No Gut Feeling No Glory

In some sports, a woman’s intuition—and her ability to use it—are just as important as her physical prowess.
From Women’s Sports and Fitness
By Jean Weiss

wsf-march-96-coverno-gut-feelingOn the day my friend and I hiked away from our campsite for a late-afternoon climb up the Lost Arrow boulder in City of Rocks, Idaho, I felt a sense of foreboding heavy in the pit of my stomach. It wasn’t fear, exactly; it was more of a hunch that something was amiss. Still, there didn’t seem to be a concrete reason to forgo the climb, and my more experienced partner thought everything seemed fine.

Everything didn’t turn out to be fine. Before the climb was over, I had dangled upside down 150 feet above the ground on a rappel only to right myself and have my turtleneck sucked into the rappel device, jamming the whole downward operation. When I finally made it to the bottom, my friend and I bushwhacked back to our campsite through the pitch-darkness.

I should have followed my intuition.

Intuition, the ability to perceive or know things without conscious reasoning, has been widely accepted as a legitimate source of data only in the last decade. Now scientists are beginning to explore this phenomenon, and athletes are looking at it as a tool that can enhance performance in some sports and ward off disaster in others. Trusting your guy instinct in high-risk activities like rock climbing, white-water kayaking, backcountry skiing or paragliding, for instance, can mean avoiding injury or even saving your own life. In safer sports like basketball or tennis, which don’t give you time to reason things out before reacting, taking advantage of intuition can make the difference between seeing the ball whiz by on your left (as you go right) and scoring while your opponent tries to gather her wits.

In fact, although such athletes as climbers and basketball players may seem unlikely bedfellows, the best of them share one major trait: They’re risk-takers, not just in the sense that their sport (the climbers’, at least) requires them to stare down danger, but also in the sense that they’re not afraid to use their intuition. “You have to have guts to exercise your gut feeling,” says Daniel Cappon, M.D., a psychiatrist and professor in environmental studies at York University in Toronto, who has studied intuition for the past six years. “Intuitive people tend to be risk-takers.”

The catchphrase “woman’s intuition” suggests that the most intuitive people are female—but after testing hundreds of subjects on their intuitive abilities, Cappon has concluded that women and men have equal gifts in this area. There’s some truth to the phrase, however: Women are more practiced in following their instincts, especially where relationships are concerned. “One reason,” Cappon says, “may be that until the last half-century they weren’t given the chance to be analytical, to study logic and mathematics.”

Despite this practical intuitive edge, Mattie Sheafor, a 28-year-old guide who works for Exum Mountain Guides in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, has noticed that women climbers aren’t always confident in transferring their ability from everyday life to sports. Rather than listening to their intuition and then taking the lead, they often assume a secondary role, relying on their (usually male) climbing partners to make critical decisions for them. “Sometimes women think that others perceive them as fraidy cats,” observes Sheafor. “So instead of trusting their intuition and speaking out, saying, ‘Wait, this doesn’t feel right,’ they push it away.”

To counteract this lack of confidence, Sheafor has gathered top female mountaineers, ice climbers and sport climbers from around the country to teach an all-women climbing clinic called Women that Rock at Exum. What the instructors have found is that simply hearing intuition identified as a valid survival tool often helps women apply their already-honed skill to climbing. The women in the clinic also learn by experience, going with their gut feeling and then seeing that it pays off, and practicing intuitive decision-making in a safe, controlled environment.

Practice can help a woman tell “a bad feeling” from just plain fear, too. “By building up intuitive experiences, “ Cappon says, “you’re better able to separate out your fear.,” Sheafor’s own personal method of distinguishing between fear and intuition involves setting intermediate markers for decision-making as she climbs. “I’ll say to myself, ‘I don’t have to decide whether to do this now. I can go up there and decide again.’” Adds Virginia Savage, PhD., a professor of sports psychology at Prescott College in Arizona, “People have to trust their intuition, but if they feel afraid they have to honor that too. Women who are paralyzed by indecision because they don’t trust what they feel to be true give up their ability to make decisions and lose their ability to lead others.”

The same is true in competitive sports, notes Marianne Stanley, co-coach of the Stanford University women’s basketball team. She finds that the most successful players not only anticipate their opponents’ next move but also act on the expectation. “If you’re intuitive and a decisive person,” she says, “the combination will make you outstanding in any sport, assuming that you have the physical talent.”

Perhaps the phrase “Just do it” should be amended to “If it feels right, just do it.” I know now that if I’d taken charge of my own safety and trusted my intuition that day at City of Rocks, I’d have one more turtleneck and one less epic story to tell.

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