Manage Your Fear


By Richard Bennett – Surf Psychologist

You wake bleary eyed at dawn to the rumble of a heavy ocean. Immediately the thought that a fresh monster swell is pounding your local reef races through your mind. You quickly become alert. In anticipation your mind races through several thoughts. “How big is it? Will it be bigger than I’ve surfed before? What board can I ride? Will there be anyone else out there?” As if trying to match the ocean, your stomach begins a growing rumble. There’s an overwhelming urge to bolt down to the reef and have your racing questions answered. But first you feel the need to relieve your bowels.

You pack your gun and head down to the reef. Your first glimpse of the ocean reveals long, dark lines stacked to the horizon. It’s huge. Bigger than you’ve tackled before. You pull up at the reef to find a couple of guys preparing to paddle out. Your racing thoughts increase. “That last set was heavy. I think I’m under-gunned. Am I fit enough? Will I be able to get out there? What if my board snaps, or my leggie? How long are the hold-downs?” The rumbling in the pit of your stomach turns into tight knots. Your breath seems shallow and quickens. Your heart pounds loudly. A lump builds in your throat. You feel shaky and wobbly in the legs. Again your bowels stir. You decide to just watch for a while and consider other breaks less open to the swell. You’re feeling FEAR!


Understanding their fear is how extreme big wave riders can safely
and successfully 
ride some of the biggest waves on the planet…

Fear is a common experience as we progress through the various stages in developing our surfing. Think of the first time you surfed a reef break or were caught inside by a big set, or had your first lengthy hold-down. Or first learning to tube-ride and seeing a thundering lip pitch out over your head, then slamming your eyes shut and hoping for the best. And then there is the challenge of riding a bigger wave than your last.

Fear is largely an adaptive emotion we feel when we sense danger. It can be maladaptive at times such as with panic, however it is generally an emotion that helps us to survive. The experience of fear consists of two parts. First, there is the cognitive or thinking part. To feel fear you must first think there is a danger. The guy above feels fear as he has interpreted the fresh monster swell as a real danger. The main psychological impact of fear is that it can break your concentration and you tend to become distracted with negative thoughts such as self-doubt. This effects your decision making and judgment, which can lead to some serious poundings.

The second part to fear is the physiological response. Our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which springs into action when we are in very stressful or anxiety-producing situations, begins to prepare us for fight or flight. Whether we choose to fight and paddle out into a monster swell despite being scared out of our wits, or we choose flight and retreat to the mountains, far from the reach of a rising tide, the physiological response is the same. Our adrenal glands release a mixture of neurotransmitters and hormones called adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), into the bloodstream. This adrenaline rush increases the heart rate, diverts blood supply from the intestines to the muscles and releases stored energy from muscles and the liver. Hence, blood and energy supply to our muscles is maximized to make more energy available to paddle in to some big sets, or to run for the safety of the hills.

In short, we feel fear and the associated physiological response when we think or interpret a situation to be threatening or dangerous. Big wave surfers often describe the challenge as mostly mental. The thinking component is crucial. While surfing big or heavy waves does have an element of danger, we can certainly exaggerate our interpretation of the danger with negative or catastrophic cognitions. This is when the fear response can escalate to panic and become maladaptive. So what is the reason one surfer chooses to fight while another chooses flight? The difference is in a surfer’s ability to manage their fear. This ability is shaped by our genetic make-up and our experiences.

One study found that twins with identical genes, who were raised in different environments, still had similar levels of fearfulness. It has been suggested that the reactivity of the SNS may vary between individuals. So the surfer with an over-reactive SNS may more easily trigger their fight or flight response, than the surfer who’s SNS is under-reactive. Furthermore, when you think of the Carroll and Ho brothers and Pat and Tom Curren, you can see that surfing big and heavy waves can run in the family.

Personality has an influence on a person’s ability to manage fear. For example, a person who is highly neurotic tends to worry and feel nervous, vulnerable and insecure. They also have a tendency to think and interpret situations in a more irrational way. This can lead the highly neurotic surfer to exaggerate the actual danger of the surf and hence learn to feel more fear.

Human fears are best explained by learning through both observation and experience. For example, if our first times in the ocean are with people whom we observe to be happy and confident, we may learn a similar response. However, if we observe people to be anxious and afraid, we may learn a similarly fearful response. Many of the best big wave riders have been guided by more experienced watermen, who can provide the optimal role model.

Experiences as a grommet and throughout your surfing life can have a great impact on how you manage your fears in the surf. There are many potentially scary surfing experiences such as being caught in a rip or being held down and thrashed underwater. However, these situations may or may not have a real element of danger. Furthermore, whether we learn to fear them depends largely on our thoughts about the experience. The surfer who tends to magnify and exaggerate the danger of their surfing experiences will learn more fear than the surfer who is rational and realistic with their interpretation.

