Don’t believe it.
I’m no expert on overcoming fears, but since I started surfing, there are very few things in my day to day at work that elicit the same response as seeing a large outside set wave heading towards me. I recently spoke at a conference in front of a group of intelligent, scientific people. Never once in my preparation or during my presentation did I wish I was somewhere else until it passed. I can’t say the same for plenty of moments during surf sessions.
I’ve linked to several free articles and would recommend reading the Fear Project (also below), but here are a few things that have helped me. I am hardly fear-free, I have “fight or flight” kicking at some point in 2 out of every 4 sessions, but I’ve changed my relationship with fear when I’m out in the water. And, when it comes to fear or nervousness relating to situations outside of surfing, I have big waves as a reference point to help me downsize whatever situation is in front of me.
Repeated exposure to safely uncomfortable conditions
Do the thing you fear to do and keep on doing it…that is the quickest and surest way ever yet discovered to conquer fear. ~ Dale Carnegie
I really want to be good at surfing. Not to win competitions or to impress anyone, I just want it to be an activity that I continue improving and excelling at in my life. I end up thinking about it quite a bit and because I’m able to paddle out almost every day, I can have some days where I work on specific things without the risk of wasting one day out of seven while on vacation.
I periodically go out in less than comfortable conditions for me personally. This isn’t to say I’m intentionally unsafe, but I’ll go out a low tide, for example, knowing I’ll catch less waves and probably be humbled, simply because I want to feel what the ocean is like when the waves are faster and more hollow. Recognizing what has to be different involves a reconsideration of existing habits (“I REALLY need to paddle faster to catch these”) and an improvement in form. Any regular surf day after a low tide session is met with more confidence. The same goes with wave size.
Become an expert at duck diving
Duck diving is one of the most powerful functional moves in surfing. Not only does it help you conserve energy, but doing it the right way, consistently, reduces your chances of getting hammered unnecessarily. Not only that, but nothing is better than ducking under a giant oncoming wave, popping out the other side unscathed, energized and ready for the next one.
Not only does it provide you more options (tools) while you are in the water, it is safer and works with the flow of the ocean. I still ditch my board sometimes. I don’t like to, but it happens. When you duck dive, you are hanging onto your board with more control, so even if you don’t go deep enough and get sucked backwards, the thing you are hanging onto is bound by physics to be your quickest ride to the surface. I realize this isn’t possible for all board types (long boards, for example), but if your’e on a board you can technically push under the water for a second or two, work at perfecting that shit, you’ll thank yourself later.
If John John Florence duck dive the length of his pool, you can learn to duck dive your board for 1-2 seconds…
Learn to love wiping out
I’m no spring chicken. My injuries take longer to heal than when I was in my twenties and thirties. That said, I’ve found that many of my surfing injuries are from fighting the energy in the waves rather than going with the flow.
I started noticing friends who were great surfers laughing after they wiped out (or at least giving a “whoooo!” sound afterwards). So I started laughing at myself, how ridiculous I must have looked yelling “don’t kill me, I’ve got kids!” to an uncaring wave while rag dolling over the falls. In laughing at myself, I’ve changed the association with wiping out into a positive experience and have found that I’m now significantly more relaxed during a wipeout (opening your eyes under water helps as well).
“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” ― Jim Morrison
Watch videos of people wiping out
When I first started surfing, I was so intent on getting good fast that I didn’t want to “poison” my mind with visions of people wiping out. Somehow, I figured, if I didn’t watch people wipe out, I would do it less.
That’s a laughable thought now, but as soon as I started, I learned a few key things:
1. Everyone wipes out, even the pros. It’s part of moving quickly across the top of water on a liquid slope.
2. Nearly 100% of wipeouts you see online are not fatal. The people in those spine tinglers lived to tell their story and surf another day.
3. Watching people wipe out shows you new ways to wipe out. What better way to learn to love something than to get better at it?
I love watching videos of The Wedge. It is amazing to me that so many people love to surf a wave that so clearly hates humans.
Wait for your will to catch bigger waves to outpace your fear of them
This is one of the most important parts. You need to play it “safe” and should always know your limits, but until you have the interest to ride bigger waves and that interest outweighs your fear of some of those that come in, you’ll stay where you are. That’s just fine. Once you catch a few larger waves, see it goes very well and get the buzz that goes along with the ride, they won’t seem as big.
My will to catch bigger waves lead to me doing quite a bit of research, including watching videos, reading blog posts and reading The Fear Project. I’ve listed some of those links below. Whether it is surfing or anything else you’re trying to tackle, my sincere wish is that something in this post gives you the motivation to go for it.
The Fear Project by Jaimal Yogis
Your Brain on Fear
How to overcome fear of bigger waves/how to paddle out?
The best surfing advice you’ve ever been given: Feel the fear and do it anyway
Surfology’s “Who Knows?” Q&A Question about Mental Exercises to Overcome Fear