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Day 8: How I overcame the Fear of Surfing Mavericks

People of Mavericks
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Extra Medium via Compfight

Our substitute teacher today is Jaimal Yogis. For today and today only, Jaimal Yogis will be giving away 50 free copies of The Fear Project. For a chance to win one of these hardcovers ($24.99, by the way), all you have to do is one of three things:

If you do all three, you’ll triple your chances of winning. You can also tweet what your personal #fearproject will be in 2013. I’d love to hear it. Each person who shares The Fear Project today, in other words, will put their name in a hat and I’ll announce the winners later this week, then ship off the free books.  If you’re in San Francisco, Jaimal will be swimming under the Bay Bridge to his book signing. More information  at 


“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” These are Mike Tyson’s words of wisdom. And a few years ago, I realized he was right.

I had a meditation practice. I did yoga. I surfed every day – really, everyday. I’d designed a lifestyle where I made my own schedule outside of the office. My life rocked.

Then life punched me in the face. Basically, I ran out of money at the same time my girlfriend dumped me at the same time I was doing a public speaking tour (and I fear public speaking). As I struggled to deal with the stress, I realized my chill life had basically made my tolerance for high very low.  And this isn’t so abnormal. In a famous study from Stanford Professor Robert Sapolsky’s book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, if one rat receives 50 shocks and the other rat 10 shocks, the one who received more shocks will be more stressed out. But if you give both rats 25 shocks the next day, the one that received 50 shocks the day before thinks it’s no big deal. I’d been the rat getting no shocks. Then I got 100. And I was going crazy.

It was that realization that led me to write The Fear Project.

Over the next few years – out of necessity — I interviewed some of the world’s most cutting edge neuroscientists, meditation masters, and extreme athletes. I learned an incredible amount how fear works in the brain, but in the course of all this learning, the thing that has stuck with me the most was a single experience in which I basically set myself up to get punched in the face by the ocean – really hard.

I decided to surf Mavericks.


For those unfamiliar with Mavericks, this is how I describe it in the book: “Imagine a wall of dark, cold water 60 feet high with a feathering lip as thick as an elephant. If one of these waves hit your house, it would blow it to smithereens. If it collided with a Mack truck, it would roll it like a Tonka.” Two of the best big-wave surfers in history – Mark Foo and Sion Milosky — have died at Mavericks.  Now, I’m not advocating that anyone go out and risk their life. In-fact, I strongly advise against it. But I do think most people have their own version of Mavericks – a fear of fears that has haunted you from childhood, a fear that  – if shattered – could change how you frame your whole life.

In the book, I go into detail about preparing to surf Mavericks, taking all those baby steps of training necessary, but here is a simple excerpt from my time with sports psychology consultant Paige Dunne that you can take into any fear life presents.

From Chapter 6 of The Fear Project: Practice, Practice, Practice

“Make a list,” Paige told me when I confided in her that I was going to train to surf Mavericks. By the time I was meeting with Paige, I was steeped in the science of fear, and I started immediately rattling off all my theories about what might go wrong with my brain when I’m out there.  Paige gave me some sage advice: stop. Thinking too much just gave me more things to worry about, leading to analysis paralysis. I wanted the exact opposite.

Paige recommended listing all my fears about surfing Mavericks. As psychologists like Sian Beilock have shown, writing down your fears before a high-pressure test can improve test scores significantly. Paige’s list technique was basically combining this benefit with the most supreme antidote to fear — action. The fears I had no control over? “Just scratch them off the list,” she told me. “Why worry about them if you can’t control them?” Paige said the very act of voiding them from the list would help me put them out of my mind. For the fears I did have some control over, I would script out an action plan for each one. Not only would this improve my training, it would remind me that I’d covered all my bases and would keep me from overthinking what my body already knew how to do.

It feels a bit weird to make a list like this, Paige assured me, but she’d seen too many times how necessary it could be. She had one client, a first-time triathlete, call her the night before the big race and say: “I just can’t stop thinking that I’m going to get a flat tire on the bike.”

Paige started with the obvious. “Well, do you know how to change a flat tire? Have you ever practiced?”

“No,” the client admitted, “but . . .”

“That’s why you make a list in advance,” Paige said.