Psychologists use a number of therapies to improve a person’s ability to manage fear. Saturation is one method that involves immersing the person into their feared situation and guiding them to manage the psychological and physiological responses until they eventually feel comfortable. In surfing this would be like a grommet jumping from 6 foot beach breaks to 20 foot Waimea Bay in one day. For obvious reasons I do not recommend this approach. However, the concept of saturation is very important in surfing as heavy situations like being pitched or caught inside, tend to happen very quickly.

Graduated Exposure is another therapy that involves the psychologist assisting a person to gradually progress through a hierarchy of fears from least to most threatening situation, by a process of mini saturation exposures. This seems to parallel the common development of pushing our limits in the surf when we progress from gentle beach breaks to more powerful beach breaks, to reef breaks, tube riding and bigger waves. It is like how Mark Richards once described learning to surf big waves in Hawaii when he said “The more you come the more you sort of get used to it, and you know what to expect, and you know you are fit enough to survive a wipe-out if you fall off on a 15 foot wave, so it becomes something where you just want to go out there and tear it to pieces, you don’t want to be scared of it”.


Without FEAR there would be no ADRENALIN
Without ADRENALIN it wouldn’t be such an EPIC RUSH!

Sports psychologists claim that activities with a high degree of risk and excitement can become addictive, so committed surfer’s seem stuck with the challenge of facing our fears. Creating an adaptive fear response that we can use to our advantage to survive is the key. The following psychological strategies may improve your ability to manage your own surfing fears.

Building Confidence from optimal preparation. In surfing this includes thoroughly developing your water knowledge, knowing the break well, feeling good about your equipment – become familiar with your guns on smaller days when the consequences are less – maintaining good physical fitness and learning as much as you can from the guys who are already out there.

Rationalising the situation can be an important asset to mental preparation and also helps to build confidence. Try looking at the situation logically and realistically. Identify those irrational thoughts that tend to magnify and exaggerate any potential dangers and lead to an escalated fear response. Furthermore, big and heavy waves can be dangerous and you will eventually wipe-out and experience saturation-like situations, so it is better to be prepared. Plan how you will manage the eventual hold-down or swim in. By doing this you will not feel such a surprise when it happens and you will have a plan of what to do, so are less likely to have a maladaptive fear response.

Mental Preparation is important to remove negative thoughts and focus your concentration. Some people listen to music or practice meditation to distract away from negative thoughts, create their optimal level of arousal and stay centered. Try a few different strategies and see what works for you.

Mental Rehearsal can be used to prepare for specific situations. Try mentally rehearsing how you will negotiate a late take-off or deep tube ride, or how you will keep calm during a long hold-down. You can also imagine you are your favorite surfer and adopt their same confident approach.

Self-Talk is the key to maintaining control of your thoughts. In a sense, each time you think about something you are talking to yourself. To control your attention and concentration try and keep your thoughts focused in the present. Positive self-talk such as “I’m going to make it, I feel fit, I know I can handle long hold-downs, This board goes really well, I really enjoy surfing big waves”, help to counter irrational or negative cognitions, build confidence and minimize the chance of having a maladaptive fear response.

Avoiding Panic – If you think you might panic it is probably best to just go with the situation so you do not use up too much precious energy and oxygen. Panic is time limited and so are the thumping sets. Try and tell yourself to keep calm and stay focused on what you have planned to do in the situation. Once you negotiate the immediate danger perhaps paddle into the channel and take some well-earned deep breaths. This will help calm the physiological responses and allow you to gather your thoughts and composure. Review the situation, look at the positives – you survived – and see how you can learn from the experience.

Be Sensible – It is very important to know when not to paddle out. Be honest with yourself, your ability and your motivations. If you cannot seem to manage those physiological responses on the beach then it is likely they will escalate as you move closer to the roaring waves, so it is probably best not to go out. Martin Potter was being honest with himself when, despite qualifying for all three Hawaiian events in his first season on the rock, he left from fear of having to compete in the inevitable big surf. However, he is now a very accomplished surfer in big and heavy waves. Adaptive fear is our friend. It helps us to survive. But sometimes surviving is deciding to sit humbly on the cliff-top in awe of the oceans immense power.

Surfers who push their surfing cannot avoid experiencing fear so the lesson is to be prepared. By using the psychological strategies I have described you can keep any real dangers in perspective and minimize the chance of your fear escalating to a maladaptive response. Ultimately you can then create your most intense and exhilarating surfing experiences…

First published in Tracks Surfing Magazine Australia September 1999