What Surfing Taught Me About Fear

anxiety
noun anx·i·ety \aŋ-ˈzī-ə-tē\

: fear or nervousness about what might happen

 

Day 1 of 9.  My surf coach Rachel is sitting atop a blue foam longboard about 4 feet away when she points into the waters below her and says in a casual Australian accent, “Hey, look over here at this cool fish!”

I start to paddle over to her but notice her face fall flat as she says, “fish”.

“That wasn’t a fish, was it?” I ask as her eyes run quickly back and forth over the blue-green waters.

She tells me that although she has never seen a shark here in Nicaragua, she is quite certain that “fish” was a reef shark.

I am not at all surprised. My blood had been pumping hot with fear since we paddled out for my first surf lesson of the trip. Of course there would be a shark; I had just not yet come up with that to add to the list of “things that could go wrong out here” that was looping in my mind.

While I trust my swimming ability almost more than walking and have no fear of scuba diving and snorkeling (even with sharks), surfing has always left me skittish.

I worry about big waves. Getting stuck inside when they come and having to roll underneath them with my longboard is scary.  Learning the way of the waves feels like a right of passage.

Surfing requires trust in something that is always changing and to a novice, seemingly unpredictable.

On this trip I am finally, after all these years of trying, going to learn to surf. I have 9 days in warm water with world-class waves and a coach to help. I can do this.

Or can I?

Day 3 of 9.  We take a boat out to a local break. As we drive up, I watch about 20 pairs of eyes turn and watch us anchor.

My heart is going to pop up and out through my mouth it is pumping so hard as I wait in the lineup.

I watch the waves come through and listen as surfers cheer, holler and yell for and at one another. This sport has a culture all its own, and just like a newbie must learn to read the waves, she must also learn the etiquette and habits of its tribe.

On each wave, 5 or 6 people try to take off. Maybe a couple make it. One survives the ride.

At times, Rachel tells me to go and I freeze; others I go and fall off. Finally, I get one in. Ah, the joy of catching a wave, standing and turning. Freedom!

After a few of those, I am caught inside as a big set rolls in. Me and my longboard and a bunch of crashing waves.

CRASH.

CRASH.

CRASH.

I tire but keep swimming.

As I tumble I wonder: How deep is the bottom? Can I hit my head? Am I going to be able to get out of the way of that oncoming surfer who seems to be coming directly at me?  

One surfer nearly clips the tip of my board.  The coming wave surges and as I turtle roll.  The board feels like it is being ripped straight out of my hands so I grab on tighter and go tumbling with it.  I panic.

But then…

I pop my head up and see Rachel’s husband Alex about 10 feet in front of me. His bright blue eyes are calm.  With a gentle smile he hollers over to me, “You’re doing great. Only a few more.” And then I see Rachel sitting on her board nearby.

My People.

I relax. They remain between the coming waves and me. And the few more pass.

Quickly I notice myself matching Alex’s calm demeanor rather than that of the large crashing waves. I get out to the channel and paddle out to catch a few more.

Day 6 of 9.  I am battling fear. No joke, at times, I feel as though my entire body from the tips of my fingers and toes up through my head is full of it.

As someone who invests a lot in personal growth, I have a number of tools to put to use on my mindset and emotions. Here on my surfboard, I am emptying my toolbox, working 100 times harder mentally to manage my anxiety than I am catching and riding the waves.

The point break we are surfing requires you to actually surf toward the rocks…like literally a few yards (if that) away.  Rachel assures me that the way the current flows makes crashing into the rocks impossible, but it takes all my mental strength to point my board towards the rocks as I catch the wave.

I start to WELCOME THE FEAR. I am learning to be with it. I feel it rush from my toes through my fingers. I feel it flood my heart and mind. I let it be. I stop fighting it. Perhaps I am just fatigued – too tired to fight it any longer.  I let go of managing my anxiety.

And only then, does it start to clear.

Day 7 of 9.  I take off on my biggest wave of the trip.  It is well overhead. I grit my teeth and go for it, and boy is it exhilarating….until it closes out and sends me tumbling.  I am held under, and my board tombstones (yes, that is an actual surfing term).

I get a little whiplash and subsequent stiff neck, but I am fine. Adrenaline is an amazing thing.

The next day, I am perhaps my most timid yet. My subconscious has hijacked my board.  I am paddling away from the peak to take off on waves.  I surf away from the rocks.  I can’t catch anything.  I am practicing feeling the fear, and my body just won’t go.  I am overwhelmed.

Rachel paddles over to me as I sit on my board way out to the side of the break catching my breath.

“What are you afraid of?” she asks.

I think about her question for a second. I know my body can do this.

“I am afraid of the rocks and that crash I had yesterday and my neck hurts,” I start and keep on with a few more reasons.

As Rachel gives me the space to dump what my mind is holding onto, I have more room to feel the fear again and to breathe. I jump up on the next wave and ride towards the rocks. A couple later I ride almost all the way in.

Day 9 of 9.  The swell is nearly gone.  Rachel and I are back surfing the beach break where we began, back to the spot of the shark sighting.

Out in the warm deep, blue-green water, we talk about making bold choices and our shared passion for working with young women.  I think she’s well beyond her years – at least she’s much wiser than I was when I was in my 20’s.

And then it is time for the last wave we’d share on this trip. She tells me to go for it and I do, riding the wave all the way in, making turns and all.  I pick the board up at the sand and hi-five my husband who is there waiting.

Sometimes, the greatest courage is needed not to do the brave action itself but to welcome the fear that comes with it.

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