Surfing: self-confidence allows us to be comfortable in the water and improve in every session | Photo: WSL

Have you ever felt uncomfortable in the surf to the point that you really wished you were in terra firma?

Confidence plays a crucial role in surfing, as it affects not only a surfer's performance but also their enjoyment of the outdoor activity.

As intermediate surfers and weekend warriors, we often face unique challenges in the water.

Whether we're unsure about the wave size, currents, proximity to corals and rocky formations, or stormy weather, maintaining self-confidence is key to surviving, improving, and having fun.

There are several factors that can affect our confidence in the water.

In this article, we will explore the nature of self-assurance, its relationship with fear, and the variables that can influence a surfer's confidence levels.

Moreover, we will examine the impact of age, parenthood, and surf culture on the trust we put in ourselves and provide practical tips for overcoming confidence issues and embracing growth.

Surfing: self-assurance may be influenced by genetic factors | Photo: WSL

What Is Self-Confidence?

From a scientific and clinical perspective, self-confidence can be defined as an individual's trust in their abilities, skills, and judgment to perform tasks and successfully navigate various situations.

It is closely related to the concept of self-efficacy, which psychologist Albert Bandura introduced in his social cognitive theory.

Self-confidence and self-efficacy are essential components of an individual's overall self-concept, which encompasses beliefs, perceptions, and evaluations of oneself across various domains of life.

A strong sense of self-confidence allows individuals to approach challenges with a positive attitude, overcome obstacles, and persevere in the face of setbacks, ultimately contributing to better performance and psychological well-being.

From a clinical standpoint, self-confidence can be influenced by various factors, such as:

  1. Genetics: Some researchers suggest that self-assurance may be influenced by genetic factors, with certain individuals being more predisposed to higher or lower levels of self-confidence;
  2. Early Life Experiences: Childhood experiences, particularly those involving positive reinforcement, encouragement, and nurturing from caregivers, can significantly impact the development of self-reliance;
  3. Social and Environmental Factors: An individual's self-confidence can be shaped by their social environment, including the attitudes and behaviors of peers, family members, teachers, and other influential figures;
  4. Past Successes and Failures: Personal experiences of success or failure can play a significant role in shaping self-assurance. Successes can boost confidence, while repeated failures may undermine it;
  5. Cognitive Processes: A person's thought patterns, particularly those related to self-assessment and self-evaluation, can influence their self-confidence. For example, individuals with a positive and realistic self-perception are more likely to exhibit higher self-confidence;

Clinically, low self-confidence can be associated with various psychological disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and social phobia.

Therefore, interventions aimed at enhancing self-confidence and self-efficacy can play a crucial role in improving mental health and overall well-being.

Some common methods for building self-reliance from a clinical perspective include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns, and exposure therapy, which involves gradually facing feared situations to reduce anxiety and increase self-assurance.

Additionally, mindfulness practices, goal setting, and positive reinforcement can contribute to developing this trust in ourselves.

Professional surfing: a positive attitude is the first step to overcoming obstacles | Photo: WSL

Influence on Sports Performance

Confidence plays a significant role in sports performance, affecting athletes' abilities to perform at their best, achieve their goals, and enjoy what they're doing.

Think about Cristiano Ronaldo, Kelly Slater, Roger Federer, or any other sportsperson who has performed at the top of their game for decades.

These athletes share a few common grounds - one of them is this relentless morale.

The influence of confidence in sports performance can be observed in several ways:

  • Decision-making: Confidence in one's abilities can improve decision-making by allowing athletes to trust their instincts, evaluate options, and react quickly to changing situations. Doubt and uncertainty can lead to hesitation and poor decision-making, which can hinder performance;
  • Skill Execution: Self-confidence can enhance the quality of skill execution by increasing an athlete's focus and concentration. When athletes are confident in their abilities, they are more likely to perform skills with precision, fluidity, and consistency;
  • Coping with Pressure and Adversity: Confident athletes are better equipped to handle pressure and adversity, such as high-stakes competitions or challenging conditions. They are more likely to maintain their composure, stay focused, and adapt to challenges, which can contribute to better performance;
  • Persistence and Perseverance: Confidence can impact an athlete's level of persistence and perseverance. Athletes with high self-assurance are more likely to maintain their efforts and continue striving for success, even when faced with setbacks or failures;
  • Goal-setting and Motivation: Confident athletes tend to set more ambitious goals and exhibit higher levels of motivation to achieve them. This positive attitude can drive athletes to train harder, push their limits, and continually seek improvement;
  • Mental Toughness: Self-confidence is a key component of mental toughness, which is the ability to maintain focus, determination, and resilience in the face of challenges. Mental toughness is crucial for sports performance, as it enables athletes to overcome obstacles and perform consistently, regardless of external factors;
  • Anxiety and Stress Management: Confidence can help reduce anxiety and stress related to sports performance. Athletes with high self-confidence are less likely to experience performance anxiety or be negatively affected by stress, allowing them to perform more effectively;
  • Recovery from Injury: Belief in ourselves plays a role in the recovery process after an injury. Athletes with higher self-confidence tend to have more positive attitudes toward their rehabilitation, which can lead to better adherence to treatment plans and a faster return to optimal performance levels;

Athletes, coaches, and sports psychologists now know that they need to address confidence issues to optimize sports performance.

So they increasingly implement strategies to build and maintain it, including SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) goal-setting, mental skills training, positive self-talk, visualization, and creating a supportive environment that fosters growth and development.

Surfing: confident surfers are most times winning surfers | Photo: WSL

How are Confidence and Fear Related?

Confidence and fear are interconnected psychological states that can influence each other in various ways.

