Believe it or not, there is a skill to managing your fear

Believe it or not, there is a skill to managing your fear

‘I can make risky moves knowing I’ve trained for situations that cause me to be afraid,’ says para-snowboarder John Leslie

By John Leslie for CBC Sports
April 5, 2017

Six years in competitive sport will teach you some deep truths about yourself — whether you set out to learn them or not.

I competed in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia and other events, including Dew Tour and the X-Games. I compete in a sport that involves jumps, turns, and shoulder-to-shoulder racing. Needless to say this can be quite scary.

For John Leslie, left, the fear begins at the start gate. (Eric Escaravage/Canada Snowboard) For John Leslie, left, the fear begins at the start gate. (Eric Escaravage/Canada Snowboard)

To succeed, I've learned to manage my fear and want to share with you my process of overcoming it. I believe fear breaks down into two basic categories: fear you can control, and fear you cannot control.

Let me start with the fear you have the ability to control. When I am standing at the start gate during a six-man heat, I am terrified. I cannot stop the fear and adrenaline from taking over my body. My breathing deepens, my legs shake, and I can feel my heart beating.

Alarms go off in my head. I am afraid. Thankfully, I have my coaches Mark Fawcett and Dave Balne to help me channel this fear. We came up with two ways for me to harness it and use fear to my advantage.


There are two parts to this, too: training my fear, so that I become comfortable with these reactions, and managing my emotions, so I can control my feelings and express them when appropriate.

Leslie: 'Everyone's got a hard story.'

Daily journal

The primary way that I train my fear is with a journal. In order to feel confident in the start gate, I spend a large amount of time training on the mountain. During this training, I make a daily journal entry, explaining what my day involved, what I accomplished, and how I felt. In order to mentally know I have done enough jumps, berms, and high speed turns, I ensure all of it is documented in my journal. This helps me reflect on how I have prepared for the upcoming competitions.

Leslie grew confident as he got out of his comfort zone. (Andrew Jay/Canada Snowboard) Leslie grew confident as he got out of his comfort zone. (Andrew Jay/Canada Snowboard)

This self-reflection all began when fear started to hinder my performances. It was stopping me from hitting the "send" button in my racing. A sport psychologist helped me develop the strategy of journaling one thing each day about my snowboarding. This encouraged me to figure out and break down what scared me the most during competitions. From this, Mark and I were able to come up with a solution.

I needed to push my comfort zone during activities such as snowboarding, skateboarding, and mountain biking. When I increased the intensity of these sports, I was mentally training my fear.

After months of slowly training outside of my comfort zone, I grew confident with my reaction to fear. And after every activity, I still journal about what I do and how it makes me feel. No doubt I will always be afraid in the start gate, but I always strive to be confident in my abilities.


So, the second part of my strategy involves working on managing my emotions. It is a serious strain to feel intense emotions for long periods of time. Spending all day mentally preparing to race and compete is exhausting, unless I can manage my emotions during the day.

Through journaling, I realized how mentally worn out I was after every competition. After speaking with Mark and Dave about this situation, we came up with a "3 zone" system.

Zone 3 is the chill zone. When it’s that time, I am drinking water, listening to music, chatting with friends.

This is where I should be spending most of my time, but it is harder than it seems during competition days. Zone 2 would be considered the focus zone.

This is spent inside the start corral, listening to pump up music, doing my warm up, and starting to let the adrenaline flow into my body.


Zone 1 is competition. This is when I am in the start gate, full focus, harnessing my fear, and channeling my adrenaline towards performing.

It may seem like a simple trick, but this zone system has really helped my physical and mental energy during competition days. I can use it to manage my emotions efficiently so they are available for me when I need them most: when I am in Zone 2 and Zone 1.


Using fear to my advantage

This combination of training my fear and managing my emotions has helped me understand using fear to my advantage.

Leslie gains strength from the support of his family, friends and girlfriend. (Source: Carolyn Leslie) Leslie gains strength from the support of his family, friends and girlfriend. (Source: Carolyn Leslie)

These are fears that are manageable, and that I am responsible for. I can make risky moves knowing that I have trained for situations that cause me to be afraid.

Now for the worst fear — the one you cannot control and we all face. I am thankful I never have to face this alone. When I was sick with Osteogenic sarcoma (bone cancer), I had an incredible family, friends, and community to help me. During these times, I turned to them for support.

Fear that you cannot control, such as illness, finance, disaster, and the terrifying unknown? For that, I seek others for help. There is never a time where it is wrong to ask for help. In my daily life, I am very lucky to have awesome friends and family.

My girlfriend, Emilie, helps me with day-to-day organization. My parents help me with advice and finances when needed. I am very grateful to have these people to turn to when facing the unknown. I am also grateful to be able to offer that same support, when others are in need.

So there you have it, my personal pointers on how to handle fear. I hope it works for you. During times where you can control fear, know that you can train it, and manage your emotions so that it benefits you.


And during times where you cannot control fear, turn to the people around you and work it through with them. Everyone will face fear during their life, but know that it is temporary, and generally a state change to becoming a stronger person.

(Large photos by Gavin Crawford and Natasja Voss) 

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