The Terrible, Horrible Wave

“There’s never a point in surfing when you don’t have fear.” 

Kelly Slater

Want to go for a surf? Before you jump in the water, be aware that the following events may happen:

  • Shark attack
  • Drowning
  • Getting run over by another surfer
  • Your board hitting someone else
  • Getting ‘dumped’ by a wave and held under water
  • Getting caught ‘inside
  • Crashing into rocks
  • Your board getting smashed
  • Losing control of your board
  • Getting in someones way, possibly starting a fight
  • Rip currents
  • A bad wipeout
  • Getting too cold

Staring at the waves

My introduction to surfing was lying down on a foam boogie board. So, not exactly surfing, but it was still a novel, exhilarating experience. I had fun, but I sort of avoided the surfing bit. I remember paddling far out to the shoulder, where the waves weren’t breaking. I was scared. Lots of fear, not much action. Surfing (boogie boarding), was scary.

I actually have no idea what the surf instructor was trying to say here… Something about a ‘fear flower’

Since I had moved to San Francisco, I had taken up surfing, this time standing up. I had progressed a bit, but wanted more. So in 2022, I took a trip to El Salvador. I spent weeks and weeks surfing a point break, steadily improving. I took lessons. I observed others surfers, the best surfers I’ve ever seen, dance on waves with reckless abandon. I took better notice of the tides, wind, swell direction. But I was still scared. Any forward progress I made was coupled with the thought ‘I’m going to get seriously hurt.’ I was either mildly uncomfortable (if only my leash strap would stay still)… or blacked out in fear.

Not staring at the waves

“One thing you learn from surfing is how to operate in the present”

Gerry “Mr. Pipeline” Lopez

In Melbourne, Australia, waves aren’t as consistent (and the water isn’t as warm) as the point breaks of El Salvador. Sometimes the wave pool is the only option to catch some waves after work. Since the pool is a controlled environment, it’s easier practice skills and try different things out.

At one point during a recent session in the pool, a surfer shouted out to his friend who was next in line “Good luck mate. 18 eyes are on ya”. On the next wave, I lost my balance and fell off. I wasn’t even the one getting trash-talked and it still affected me!

“What happened was that people felt shame more strongly and it made them angry. That affected their performance. I hadn’t expected that.”

Trash Talk can really put players off their game

After that wave, I decided to try an experiment. Rather than focus on turns, or the latest advice I’d heard, I blocked out all the noise. Anything that wasn’t my wave needed zero attention. By ignoring everyone else, I found it easier to remain calm, and interestingly, could surf much better. Although it felt a bit strange purposefully ignoring most of the action, I did notice some benefits.

  • I caught every single wave (except the one I mentioned)
  • I got many more turns than usual
  • Had more fun
  • Felt less tired
  • Felt happier and more relaxed after the session
  • Felt less stressed in the lineup
  • Felt calm while I was on the wave and had bandwith to ‘think’ on the wave
  • Easily navigated around a surfer who fell off in front of me (and defused situation easily afterwards)

Fear, harnessed

Is the goal to quieten the fear to nothing to surf at your best? Not quite. Tim Gallwey, sums it up nicely: “If (the surfer) wants to be in the flow, he could do that on a medium size wave. Why does the surfer wait for the big (scary) wave? The surfer waits for the big wave because he values the challenge it presents…It is only against the big waves that he is required to use all his skill, all his courage and concentration to overcome; only then can he realize the true limits of his capacities.”

Therefore, surfing should be viewed not as an exercise in quieting fear and relaxing, or a harsh battle against fear, but a ‘harnessing’ of fear to perform at your best.

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