5 Lessons In Overcoming Fear From A Legendary Big Wave Surfer

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Mark Mathews was terrified of waves. He grew up on the beach in Maroubra in Sydney’s southeast and everybody surfed – the neighbourhood kids, his dad, his older sister, even his mum got out on a body board now and then. Mathews started surfing because everybody else was doing it, but he would often get stranded out beyond the break, too scared to catch a wave and too scared to paddle back in. “Mum would have to come out and rescue me,” he laughs.

Today, Mathews is a professional big wave surfer. He’s one of the best in the world, regularly riding monster breaks from Hawaii to Tahiti, Mexico to South Africa; paid to play on the roaring peaks of a wild, unpredictable ocean. Mathews is no longer a kid, but he’s still terrified of waves. The fear is always there, he says, but he doesn’t let it get in the way.

Necessity is the mother of courage

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In his element surfing at Botany Bay, Sydney.

Mathews idolised the Abberton brothers when he was growing up. Local boys Sunny, Jai and Koby Abberton were professional surfers. They had money, cool cars and girlfriends, which made them royalty in that stretch of Southeast Sydney. Mathews wanted the life they had, no matter what it took. It didn’t matter that he was afraid of the waves; Mathews wanted to be a professional surfer more than he feared getting in the water, so he got in the water over and over again until his fear subsided.

Wave after wave, he would go through a crippling lurch of terror.

In 2001, when he was 19-years-old, Mathews got his big break. Tracks Magazine wanted him to surf a new wave in Tasmania, Shipstern Bluff. Two hours’ drive from Hobart, breaking off the coast of Cape Raoul, it was one of the biggest barrelling waves in the world and it was virtually untouched. It was the biggest wave Mathews had ever seen.

“No one really wanted to surf that wave. Back then, it was crazy,” he says. “I didn’t really want to go and surf it, but I didn’t really have an option. If I’d said no, I wouldn’t have been asked again.” 

Passion pulls you through

Mark Mathews surf 3

Mark towes in while holding another board and attempts a jump transfer to the spare on the ledge at Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania.

Shipstern Bluff is a slab wave; a big wave breaking in shallow water. Back then, you’d see big wave riders on super tall breaks, but the deep ocean heft of a slab wave, which barrels quickly over the surfer, was a relatively new sight on the global surfing circuit. Mathews made it his speciality and it propelled him into the limelight.

“You have to keep chasing it, you don’t have a choice.”

“The fear was there but I desperately wanted that career,” he says. ‘That desperation pushed me to surf, but once I’d experienced surfing waves that big, I fell in love with it.” From the moment he dropped into his first big barrel, he discovered his true passion. Wave after wave, he would go through a crippling lurch of terror, but when he knew he was in the sweet spot, elation would take hold.

“You get to a point when you know you’re going to make it and the next five or 10 seconds are the best feelings in the world. When you’re getting barrelled and you’re in the perfect position while the whole ocean is folding over you…the feeling is unbelievable. You have to keep chasing it, you don’t have a choice.”

Make mistakes worthwhile by learning from them

Mark Mathews walking

Reflecting on mistakes enables you to move forward.

Mathews’ career took off after Shipstern Bluff. For the next five years, he flew from swell to swell, spending eight months a year on the road. He surfed through jetlag, in different time zones, jumping out of a plane and into the ocean. “It was really fun but it got so exhausting,” he says.

On top of the travel, Mathews was battling serious anxiety. He’d know a week out that a big swell was coming and he’d spend days obsessing over everything that could go wrong and the various ways he could die. “Doing that swell after swell after swell grinds you down,” he explains. “I honestly don’t think I would have wiped out if I hadn’t been so stressed.”

In 2007, Mathews went back to Shipstern Bluff and got dumped over the reef. He was knocked unconscious, coming to just as he crested the surface on the water. He had pins and needles running down his limbs. He was convinced he’d broken his back. In the eight hours it took to get to hospital and get checked out, Mathews was convinced he’d never surf again.

“I learned a lot about managing stress and anxiety after that. When I have those negative thought patterns now, I’m aware of it. I don’t dwell on it. If you understand and you can recognise that you’re having that thought pattern but it doesn’t actually mean anything, your body doesn’t react to it. You have to force yourself to ignore it and focus on the good stuff. It’s like going to the gym, you just have to make yourself do it.”

