Success Lessons From the Mindset of Extreme Athletes

Most people would never think of getting close to the edge of a cliff, yet others leap off for a living.

Whether it’s staring into the face of a charging beast, or running through the scorching desert, it’s fascinating to think what goes through the mind of an extreme athlete. How are they able to achieve such supernatural feats?

As we peek into the mindsets of these individuals, there’s a common thread underlying each of their physical abilities: self-mastery.

Felix Baumgartner | Red Bull Stratos Jumper


With a resume that boasts breaking the sound barrier—jumping from 127,852.4 feet above Earth, hitting 843.6 miles per hour, Felix is literally out of this world. It was a leap that stopped the entire planet. After years of preparations and test jumps, Felix describes the beauty of standing up there, seeing pitch-black sky and the curve of the earth.

There was plenty that could’ve gone wrong at that altitude—Felix did lose control of his body during the early part of the jump. If he didn’t recover, he would’ve gone into a “flat spin,” sending blood away from the center of his body. He explains, “At a certain R.P.M. there’s only one way for blood to leave your body, and that’s through your eyeballs. That means you’re dead. That was what we feared most.”

Getting the right mindset was key, as he initially struggled with claustrophobia being in the pressurised suit. With the help of sports psychologists, he learned cognitive reappraisal techniques to handle his fear:

“Personally, I think a certain amount of fear is healthy. It means you recognize the hazards and — as long as you can manage fear — it keeps you sharp. You have to be in the right mindset so it doesn’t block you. During the Red Bull Stratos preparations, for example, when I began to feel claustrophobic wearing the suit, I worked with a psychologist to help me see the suit as a tool that would keep me alive, rather than focusing on how it limited my range of motion for skydiving.”

Seeing it as a tool that would keep him alive rather than focusing on it’s limitations—cognitive reappraisal techniques are all about seeing situations from a different/positive angle. It’s a powerful tool to apply to life—to see the opportunities in the obstacles, the lesson in the failure, the challenge in the problem.

Scott Jurek | Ultramarathon Runner


Regarded as one of the greatest ultra-marathon runners of all time, Scott Jurek’s trophy cabinet includes too many victories to mention. Most notably, he’s run 24 hours straight, smashing out 165.7 miles to set an American record in 2010; he’s taken double-victories in the Badwater 135 – 135miles through Death Valley in 120F heat. With singed nose-hairs, Jurek takes a break inside a coffin-sized ice-filled cooler, and describes the experience, “like my internal organs were liquifying.

Pushing the human body to its limits, Jurek acknowledges that it’s the mental aspect that’s more difficult.

“I’m like everyone else,” says Jurek. “It’s not that I love putting my mind and my body into that place. But it’s one of the most transformational places to be mentally and physically. I like to say that adversity breeds transformation. It’s a lot like life. So when I’m out on the race course having a really tough time – that’s usually when the breakthroughs happen”

Running is a vehicle for self-discovery; what he discovers pounding the pavement has the same significance when the shoes come off. It’s an interesting philosophy that blurs how we might compartmentalise our lives. For Jurek, the ultra marathon and life are one and the same:

“I run because overcoming the difficulties of an ultramarathon reminds me that I can overcome the difficulties of life, that overcoming difficulties was life.”

There’s a great quote that goes, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” It’s certainly the approach that Jurek takes, and the success he’s experienced from such a mindset makes it more than worthy to adopt.

Jose Tomas | Bullfighter


On August 24, 2010 Jose Tomas was gored by a bull and nearly died. The bull called “Navigator” shattered his left femur, puncturing the saphenous vein and iliac artery. Tomas left a frightening trail of blood in the sand as he was dragged away, later needing several blood transfusions to keep him alive.

His return to the bullfighting arena after a year of recovery caused a frenzy among spectators. Tomas has been described as an “epoch-making legend,” the Michael Jordan of bullfighting.

Above and beyond the bravery of facing a 1000 pound snorting beast, what sets Tomas apart are the extra standards he chooses to impose, spectators have commented:

“From the first time he triumphed, Jose Tomas has contributed not just aesthetics and quality but also standards, He risks his life 100 percent every fight. He puts himself in positions that the majority of his colleagues are not capable of.”

