Psychology of Big Wave Riding


By Richard Bennett – Surf Psychologist
& Dr Peter Kremer – Sport Psychologist

Paper presented at the Australian Conference of Science and Medicine in Sport
“Sports Medicine and Science at the Extremes”
Melbourne, Australia, October 2002

During the 2000/2001 Hawaiian Winter 32 of the worlds best Big Wave Riders were interviewed to gain a greater insight into the personal and mental aspects of big wave riding.

Participants ranged from 19 to 70 years of age and included invitees to the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational and Mavericks Men Who Ride Mountains competitions, Hawaiian Triple Crown and Pipeline Masters, Teahupoo chargers, Tow-In specialists and original pioneers of Waimea Bay and other Hawaiian big wave spots.

The athletes were asked the following three open questions:

1. What do you think are the most important qualities and attributes a surfer needs for riding big waves?
2. What type of ‘mindset’ is best for riding big waves?
3. What motivates you to ride big waves?

Content analysis of the interview responses identified the following major themes. All themes are presented in order from most talked about to least talked about, for each question.

Most important qualities and attributes for riding big waves

1. Thrill seeking, confident and goal oriented personality
Enjoy the thrill and adrenalin rush of risk taking and pushing self, self confident, sure of own abilities and potentials, goal orientated wanting to push personal limits

2. Mental strength, control and commitment
Ability to keep calm under duress, become fully absorbed in the moment and maintain good self control, self belief, confidence and commitment to one’s goal and focus. Courage was also identified as a major personal and mental strength

3. Physical fitness and capacity
Strong swimming and paddling fitness with good lung capacity and the physiological capacity to manage high levels of adrenalin

4. Experience
High level of ocean knowledge, wisdom and awareness including a clear understanding of what you are confident and comfortable to handle as well as a healthy sense of what you are doing it for

5. Desire
Deep desire to ride big waves, have a love for it, really want it and very determined and intrinsically motivated to ride big waves

6. Intimate relationship with the ocean
Totally comfortable in the ocean, feel drawn to it, enjoy its power and being pounded by a big wave, along with a true appreciation for Mother Nature and a desire to surround self in Mother Nature

7. Big wave surfing ability
Be an all round “Waterman”, know how it feels to ride a big wave and have the ability to put self in deep, critical big wave situations and control your board at high speed

The best “mindset” for riding big waves

1. Ideal performance state (IPS)
Twice as many athletes preferred to be ‘calm and relaxed’, as opposed to being very ‘charged up and amped’. The IPS was also characterised by having no negative emotions or uneasy feelings, and by monitoring and channelling nerves and adrenalin into positive energy

2. Attitude
Very committed, confident and positive about every decision and action

3. Focus
Clear, simple and extremely aware with a primary focus on survival, positioning for and catching the makeable waves

4. Planning and preparation
Physically and mentally prepared with detailed knowledge of the break, the right equipment and a well thought out game plan

5. Rhythm and feel with the ocean
Tuning in natural instinct and intuition to the rhythm and flow of the ocean conditions, “break the ice” with a first ride to feel confident, comfortable, to get on a roll and feel happy out there

Motivations to ride big waves

1. The feeling
The excitement, adrenalin rush, natural high, the speed, fear and being amongst the power and energy of the ocean

2. The challenge
The ocean conditions, to use all your surfing knowledge and ability to its optimum, to ride big waves and crazy barrels, to ride big waves like you ride small waves and to evolve as a surfer and a person

3. Self satisfaction and fulfilment
The personal reward and fulfilment in the moment as well as when reflecting on the achievement of riding big waves

4. Behavioural addiction
Feel hooked with an immense love and enjoyment for it, a compelling need to go bigger to experience the same rush and to ride big waves at every opportunity

5. Other
Financial reasons, “It’s my job now”, contests, peers, feel bored/awkward in small waves, the boards and to keep fit

Common stages of big wave riding development also emerged from the interviews. Big wave riders often began as keen young surfers wanting to push their limits and experience the big wave rush, without too much thought or preparation. Then, over years of big wave experience they became seriously dedicated and committed athletes, spending significant time on precise, detailed preparation, as well as thoughtfully planning and perfecting their big wave approach.

The veteran big wave rider tended to become more mindful of their naturally decreasing physical capacity and hence self confidence may go down. Also, with all their ocean knowledge and experience, they described having to be careful not to “think too much” and become distracted by unnecessary or negative thoughts.


Big wave riders identified seven important qualities and attributes a surfer needs for riding big waves. While many of these qualities are also commonly found among athletes in other extreme sports (e.g., motor racing), attributes such as ocean experience, having an intimate relationship with the ocean and developing the surfing ability of an overall “waterman”, are obviously specific for big wave riding.

The seven themes give clear direction for every surfer on what they need to work on and develop to fully realise their big wave riding potential.

The core of the best mindset for riding big waves appeared to be safety and survival. While specific variations may exist between individuals, the five major themes described by athletes in this study serve as an important guide for surfers to prepare for, create and maintain their best mindset for riding big waves safely.

All athletes primarily described intrinsic motivations for riding big waves. Also described were drives indicative of a behavioural addiction that have also been found among other extreme athletes (e.g., sky divers). A small number of “Other” motivations appeared secondary in nature since the athletes stated they would ride big waves anyway, even if such incentives did not exist.

Primary motivations were simple, clear and intrinsic, which is not surprising since these athletes regularly put their life in danger to ride big waves. Such motivations leave no room for negativity, self doubt or hesitation and hence play a significant role in facilitating the confidence, commitment, safety and survival of these athletes in heavy ocean conditions.

The common development found among big wave riders is an informative path indicating both when and what types of proactive interventions would assist to optimise big wave riding success, for the particular stage each athlete is currently in.

This study identified the most important personal and mental aspects for big wave riding. The findings highlight the optimal preparation and mental approach required to safely and successfully charge bigger and bigger waves.

The authors wish to thank Randy Rarrick and the Team at ASP Hawaii for their assistance, as well as all the participating athletes who generously gave their time

Aloha & Mahalo