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How to Overcome Your Fears when Surfing (And in Everyday Life)

by Octavia Drughi

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What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” We’ve all heard this ageless question before. And if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told “fear is holding you back,” I’d have a pretty good amount of money in my pocket. 

The funny thing is, looking back at all those times I chose to run away, I can’t even remember what exactly it was that I was so afraid of. 

Fear is hard-wired in all of us. Second-guessing, hesitating, mental blocks are something we’ve all experienced at some point. They are a recipe for failure in anything we do, from surfingkitesurfing, rock climbing, mountaineering, and other adventure sports, to our jobs and everyday lives. As a surfer, your fears may be related to big waves, reefs, sharks, wipeouts, and all sorts of other factors that you may feel uncomfortable with.

If you’ve read this far, then I must have hit a nerve. It means that once and for all, it’s time to tackle your fears and start living. Here’s how you can begin to overcome your fears in surfing and in everyday life:


Where does fear come from?


The word fear sends a negative message almost every time. We all experience it, some more often than others. In some cases, it can be triggered by a specific stimulus such as heights, deep water, snakes, spiders, or even the mere thought of sharks. Other times, it can be triggered by abstract stimuli like rejection, failure, difficulties blending in, etc.

Fear is transmitted by the amygdalae, two almond-shaped nuclei located deep within our brain, which decode emotions, particularly threatening stimuli. By doing this, the amygdala controls autonomic responses associated with fear. If the amygdala is injured or removed (in lab tests on rats), an unusual absence of fear is noticed.

Fear is a physical response to danger,” says Daniel R. Weinberger of the National Institute of Mental Health’s Clinical Brain Disorders Branch. “Anxiety is a psychological response to perceived danger.” Fear can originate from any type of threat to your life or self-esteem.

While this is the scientific explanation, the truth remains that fear originates from our uncontrolled minds. Fear takes over when we are overthinking about things we desperately wish to avoid or do not want to happen. Our mind becomes consumed with trying to escape a potentially dangerous situation (which, in most cases, the mind just creates on its own) and it can no longer focus on completing the given tasks. You may have the right skills, but your mind is telling you to abort mission at the first sign of danger.


Can I kill my fears?


Fear is a survival mechanism. Why would we ever want to repress it? After all, it is specifically designed to protect us from injury and possibly fatal situations. Instead of trying to kill your fears, work on cultivating mental toughness. In competition surfing, as well as in all other sports, this is what can set you apart from your opponents. In everyday life, mental strength is what sets you apart from others who are too afraid to reach their goals.

How to cultivate mental toughness? By doing exactly the thing you are afraid of! Are you afraid of spiders? Then don’t jump and scream the next time you see one. Learn to live with them, acknowledge their existence and begin noticing how they’re not there to hurt you. The same goes for most aspects of life. You might not be able to kill your fears, but you can learn to live with them. Feel the fear and do it anyway. The sense of achievement will be beyond comparison.

Repressing your fears is a big no-no. When you bury feelings deep within yourself, they will eventually resurface, sometimes in the most inappropriate of moments, and can be even more destructive when they do. Shine a light on your fears, become aware of them. Trace them back and try to figure out their root causes – certain incidents that left you traumatized without even realizing it, or a certain situation in which you may have felt threatened.


Overcoming your fears when surfing


You feel nervous when heading out surfing. You imagine the worst as you’re getting near the spot. Once there, the waves suddenly look bigger and perhaps a bit too dangerous to tackle today. It’s probably better to just call it a day and go home. A few days later, on your way surfing, the same happens. Then again and again. Does this sound familiar? Then it’s time to ask yourself who’s really in charge, you or your fears. It’s time to push the stop button.

There are as many reasons why people are afraid when hitting the waves as there are surfers. Some are afraid of being caught beneath a wave. When that happens, it rarely lasts as long as you think, and you can breathe underwater for longer than you might have thought.

Some are afraid of messing it up and looking like complete fools. But even pros fall off their surfboards, sometimes in hilarious wipeouts, other times in near-death experiences. Still, they immediately jump back on their boards. And it’s not like they’re not afraid when they do it; they simply choose to overcome their fears.


Mentally strong people have the power to get over their failures and bounce back from setbacks. Instead of asking yourself “what if…” try focusing on “how to…” – how to stay calm, how to get out, how to be the best you can be, how to build confidence and so on. Imagine yourself getting out of a given situation or arriving at your destination (whatever that may be) safe and sound.

A study led by researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown Medical School found that competitive surfing has a much lower risk of injury compared to other sports. However, the size of the wave and the type of bottom are associated with an increased chance of injury.


Key takeaways

Of course, no one is telling you to underestimate the ocean, but you shouldn’t let your fears dictate your life. That being said, here are some key takeaways:

Stay safe and minimize the risks – use the right surfboard, don’t go in the water without a backup and always make sure to assess the risks. Conditions can change unexpectedly, so make sure you have a bailout plan. Think about the worst-case scenario and of your ‘emergency exit.’ Believe in yourself and know that you can make it out safely. Be prepared for the worst and the worst may never even happen.

Don’t run away – if you’ve taken a beating, packing your stuff and going straight back home will not help you overcome your fears. Take the bull by the horns!

Fear is healthy – but only in a healthy dose. If you push yourself to step out of your comfort zone, then your surfing can only improve. However, please be aware that terror is bad. It can make you do foolish things, so never get into the water if you’re terrified. Calm down first or come back another day.

Fear does not leave – but it can be tamed. The only way to keep it under control is to do something about it. Get wiped out and you’ll see it wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought. Get trapped under a wave and you’ll realize it didn’t last as long.

Set realistic goals – not being able to pull off a certain maneuver in surfing or some everyday task due to a lack of strength, flexibility, experience or knowledge can make you lose confidence in yourself. When you feel that you are not in control, your mind starts sending negative signals and you become afraid. Train hard for surfing. Train hard for life!


Fear of a nasty wipeout, fear of big waves, fear before a competition, fear of being rejected, fear of losing your job, the list seems endless. It’s okay to be afraid – lack of fear can put your life in serious danger. Negative energy can be harnessed too. In fact, anything can be trained, even our brain and deepest fears.


Disclaimer: This article is not intended to send you charging at monstrous waves like the ones at Nazare (Portugal), Tehupo’o (Tahiti) or Jaws (Maui). It is merely meant to get you out of the room in which you’re probably reading this right now and out there where the unpredictable and the true magic happens.


Have you always wanted to go surfing a bit more often but found yourself too afraid of what may or may not happen? It’s time to take control, join a surf camp, and melt away your fear. 

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