There is a saying often repeated among people who skydive, bungee jump, white water raft or take part in other adventure sports: “We take risk not to escape life but to keep life from escaping.”
This phrase that encapsulates the adventure sports subculture also shines a light on the disconnect that can occur between counselors and their clients who participate in adventure sports, says Colin Ward, a practicing counselor, counselor educator and mountaineer.
From the outside looking in, adventure sports participants can seem foolhardy, Ward acknowledges. But there is often a strong camaraderie and trust between participants, as well as a deep sense of self-awareness, he says.
“It just looks as if these folks are impulsive, and [people] ask, ‘How can they do that?’” Ward says. “You and your client who is involved in these activities are going to think about risk differently. You just are.”
Adventure sports are defined as activities in which there is a high risk of severe injury or death to participants should something go wrong. Examples include high altitude skiing, bungee jumping, white water rafting or kayaking, skydiving and mountain climbing.
Ward, a core faculty member at Antioch University, started a Seattle-area mental health support network for adventure sports participants roughly two years ago. A practicing counselor for nearly 30 years, he began to focus on the profession’s connection to adventure sports when he took up mountaineering.
Ward and Erin Wenzel, a licensed skydiver and student in Ward’s graduate counseling program at Antioch, have been working on outreach to fellow adventure sports enthusiasts, as well as to counselors, developing ideas about how mental health professionals can “check their bias at the door,” Ward says.
When Ward talks about counselors engaging with people who participate in activities “with a high level of risk,” he emphasizes that he is not referring to adventure-based counseling, which is something entirely different.
Wenzel clarifies further, noting that adventure sports participants may need counseling as they return to their sport after a traumatic injury or accident, or as they grieve the death of a fellow participant or teammate during an outing.
“Adventure sports participants need counselors who are understanding, nonjudgmental, solution-focused, open to handling ambiguity and willing to check their own countertransference about life-threatening recreational activities,” Wenzel says. “We cannot stigmatize these clients as ‘crazy,’ ‘selfish’ or ‘reckless.’ Not only will we miss what committed, passionate, goal-oriented people they tend to be, but we will deny them access to a safe healing space, because once we make them unwelcome in counseling, they will likely never come back.”
Ward contends that a “gap of perception” exists between adventure sports participants and the mental health community.
“[Adventure sports participants] tend to be a bit more autonomous, and reaching out for [mental health] services may not even cross their minds,” he says.
Contrary to what may commonly be believed, adventure sports participants are anything but impulsive, Ward says. In fact, he finds them to be quite the opposite. Most have an orientation toward personal mastery, self-control and goal setting, he says. In addition, they test themselves by adding risk gradually. Ward knows this firsthand; he trained for a full year before going on his first climb. He also points out that they demonstrate a deep level of trust in and reliance on their teammates, who are often on the other end of their climbing ropes or alongside them in a kayak.
These clients will know if a counselor doesn’t “get” the adventure sports culture or stereotypes its participants as impulsive adrenaline junkies, Ward says. “[They] will pick that up in a heartbeat, that ‘this is someone who doesn’t understand my experience,’” he says.
Ward and Wenzel agree that the popularity of adventure sports is growing. For that reason, counselors of all specialties may see participants, Wenzel says. For example, a marriage and family counselor might see a couple struggling with one spouse’s love for a sport — and the risk, time commitment and expense that goes with it.
Numerous membership-based adventure sports organizations are located in the Seattle area. Ward often receives client referrals from these groups. He also provides free introductory sessions to group members as an outreach.
“It behooves mental health professionals to acknowledge that there are distinct approaches and styles to deal with this population,” Ward says. “This is another way we can provide outreach [and] provide a service to our community.”
Things to know: Counseling and adventure sports participants
- Don’t attempt to force your perspective on the client, says Ward. Remember that you and your client are going to think about risk differently.
- One way adventure sports participants manage stress is by trying additional high-risk activities. They can try out the skills they’re learning — self-control, focus, self-reliance, etc. — with each activity, says Ward.
- Many participants will want to return to their sport after an injury, says Wenzel, and counseling can help them do so safely. “Accidents incurred while climbing, skydiving, river rafting, etc., can be very traumatic. The accident is often sudden, painful and unexpected, sometimes leaving permanent damage,” she says. “Processing the trauma with a counselor can help the injured person to make meaning of what happened and mentally prepare for re-engaging with the activity. In skydiving, for example, we often see people return to the sport after an accident and they are absolutely terrified to land. Because the trauma is unresolved, they panic when it’s time to land their parachute and make further errors. As you can imagine, panicking is about the worst thing to do in a life-or-death situation. If they process the event, and maybe learn some tools for relaxation and countering panic-inducing self-talk, we believe that they will be safer during the moments when they really need calm and focus. The task for the counselor is handling their own anxiety or countertransference when a client says they aren’t quitting the activity that perhaps almost killed them.”
- Do your homework, says Ward. Get to know the adventure sport that your client participates in, including the jargon and language used in the sport. Read up on the sport and become familiar with its membership organizations.
- Don’t be afraid to collaborate with your client. Adventure sports participants are very connected to self-control. “They’re very goal-oriented, so you want to collaborate with them,” says Ward. “Take time to identify small steps and goals toward recovery — something that is going to be right in their wheelhouse.”
“It’s just a matter of tapping into their strengths,” he says. “Most of these folks are coming in with a high sense of self-mastery and are just off kilter with it.”
A participant’s perspective
After a few tandem jumps, graduate counseling student Erin Wenzel became a licensed skydiver in 2010. She broke her ankle that same year.
“I was everything you might expect an injured adventure sports participant to be: disappointed, frustrated, embarrassed, guilt-ridden and fearful,” she says. “I was suddenly dependent upon people who never really liked the idea of my jumping to help me with basic things, was having nightmares about crashing into the ground and snapping my neck, and had to leave my co-workers hanging while I took time off of work.
“On top of that, I felt like no one really understood what I was going through or what I needed from them. Other skydivers, though very well-intentioned — some of whom had been injured themselves — just naturally assumed I would jump again. My family assumed that I was quitting. I wanted someone to be a neutral, supportive third party and just listen and help me make up my own mind, and I didn’t really have that.
“I’m excited about the possibility of creating more culturally competent counseling for other people who do adventure sports. I have been back to skydiving since the spring of 2011, and it’s a very important part of my life. I want to bring my mental health training to my skydiving community and my skydiving community into the mental health world.”
Colin Ward and Erin Wenzel will lead a session on counseling and adventure sports at the upcoming ACA Conference & Expo in Honolulu. Their talk, titled “Counseling Adventure Sports Participants: More than ‘Adrenaline Junkies’” will take place March 30. For more information, see counseling.org/conference/hawaii-aca-2014/conf-programs/programs-events.
For more information
Contact Colin Ward at CWard@antioch.edu
“Why do people skydive?” A first-person blog by skydiver Lori Steffen: nolimitsskydiving.com/skydives/why-do-people-skydive/
Website of the United States Parachute Association: uspa.org
Erin Wenzel’s piece “Mental Health Counseling and Skydiving Trauma” for Parachutist Online: parachutistonline.com/feature/mentai-health-counseling-skydiving-trauma
Personal essay, “Why I Climb” alanarnette.com/stories/whyiclimb.php
Bethany Bray is a staff writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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