Wipeouts are an inevitable part of the sport of surfing. Somebody once told me actually, that if you aren’t wiping out each session, you are not trying hard enough. Whether you are going over the falls, ditching your board upon the oncoming set, or simply face planting whilst up and riding, being held underwater is naturally an anxiety provoking experience.
This article explores how through focusing on both our body and mind, we can learn to remain calm during wipeouts, so that we can surf successfully in more and more challenging conditions.
If we want to handle wipeouts more successfully, we have to consider two things…
Our physical state of being
And our mental state of being
Both of these states will influence each other, therefor we need to understand how they work, together and on their own, if we want to manage them.
You see, if we are not feeling confident in our physical state, for example if we are feeling slow, tired, achey, and weak, we will have less confidence in our ability to be ok, and will therefor send our mental state sky rocketing for the worst. It’s a chicken/egg situation really.
Becoming fit for survival
To be physically fit to handle a wipeout, we want to focus on both improving our lung capacity, to be able to hold our breath for longer, and improving our flexibility, to roll with the punches without injury.
An obviously good exercise for increasing our lung capacity is swimming. Swimming allows us to understand that with air we are naturally buoyant creatures. Seriously, your body wants to float, you are not a sinking stone, and this is something you must come to trust in.
Through the practice of swimming we are able to build lean muscle mass, improve our cardiovascular fitness and practice controlling and timing our breathes, making them last under pressure.
Swimming, both aerobically (doing laps and taking in air every few strokes) and anaerobically (for example diving and swimming without air for as long as possible) will allow us to train two different types of energy systems, both used when paddling around, and diving to and hanging around the seabed floor.
The more we push our bodies (within safe limits) the more our capacity will grow.
Ultimately, you need to practice with holding your breath to build capacity. Try going to your local pool and swimming underwater for as long as you can. Try and see overtime if you can push yourself just a few meters more than your previous attempt, however don’t forget to give yourself a little break in between.
Yoga is another practice that promotes the control and focus of breath, teaching us to tune into our bodies, calm the mind, and obviously focuses on pushing and extending the bodies limits slowly over time.
Through maintaining and growing flexibility, the body will stand a better chance when being thrown about. If we are stressed and rigid during a wipeout it is much more likely for injury to occur. Having the ability to tune into your body and see how it is reacting to a certain situation will be a benefit to you in a high stress moment in the water.
Knowing your own body an it’s limits will be a huge asset to you in the water, but it is also helpful to understand the basic physiology of the human body when considering conserving your oxygen and energy. When we struggle, we kick around, trying to get to the surface. In this process we are engaging our quadricep muscles, which seems natural and necessary.
One thing to consider here however, is that this muscle, found in our legs, is the biggest muscle in the body. The biggest muscle, requires the most amount of oxygen to contract and power you. Just another reminder on how staying calm and relaxed can actually benefit your situation.
Our thoughts are our reality
There is nothing more powerful for a human than their thoughts. Our thoughts determine our behavior and our behavior will determine our reality. When learning how to manage a wipeout, we simply need to learn how to accept and manage our thoughts. (Note – I say manage not control.)
When we are underwater, scared and stressed, it is natural that your mind will go into a state of panic. Essentially, when underwater, we don’t have the air that we need, and our mind tells us aggressively that this is not ok.
Though these thoughts are helpful in some situations, in terms of wiping out, they can actually cause more harm than good. When our thoughts panic, our bodies panic. Racing thoughts lead to quick and irrational movements that will end up sucking up our energy, and not actually putting us into a better situation.
The more we struggle, we thrash about, we kick and we squirm, the more muscles are being used, and therefor, more and more oxygen is being depleted.
We will use a heck of a lot of energy and therefor oxygen when we struggle. What would be a more efficient technique is to relax, to go where the wave wants you to go, and gradually and gracefully move to the surface when the time is right.
You need to remember, the ocean is much stronger than you and always will be. The wave will let you up when it wants you to be let up, and fighting this only causes stress and oxygen depletion.
Strategies to calm the mind
Before paddling out, take a few minutes to get yourself into a mental state of clarity. Try breathing in and out deeply for one minute and ask yourself, “what exactly am I afraid of?” Answer this openly and honestly, and use calm logic to try and figure out the real likeliness of something seriously bad happening.
Chances are, when you are standing safely and calmly onshore you can see through all the ‘what if’s’ and catastrophising of the mind.
When you are physically being held underwater try and use the counting tool as a way of gaining some perspective. If you are being thrashed about, and don’t know which way is up, just try counting (normal seconds, not rushed seconds) to realize that in fact, you are actually under the water for far less time than you think.
Our minds will want us to believe that we have been underwater for minutes, but if you really count, it is likely only a few seconds.
Another tool to use when being thrashed about underwater is to imagine yourself as a boneless object, that will naturally roll with the punches, and resurface when necessary. This form of visualization can allow us to relax our muscles, and takes away the accountability of having to take action straight away, because as I mentioned earlier, the ocean will let you up when it decides the time is right, no use fighting that.
Overall, staying calm and relaxed during wipeouts is easier said than done. This is a skill in which the more you practice, the easier it will become. If you never put yourself in a position that frightens you, you will not be challenged and you will not improve.
In saying this, increase your exposure to challenging waves incrementally, so that the fear does not become so overwhelming that it will put you off surfing permanently. Increasing both our physical capacity for wipeouts along with using tools in which calm the mind are crucial to increasing our tolerance for scary and stressful situations in the water.
Goodluck, and get practicing!
The Surf Box | The Blog For Women & Girls In Surfing