Tomas refuses to let his fights be televised, arguing that the reality of what happens in the ring cannot be captured on TV. While many criticise him for being an elitist in his demeanour, the critics fail to see that those very standards are what makes him such a success.

Having standards however, is pointless if you don’t hold to them. Tomas’ elite reputation has stuck with him because he’s not only set extreme standards, but acted-on and never compromised on them.

Tony Robbins agrees,

“If you look at anyone who seems to have a superior life to yourself, I guarantee you they have a superior standard in that area.”

A good reminder to reassess where we can raise our own standards

Livia Dickie | BASE Jumper

Australia's skydiver Livia Dickie leaps before parachuting from Kuala Lumpur Tower on January 2, 200..

With well over 1000 BASE jumps under her belt, Livia is one of the most experienced female BASE jumpers coming out of the Southern Hemisphere.

Contrary to the perception of absolute recklessness and ignorance, there’s a huge amount of risk management measures employed by BASE jumpers. In this video, Livia explains the 4-Step Risk Management Process outlined by the Australian BASE Association: 1) Identify the hazards 2) Assess the risks 3) Apply control measures 4) Review & Update.

Of course, an infinite amount of risk management doesn’t diminish the encounter with death each BASE jumper experiences. Ultimately, Livia’s reasoning is that:

“There is a degree of risk associated with everything we do. I calculate the risks I take and I consider them worth it. I don’t deny that one day things may go wrong, but I feel that the positive aspects outweigh the risks.”

That’s certainly an approach we can apply to other areas of life:

  1. What are some of the real hazards you’ll encounter pursuing your dream?
  2. What are risking and stand to lose?
  3. How can you minimise any potential disasters?
  4. Does the reward outweigh the risk? If so, take the leap.

Big Wave Surfers


Imagine travelling down the face of a 30 foot wave at 50 mph. With the force of an avalanche, a big wave surfer can be pushed 50 feet below the surface. Busted eardrums only confound the struggle to figure out which way is up.

Being held underwater by two or more consecutive waves is one of the greatest dangers, surviving a triple hold-down is extremely difficult. Indeed, there have been several big-wave surfers who have lost their lives taking on these giant waves.

Some of the best big wave surfers came together and shared “10 Commandments of the Big Wave Surfer.” They all agree that the sport requires the perfect balance between physical health and mental preparation. Here are 3 of the commandments that are particularly relevant for all areas of life:

1. Never take off on the first wave of a big set.

“It’s hard to resist a good-looking wave when you’re waiting for 10 minutes and adrenaline wants to pump your whole body. The problem is that, if you wipeout, you will take the entire set on the head.”

It’s hard to resist a good-looking anything. Excitement can easily blind the need for patience. But as the big wave surfers point out, there are dangers behind jumping at the very first thing that looks good.

Consider putting the brakes on and just ‘wait’ every now and then.

2. Let the whitewater control the movement of your body.

“If you get caught by the wave or if you wipeout, don’t resist the power of the whitewash. You’ll lose energy and oxygen. Let yourself go in fetal position.”

Nobody is absolutely free from trials and obstacles. Sometimes you just have to let an illness run it’s course rather than try to force a recovery. Similarly, Bruce Lee says, “Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending with the wind.”

A good reminder not to fight against currents in life, but to move with them.

3. Control panic, let fear do its job;

“Panic attacks are characterized by a fear of disaster or of losing control even when there is no real danger. You don’t want that. On the other side, fear is a basic survival mechanism. Fear is good and should be driven to big wave management.”

Love this. Control our response to fear, rather than try and control fear.


Image Credits:

Scott Jurek:

Jose Tomas:

Livia Dickie:

Big Wave Surfers:

3 Replies to “Success Lessons From the Mindset of Extreme Athletes”

  1. This is awesome. So much depth. So well written. Well done Thai. The Bruce Lee quote is one I will go back to again and again in the future. Thank you for such a great post. Sharing it now.

  2. Thanks for stopping by again Jimmy. Yeah, I love that Bruce Lee quote—I had to put it into practice just yesterday. Thanks for sharing.

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