I liked this list idea because I was pretty sure I was already ahead of the game. I’d been doing long swims with Jamie Patrick [] so if I broke my board a half-mile out to sea, I knew I’d be fine. By going diving with a great white, I’d diffused my fear of sharks, at least enough not to panic about their existence (as for an actual shark attack, this was in the out of my control category so I scratched it off the list). I’d diffused some of my fear of falling und under the lip of a skyscraper-size wave by surfing obsessively for the last 15 years and surfing many of Mavericks’ less frightening cousins around the globe.

But there was a problem, I realized. None of these places I’d surfed—even the most gnarly, terrifying ones—were actually Mavericks. No matter how much I simulated Mavericks, there would always be the unknown.

“So imagine it,” Paige said.

Olympic athletes have used visualization for decades. For a long time science disregarded it as fluff, but the biological evidence is rather shocking. In one recent study by biomedical researchers Guang H. Yue and Kelly J. Cole, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, one group of test subjects was asked to do a pinky-finger exercise five times per week for 4 weeks. A second group was asked to do the same exercises in their mind and not flex the pinky at all, and they wore an electromyography to confirm that no muscle movement was taking place. The physical-training group did well: improving their pinky muscle strength by 30 percent, but the mental group improved by nearly as much—22 percent. And this isn’t just true of pinky-finger workouts. Research has begun to show that when we imagine ourselves doing something, or even when we dream, the brain goes through a similar cognitive process as when we actually do it. The difference seems to be that the volume of the nervous impulses sent down the spinal cord to the muscles is turned down. Thus: the more detail we can include in the picture, the more effective the imagery will be for training.

“You know what Mavericks looks like,” Paige said. “You’ve seen how big it is in those movies and magazines. You’ve felt how cold that water is. So let’s script out your best session at Mavericks with as much detail as possible: When you wake up, what do you eat for breakfast? What does that taste like? Will you do some stretching or yoga, and what does your body feel like? What does the beach feel like, the sand between your toes? How cold is the water? What kind of conversation are you having in your head, and how do you feel when you ride that first wave? Write it all down, memorize it, and just keep going over it.”

I admit I resisted visualization at first. It’s not that I didn’t believe visualization could help top athletes get an edge. It was just that Mavericks just seemed too bone-crushingly real to pretend a few happy thoughts would help little old me out there. And indeed, when I finally started to imagine surfing Mavs weeks later, I was horrible at it. I couldn’t help visualizing myself falling right at the crest, air-dropping 40-feet into the wave’s gut, spearing myself on a fin, and finally being pushed deep into some pitch-black underwater crevasse, dying. Visualization seemed to make memore nervous, especially because I wasn’t doing it right. But like anything, repetition helped, and soon, every night before I went to bed, I pictured myself charging 40-foot waves. What the hell, I even threw in some imagery of me winning the annual Mavericks contest, spraying champagne all over my fans. It was my visualization. I could do what I wanted.

I still had a few months before Mavs season started, so—again, after dragging my feet—I made that list Paige suggested and developed an action plan for each fear. Interestingly, like the triathlete who forgot to practice changing a flat tire, I’d forgotten to train for one tiny, insignificant little fear—drowning. It was by far the easiest way to die at Mavericks and that was probably why I’d been avoiding it.

So, cuing the Rocky Balboa theme song, I did it all: I met up with Mike Madden, a professional diver, who helped me raise my breath retention from 2 minutes to 4 minutes with some special free-diver techniques (watch the film, The Big Blue to see the method). I trained on my Mavericks gun every chance I got. I jogged. I did yoga. I meditated every day. I followed Daniela Schiller’s advice that I should watch videos of Mavericks that scared me and then go out and surf smaller waves to reconsolidate the fear memories. I tried different music tracks to get me into ideal HRV (Eminem’s “Not Afraid” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “Imma Be” seemed to genuinely work).

By the time winter came around, I was in the best shape of my life by far. There didn’t seem to be a wave at Ocean Beach that could rattle me, no matter how large. And when the first Mavericks-size swell finally rolled around, lighting up the horizon with nuclear force, I was . . . positive this was all a terrible mistake.

To find out what happens next, buy the book here.

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