They often have an inverse relationship, meaning that as one increases, the other decreases. Here's how they are related:

  1. Confidence as a Buffer Against Fear: High levels of self-confidence can help protect against fear by fostering a sense of self-assurance and trust in one's abilities. When individuals are confident in their capacity to handle a situation or perform a task, they are less likely to experience fear or anxiety related to that situation;
  2. Fear Undermining Confidence: On the other hand, fear can undermine self-confidence by causing individuals to doubt their abilities, question their competence, and feel overwhelmed by the perceived threat or challenge. This can result in a negative cycle, where increased fear leads to decreased confidence, which in turn exacerbates fear;
  3. Fear as a Catalyst for Confidence Growth: Sometimes, facing and overcoming fear can lead to an increase in self-reliance. When individuals confront their fears and succeed in managing or overcoming them, they may develop a sense of mastery and accomplishment, which can boost their self-confidence. This is known as the "confidence-competence loop," where the experience of success in challenging situations reinforces confidence, leading to improved performance and further growth in confidence;
  4. Confidence Influencing Fear Appraisal: Confidence can impact how individuals perceive and appraise fear-inducing situations. Confident individuals are more likely to view challenges as opportunities for growth and learning rather than as threats. This positive interpretation can reduce the intensity of fear experienced and increase the likelihood of successful performance;
  5. Balance Between Confidence and Fear: It's essential to maintain a balance between confidence and fear. Overconfidence can lead to underestimating risks and potential difficulties, while excessive fear can prevent individuals from taking necessary risks and seizing opportunities. A healthy balance between the two enables individuals to approach challenges with a realistic sense of their abilities while acknowledging and managing potential threats;

Despite this inverse relationship, it is important to stress that fear is healthy - panic is not.

So, confidence and fear are inherently and naturally linked in surfing, as fear often stems from a lack of confidence in one's ability to handle a given situation.

Fear can manifest in various ways, such as anxiety about a big wave, currents, a shallow reef, or drastically changing weather.

However, by building confidence in their skills and abilities, surfers can gradually overcome these fears and develop a more positive mindset.

Surfing: big waves trigger fear and loss of self-confidence | Photo: WSL

Aging and Parenthood

Other factors can lead to a loss of belief in ourselves.

As surfers age or experience significant life changes, such as becoming parents, their confidence levels may fluctuate.

This can be attributed to a shift in priorities, a greater sense of responsibility, or a reduced tolerance for risk.

As a result, surfers may feel uncomfortable in conditions that were once manageable.

For instance, older surfers or those with families may be more hesitant to take risks in bigger waves or extreme conditions as they prioritize safety and stability.

However, it's essential to acknowledge and address these shifts in confidence to ensure one remains comfortable in the water.

Bravado: surf culture fuels the concept of the fearless athlete | Photo: WSL

Challenging the Bravado Mentality

Cultural and sociological pressure also pushes wave riders into uncomfortable territory.

For instance, surf culture often pressures surfers, particularly men, to push their limits in bigger and heavier waves and more extreme conditions.

This bravado-fueled culture can negatively impact confidence, leading to feelings of inadequacy or exclusion for those not performing at the expected level.

By challenging this mindset and recognizing that every surfer's journey is unique, we can create a more inclusive and supportive environment that promotes healthy growth and development.

Once again, a balanced dose of fear can be truly helpful as it ultimately helps you stay alive.

Even skilled and experienced surfers can experience a loss of confidence in bigger waves or less-than-ideal weather conditions.

This phenomenon may stem from a variety of factors, such as infrequent exposure to challenging conditions, an increased awareness of potential dangers, or a heightened sense of vulnerability.

In such situations, the key is to acknowledge the fear and work towards building confidence through gradual exposure, practice, and mental preparation.

Mental and Physical Practices for Stabilizing and Improving Confidence

But big wave surfers are less than one percent of the world's surfing community. They're elite athletes, and the vast majority of us are not.

To help overcome confidence issues and develop a more positive mindset, recreational surfers can engage in various mental and physical practices, such as:

  • Riding a Wave as Soon as Possible: Catching a wave early in a session can help dissipate fear and rapidly increase confidence levels. Aim to ride a wave, even a small one, as soon as you enter the water to set a positive tone for your session.
  • Gradual Exposure: Incrementally increase your exposure to challenging conditions, which can help build confidence and familiarity with various situations. This approach allows surfers to gradually expand their comfort zones without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Visualization: Mentally rehearsing successful wave rides and imagining oneself confidently navigating challenging conditions can help reinforce positive beliefs in one's abilities. Visualization techniques can be practiced both in and out of the water, helping surfers mentally prepare for a variety of scenarios.
  • Goal-setting: Establishing realistic and attainable goals can provide a sense of purpose and motivation, contributing to increased confidence. Ensure that goals are specific, measurable, and time-bound to track progress and celebrate achievements.
  • Meditation and Breathing Exercises: Many surfers find that practicing mindfulness and focusing on their breath can help cultivate a sense of calm and confidence in the water. Regular meditation and breathing exercises can improve mental clarity, reduce anxiety, and enhance overall well-being.
  • Physical Fitness: Maintaining a consistent fitness routine can have a significant impact on a surfer's confidence. By improving strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance, surfers can feel more prepared and capable of handling various conditions and challenges.
  • Learning from Mistakes: Embrace setbacks and mistakes as valuable learning opportunities. Analyzing and reflecting on these experiences can provide insights into areas for improvement, ultimately contributing to increased confidence and growth.
  • Seeking Support: Connecting with a supportive community, such as surf clubs, coaches, or fellow surfers, can provide encouragement, advice, and camaraderie. Sharing experiences, challenges, and successes can help reinforce confidence and promote a sense of belonging.


Words by Andrew Island | Surfer and Author

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