Train hard, then relax and enjoy the ride

Mark Mathews sunlit

The real danger in big wave surfing lies underneath the surface. When you wipeout on a big wave, thousands of tons of water collapse over you, shoving you 20 to 50 feet beneath the ocean. At that depth, your eardrums can rupture from increased pressure. Surfers can be completely disorientated by the churning currents, unable to tell which way to swim for air.

“It’s about having a different perspective.”

This was one of Mathews’ chief preoccupations – the fear of wiping out and drowning at the mercy of a wave. He had a rigorous training schedule and he was fit, but he knew his fear could let him down at a crucial moment, so he enlisted help from a specialist. In 2008, Mathews started training with Nam Baldwin, a free diver and stress control expert, who taught him to treat wipeouts like a Wet ‘N’ Wild ride.

“It’s about having a different perspective of what the situation is about. If you can take the fear out of it, you manage the wipe out so much better. And if you can take the fear out of it, you’re not worse off, it will actually make it that much safer because you can think more clearly,” Mathews says. “When you get to the point where the wave is going to do what it’s going with you, you might as well relax. Surfers say, ‘you’ve got to enjoy the ride after the ride.’ It works really well.”

Ignore your gut, no matter what

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Mark surfs one of the biggest swells of 2015 in Western Australia.

Mathews was in New York a few years ago giving a talk when he got word of a massive swell at The Right in Western Australia. He could get there, but he’d have to surf the same morning he landed, after a huge long haul flight. His gut was screaming, ‘Don’t do it!’

“Trusting your gut is good in a relationship situation or when you’re trying to get a read on someone, but when you’re in a scary situation, your gut is going to tell you not to do it.”

“I missed my flight. I thought, ‘That’s a sign, I shouldn’t be going.’ Economy was full on the replacement flight so I had to pay $6000 extra for a business class seat. My girlfriend was coming to meet me at the airport with my boards and she brought all the wrong stuff – like none of it was right. Then when we got down to the surf the wind wasn’t right, it was an onshore wind, which was making it more dangerous than it should be.”

Mathews wiped out on the very first wave and hurt his knee – another sign. He was just about ready to quit, but the swell was absolutely beautiful, so he gave it one more go. It was a career-defining wave. Mathews picked up one of his three Oakley Big Wave Awards that day and renewed his sponsorship deal with O’Neill as a result.

“The earth is that random, it’s not going to take a break from what it’s doing to make a sign just for you,” Mathews laughs. “Trusting your gut is good in a relationship situation or when you’re trying to get a read on someone, but when you’re in a scary situation, your gut is going to tell you not to do it. The thing with trusting your gut is that you’re usually just listening to fear.”

Mark Mathews board clean

Prepping for a session.

These days Mathews travels the world facing his other crippling fear – public speaking. He takes the lessons learned out on those big waves and turns them into useful advice for ordinary people. Just like getting in the water “over and over again” to overcome his fear of surfing, Mathews regularly speaks around the world as a keynote speaker at events, curbing his fear of public speaking by confronting it head on – and helping people in the process.

Make sure you want something more than you fear it because that passion will pull you through.

His experience may seem specific to surfing, but it’s not. You need to put yourself in situations where you have to confront your fear, because necessity is the mother of courage. Make sure you want something more than you fear it because that passion will pull you through. Reflecting on and learning from your mistakes is the best way to move forward. Don’t let your fears run rampant – remember it’s all in your head – you have the power to put your fear aside, it doesn’t control you. Be prepared physically and mentally; train hard, then relax and enjoy the ride and know that your perspective has a big influence on your fear, and changing how you view fear changes the fear itself.

And whatever you do, ignore your gut. When it comes specifically to fear, it’s biased. Keep a cool head and think things through logically, and you’re one step closer to achieving your dreams.

Hear more from Mark and other brilliant humans like musician Megan Washington and YouTube star Natalie Tran at O-Weekender on February 20. Junkee Media and Westpac have joined forces to put on a day of inspiring talks (and an after party with live acts thrown by FasterLouder) for students – and entry is totally free. Register here.

Simone Ubaldi is a ghostwriter, music journalist, film critic and has co-authored four books, including memoirs of Bon Scott and Mark ‘Chopper’ Read.