Why are big waves so easy for some and so hard for others? Why do some guys cackle like hyenas and jump up down and run around in excited circles at the sight of mammoth swells exploding into the coast, while the rest of us get a sudden pain from that old football injury or the urge to watch romantic comedies in a nice safe bed with our girlfriends? What is it that separates the warrior from the weakling? One who may know the answer is Richard Bennett? Richard is a surf psychologist and a damn good one at that. He’s spent the past four years travelling with ASP World Tour as their in-house head mechanic, helping the world’s best with everything from confidence issues to handling pressure. In his spare time Rich has also managed to conduct quite a bit of research in other areas that affect surfers, one of the most prominent being fear.
So Rich, What’s at the core of a surfer’s fear of big waves. Is it death or something more complicated?
Everyone has some degree of mortal fear but an individual’s personality is often the most affecting aspect. Some people are naturally more gung-ho and enjoy thrill seeking. They’re the type who will paddle out on a big day and go straight for the icebreaker – a wave that’ll often end in a wipeout, and from there they’ll gain confidence from having the realisation they can handle whatever’s thrown at them. It’s the same attitude you see in anything that requires a high level of risk. Vert skating, snowboarding, driving fast, there are some guys who’ll dive in head first with the attitude of “what doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger. It’s interesting because through my research I’ve been able to establish there are three phases in which fear manifests in surfers. Younger guys are more likely to surf big waves without much regard for the consequences. Their fear is a much more personal fear, where as guys who are slightly older and who have had a few scares they tend to start thinking about their girlfriends or their kids and so there is a shift toward being responsible, it’s a fear of losing what they’ve attained in life. The final phase is purely physical. If you’re getting older or you’re not confident with your health it doesn’t take long to realise you may not be able to get yourself out of trouble on big days and that’s obviously pretty scary. In older surfers there’s also a sense of contentment, as if they no longer feel the need to prove themselves. In any case one of the direct side effects of fear is hesitation and as everyone knows, hesitation in big waves leads to disaster.
So is it possible for the non gung-ho surfers to overcome their fears?
Definitely, but there must be a genuine internal desire to ride big waves. Ross Clarke Jones and Tony Ray were born to surf the waves they ride. It takes a lot of talent but they are driven. I always say there’s no point in teaching the 50 best mental strategies to overcome fear to someone who has no desire. If you have the desire, then you can begin focussing on the physical body, the equipment and the preparation. When you can swim five kilometres, hold your breath for over a minute, know how a wave breaks and have the right equipment to ride it your confidence levels are naturally a lot higher. For example when Darrick Doerner knows there’s a 30 foot plus swell coming he drops everything for the two or three days before it hits to get ready. The preparation that goes into surfing big waves these days is phenomenal. The guys at the peak of this realm have been doing it for a long time. They have complete faith in their body, their equipment and their preparation and their minds are at ease with this knowledge so the fear factor is reduced. But these guys also have what’s known as a behavioural addiction. It’s similar to a chemical addiction although a behavioural addict will initiate an action rather than take a chemical to receive the same sort of buzz. It’s the desire to get this buzz which pushess them through the fear barrier.
Could something like peer group pressure be a factor in helping to push you further than you would usually allow yourself or is that just plain stupid and dangerous?
I had a conversation with Sunny Garcia about surfing Waimea Bay and he said there’re only two reasons why you wouldn’t catch a wave out there. One is because nobody could physically paddle into it, the other is because you don’t want it. In other words, when a wave comes that he wants he’s giving 100 percent commitment to catching it. It’s purely internal. Peer group pressure is not internal and being in a situation you don’t want to be in can quickly turn to panic. Peer group pressure can be awesome in term of performance. Look at the Cooly kids and those guys who are in the top five on the world ratings. Everyone wants to do a bigger turn or get a bigger barrel or do a bigger air than the last guy and there is an element of that among the big wave riders of the world but when I spoke to the contestants of the Eddie it always came back to a more personal desire. To feel the excitement and take on the challenge of riding the biggest waves possible.
If you think Rich is onto something and can help you in your quest to conquer fear, increase performance or give you an edge in heats, feel free to contact him at www.thesurfersmind.com.