surfing mindset
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What the F* and how it controls your movements and how you surf a wave

Ingrained in all of us is an automatic response that causes us to make decisions we don't want to in the surf. Control it, or it will control you.

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Do you ever just surf a wave and think what the actual F* did I just do there? Why am I so stupid? I completely stuffed that up.

Or it can go the other way and you just click, enter a state of flow and you pull out thinking what the actual f*, that was amazing?

This can also go from wave to wave, one wave you’re on fire, the next wave you can’t even find your feet.

There is a hell of a lot going here and it all ties back to the Three F’s. Freeze, flight or fight. 

This is nothing new, it’s not related to surfing at all, it’s basic survival mechanism inbuilt to all of us and it’s something that goes on unnoticed within us in every surf.

It’s something that if you don’t control it, it will control you, the line you take on a wave, how you move, if you even bother to paddle over and sit near the peak or not. 

It’s a response to the stimulus and environment you are in. It’s the conditions, the other surfers, your stress, anxiety, fears and everything else going on inside your head. You can go back and listen to this podcast episode all about managing fear and bigger surf.

What are the Three F’s

Whenever your mind is dealing with a stressful situation, one of three things is going to happen. You’ll either freeze and lock up, you’ll run from the stress or you’ll stand and face it.

If you are in freeze or flight mode, you practically have no choice in what you do.

So what does this look like in your surfing?


Seen the most in beginners and intermediates when the waves step up.

This is typically what you see when a surfer will get to their feet and completely freeze. No movement, just lock up and hold on. This can also be seen when people will refuse to paddle for waves and start finding excuses as to why they refused to move.


Flight is the most common one seen, it’s every intermediate surfer racing down the line to the shoulder, looking for safety and then going ok now that it’s safe, where can I turn. It’s a classic trap considering where you wanted to turn you’ve just raced away from and past. Whether you know it or not, feel the stress or are looking for safety, this is what’s happening.

This is again the same thing when the waves step up and people paddle to the horizon for safety, when they paddle or sit wide of the peak and try to paddle in from the shoulder. 

All of this is dodging danger, trying to avoid it and find a safe way to get it or get away.

At this point, it’s hard to do anything until that stress calms down.


Freedom, this is where you are just in the moment and can respond to the wave and what it wants you to do. Your surfing looks fun or you are having a lot of fun because you will be doing what you want to do. 

This is the state you want to find where ever you can and you need to control the responses to all of these threats.

If you are stuck in freeze or flight, it will be practically impossible to work on your surfing, you have to find ways to relax and get yourself into a fight state.

You can go through all of these within one surf

Clay and I had a surf a couple months back together. We’d gotten to well into the afternoon and thought there was no surf. Calling it a day, we checked the cams on a whim and it surprisingly looked fun, so we set out. 

There’s a point to this background and that’s that we had no expectations of the surf, no ego, just, cool, lets get out and do something, anything will be a win.

Jumping off the rocks at Currumbin Alley, it was probably head high, Clay went first and I followed a minute later. As I was paddling out, I saw him starting to get swept down with the current and thought, stuff him, I’m gunning for the inside and going to get first crack at a wave.

First wave in fight mode

That first wave was a screamer, Clay saw it, started paddling for it and I just went nope, not happening, if he wants it, I want it more now, so being on the inside I had right of way, and just looked at him, stuck the tongue out and made a ton of noise to psyche myself up.

I had not a single expectation, just more stoked to sneak a good wave off Clay.

Took off, got barrelled, came out, kicked out back into the line up and paddled back up the point to rinse and repeat. I was stoked, no stress, didn’t have to work for it, just kept myself in the pocket, let it break over me, held my line, picked an exited and stayed relaxed.

Perfect fight mode allowing me to respond to this scenario.

Enter flight mode.

The second and 3rd waves did not go so well.

Built up with expectations, realising the waves are proper pumping, I now was forcing everything. The next wave, all I wanted was to get barrelled again, that I thought go go go, don’t get caught and entered flight mode. Raced ahead of the wave and let my leggy get barrelled and not me.

The third wave was no better.

Paddled back up the point, in a big sweep with now a bad feeling thinking what the heck was I thinking, why did I do that on both waves.

Freeze mode is a killer

I reset myself, dropped the expectations and went ok I just need to relax and let the wave tell me what to do.

The following wave, it was not so ideal, squeezed into and forced the barrel, as I was just setting my line, I saw it would chandalier and I instantly froze.Completely stopped, closed my eyes and gave up. A big no no anytime in a barrel.

I felt the chandelier hit me and expected to be completely thrown off, I stayed on my feet and was brought back to reality and went right, exit this thing, entering flight mode.

The point to this story is that within 30 minutes of surfing, I had gone through all of the stages and it was all due to my expectations and trying too hard or giving up.

It’s not just a case of skill level or these things always happening, when can self manifest them and we will always struggle to control them.

Less obvious ways you experience this

The same thing can be experienced during turns. Surprisingly, doing a turn and locking up can be a mechanic of freeze, cutting your turns short and same thing with kicking the board away is a mechanic of flight mode. Just wanting to get away from the board, section or obstacle.


When you start breaking it down and looking at your surfing and how you respond to situations, you can see the connections between the Three F’s. It’s then a case of how do I relax, how do I properly respond to this situation and take control again.

Most cases, it comes down to, how can I get out of my head and just respond to the information in front of me.

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching