Can We Talk About… The Fear?

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Can We Talk About… The Fear?

I love surfing! But the ocean scares me!

Here’s how I’m learning to mitigate the fear, so I can keep doing what I love…

After my first surf lesson, 2 years ago, I was hooked, hard.  It became all I thought about, all I read about, all I wanted to do, and all I wanted to talk about.

But there was, and still is, just one problem. I’m afraid of the ocean!

If you also feel fear out there on the water, read on.  There are many things we can do to manage and mitigate fear.  Below are just 4 ideas that have helped me and may help you too.


Fear can affect everything we do in surfing:

  • The places we’ll surf
  • The conditions we’ll go out in
  • How we sit on our board (and thus signal our confidence, or lack thereof, to others)
  • How well we position ourselves to catch the wave
  • The waves we’ll go for (“it’s too big!”)
  • How we ride a wave
  • How much fun we have

Jack Canfield (author, Chicken Soup for the Soul) says, “everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

So, how do we “get over it” so we can surf better and have more fun?

Illustration by Jonas Claesson



I used to think “good surfers have no fear.”  So, I thought I could or should work towards getting rid of fear.

But then my surf instructor ( told me “there’s always fear.” That even he experiences fear. Our fears may be very different, triggered by very different situations, but this was a key “a-ha” moment.  I had no idea that even accomplished surfers experienced fear. And I realized that even as we progress fear can still be there. It can evolve, change, but it is part of surfing.

So the goal isn’t actually to become fearless, but rather, to find a way to proceed despite the fear.  And to try to move the threshold of fear – to not be scared tomorrow of what scares us today.   “The key,” my instructor said, “is what you do about the fear.”


Fear is an emotional reaction to stimulus that is either warranted or unwarranted.  One thing we can do to mitigate it is to engage our “rational” brain.

Sometimes, we DO have to listen to that voice of fear and NOT paddle out in certain conditions.  It’s not smart to go out. Or we’re really not ready for those conditions.

But sometimes, the conditions or that particular wave coming at us is just a bit outside our comfort zone.  We can probably handle it. But we feel the fear welling up.  This is the time to engage our rational brain and remind ourselves that we do know what to do.  We can handle it.

For example, on those bigger days, my instructor would calm me down by reminding me:

  • I can paddle out during a lull or look for a channel
  • I can turtle
  • I can avoid the bigger sets by paddling farther out when necessary
  • I know how to catch and ride a wave. Just do that.
  • I am not in 30 foot heavy surf (or, even, 10 foot surf)

Rational brain properly engaged.  Mind calms down.  I can now paddle out in a better state of mind.


Surf with people who are better than you. This is common advice which is usually about improving our skills as surfers.  But surfing with people who are better than us can also help us conquer the fear.

When I surf with people who are better than I am:

  • I see them riding waves that I aspire to ride. And those waves don’t look so scary once they are actually up and riding them
  • I line up closer to the critical part of the wave – where I may be hesitant to line up on my own – because that’s where my friend is lining up. And if I want to surf with them, I have to line up with them

I see their courage, and it is contagious.   I get sick and tired of being afraid and begin to tell myself “just go for it,” “just try,” “you know what to do.”  I’ve had my best days this way.


 My friend Peter is always positive out there, always willing to “try it.”  So I asked him one day, “do you just not feel fear?” And he said he spends a lot of time visualizing. “I start by believing I can absolutely do it. Then I see it in my head, I see myself doing it here…and then in Hawaii.”

When you feel fear, are you imagining the worst outcome? Failure?  Next time, visualize success.  Like, catching that bigger wave and riding it, with ease, all the way to the beach.

Photo by: Cat Slatinsky Photography

Today, I’m not nearly as fearful as I was when I started surfing 2 years ago. There’s still more work to be done, for sure, but I’m grateful for the progress I’ve made so far.

For more on understanding and mitigating fear, check out:

Surf Mastery Podcast on iTunes and at

New York Times:  Outsmarting our Primitive Responses to Fear

What have you tried to mitigate your fear?  Share your techniques in the comments below. Let’s talk about THE FEAR!


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