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How to Overcome a Fear of Big Waves

By May 25, 2016 No Comments
overcome a fear of big waves

How BIG is too big?  This is such an issue of personal perception.  Many female surfers limit themselves with fear of surfing “big waves.” At one point in my surfing journey, I convinced myself anything over 3 feet was too big.  This was after pregnancy, giving birth and recovering from the whole ordeal when I finally got back into the water. I found myself afraid of powerful surf which in my mind had become really any sort of conditions that were not micro.

My partner and I took a trip to Bali and Lombok when our baby was 5 months old.  The waves weren’t giant by Bali standards.  We surfed a couple of 4 ft days at Canguu and I caught a few waves.  But then when we got to Bingin and Uluwatu, waves I loved to surf a couple of years earlier, I was paralyzed in fear.  I made excuses not to paddle out.  We left the Bukit peninsula and I don’t think I surfed once.  When we got to Lombok, I tried to get myself pumped up to surf.  We surfed an epic right at about 6 feet.  I caught one wave in 2 hours and was tripping with anxiety.  The next day I waited and waited until I felt the tide was just right to surf Mawi beach, when I got out I got handled by a couple of sets and lost it again.  The trip culminated in a near mental breakdown at low tide at the same spot.  Again, I caught maybe 2 waves then panic took over and I ended up paddling way down to walk around the reef and over a hill to get back.

I couldn’t figure out what had changed.  I’d regained some of my fitness and paddle power; it wasn’t that I couldn’t surf physically. I created a massive mental block that was fueled by fear and anxiety. I was frustrated and I thought that surfing, at least over 3 feet, might be over for me.

A month later,  I arrived in California after crossing the Pacific Ocean with a 7 month old (more on that to come). I survived! And when I arrived the pre-ordered books, sunscreens and baby products from Amazon were on my doorstep. By far, the most important thing I order was a book called the Fear Project by Jamil Yogis.

I can honestly say this book changed my life and saved my surfing.  I can also say that the principles in this book can be applied to so many things in life that people are afraid of.  The author studies the nature of fear in order to systematically tame his own fear and surf the famed Northern California spot, Mavericks.

I literally highlighted and annotated this entire book, you should read it if you’ve ever been overcome by fear.  Here are some tips from the book that helped me overcome my fear of surfing big(ish) waves:

1. Practice, practice, practice –
Surf as much as you can in conditions that don’t terrify you (the author even watched videos of waves that scared him then immediately went out and surfed smaller waves to re-consolidate and change the fear memories).  Improve your overall fitness by jogging, swimming and doing yoga.
2. Make a List of All Your Fears About Surfing –
  • List them out: Drowning, getting smashed by big sets, leash wrapped around my neck/legs/head, two wave hold downs, wipeouts, getting hit by other people, getting eaten by a shark.
  • Now scratch the ones you have no control over out, why worry about things you can’t control? The very act of voiding them from the list will help put them out of your mind.
  • For the fears over which you do have some control, write out or imagine a plan of action for each one.  This will help you set out a training plan or affirm that you have trained for each scenario.  I took a Breathe Equalization Training class which gave me really useful tips for improving your lung capacity and utilizing what you already have in case of hold downs and wipeouts.
fear of big waves

Out the back!!!

3. Use Visualization –
I first used visualization techniques when I was studying to retake the State of California Bar Exam for the second time.  Every morning, I’d check the surf and sit for a few moments and visualize finishing the test and feeling great and eventually getting the results and passing.  Preparation and visualization lead to me to pass the Bar, known as one of the hardest exams there is.  The author used visualization to picture every detail of a session at Mavericks. From eating breakfast to catching some bombs and living to tell the tale.  You can even do this when you get down to the beach to surf.  Watch the waves while you are stretching for bit, then close your eyes and picture yourself shredding one of the waves you just watched.  Next thing you know, you’ll be out there doing just that.
4. Rewire Your Fear Memories –
Yogis explained several studies with humans and rats that show circumstances that produce fear that profoundly affects our memories, known as fear memories, can be changed by our actions.  We are not stuck with memories that created fear and anixety but we can rewire them permanently by not avoiding these memories.  You can trigger such memories purposely and update them positively. “Let’s say you have a memory of a place and something bad happened there,” says rockstar neurologist Daniela Schiller, “Whereas before I might have avoided that place, not I deliberately got there.  I go with other people.  I go do different things. I go listening to a song I like.  Over time I feel the memory has changed.  It requires deliberate action.  Avoidance is a natural response to fear, but it’s not the one that helps.” So go surfing.  Exposure yourself to as many conditions as possible and remember all the times a wipeout or hold down wasn’t that bad.
5. Read The Fear Project –
If the author could surf massive Mavericks, you can surf 5ft Manly but the knowledge and techniques in this book certainly helped me gain confidence.

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