This sport involves surfers to ride waves that can build to the height of 60-80feet (and above) (Beal et al. 2010). Unlike normal surfing that involves tricks, this type of surfing is predominantly judged by the competency of the rider to surf: ‘biggest wave surfed, most critical drop and making the wave’, that is stipulated into a point scoring system (Partington et al. 2009). As this sport has major ramifications in risk taking, this can result to death or near death experiences and therefore the psychology of these athlete, have a deeper element than other generic sports e.g. the pressure in a penalty kick in football (Palmer 2002). The lifestyle of this extreme sport has been recognized as a healthy mental attitude even though these athletes are pushing against the instinct of fear (Brymer and Oades 2012). As a surfer’s life is in the balance in this sport, the demands of training is in the ocean, where there is constant commitment to surf where the swells are located. This means that training is extremely dangerous as well as competition (Partington et al. 2009).
‘It was just that mental challenge that I wanted to see, this idea of fear how I could can really grow from it, not just run to the other direction but to embrace it, then when you figure out the rhythm of it physical challenge that goes along with it, it just becomes what’s next?’
Instinctively as humans, it is unnatural to go against fear, this is however not necessarily a weakness as fear can be perceived as healthy and even a motive whereas panic is not (Colvard et al. 2003). Therefore, the main psychological problem that is recognized is anxiety of death because of severe consequences such as a ‘wipeout’ where the surfer falls into the wave; The weight of a wave (2016) indicates a wipeout is the equivalent of 410 tonnes of water that is dropped onto a surfer’s body which can result in severe injury and potentially death.
The perception in riders focus on goal orientated to emphasize on performance rather than contemplating a potential death in training or competition as this could cause catastrophe in performance (Partington et al. 2009). Fear is an automatic response not a conscious decision, this means that in performance absolute focus on the specific physical requirements in big wave surfing (BWS). Such as the techniques to ride these waves and this usually requires an intrinsic personality because of the individual focus and movements are required in BWS (Diehm et al. 2004). Surfers tend to have a high intrinsic personality as this sport is individual; this demands a perspective with internal focus on an individual performance. As fear is predominant in this sport this can therefore create anxiety as Conroy and Elliot (2004) state that fear of failure can be perceived as a motive in the context of individual mastery orientation of the skill, as the performance in riding these waves needs high consistency to complete the wave safely, to prevent ramifications occurring (Diehm et al 2004). Encouraging the youth and riders who are new in partaking to BWS, experienced riders encourage youth and new riders that teach a coherent pathway on methods of riding the wave (Waitt et al. 2008). Hence there is a support network that can help overcome fear and anxiety in riding death defying waves, with the support of social media that can give external rewards and feedback (Waitt et al. 2008).
The decisions that these surfers make are calculated and are not deliberately left to improvisation in training and competition, although there are circumstances where improvisation is required to overcome a hostile situation during a wave that may result in a wipeout (Partington et al. 2009). However, from a performance perspective that these riders have, the risk that is being undertaken is more calculative today, than when BWS began (Lyng 2005). In retrospect, BWS did not have jet skis and technology was limited, therefore there was less safety in surfing and the likely hood of drowning was more apparent. Whereas today safety is far more adequate to cope with the potential risks of surfers being held under water with frequent sets of waves crashing down when this is blocking a surfer to swim away (Caprara 2007).
The use of imagery in BWS
Independent Zone of Optimum Functioning (IZOF) is utilized by surfers to meditate and visually analyse what physically goes on pre competition (Davis et al. 2002). This can reduce somatic anxiety of physical symptoms e.g. shivering and cognitive anxiety by analysing the mechanisms involved in BWS and during the surf of a big wave (Davis et al. 2002). This establishes absolute focus when the use of visualization is utilized prior to going into the water so there is a progressive pathway in how the surfer can imagine each phase on what is needed to be done physically to ride the wave (Partington et al. 2009). Imagery can be linked to the use of vicarious experiences by reminiscing on positive and negative memories can benefit the surfer to overcome negative consequences that may arise during the ride, this can be used to prevent the same mistake occurring (FELTZ 1988).
Imagery during the surf of a big wave by visually analysing the pathway of how the surfer is going to drop into the wave, imaging the essential stance on the board and imaging the barrel of the wave imaging the speed that is needed to surf away from the white water (Partington et al 2009). This method can help to construct a foundation almost like a simulation of the actual event that, relates to the realism of a competition (Hall et al. 1990). As Martin and Gill (1991) suggests ‘Goal Orientation’ in sport is predominantly utilized to prevent distraction by using selective attention on the task that is currently in the present moment and the goal to ride the wave safely is the objective. Applying this can reduce the possibilities of potential wipeouts (Partington et al 2009). Fear can cause a mental barrier to surf and therefore a method to overcome is through kinaesthetic imagery, physiologically this has shown to elicit motor evoked potentials, that increase corticospinal excitability Gregg et al. 2016). By practicing the movements without equipment or on the wave is useful to isolate and to deeply engage with the fundamental movements that are used in the big wave surfing (BWS) (Hall et al. 1990). As this is isolating the movements the focus can be engaged solely on what is required without being distracted by the environment (Vadoa et al.1997).
Reminiscing on positive experiences in performances by utilizing imagery techniques can be extrapolated to reality by visualizing on facilitating learning and performance skill. Ultimately this can re-establish the self-efficacy of the surfer where self-belief is reinforced and therefore can reduce anxiety (Callow et al.2001). This is extremely positive in this type of extreme sport as the philosophy of why the athlete is competing in an event that engages in an extremely hostile situations during riding, the athlete can cue memories that are positive and to remind themselves of individual philosophy to prevent panic (Waitt et al. 2008). This can be reinforced and extrapolated to each surfer’s self-motivational reason(s) to surf and perform effectively during the technical parts of the wave (Partington 2009 et al.).
‘No matter how many headaches you have in life, all of that kind of drifts away as soon as you stand up on a wave, your solely intently focused on what is 2feet in front of you and processing what is going to be coming after that’.
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Red Bull (2015) Peaking: A Big Wave Surfer's Perspective- Ian Walsh [Online] Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSnD31AE0F0&t=86s
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About Fred Hanbury
I have an ongoing passion to explore human extreme endeavours such as extreme sports, I also like to participate in surfing and snowboarding as I feel that these sports express freedom and creativity. I also participate in cycling, running, strength training, hockey, tennis, trampolining and other physical pursuits . Recently I have taken up filming and photography and I like to film athlete/individual profiles on their activity.