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How to overcome a fear of surfing big waves

They say only a surfer knows the feeling, and beyond stoke, there is one common emotion affects all surfers at some point their journey: FEAR.

It might have been the day that the reports said three foot that turned out to six. Maybe you are afraid of sharks. Hold downs. Your board bashing you on the head. Gnarly wipeouts. The reef?  No matter how your aquatic worst-case scenario unfolds, nearly all surfers (except for the really, really crazy ones – think Flea) feel fear in the water at some point.  

If you look at pictures of Paige Alms or Mark Healy out at Jaws, or this video of Maya Gabeira’s 73 foot wave, it may appear to the untrained eye that some people just have a higher threshold for fear. Yes, some evidence that certain people are more genetically disposed to be risk takers exists, but the untold truth is the majority of these big wave surfers’ bravado comes from years of preparation.

So here you are paddling out through the impact zone at your local break. Suddenly, you look to the horizon and see a monstrous set looming down on you.  You paddle as fast as you humanly can toward the safety zone, but you are too late.  The gigantic wave is bearing down on you and you know you will not escape its impact. You can feel your fight-or-flight reflex kicking in; your heart rate increases, vision narrows, judgment gets thrown out the window.

How do you survive this situation without incident or mental anguish? You train. You prepare your body. You prepare your mind. Then get out in the water and you test your training. This is our Waterwomen’s Workshops in a nutshell: we’ll train and prepare to push your boundaries in the surf and in life. Read on to learn how to overcome a fear of surfing big waves, regardless of whether big for you is 3 foot or 30 foot.

Table of Contents – How to Overcome a Fear of Surfing Big Waves

How to overcome a fear of surfing big waves
Big waves of the Telos Islands, Indonesia

Name to Tame

If you look all the way back from ancient philosophers to modern business moguls, you’ll find a practice for dealing with fear that basically amounts to describing what you’re so worried about, facing your fears, and then figuring out a systematic way to deal with each one.

To start, rather than writing down our surfing goals, we are going to list out our fears. I know this may seem like a downer or a negative outlook but the fact is that our minds innately highlight bad experiences and downplay good ones. Psychologists call this the “negativity bias.” Back in the cavewomen days, our brains were engineered this way to help us survive.

Listing out our fears and working through them one by one helps us tame them in two ways:

  1. We can actively prepare for each one in hopes to prevent or mitigate each fear.
  2. We can control the story we tell ourselves about each fear and connect the emotions we feel in the right half of our brain to the logic we use in the left half.
We all wipeout some days.

4 Steps to Fearless

So, first we are going to define our fears and then create a plan of action to handle them. You can download the very chart we’re going to use during the Waterwomen’s Workshop to to do this down below.

The four step process is:

  1. Define Your Fear: Give anything and everything that is holding you back from surfing in bigger waves, at different breaks, on different boards (or pretty much anything you want to do in life) a name.

  2. Try to do some detective work and find out the source of this fear. Can you think back to a specific memory or experience that caused this fear? Fleshing this out will allow you to replace this negative memory with a positive one down the track.

  3. List ways you can train for or Prevent it: If the fear is preventable (not all are), what can you do to prevent it from happening?

  4. List ways you can Respond in a positive way or Repair the situation when it happens: Ask yourself, if the worst happens, how can i fix it or respond in a way to minimize harm?

    So download the worksheet here and let me know if you have any questions.


Training is the only way to override your fight-or-flight instinct, allow you to clam down, and eventually excel in stressful situations. Further, the more you train under actual or artificial stress, the better you will get with dealing with these situations. That’s what’s so cool about these trips. We are going to prepare before and during the trip and actually be able to use these skills in the water in Lombok.

This process also helps you LET GO of things you cannot control. If you cannot think of anyway you can control a certain fear, you can try to diffuse it. Take shark attacks for example. Admittedly, no one control sharks in the open ocean. But what you can do is learn everything you can about the docile nature of sharks. You could even do a cage dive with sharks.

But beyond diffusing, you’ll have to eventually scratch shark attacks off your list. You can’t control the sharks. To quote the all-wise The Dalai Lama, “If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it.  If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”  

You turn, what scares the sh#$ out of you in the surf?

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