How To Surf Bigger Waves & Conquer Fear
Bigger & More Challenging Surf…
If you want to expand your comfort zones, this is how you should take on the challenge.
I want to share with you what I find to be the critical process of surfing bigger and heavier waves and conquering the fear that is inherent in the process.
Whatever “bigger and heavier” waves mean to you makes no difference. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
I guarantee that if you consider, and take on board what I outline below, it WILL impact your ability in the surf and help you push your surfing boundaries.
But the key is……
This journey to bigger and more challenging surf takes time.
It is a progression that encompasses aspects of mental fortitude, wave knowledge, reading the energy of the ocean, breathwork, fitness, dialing in equipment, and acclimation to more intense situations.
The confluence of those factors simply takes time.
Experience and acclimation to more intense situations is a VITAL piece to this process, and that requires time.
The reasoning behind me writing this is primarily because I saw on an Instagram scroll the other day, a surf fitness “trainer” hitting hard with sales copy claiming he will have “you” surfing overhead waves in a month or two.
That statement is straight-up bullshit.
A disgusting sales tactic from my point of view, an outright lie, but even more so, it’s potentially dangerous.
Please don’t fall for that BS on social media. You’re smarter than that.
You can absolutely push your boundaries within a month or two if that is your wish. But to specify a size is utter nonsense.
The timeframe claim undermines the necessary steps of experience and acclimation a surfer MUST go through when expanding his or her comfort zones in the ocean, and a willingness to challenge themselves.
This challenge comes with inherent risks, and to be totally honest, potential death depending on how intensely you’re pushing boundaries.
Any surfer that has been involved in the sport for any longer length of time will be guaranteed to have at least one extreme scenario story, where the thought of “oh shit, this may be it…”flashes into their consciousness.
I have at least 2 stories like that, where I legit thought I was going to die.
I mention this dire aspect simply for awareness, and a reality of the situation.
Your level of pushing boundaries may not be dealing with 10foot surf and shallow reef, but it still likely has some level of consequence or at least more than you’re used to at your current level of surf-comfort.
Being aware of the reality of consequences is a good thing.
Being aware of your capacities and skill levels is an even better thing.
So please let me rap about a few things you NEED to consider when your aim is to surf overhead waves or any waves that are bigger than your norm.
How To Surf Bigger Waves & Conquer With Fear
Any wave or surfing situation can be basically broken down into considerations of the following three categories (this is for the sake of simplicity)
Physical Capacity – do you have the physical ability to succeed in the situation?
This could be breathwork capability, paddling stamina, the ability to swim to shore if a leash breaks, the strength to efficiently duck dive the proper size board for the situation. There are many other aspects of physical capacity, but the basics are whether or not your body is up to the task at hand.
Skill & Technique – do you have the necessary skills to succeed?
If you’ve only ever surfed 4 foot, you can’t suddenly expect to surf 8foot +. The gradient of increase is too great with too many additional variables.
Do you have the ability to read the type of wave you’re attempting to surf? Do you have the ability to make the takeoff? Do you have a success rate with pop-ups to prevent yourself from going headfirst into the reef? Do you have enough equipment knowledge to match the correct board to the wave you’re trying to surf?
Skill & Technique takes the longest to develop, as it’s experience-based. You NEED time in the water, acclimation, and awareness, and trial and error to develop new levels of success and skill.
Mental & Emotional – do you have the necessary mindset and confidence to support your desire to improve?
Do you want it? Do you have a growth-oriented mindset? Do you doubt your personal skill or feel confident in your abilities? Have you taken the necessary steps in the surf to confidently take on more intense scenarios? Can you honestly reflect upon your own skill level and make a rational decision as to whether or not you should move forward? Does fear override your ability to perform and make rational decisions?
I’ve been involved with a lot of surf coaching trips. I can’t tell you how many guys at the start of the trip say they want to get barreled, yet when we pull up to a proper barrel wave they want no part of it. It’s a new level of intensity and risk that they now see firsthand. This ramps up mental and emotional “what-if” scenarios because they either doubt or realize they lack the required skill and technique. The real-life consequence of eating reef is rather daunting!
All of these categories can be elaborated upon, but it gives you a basic framework of what to consider when attempting to push boundaries, and whether or not you can be successful.
If you don’t think you could be successful in a specific surf situation, the framework consideration gives you aspects of your own ability or lack of ability to consider, and then it’s simply working on improvements in specific areas.
That is progression.Growth.Experience.
