how to surf big waves and overcome fear in the surf
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How to surf bigger waves and manage fear

Five tips on how you can overcome and work on your surf fears, or how to progress into bigger waves and not hold yourself back in the surf.

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The Full Guide

Are you holding yourself back in the surf? Do you sometimes find yourself pulling back on big waves or turns? Do you surf bigger waves or do you just leave that to other surfers? Do you sometimes paddle out and sit wide on the shoulder, waiting for a wave but not taking action?

Or are you currently stuck, feeling like you've lost all your confidence and ability as a surfer, after an experience in large waves? Maybe you got caught inside the impact zone by a big wave and held under.

As a surfer, there are lessons we can learn from our fears and our comfort zone that we can use to bring back the fun, get you back in the ocean and exploring more conditions, including bigger surf.

I wanted to dive into managing fear and teach you a few quick methods and advice for how you can recentre yourself and change that feeling from no, to maybe. These will help your surfing progression, and it's not just for beginner surfers.

Bigger unbroken waves are the most common fear
Late take off's on bigger waves usually causes most people to panic

It's all about your relationship to bigger waves and what big means to you

What's big for me, may not be big for you and what's big for you, may not be big for me. It's all about perception and what is big for you. Doesn't matter about how big the waves are, it's your relationship and how you respond to bigger waves to you.

Choosing your response to big waves

The trick is, everything is a choice, how we spend time, if we surf or not. It can be difficult to understand, but you have a choice on how you respond to the conditions. You can see it as scary and not surf or you can see it as a lesson on learning to relax. It's about making that choice and saying I'm going to relax and focus on being calm and I'm not going to let my fear control me. Easier said than done, but it's something all surfers should learn to do, to allow them to expand their comfort zone.

What you surf normally controls what's big for you

Also be aware of what you surf all the time. If the surf is usually waist high, your environment will control whats big to you. If the surf suddenly gets to head high, that could be big. Where as some where else may be routinely overhead and that is normal for that location. Work within what is near your comfort zone and not what is massively outside of it. Baby steps.

Overcoming fear by asking "Maybe"

Too many surfers are stuck in the world of "I can't" or, translation, "I probably could but I'm too scared to try".

This tip is meant to change the way you think about these situations, build more confidence, prevent panic and improve your ocean awareness. If you change the "no" to a "maybe", you change your entire outlook as a surfer.

It's no longer a question of what the wave will do, it's what will you do. This is a very subtle way to pull you out of your comfort zone that is holding you back. Most surfers don't realise their own ability until they actually start trying things.

Imagine your paddling to catch a wave, you haven't caught it yet, but as watch it stand up, you start to worry about what it "may" or "may not" do. Your fears are taking over and you start feeling like you better let this wave go. Or maybe this happens as you go to take off. This is a pretty natural reaction so don't stress.

The point being, you are silently saying "no" inside your head, except your most likely screaming it and end up pulling out or doing something where you put yourself in a worse position in the surf. Overcoming fear becomes impossible if you always doubt yourself and say no before you've even tried.

By thinking maybe I'll get the best wave, or maybe I'll make the drop, etc. You change your whole energy in the surf. It's not about failure, stress or fear, it's about trying and possible surprising yourself.

This shift also impacts your body, causing you to relax and remove tension. The next step is to shift from maybe to excitement.

The mental side of surfing

Surfing is distracting, we are creatures of habit and we constantly go into fight or flight mode or DIPI.

DIPI stands for:

  • Danger
  • Interesting
  • Pleasureable
  • Important

And is somewhat of a priority system for information that comes through us and how we naturally respond to it. With dangerous things overcoming pleasurable things.

This is a whole other conversation and something we go into in our programs but the point being, you need to manage all that information and how it can control you.

Saying maybe, tries to take that thought of something dangerous and try to lower it down to pleasure, fun or something less controlling. We will always respond to danger first and asking maybe or reframing the conversation is all about taking control of that information. If you don't control your mind, it will control you.

How to implement this in the surf

The next time you find yourself being held back, try asking yourself these questions:

  • Maybe
  • This could be really fun
  • I could get a heap of speed here / this could be an insane drop

The only thing here is shifting to possibilities and allowing yourself to be surprised by what you can do when you try.

Overcoming fear in the surf - surfing fears
Let go and just have fun - wipeouts can be fun, if you let them be.

Example: Taking off on big waves

As your paddling in, ask yourself maybe this will be the biggest drop and you'll get so much speed going down it. That sounds fun, lets go!

Take a breath, forget your fears, and if you succeed, amazing! If you go over the falls, relax, don't panic and wait for the point where the wave lets you go, don't fight the ocean and go with the flow. You've not said I am going to go over the falls, if you did that, you'd be tense and the experience of being thrown around will always be negative. If you try something and it succeeds, it feels great, if you fail, you had no expectations other than to try and you can relax in the process.

If you take this as a learning experience, these "maybes" will rapidly help you to progress and overcome your fears.

Releasing tension

If you are out in the lineup and notice you are holding yourself back, take the time to centre yourself, take a breath, make a funny noise, whistle, anything to relax. Tension is the enemy of good style and technique, and it is very common but easy to get rid of.

Most surfers are unaware of the tension they carry into the surf or when riding waves, but if you watch a clip of your surfing or watch another surfer and think they are moving really awkwardly or wild, there's one part technique but they are generally holding a lot of tension in their surfing. By removing that tension, you allow yourself to react and perform better in the surf.

Box Breathing to calm and relax

Try box breathing. This breathwork slows the body down and draws all of your attention, forgetting about what is causing the fear.

  • 4 second inhale
  • 4 second pause
  • 4 second exhale
  • 4 second pause
  • repeat

A couple of cycles of that and you should be set to get back into it.

Other ways to remove tension

  • Make a fart noise - seriously, this one is the best, it will get you to relax, laugh a bit and is secretly just getting you to do a long exhale
  • Whistle - this is what I do and you'll hear me whistling away waiting for waves or even on a wave. It distracts me and is a subtle long exhale.
  • Talk to someone else in the surf
  • Make up a game to occupy the time in between waves
  • Anything that distracts you, brings enjoyment and gets you out of your head
Tense surfers are usually easy to spot. They don't move well or look comfortable.

Pre-surf set up

This one is simple, just take a few minutes to observe the surf and set an intention, a primary goal. Make a plan to work on one thing and focus on that. Forget the rest, find a way to come out with a win and build confidence in conditions that bother you.

Where are the other surfers, where are the waves breaking, how big are they, where do you want to paddle out, what things can you work on in today's surf? What will be a small win? Do that and anything after that small win is a bonus. Build upon that every time and you will progress as a surfer.

You can read more about that in our guide here about "How to catch more waves in a croweded line up".

Keep busy

When I surf with friends or students and I can see they are getting lost in their heads and scared, the biggest part of the problem is they aren't staying busy. Just sitting there with the fear getting worse each minute.

Worrying about what the waves are doing, where everyone else is, what they are doing, what board they are on, on and on. Doubt and panic set in pretty quick when you aren't busy.

Go get a wave, any wave, just do something. Go get a hit, have a bad wipeout and realise it can't get any worse than that. Go to the inside and get a few waves to get in rhythm and then paddle back out.

If all else fails

If all of those fail, have a chat with a friend, understand your fears are normal and build the confidence up. The conversation is just an easy way for you to subconsciously bring out some things that may be holding you back. You won't be aware of them, but they may just stand out to the other person.

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching