Sink or surf : overcoming fear in the water.

One of the greatest challenges I found returning to surfing was adapting from a land-based running machine to an aquatic being which belonged in the surf. As a track athlete, my body and brain were conditioned to running as fast as possible for as long as possible. This meant brutal track sessions, hours spent in the weights room or on the massage table, as well as obsessing over lycra, eating enough protein and not getting injured or ill. But I soon found that as fit as I had been on the track, being in the water was a complete game changer mentally and physically.

As much as I was inspired by surfing and had always wanted to do it, I found that I was pretty scared of being out of my depth in the sea and not really comfortable putting my head under water for longer than about 3 seconds. It was one thing to be catching waves in the white water, but as soon as I would venture out into the line-up I would either not go for waves or I would go for a wave only pull back at the last minute.  Being afraid of wiping out and going over the falls I soon found myself in a real rut and couldn’t see a way to overcome it.  My fear was holding me back and I doubted whether I was cut out for surfing. I just couldn’t see myself progressing and ever catching waves and riding them like I’d always dreamed.

Image:Christina Baldwin

Even though I was strong and aerobically fit, my body was really not conditioned for surfing. Years of running had given me tight, powerful muscle tone, which meant I didn’t have the flexibility for popping up or rotating my body and my head was still in competitive mode of needing to be constantly progressing and achieving. It was becoming clear that I needed to loosen up mentally and physically!

It was either sink or swim. After one particularly frustrating session where I literally just sat on my board avoiding waves for a few hours, I made the decision to think about what was holding me back and to make a plan about how I was going to tackle things.

I realised that most of my issues stemmed from being fearful of the water and not feeling like I belonged out there, and these were exacerbated by my body not being conditioned for surfing. So after having a bit of a think about how to tackle these elements, I made a bit of an action plan:

Yoga I started doing weekly yoga classes. The postures perfectly conditioned my body for the movements needed for surfing and my muscles started to loosen and lengthen. I began to learn how to breathe and to control my breath in the water. Taking ownership of my breathing really helped bring a sense of calm and address my fear of being under the water and I slowly started to panic less when I was held under.

Swimming  Becoming a strong swimmer helped and continues to help me feel mentally and physically like I belong in the water.  I signed up to two ten week blocks of lessons at my local swimming pool and started from the absolute basics of learning how to swim and feel comfortable under water. I couldn’t believe how much of a difference this made. Not only did swimming help improve my paddle power and ability to catch waves, but most importantly for me, it dramatically improved my water confidence.

The right board –  The board I was using was too small and I as soon as I started surfing a bigger, more buoyant  board, this allowed me to take off earlier and get into the wave sooner. Switching sticks really helped me to improve and it gave me a bit more time to experiment with my pop up. I remember when I first started catching unbroken waves consistently – the most amazing feeling!

Surf specific training – I looked up some surf-specific exercises and started doing them in the gym. This really helped improve my confidence and made movement easier, as well as improving my pop-up and being able to get to my feet quicker and with confidence.

Connecting with others  – I joined a surf club and met some great people and surfing buddies. It also led to becoming involved with beach cleans which strengthened my connection with the ocean and surf community.

Coaching –   As soon as I felt ready, I signed up to some surf coaching. It was great having someone giving me advice on all sorts of surf-related stuff, taking pictures / videos of my surfing – cringeworthy but very helpful!

Getting out there – I made the decision to surf as regularly as possible in a range of conditions, even if the surf wasn’t up to much. Spending more time in the water really helped decrease my fear of it. If I felt the waves were too challenging for me, I would stay on the inside and catch reforming or smaller waves.

Enjoyment –  As much as I wanted to progress, I reminded myself to enjoy the experience of simply being in the sea surrounded by nature’s beauty and friends.

Goals – I gave myself some goals for sessions. This would range from challenging myself to catch about 3 waves, to improving my duckdives or to go for a wave which was out of my comfort zone.

Leri in Moroccan waves.JPG


So all in all, these are the things that really helped and still help me get more confident and face my fears in the water.  I’m now at a point where I feel like I belong in the water and can call myself a surfer.  Of course, I still get scared and doubt myself, but a hundred times less frequently  than before. Most importantly, I am getting more and more stoke after each session!












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