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How to Overcome Fear and Doubt On Your First Surfing Vacation

Last updated May 27, 2022

Susan Czyzo is a physiotherapist who balances out her clinical life with writing and photography inspired by outdoor adventures. She strives to live an active, adventurous and sustainable life and hopes to inspire others to do the same.

People from all over the world rave about how incredible surfing is. They gush as they prattle on and on about how it is unlike any other sport out there. Though I can’t disagree with these statements, they paint an incomplete picture of the sport. Especially for your first surfing vacation.

My Surfing Journey

My surfing journey began ten years ago. On a spontaneous active vacation at a week-long surf camp. It was the beginning of a love-hate relationship with the sport.

It’s an activity I’m addicted to for life. Despite my love-hate relationship with surfing, the hours it takes to master riding a wave can be gruesome. It’s been the struggles, and not just the highs, that have led me to a personal connection with surfing.

Surfing isn’t easy, but you can pick up a basic level of expertise fairly quickly. 

Riding the whitewash of broken waves on the coasts of America and Australia gave me early confidence. The rides gave me just enough thrill to make it more than a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ activity. 

Out there amongst other beginners, my courage runs strong. Not to mention that I was spurred on by the motivation of being within a group of eager learners. After all, the best amateurs are the most open-minded and willing to try new things.

Taking on new things such as surfing requires hours of practice. It may feel hopeless after an hour has gone by and you still can’t get up on top of your surfboard. Don’t give up! Practice makes permanent. If you want to get on top of that surfboard, you have got to keep at it!

For me, it has been progressing to catching unbroken waves. Waves that are further from the shore (often amongst more experienced surfers) have exposed a steeper learning curve. Think about how you learn and catch on best. Did you learn how to swim by being tossed into the deep end? Or were you a child who thrived from gradual exposure? Maybe you were both. Keep in mind your learning style. Implement it into your surfing lessons with the help of your instructor.

Learning to Ride With, Not Against

A decade out from my first ever lesson on that surfing vacation, surfing is still a work in progress. If I’m being honest with you, it is often a frustrating one. I pull out of more waves that I commit to. What seems like a good idea from a distance quickly becomes intimidating. The fears of getting dumped hard, or nose-diving even harder, stand between me and that wave. 

I question the skills that I’ve been working years to develop. I often feel frustration creep in quickly. Despite knowing all too well that leaving the water disappointed or angry cancels out the many benefits of surfing. It’s not the success of riding the wave that makes surfing worth it. It’s the saltwater, currents, and bright sun that make me run back into the ocean for more.

There have been many days like this- many surf sessions- that have me questioning whether to continue the long road to becoming an intermediate (never mind an experienced) surfer. Could I not just be satisfied with being an experienced beginner? Of course not. I’m overly ambitious. Can you relate?

Quieting the Mind

In surfing, negative self-talk doesn’t differentiate between shore and break—it effortlessly paddles its way out the back with you. You know this. Negative self-talk pulls up a chair anywhere, anytime, any place. It is always strictly uninvited and entirely unwelcome. Negative self-talk leads to anxiety, insecurity, self-loathing, comparison and depression.

Thankfully the beauty of surfing demands immense focus. Especially as a beginner. The intense focus that is required to surf a wave is typically enough to quiet these pester-y, unwanted thoughts.

Don’t get me wrong. They do fight their way through at times. Interrupting my focus and clawing away at my surfing confidence, arrogantly coming out on top. So what is often not visible is this internal battle of sorts.

It’s two paddles forward until I’m knocked back to where I started. Or one perfect ride followed by two empty sessions.

Further challenging the mental game that accompanies surfing vacations are the many things one can fear when out in the water—physical injury from falling off, from unfortunate contact with the board, or a submerged object.

There’s also the possibility of getting swept away by unforgiving ocean currents. Combine this with panic and a lack of knowledge about the ocean, and the outcome won’t be on your side.

Oh, and those grey-finned swimmers, they can produce some fear too.

Having only spent a tiny fraction of my life by, and in, the ocean, I’ve come a long way to being able to read, and make the most of, surf conditions. 

Respecting the Fear

Fear still paralyzes me at times, and that’s when I have to remind myself that respecting the ocean and the power it holds is by far a safer strategy than fearing the earth’s most powerful body of water. 

Over time I’ve also realized that a present state of mind goes a long way towards being a safe and competent surfer.

Thanks to this attitude, I keep riding waves around the world on surfing vacations, with the lifelong goal of improving my surfing confidence and skill. 

Though it’s not all picture-perfect waves with endless rides, without the less than ideal moments, the personal growth that this sport is known to bring about would be non-existent, and surfing wouldn’t be the remarkable sport that it is.

Those too good to be true moments, when all the struggles, all the falls, all the messy sessions are instantly swept away—they’re just a bonus. 

Reflecting on these polar opposite experiences has made me realize that surfing has hooked me deeper than I initially realized. Knowing full well that it will continue to be a bumpy ride, I’m locked in for the long haul but all the more looking forward to the remainder of the journey.

Take these words with you when you embark on your first surfing vacation, and maybe I’ll see you out there one day!

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