Ran into my friend Paige Dunn, a sports psychologist, at Clif Bar the other day and was reminded of how much she helped me get ready for the big waves when I was reporting The Fear Project. Here’s a little excerpt from the book and it applies, it seems, to just about everything in life, not just surfing.
“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 me more 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 comes around, I am in the best shape of my life by far. There doesn’t seem to be a wave at Ocean Beach that can rattle me, no matter how large. And when the first Mavericks-size swell finally rolls around, lighting up the horizon with nuclear force, I am…positive this was all a terrible mistake.”
You’ll have to read The Fear Project to see how the big waves went. But for those into this stuff, I take it to the next level in my new book, All Our Waves Are Water, discussing visualization and lucid dreaming.