If you ever feel under the pump at work, spare a thought for these three professionals. How would you have dealt with the pressure to win gold placed on Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympics? Perhaps the intensity that greets a police sniper at a siege would be more to your taste? Could you have surmounted your own vertigo to launch the Sydney Harbour BridgeClimb business? When it’s your job to deal with fear, you’d better learn fast.
Olympic Gold Medallist
Photography: Getty Images
Cathy Freeman talks to Anthill’s editor Paul Ryan about coping with intense pressure to succeed, both on and off the track.
PR: When you crossed the finish line in Sydney – apart from the fact that you were exhausted from running 400 metres quite briskly – you didn’t really show any joy for about 30 seconds. Was that just pure relief? What were you thinking?
CF: It was disbelief. It was an unusual feeling because I knew I was going to win anyway. I’d pre-programmed myself totally – physically, emotionally, spiritually – in every single way I was ready for this one moment.
But it’s funny because when it’s taken 17 years to do, even though you have this unexplainable arrogance in your pursuit to get at your goal, when it does eventuate it’s still kind of hard to believe. I still remember having that feeling as I crossed the line in mid-air thinking, ‘This is what it feels like to win an Olympic gold medal!’
It was like a huge mountain had been lifted off my shoulders. And then all of a sudden there were all these eyes. So much was going on. I was trying to deal with my own emotions internally and on top of that there was the commotion going on around me. It was truly euphoric and crazy and unnatural and incredible.
For a number of years you carried the expectations of the nation on your shoulders, culminating in that 400 metres final in Sydney. But I’m also curious about life after sport. There must be an element of terror associated with leaving the comfort of training and routine and having to carve out a new path?
Oh gosh! Definitely! I was absolutely petrified. I didn’t know who I was. My sense of identity was … I didn’t have one, basically, except for what I had been born into – being a daughter and auntie and all the family and relationship rolls in my life. But in terms of my career or what I wanted to do with my heart, outside of being the best person I could be in a relationship, I didn’t know who I was, and that was really, really scary.
At the same time I took it in my stride and I was patient. I knew that I didn’t want to make any rash decisions. I took each day as it came and didn’t force anything. I had faith because I knew I had enough energy (as I had proven to myself in my running career) that I would land on both feet. I just had to be patient, even though it was a tortuous and uncomfortable process.
Do you have any philosophy or method for coping with sustained pressure?
Even as a little girl, I was in a world of my own. You know when you watch little children and there are some who are worried about every little thing that they do? Then there are other little children who are so care-free – they throw their shoes in the air and jump in the water fully clothed. When I was little I was influenced by a lot of care-free people. But I think, pathologically, I’ve always been care-free. Never one to worry too much; I’ve always taken things in my stride. I don’t use maths to measure danger or circumstance. I’ve always accepted it, and just embraced it and loved it and always tried to make the most of it at the time.
… and life’s too short to worry about what other people think?
I think it’s quite natural and normal to be aware, to be concerned. Worrying, on the other hand, makes you sick. It makes you lose perspective.
I believe in the old adage of treating people the way you’d like to be treated yourself. If you communicate what your feelings and thoughts are, then I think it’s all manageable.
Do you think, from the early days, that contributed to your success?
I think my temperament to take things in my stride definitely helped me manage pressures around me. I mean really stressful, traumatic, life-changing situations like, say, moving school or town. Very personal changes. I didn’t second guess things too much. As a little girl I was definitely concerned about what my mother thought, because she was just scary (laughs). It was always my parents I cared the most about and gave the greatest respect to. But I was always a well behaved, placid person. I’m quite relaxed.
Is it hard to psych yourself up?
Definitely! Just because people are relaxed doesn’t mean they don’t get edgy and worked up about things. I think you need to find a balance between being over-aroused and controlled. It’s a balancing act and it’s tricky for some people. When you feel that killer instinct kick in, it’s a powerful force. Some people call it the ‘eye of the tiger’.
