, and that choice gives us the ability to choose the sort of things we want to do, and the sort of person we want to be.

I can very clearly remember the day when I finally realised this. I found myself in a situation on a little boat, the weather turned bad and things were going wrong. Normally I’d be the first person to fall to pieces. In fact, there was a memorable occasion in similar circumstances where I spent the duration of a storm hiding under the table on my family’s boat, pretending to comfort our pet bird! But on this day, I decided I would try something different; I decided I would pretend to be brave. I chose to react in a different way. And suddenly I found that I could cope with the situation, I was suddenly capable and competent, and the only thing that had changed was my mindset.

Of course, these things are easier said than done, and as I learnt when I collided with a 63,000-tonne ship on my first night at sea, courage also requires practice. To truly have confidence in your own courage you have you put it to the test. At the time there was, understandably, a huge amount of media scrutiny over the incident. The rest of the world suddenly had a lot less confidence in me. But I remember walking away from that collision with a surprising sense of confidence. I’d had the opportunity to face up to something terrifying, and my head had reacted in the way I wanted it to.

Managing fear isn’t easy, but it is achieved in your head, and anyone has the ability to choose what goes on in their head. Courage is a learnt and practised ability, but more than anything it’s a choice.

Find out more about Jessica Watson.

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