You can’t bullshit this in the matter of a month as claimed by this Instagram surf fitness dude.
Let me throw this into a real-life personal scenario.
A few months back I got off a plane and literally went straight to a wave that was firing that day, and I had never surfed it before.
Complete newness in every sense of the word.
It was solid, not huge by any means, but solid. Remember, size and scale are in the eye of the beholder. What’s solid to me, may be unattainable for you at the moment, or perhaps you’d look at it and think it was easy. It’s all subjective experience.
Out the back where it was breaking I’d call it up to 8foot +, and where it would barrel I’d call it about 6 foot. For reference, I’m 5 11”.
So anyway, I hop off the plane, drive straight to this spot (no I won’t say where it is so don’t ask), and I’m met with this firing wave, with a solid local crew of about 10 guys on it.
I start going through my mental checklist shown in the image above, and making a rational decision of whether or not I can succeed… and get SHACKED!!!!!
Physical Capacity… yep all good. Fitness, breathwork, I’m good to go.
But in this particular scenario when considering Physical Capacity I’m really looking at personal rescue scenarios. Where do I get out? Where do I get in? What happens if I snap a leash? Where can I swim? Where are the rips? Where are the local boys getting out and in?
These are basically safety scenarios and you NEED to go through this checklist.
With this spot, the in / out rock jump sucks. Really sucks, and especially sucks at this size. To be honest that was the most daunting part of the surf and the potential scenario of losing your board and being forced to swim in. Getting in would be a nightmare…. So check your leash!!!
On to Skill & Technique…yep, all good. I’ve surfed waves of this size before, I’m confident in my ability, and I knew my equipment was suited to the wave. It was a 6 3” epoxy, built for barrels.
What was difficult about this was the newness of the wave and the unknown. I had no previous experience, nor any mental models of the wave. It’s one thing to surf a wave at 3-4 foot a few times, and then 6, and then 8, with gradual progression and time to learn the nuances of the wave. The helpful graded process of exposure and experience so you can figure out the wave and its individual characteristics.
It’s an entirely different thing to figure out the nuances of a wave for the first time ever when it’s 8 foot +, with potentially serious consequences. It really ups the mental anxiety.
So realistically this required more “skill” than normal when compared to a graded process spanning several weeks and multiple surfs. I had to call on all of my abilities reading waves and water experience to quickly figure out how to read this wave, all while not pissing off the local boys, and trying to grab a proper one!
Mental & Emotional….Anxiety and stress were high, but so was excitement. It’s a fine line of being stoked and excited, yet being able to dampen the stress and anxiety. It’s also being aware of Fear, looking at it with rationality, and making informed decisions.
I’ve touched on Dealing With Fear in the Surf in detail here: How To Overcome Surf Fear.
Calming breathwork comes into play to bring down the heart rate in my personal situations like this. I’ve called on this skill numerous times over the years. For me, this aspect of mental and emotional is in large part being honest with myself about my skill levels and making calculated decisions about when and where to push boundaries. Confidence in my abilities, awareness of my skill levels, and desire to succeed while still dealing with the inherent fears and anxieties.
If you want to check out more info on Breathwork read this: Breath Work For Surfers
Ultimately, it all worked out and I got some incredible waves.
I also got a couple of pretty bad scrapes on the feet on the way in, but that was par for the course I reckon.
I see this as the process to rationally approach pushing yourself into bigger surf.
To guarantee this in a few weeks is a disgusting approach to surf “coaching” in my opinion.
Progression, and more importantly, safe progression takes time, as it requires aspects of fitness, mental fortitude, and skill.
These things aren’t developed overnight, but they are certainly improved upon day by day.
What often requires the longest time is the aspect of experience and graded exposure. If you want to surf bigger surf you need to experience bigger surf. The more experience you accumulate, the more comfort and awareness you’ll have in more intense situations.
I hope you take this to heart, as I literally use this process when surfing waves all over the world.
Consider this framework next time you’ve got a bit of anxiety or anticipation when confronted with surf that’s bigger than what you’re accustomed to.
And in all reality, physical capacity supports mental confidence. The mental, emotional, physical, and technical aspects of surfing all intertwine and support one another.
While I certainly won’t claim any of my programs will have you “surfing overhead waves in 8 weeks”, what I can guarantee is that my programs WILL support, improve, and strengthen various mental, physical, and technical aspects of surfing and help you to push your boundaries if that is your intention.
The image at the top of this article, one of the most impressive shots of Teahupoo ever taken, is being used courtesy of Tuputetai Media