Learning Tactical Calm can Improve Your Surfing

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Tactical Calm is a breathing technique designed to quickly lower the heart rate, relax muscles and bring clarity of thought.

In some extreme life and death situations our default fight or flight mode can be beneficial, but in the quest for peak surfing performance we are far better served by being relaxed, focused and ready.

Tactical Calm is taught in the military to prepare soldiers before combat. The technique was made famous by Navy Seals, who endure some of the most gruelling training on Earth. You don’t want a soldier to become panicked when situations get intense. Instead, they must rely on their training and techniques like Tactical Calm to maintain composure, and get the job done.

Albee Layer – a calm, focused warrior in mouth of Jaws. Photo WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

So how can Tactical Calm help surfers?

Every surfer has felt butterflies as they face big waves, or conditions that scare them. This discomfort is a sign that we’re making progress. I believe that we should all lean into our fear on a daily basis. And to be effective in the face of adversity, we need to be calm.

Don’t take a deep breath in!

The first thing you need to know is that, unless you’re about to take a set wave on the head, “take a deep breath” is really bad advice.

When you take a deep breath (inhale) you activate your chest and neck muscles, trigger the sympathetic nervous system, strain your neck muscles, accelerate your heart rate, and activate a state of increased arousal. You can compromise both muscle and brain function as CO² falls. Only do it when you’re going to be underwater for some time, i.e. for survival.

So, when you can avoid it, don’t take a deep breath in – and certainly don’t take 10 deep breaths as conventional wisdom would suggest! Instead…

Practice Tactical Calm

Breath out to relax:

  • Lie flat on your back or sit upright (you can do this sitting on your surfboard)
  • Focus your mind on your belly
  • Exhale fully through the nose for 6 seconds
  • Gently inhale through the nose for 4 seconds
  • Relax neck and shoulders and let your lower ribs and belly move as you breathe
  • Go to your happy place or thoughts of loved ones
  • Watch the breath – 6 seconds out and 4 seconds in

Eastern perspective

Nirvana, in Sanskrit, means to “blow out”. To let go. This is considered more important than breathing in, which, while it provides life, also invites one cling on to it. Holding one’s breath for too long is death. Breathing out invites new life in.

What Matt Damon was really up to in The Martian. Breathing out.

When to use Tactical Calm

  1. Before paddling out into heavy surf. You’re sitting on the boat watching giant caverns unravel and explode over a jagged coral reef. Don’t allow your base emotions to take control. If you know you’re capable of it – you’ve put in the hard work and training – then use Tactical Calm. Slow your heart rate, relax your muscles, clear your mind of thoughts. Breathe out for 6 seconds, in for 4. Repeat. Jump off that boat and get into the lineup, young warrior.
  2. If someone gets aggressive in the water. Don’t unleash your fury – zip it – and practice Tactical Calm. There’s enough rage in the world without bringing it into the surf.
  3. In a job interview. Especially for that dream job that will give you more free time to surf. Practice Tactical Calm in the reception area. You’ve got this. A calm, relaxed demeanour is the first step towards making a great impression.


Dr Sven Hansen, The Resilience Institute