Did you find direction in the advice of other people or was it largely your own journey, which you had to determine on your own?
Both of those things I hold accountable for me being here right now. As long as I’m holding honest conversations with people… You get honest feedback from people all the time. There are always lots of honest people who want to help you in a really kind, loving way. That’s really precious.
Interview by Paul Ryan
Seventeen years ago, Paul Cave came up with the idea of taking a group of young executives out of their comfort zone – to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But first he had to prove it could be done. The BridgeClimb Chairman and collector of all things Bridge recalls his first time.
I turned up, asked to see the bridge Foreman and showed him some of my Bridge memorabilia. He was interested, despite me wearing a suit. Asked if there was any chance of taking a group of execs over ‘his’ bridge, he replied, “Bosses are all wimps. They’ll freak out.” I challenged him on that point. So he challenged me – to do the climb there and then.
The first ladder was 58ft vertical, with rungs the thickness of your thumb. I thought it was crazy and absolutely unsafe, but he’d already started up the ladder. I was shaking, but I knew that if I didn’t follow he would have proved his point. My knuckles were white as I climbed. I started to lose control of my bladder – I was that petrified.
At the top of the ladder, I was so emotional with embarrassment and fear. Some bridge workers were looking at me thinking “what’s this gimp doing up here in his suit and tie”.
When we developed BridgeClimb, we had psychiatrists analyse the psychological impact on customers. The bridge moves a little when you climb it, it expands and contracts. There’s traffic, trains and weather variations. Of our three psychiatrists, two said that people were going to have to carry sick bags on the climb. We debated it and in the end I said, “Let’s go without”. Over 1.7 million people have done the climb and no one has needed a sick bag. To me, it’s mind over matter.
Fear and risk are fundamental to an entrepreneur’s make up. It’s the turn on. Entrepreneurs do things that are different, and that automatically brings risk. But there must be healthy respect for fear, because you still have to juggle the opportunity with the risk and what you’re putting on the line.”
Interview by Jodie O’Keeffe
Victoria Police Special Operations Group
Photography: John Warkentin
As a veteran sniper with the Victoria Police Special Operations Group (SOG), our interviewee won’t reveal his identity, but he has plenty to say about working in situations of extreme physical danger.
To me, fear management is a skill learnt through exposure: the more it happens to you, the more you get used to it and the more you become equipped to deal with it.
I’ve been in tactical policing for ten years, and I used to get an adrenaline dump all the time. Now I get it much less, and in much smaller quantities. Through exposure, I feel less fear. I’m still cognisant of it, but my body reacts in a very different way now. Years ago, on a particularly high-risk arrest of an alleged police murderer, I wore a heart rate monitor. It wasn’t a physically demanding job, but my heart rate was near 200bpm.
Now, doing a high-risk entry I’ll be mentally alert, but the feelings of apprehension and adrenaline are nothing like they used to be. That’s good, but I wouldn’t want to lose the rush completely. If you didn’t get some kind of physical or psychological lift, it would become dangerous.
In SOG training we try to replicate the physical reactions to fear. Although risk managed, a lot of the training activities are inherently dangerous, like firing live ammunition in close proximity to other people in a closed room, or rappelling, where the only thing between you and death is an 11mm piece of rope.
In a crisis, if you show any panic, you start to lose your team. Even though it’s time critical, I take a couple of seconds. I typically just go quiet for a moment, then sum it up, make my decision, communicate it and follow through.
Trust and courage come into play when working with fear. We take the Victoria Police trainee detectives rappelling in the mountains. Many shake with fear. They don’t want to do it. Some back out, but we can talk most over the edge. Later they say, ‘I would never have done that if it wasn’t you guys putting us off the edge, because we trust you’.
To recognise something as dangerous or scary, but to manage the risk and do it anyway, that’s courage.”
Interview by Jodie O’Keeffe