Building Confidence in the Water

Erik Antonson
Erik Antonson
June 21, 2016June 23, 2016

I made a decision when my kids started to show interest in surfing to make confidence in the water the goal.  The idea is that if they feel confident in the water the surfing will come, but if they don’t and have a bad experience our surfing journey won’t last too long.

(Photo – Kai Sotto)

So, we started a building process.

It sounds strange, but 10 years ago, I had to opportunity to start training Dutch Shepards.  Here in Nosara there’s an incredible tactical K-9 school. Military and police fly in from all over to train.  The facility is top-level and I spent a few years learning to train working dogs.

There’s a process in training working dogs of building confidence slowly.  The first time a dog is exposed to a human threat, the dog wins whenever she shows the smallest amount of aggression.  The bad guy runs away.  This process repeats and the dog learns that showing aggression removes the threat and she becomes more confident the next time.  The process continues until dogs are attacking through fire, up ladders and across lakes.  They never learn to lose, so they believe they can do anything.

This process also works for us.

The trick with applying it to ocean is finding the balance between confidence and respect.  The ocean is the ultimate equalizer.  She doesn’t care how old you are, how much money you make or if you’re a good person.

My focus with preparing my monsters to surf has been trying to find the confidence/respect balance.  Confidence comes first in benign conditions.  Then the build starts with bigger, more challenging conditions and lots of hand-holding.  The hand-holding is dropped for proximity, followed by more freedom in the water.

This has been the process, one of the most fun I’ve been a part of, for the last 6 months.  It working.  It’s all about confidence in the beginning, but then you have to learn respect.  My daughter had started paddling for waves already breaking, going over the falls and laughing about it, trying to paddle out in surf she couldn’t handle and then getting mad at me about holding her back.  All passion and love without much respect.

How do you teach respect without instilling fear?  I thought about this for a while and decided to take her out on a day last week with a building swell –  3ft. at 18secs with long intervals.  We went out just the two of us, so I could focus on her, and the goal was to get  caught inside – she didn’t know this was the goal.  I’d be right by her, and let her deal with it on her own.  She’s a great swimmer and I’d have fins on, so there wouldn’t be much risk.

It worked.  We paddled out and she picked off the two biggest waves she’d ever caught.  Head-high on me, so massive on her.  She’s not a great surfer, her surf skills are way behind her water skills right now, so she was just holding on for dear life on the waves –  grinning ear-to-ear.

After her second wave, I body surfed the one behind her so we were back together, and a good size set came through.  Solid 6-7 foot faces.  We got drilled.  She was ditching her board and doing great for the first three.  The fourth landed right in front of us and the water was already all churned up and we got thrown around a bit.  When she popped up she looked at me and asked to go in.  It’s the first time she’s ever asked to go in.  We dove under the next two, holding hands at this point, and then caught one to the beach.

Respect learned.  She never got scared, and now she understands what I mean when I say it’s a bit heavy today.  You just have to feel that power once and you know.  I felt it first in Playa Hermosa in 1996.  I remember the wave and I bet she will too.

Pulling this back to paddle surfing, and how the idea for this journal came to be – the question most asked by guests is what can I do to prepare for a week paddle surfing in Costa Rica.  The answer,  which I just learned last week, is whatever you can do to be comfortable in the water.  Surfing is the easy part if you feel at ease.

Here are a few things I did to feel comfortable pushing my Florida comfort zone when I moved to Costa Rica –

  • I learned how long I could really hold my breath.  Not on the couch, but how long I could hold my breathe after sprinting 50m and blowing out all my air.  My number was 19 seconds.  After that test I knew that no matter how bad things got I had 19 seconds.  Now if I wipe out in bigger surf I just start counting.  I rarely get past 9.
  • Start open ocean swimming.  I don’t think you should surf in conditions you don’t feel comfortable swimming in.  We don’t feel comfortable swimming in the open ocean because we don’t to it much.
  • Learn to breathe deeply.  Mark Healy says the biggest thing is exhaling all your air before a big breath.
  • Learn to slow down your heart rate.  I think “Slow – It – Down” with each beat and after a few my HR will come down quickly.

You do all these things so you don’t have to worry – not because you need them.  By knowing how long you can really hold your breathe, how to get oxygen and how to slow your heart rate you can surf without worrying.

And that let’s you put the focus where it should be – on having fun!


Progression Journal

One Comment

  • Rich

    Great article… Thanks for this!

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