Managing Your Fears & Visualising Your Goals | A Q&A with Cliff-Diver Joey Zuber

26 September 2017

Cliff-diver Joey Zuber is an  inspirational  elite athlete whose incredible feats include winning the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championship title, overcoming a near-death experience, and becoming the official TV host for the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.

A sport that requires intensive and methodical training, the international cliff diving competition scene taught Joey many things that he now relates to others as a brilliant motivational speaker: from managing your fears and visualising your goals, to managing risk in business through careful preparation. Read on to find out more about his journey!

How did you get involved in high diving?

When I was a teenager, I spent quite a lot of time competing while I was diving, but, when I was about 16, I suppose I stopped as it’s always a difficult time when you’re that young and aren't sure which direction you’re heading in!

Then, when I was about 18, I heard of a friend competing in these diving shows overseas, which basically consisted of a round pool - only about 9-10m in diameter and 3-3.5m deep. I was attracted to travel and adventure, and I just couldn't believe that these European and American companies would pay for your flights and accommodation to dive into these pools. That’s how it started really – the idea of travelling and experiencing something different.

‘I visualised my dives to know what was possible. Companies can do the same.”

Working your way up to greater heights can't have been easy. How did you go about this?

The diving shows had these very skinny towers or ladders – a bit like you’d see in a cartoon! The finale of the show was always the high divers, who would vary anything from 21m to 27m. The beauty of the ladders was that you could move up them in increments, so you’d work your way up them – 12m, 14m, 16m, 18m, and so on - to build up your height. I was 19 - and you’re pretty crazy at that age – but even then, I remember climbing up a diving tower, turning around and being shocked at just how tiny the pool was… 10m in diameter! Literally, if you took a step of 30cm off the perch your standing on, you’d hit the pool neck. I swore I’d never do it.

But after three or four months, you grow more comfortable with the surroundings and the situation, and step-by-step I started to learn, and then I kind of fell in love with the idea that I could challenge myself to visualise the dives that people hadn’t done before.

How did diving in these shows eventually lead to competitions?

One thing led to another – I think it began with the challenge of pushing yourself off those heights and doing those complicated manoeuvres, and that sense of accomplishment and achievement you get for facing your fear. That’s why a lot of these cliff-divers and high-divers come from show backgrounds, believe it or not – from Cirque de Soleil, from Cinquain Dragon, from shows in China, and so on.

There’s a real sense of satisfaction, you know, from doing these dives.

I found myself doing bigger and bigger dives, and a lot of the other divers were saying, "You’re doing great; you’ve got some complicated dives and some great moves, and you’re clean through the water. You should compete!" 21 now, I thought, "Why not?" So I did.

I took the leap from a platform of about 26m-27m during my first competition in Brontallo, Switzerland – which wasn’t the greatest result. But a couple of years later, I won The Red Bull Cliff Diving Championship title, and that led to sponsorship with Red Bull and then led onto coming away from shows into more of a professional athlete point of view: competing in competitions around the world, appearing in documentaries and professional shoots and exhibitions.

What went through your head just before a dive? How did you motivate yourself?

Well, it starts before the dive. During the training days, your mind is already starting to visualise what you’re about to do, so occasionally these negative thoughts will pop into your mind, and you have the push them away.  In terms of managing it, visualisation and putting a physical map onto your dive was very important. I used to put my hand down to the water to signify: “That’s my entry, that’s how I want to land, that’s how I want to splash”.

I also would do very simple things to motivate myself before a dive, like telling myself, “Okay, you’ve got this. Trust yourself. You’ve done this a thousand times before.” I would try to psych myself up by clapping my hands and generally getting myself into it. You are utterly nervous as you take your place on the platform - but you have to just breathe.

What cliff-dive was the most challenging?

One of the scariest ones was a dive that had never been done before in Porto Venere, Italy. I always use to visualise a dive so that I knew what was possible, but, for this one, the day that I took off the platform, I had no idea whether I would have enough room when I landed, if I would be too slow or too fast, etc. I had to be brave, and it was one of the hardest moments, but the sense of satisfaction was immense.

On the motivational speaking circuit, what do you aim to share with audiences when you're on the stage? What are your key takeaways/messages?

One of them is fear management. I relate my experience in cliff-diving to the world in which a lot of people live in because we all have fears about something.

It’s also about teaching people to have an acceptance of fear. It’s a normal thing to experience it, and it’s important to not run away from it! By persevering and getting through to the other end, you’ll always feel better from confronting whatever you're afraid of. When I broke my leg in Colombia, for example, it was emotional coming back a second time – I almost died from kidney failure; I spent 8/9 hours in an ambulance with no pain relief; the muscles were almost cut in half as the bones had become knives.

So to come back and relive the whole process... we re-enacted it all almost backward. We visited the hospital staff who had helped me and had got me through ICU; we did the same drive that had got me from the accident scene to the hospital and even had the same ambulance driver - we relived all the same moments. That was a big deal for me to close that chapter in my life – but going back the second time and being successful was an incredible achievement for me.

Dealing with fear doesn’t mean taking the leap and hoping for the best. In high-diving, the key is preparation – which comes from being practical, methodical, and carefully planning your journey to taking that leap. The more knowledge, training and planning you’ve done, the better the dive, and this is something that can be related to the world we live in.

The better prepared you are, the less nervous you’ll feel when it comes to the moment.

In business, you need to take risks – but these are calculated risks. It’s the exact same principles with high-diving. We don’t just go up there, everything is calculated, prepared, trained for, so that we can do the best that we can. If you prepare well, no matter what the outcome is, whether you succeed or not, you can always walk away knowing that you gave it your best shot.

How has high diving changed over time?

It’s changed a lot. We’re in an interesting time now where we’re entering a new era. There’s an international organisation for water sports called FINA, which governs all the rules for swimming, diving, water polo, synchronised swimming, open water swimming, and now high diving as the sixth discipline. I’m officially retired from competing so, as well as commentating for the cliff-diving series, I’m behind-the-scenes at FINA as a High Diving Committee Member and responsible for the facility guidelines - all the platform set-up, the configuration, the pool, etc.

I’ve always thought high-diving deserved more recognition, and we want to make it go Olympic, but, of course, with that comes a little bit of politics. We narrowly missed our chance for 2020 due to several factors. Essentially, the host country – Japan – didn’t put it forward as well as it could have due to some complications with the IOC, but it looks like we’re earmarked.

We’re going to see more change over time: we’ll see local federations around the world begin to build their own training facilities; we’ll see divers coming up from the grassroots level, and we’ll also start to witness a generation that doesn't come from such a show background. Of course, there will still be some who come from that entertainment background, but that’s what made the sport what it is in a way! You get these very lively characters and you need have something inside of you to want to do this. There’s also a great sense of sisterhood and brotherhood amongst all the athletes. The women’s group has really grown dramatically over recent times – especially over the last year – which has been great to see.

What's next for you? Any new goals/adventures planned?

I do a lot of location checks for Red Bull, and I'm involved in the process of scouting for locations for either athlete projects or cliff-diving competition. We're going to the Northern Territory soon to hopefully scout out some locations, which will involve a bit of trekking and climbing and flying around in helicopters. I still love that sense of adventure.

Other goals I have outside of the cliff-diving ... I want to make documentaries, I'm very interested in the environment and in making something along the lines of what Al Gore made.

Amazing! We look forward to seeing what you do next! Thanks, Joey.

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