Two years ago Felix Baumgartner jumped from a capsule 128,000 feet above the surface of the Earth. He fell at a rate faster than the speed of sound. Contrary to his nickname, Fearless Felix, he experienced anxiety, but not from fear of heights or death as one would expect. Instead he succumbed to claustrophobia. His pressurized suit, the piece of equipment designed to help maintain his safety, produced panic attacks. In a life driven by the pursuit of freedom and breaking boundaries the suit served as a albatross, and symbolized his lack of full control.
His anxiety levels would increase when he approached the training facility. The smell of the rubberized suit triggered him further, and it became difficult to remain in the suit long enough to complete his training. Things became so difficult that he left the project for six months. He only returned after after powerful waves of jealousy overcame him while watching his replacement preparing for the jump during an airing of a BBC documentary. His return to the project is where things get interesting from a performance psychology standpoint. Felix consulted with sport psychologist Michael Gervais who helped develop a personalized mental skills training plan.
In their initial meetings Baumgartner convinced Gervais that claustrophobia was not an excuse to get out of the jump but rather an obstacle in his way. Gervais set out to accomplish three things with Baumgartner. The first was to help him reconnect to his outcome goal. The second was to use breathing to regulate his physiology and the third was to improve his self talk. These three performance psychology interventions help to support the seven total years of physical and mental training Baumgartner endured to make history and are staples of many mental skills interventions. We will break down each of the skills in future posts.
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