The Psychology and Fears of Surfing

Surfing is considered a risk sport. By giving it that name, it means that it confronts the athlete with potentially dangerous situations for their physical integrity or even life itself, therefore exposing the surfer to situations of fear.

The situations of potential risks would be:

  • Cut with the guillas in the roll.
  • That the lip of the wave bursts in some part of the body (for example. ”The leg breaking it or in the spinal column and could be paralyzed).
  • Hitting reefs, rocks or corals.
  • Being carried away by the current or getting caught in eddies.
  • Getting trapped in caves under water (as there are on the reefs of Hawaii ).
  • Drowning through a foam or simply in the tumble after falling.

All these risk possibilities will decrease or increase depending on the type of beach (sizes and types of waves, currents, etc.) security measures (lifeguards, rescue motorcycles, etc.) and the surfer’s personal care (physical and mental preparation , experience and current state of consciousness -consumption of alcohol or drugs-)

Therefore, it is a sport that has to deal with considerable doses of fear to face the imperceptibility of nature, in this case, the sea.

But what would fear be. Something good or bad? Fear, in principle, is an adaptive emotion since it is reporting a danger (real or imaginary). However, it can sometimes be harmful when it leads to panic.

Kelly Slater (big wave rider and nine-time professional world champion): Being scared is good. Some fears protect you from putting yourself in a harmful situation AND It can range from a physical fear to an emotional fear. Sometimes it holds you back from what you want to achieve, so it’s up to you to determine when it should hold you back and when it should push you further.

Fear is triggered by our oldest brain ( Archicortex ) as a means of survival (attack or flight ) but over time the brain has become more complex and new cerebral cortices have appeared ( Paleocortex and Neocortex ). Giving oneself not only the real fears (for example, fear of a lion) but also the subjective fears (for example, the fear of speaking in public – in which it is obvious that life is not at stake, but the person feels real fear -). Fear is triggered by thought (the cognitive aspect of the human being). To feel fear, the person makes an evaluation of the situation in his mind, assessing whether it is a dangerous situation or not.

Kate Skarratt (former WCT competitor ): I’m sitting on the beach and looking at the conditions, it’s really beautiful outside and the conditions are perfect. But if I feel a little doubt, a feeling that something is not right, I just don’t go in. I really say to myself: “Stop.” Suddenly I return in an hour or two and the conditions are dying again and I still have a bad feeling, fear, I just say to myself: ” Hey , and you know, today is not your day.” 

After this cognitive evaluation, the physiological response is given. Fear triggers the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) part of the autonomic nervous system. It produces adrenaline (Epinephrine) in the human body when the brain (thoughts) signals a threat to it by fully preparing it for action (sending the most blood to the muscles). It diverts the blood from the intestines and the energy stored in the liver to the muscles, producing the following bodily reactions: dilation of the pupils, increased strength and heart rate, dilation of the bronchi, decreased stomach contractions, and stimulation of the adrenal gondolas (Its function is to regulate responses to stress. secreting Catecholamines: Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Dopamine).

The difficulties that arise in surfing with respect to fear is that it is necessary to make correct and precise decisions in situations, occasionally, potentially risky for personal integrity. And exaggerated fear or panic reduces concentration, introduces negative thoughts and doubts, affecting the ability to evaluate the situation, clarity when thinking and, therefore, affecting decision-making.

Kelly Slater : Most fears have nothing to do with the moment. If you are in yourself (physically and mentally) in the moment, you are usually fine, but if you are thinking about what could happen, that is fear.

You should look for a suitable model to imitate. Fear is subjective, it depends on each one (personal history – education + experiences – genetics). Personality affects, a very neurotic person who tends to worry, feel nervous. Vulnerable and insecure, she tends to interpret in a more irrational way what might be natural for another person, exaggerating the real fear of the size of a wave and, as a consequence, learning to feel more fear.

People who have an SNS, due to genetics and learning, are more reactive, they will be less likely to face these types of challenges. Fear is also acquired by learning through observation and experience. IF you observe happy and confident people you will learn that, while if you observe fearful and / or anxious people you will learn that.

Ross Williams (retired WCT professional big wave rider and surfer): Growing up in Hawaii had a positive effect on my path to becoming a comfortable big wave surfer. I started running Waimea Bay boy at 12 years old. I had a group of friends who taught me how to have fun and get excited about riding big waves. This gave me a feeling of exploration. I always approach riding big waves with a smile. It’s a pleasure.

However, it is important to emphasize balance and the importance of knowing your limits. It is one thing to be brave and another to be reckless, reckless or unconscious. For this, it is important to set reasonable and progressive goals, that is, if the largest wave that has been run is 2 meters, you cannot expect to jump suddenly to run a 4-meter wave. If the largest beach that has been run is Señoritas, it is not appropriate to go straight ahead to run Pico Alto.

Darrick Doerner (Big Wave Surfer): Riding big waves is one of the most honorific of all because you can actually die, so it’s absolutely mental. You have to control the mental factor.

An adaptive fear is the fear of big waves since life itself is at risk (there are records of dead surfers in this practice) but it is a critical situation that the surfer who wishes to face can do so, developing techniques and psychological strategies to Increase the fear management, which under normal conditions should be present. A sports psychologist specialized in surfing is recommended to handle it in the best possible way. To face fears, there are different methods developed by psychology. A well-known and relevant one for exaggerated fears is systematic desensitization (exposing the person to the objective or situation that generates fear) through photos, images, videos, thinking, bringing it closer, etc. From minor to major and progressively. It is not recommended that the surfer do it alone, but seek professional psychological help.


In this regard, Bennett, an Australian sports psychologist specializing in surfing, and Kramer , between 2000 and 2001, interviewed 32 of the best big wave riders in the world (Big Wave Riders ) who were in an age range between 19 to 70 years. The most important characteristics found, in each topic ranked from highest to lowest importance, were these.

Qualities and attributes:

  1. Search for excitement, confidence and goal setting.
  2. Mental strength, control and commitment.
  3. Capacity and physical condition. d. Experience.
  4. Intimate relationship with the sea.
  5. Great ability to ride big waves.


  1. Ideal performance state (calm, relaxed and absence of negative emotions)
  2. Attitude (engaged, positive and confident)
  3. Focused (concentration)
  4. Planning and preparation.
  5. Be in rhythm and in tune with the ocean.


  1. The sensation (excitement, adrenaline, fear, feeling the power and energy of the sea)
  2. The challenge.
  3. Self-satisfaction of achieving the challenge.
  4. Addiction to this behavior (riding big waves, love)
  5. Others (work. Cheap, boring AND / or clumsy in small waves, being fit)

Clude Aikau (big wave racer): I think that over time big wave riders who do it for their heart, who run with their soul, will be much more successful than those who do it for being famous or being in magazines. Only then can you take your body so far physically. You can have all the experiences and so on, but what really matters is riding big waves with your heart and soul.


  • Author’s notes: if you feel that your fears control you, consult your specialist psychologist for help and design a strategy according to your needs.
  • All quotes are from The Surfer’s Mind (2004)