The Jeff Wise Blog

How Fear Destroyed a Career

Up until three weeks ago, Tom Durkin was hard at work, studying for the upcoming running of the Kentucky Derby. For a decade he had been the voice of “the greatest two minutes in sports,” calling out the position of the horses as they round the turns and approach the finish line. To prepare, he spent weeks memorizing the horses and their liveries and studied videos of other races around the country. But as the big day drew near, his anxiety began to soar. He was assaulted by waves of panic that sent his heart racing. It was not a new feeling; Durkin had been battling performance anxiety for years. This time, however, he realized that he was up against an emotional turmoil he could not handle. And so, the New York Times reports, he called up race officials and tendered his resignation. An impressive career, cut short.

Reading the story, I felt compassion for Durkin, who had fallen victim to one of fear’s most agonizing and intractable manifestations. And I wondered how many other careers have been cut short, or held back, by runaway fear. You don’t have to be a performer to suffer from performance anxiety – anyone who has to give talks before an audience, or even speak up at meetings, is at risk of a debilitating attack of stage fright. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Anxiety, ,

The Mystery of Clutch Performance

A few days ago I was contacted by Mike Sielski, a Wall Street Journal reporter working on an article about New York Rangers hockey player Chris Drury. Drury hasn’t been having a very good season, but in the past he was legendary for his ability to pull of amazing feats of athleticism just when his team needed it — when the pressure was highest. Writes Sielski, in his piece which just went up today:

In Game 5 of the ’07 Eastern Conference semifinals, as a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Drury scored a tying goal with less than eight seconds left in regulation against the Rangers, lifting a rebound over goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Buffalo won the game in overtime and the series in six games, and Lundqvist still remembers shattering his stick to pieces by slamming it against a wall after Drury’s goal.

Sielski had called me to ask how it might be possible, in psychological terms, to account for such phenomenal feats of skill. I pointed out to him that my book Extreme Fear is pretty much geared to answering that question — the book is framed around the mystery of how aerobatic pilot Neil Williams managed to figure out how to save his life when his plane’s wing started to fall off at low altitude. The conclusion I reached in writing the book, I told Sielski, is that a person who is highly skilled in a particular domain can tap the automatic part of their brain to an astonishing degree even when under the sort of life-or-death pressure that shuts down the conscious mind. As Sielski quotes me in the article:

In stressful situations, certain individuals with expertise in a given field—an elite ice hockey player, for example—”can make connections automatically and quickly and effortlessly in a way that might seem impossible,” Jeff Wise, author of the book “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” said in a phone interview. “They’re seeing the opportunity, the chance. They’re able to play the odds in a way a less sophisticated person wouldn’t. There is a kind of athletic intelligence that can emerge most powerfully in a clutch moment.”

As a reporter myself, I fully understand the understand the necessity of keeping quotes short and to the point, so I never expected Sielski to include the caveats that I expressed over the phone Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: sports

Dude, Your Jetpack’s Here

Just spent the morning doing something I’ve  been wanting to try for years: Fly a jetpack. JetLev, the unit’s manufacturer, just completed the first production model and let me be the first media to experience it first-hand. Instead of a rocket expelling hot gas, you’ve got twin nozzles shooting out high volumes of water at low pressure. You’re tethered to the surface by a 33-foot-long flexible hose. It’s a total hoot. Note that I’d only been flying this contraption for a few minutes when the video was taken. I got better — a little — after logging about 30 minutes total flying time; I was able to go higher and keep the thing under better control; the demo pilots can pull off some really impressive flying. I’ll be writing about the experience soon for Popular Mechanics.

Filed under: Thrills

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise