Knowing When to Push your Comfort Zone and When to Say No is Very Important

It can mean the difference between injury and maybe getting the best waves of your life.


I sat on the beach watching the waves break. On that day, wave heights were reaching up to 20 feet on the faces. I had never surfed waves that big. I had been surfing that location all summer (Puerto Escondido in Mexico), working up to the day a big swell came through. With each set, I observed the other surfers. I tried to decide if I would take a similar drop or not. I thought about if I could handle the consequences if I got caught inside. I desperately wanted one of those waves, but I was definitely freaking out.


I watched and waited for nearly three hours, changing my mind about every 5 minutes as to whether I would go or not.


The internal dialog went like this:

“I’m going to go get one of those waves, I’m ready!”

“No way, do you realize how arrogant you are being right now? You could get killed, No, I’m not going to go!”

“You are just scared and making excuses to get out of doing something that scares you. I’m going out”

“But that was a really big set, I could break my board and really get hurt today. Maybe I’ll watch just one more set.”


Then the wind switched directions and I had lost my chance. Just as I was getting up to go, I saw one of the local big wave surfers getting out of the water. We had been surfing the same break daily, for the last few months and he was very familiar with my skill level. When he saw me with dry hair, he asked me a question that broke my heart.

“Por que no surfeaste?” or “Why didn’t you surf?”

I wanted to kick myself for missing such an excellent opportunity to push my comfort zone.


But that experience, just sitting on the beach, agonizing over “to go or not to go” also definitely pushed my comfort zone and stretched me as a surfer.

The next day I entered the water in the exact same conditions, with a lot more confidence than if I had entered the day before.


girl with camera
Opting to take photos when it is just too big is always a great option


Since then I’ve had several more opportunities to test the boundaries of my comfort zone.


Here are a few mental checks I run myself through.


Ask why do I want to surf right now? Is it because my ego wants to say I did it? Do I have something to prove (to myself or anyone)? Or am I genuinely frothing for the rush?

Look for Warrior Zen mode.

Huge wave
Feeling confident as I walk down the beach looking for a good place to enter


I listen to my body. The body gives us major clues as to whether it is in the Warrior Zen mode or “Please don’t make me do this!” mode. If I am in what I call my “Warrior Zen mode”, several shifts happen in my body:

  • My mood is elevated.
  • I talk less.
  • I move with a purpose as I prepare for my session.
  • I take longer, deeper breaths without thinking about it.
  • There is mild tension in my chest.
  • My body feels strong and I’m looking forward to strenuous exercise.


But when I’m really just too scared and pushing my comfort zone a bit too much, my body tells me this as well:

  • I feel anxious and stressed. A part of me really doesn’t want to surf today.
  • I put off surfing. I take more time than I need to warm up or put on sunscreen, I watch from the beach for longer than I really need to, etc.
  • My breathing is shallow and I can easily feel my pulse in my chest.
  • There is a high level of tension in my chest.
  • My thinking keeps returning to an injury I’m rehabbing or sore area of my body.


Being able to feel/hear all of this from my body did not come naturally for me, and is something I still work at. I definitely recommend yoga to help with this process if you feel a little lost here. Here are the reasons that yoga can help any athlete. 


Getting the opinion of better surfers who know your level and are going to be in the water with you.

Ultimately in the water, we are all responsible for each other. That means when better surfers encourage me to paddle out with them, that they feel confident enough in my skills for it to be reasonable to for me to surf. I try not to let myself get talked into surfing when I’m just not feeling it. Expert surfers often forget what it was like to be a learner and can make light of challenging conditions.


big wave surfing
Asking those with experience for advice can boost your confidence


On the other hand, you will also run into the occasion worry-wart or jealous hater who tells you not to go, when you really will be just fine. So it’s always best to listen to your own body. But sometimes when I’m second guessing myself, simply asking my coach, one of my lifeguard friends at the beach break, or someone else who knows my ability, if they think it is a good idea for me to go or not. Doing this has given me so much confidence.


Waiting it out.

Most of the time, there is a way to get in and out of the water safely without having to actually surf a wave. On days where I’m still not 100% sure if it’s just too far above my skill level, I like to paddle out anyway. Giving myself permission to just sit in the line up without taking waves is a huge relief.


Sometimes I do plan to take waves, but I give my body as much time as it needs to really want one. It’s not uncommon for me to sit in the line up for 30-45 minutes before I ever paddle for a wave, just waiting for my body to calm down and tell me it’s ready. Some days my body never gets ready and I paddle in after two hours waveless. One of my favorite session ever was a 30-40 foot (faces) day at Puerto Escondido. I exited the water wavesless and with a buzz that last for a week.


If you are having a hard time overcoming a mental block, check out this post on how to overcome fear in the water.


Surfing should be fun. Surfing while terrified is not fun. When it’s not fun anymore, get out of the water. But surfing shouldn’t be boring either.  Surfing the same waves and never pushing yourself will eventually get boring. You will naturally go searching for something a bit more challenging.


So the bottom line is, just go have fun.

I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here