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Overcoming Surf Fears and Anxiety

Name: Kirsty Hill
Age: 41
Location: Newquay, Cornwall
Social Media: Instagram @kernowsurfgirl
Years Surfing: 6

Kirsty, firstly tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m originally from Wolverhampton where I grew up. 3 years ago I moved to Newquay in Cornwall to pursue my passion for surfing and live a simpler life. I’m an intermediate surfer who loves longboards and high volume mid lengths. I’m at that stage of frothing every time I cruise along the open face – so much that I forget to try and bottom turn or change direction! I’m just stoked on the ride and feel in a good place with where I’m at with surfing now. I’m not a natural and it’s taken a lot of perseverance but the journey’s been totally worth it! I love everything about surfing. The adrenalin rush when I drop into a wave, sitting out back and waiting for the next set and being totally immersed in the ocean. I’ve never felt more free and alive than when I’m surfing.

Tell us about your first surfing experience?
I had my first surf lesson age 33 in Mawgan Porth. I was scared of the sea, had only ever paddled in ankle deep water and swam in a pool. The thought of swimming in the sea, let alone getting on a surfboard terrified me yet learning to surf was on my bucket list. I’d spent many happy holidays in Cornwall over the years and fallen in love with the surf lifestyle. I’d watched surfers who made it looked so effortless that it inspired me to try it.

On my first lesson I was concentrating so hard on what I was being told to do that I forgot I was scared! It took a few attempts but I stood up three times and that was it, I was hooked! But I didn’t surf for 2 years after that because of where I lived. Wolverhampton isn’t exactly famous for its waves and is about as landlocked as you can get! But then me and my husband started doing day trips on weekends which became more and more frequent. Then our holidays revolved around surfing until we wanted to live by the sea permanently.

That first surf lesson really changed my life!

What setbacks have you experienced on your surfing journey?
In the early stages, geography was a big obstacle because I couldn’t surf very often so progress was super slow. After that first surf lesson, it took ages to get to my feet again. I just assumed that because I’d done it on my first lesson it would be easy to do again. That was my first reality check!
I also struggled with my pop-up for years. It was hugely frustrating but something that I never gave up on. I got on a bigger board and spent hours in the whitewater to nail it. It’s only been in recent months that I’ve finally cracked it!
I had a shoulder injury a few years back which meant time out of the water and, as someone who hadn’t done any sports until surfing came along, I was pretty unfit. Everything was a struggle to begin with and when I first started going out back, I had to sit and have a breather before I could even contemplate catching a wave! Since moving to Cornwall though, I’ve surfed much more frequently which has naturally improved my fitness levels.
Learning to surf in my 30’s has also been a challenge. It’s harder to pick up and slower to progress, plus I think when you’re a bit older you can be a bit more fearful, lack less confidence and be more aware of what can go wrong.

Have you had any fears that you’ve had to overcome? If yes, what are these fears and how did you manage them?
Definitely! Fear of the sea was a biggie – growing up in a landlocked city and having no exposure to the ocean made me very wary. I used to get freaked out when my feet could no longer touch the sea bed and the slightest hint of a current would send me into a panic. I’ve been scared of rips and also, when I first started surfing unbroken waves, going out in anything over knee to waist high waves. In the early days, my lack of paddle strength used to make me fearful and I’d worry about getting into difficulty in the sea.

Paddling out was another fear and having to get over walls of whitewater to get out back (I ride bigger boards so duck diving isn’t an option). Seeing those walls (in my head) was like staring at waves the size of Mavericks! And when I started riding a longboard, getting hit on the head by such a big board used to niggle at me too (and still does to a degree).

It’s a miracle I’ve got to the stage I’m at now – I was definitely a nervous surfer! But, time in the water has been key to overcoming these fears. Surf lessons and surfing with other people have also helped to manage fears and build confidence.

Does surfing ever make you feel anxious? If yes, can you pinpoint where these feeling stem from?
Absolutely. I get anxious in crowds and will literally sit and give waves away like sweets. I guess I feel self conscious and fear missing waves and looking stupid. I get tense when there’s a lot of males in the line-up. Not that I’ve ever had any aggro but I’ve heard tales of women getting hassled and that plays on my mind, especially on a bigger day when I’m trying to push myself outside of my comfort zone.
A lot of these feelings stem from lack of confidence in my own ability which I’ve always experienced, whatever sport or activity I’ve taken part in. I’ve never been a super confident person and I’ve always worried about looking stupid or not being good enough.
In reality though, a lot of these thoughts are probably just in my head and no one really cares if I’ve missed a wave or look like a kook. They’re all too busy having fun and catching waves!











Have you found that other surfers around you have had similar feelings?
Oh definitely, and it’s generally female surfers who say ‘yeah, me too!’ particularly when it comes to feeling self-conscious or not feeling good enough to sit in a line-up. I’ve spoken to women who I always thought were super confident yet deep down, they’re giving themselves a hard time and feeling just as anxious as me.
Most of the female surfers I know also get jittery, like me, when it comes to surfing bigger waves. I have my limits but I can identify that tipping point between total fear and pushing myself outside my comfort zone. I get that heart pounding feeling when I drop in on something bigger yet it’s an incredible, exhilarating, adrenalin fuelled feeling at the same time.

Do you think you let your fears hold you back anymore?
Generally no but there are some occasions where I still feel a bit anxious – crowds, waves over head high and getting caught inside on a bigger day. But I’m happy with where I’ve got to, considering the fears I’ve overcome. My passion and love for surfing has definitely overridden the fears and if you’d told me at 33 after that first surf lesson that I’d be surfing head high waves I’d never have believed you! Surfing has taught me so much and instilled a confidence in my own ability and resilience that I never thought I had.

If you can’t figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.

What advice do you have for anyone else who may be feeling anxious about surfing?
Spend as much time in the water as you can – I can’t stress it enough. Surf with people that you feel comfortable with but who are confident in the water. They will encourage you and inspire you to push yourself outside your comfort zone.
Book a one-to-one surf lesson where you can focus on your fears/areas where you want to build confidence. Having an expert by your side will help to push yourself – you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve!
Also, push yourself independently but within reason. There’s no point scaring yourself senseless but if you don’t push yourself, you won’t progress. If you’re scared of paddling out in bigger surf, start small and gradually work up to it. It won’t seem as scary and over time, you’ll tackle waves that you never imagined without really thinking about it.

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