How ‘ocean therapy’ keeps this competitive surfer calm under pressure

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As a two-time Ultimate Waterman and 15-time World Champion in windsurfing and stand up paddleboarding, Zane Kekoa Schweitzer is no stranger to extremely high-pressure (and often dangerous) situations. In fact, high-pressure may be an understatement. On a given day Schweitzer may find himself facing a 60-foot wave or racing 150 miles on the water all while balancing on a paddleboard in the ocean.

Snagging the title of the reigning Ultimate Waterman was no small feat. The event incorporates ten different ocean sports over a 12-day period, including surfing, canoe racing, stand-up paddling, swimming, and an underwater strength and endurance challenge, which requires competitors to run 25 yards underwater carrying a 50-kilogram weight.

And while much of the preparation is physical, the most important part of his training is mental, he says.

Known as “Zaniac” by his friends and family for his obsessive enthusiasm, when we sat down with Schweitzer while he was in New York City for the City Paddle Festival, it became quickly apparent that he’s also found a way to balance his energetic optimism with a grounded, calm head space that undoubtedly plays a major role in his success during competition. In his new book, “Beneath the Surface,” he shares the life practices that he credits for the positive attitude and mental strength that has gotten him through his toughest obstacles.

The good news? Schweitzer says that whether you’re surfing a huge wave in Hawaii or headed to an important business meeting, his strategies for mentally preparing before a high-stakes competition ring true. Here are some of his go-to practices for remaining calm under pressure, using the ocean as therapy and how we can all benefit from the Hawaiian practice of Ho’oponopono.

Schweitzer during the underwater strength and endurance challenge at the Ultimate Waterman competition.
Schweitzer during the underwater strength and endurance challenge at the Ultimate Waterman competition.The Ultimate Waterman

On keeping his cool during competition

[When competing] we have to really be in the right head space. Of course, months before, we’re preparing physically as well. But when it comes down to the wire and we’re being pressured to surf, race or do an underwater strength and endurance challenge, it takes a lot of mental calmness and emotional control. As a professional surfer and waterman, we have to learn to adapt with the conditions of the ocean. If you imagine yourself in the ocean, and a 50-foot wave about to crash on top of your head, you might start to hyperventilate and panic and feel your legs go numb. And in this moment, under pressure, this is when our preparation really comes into play, when you can control your panic, control your emotion, and kick yourself into this state of flow and do what’s necessary to make it over this hurdle.

On being prepared to hit a hurdle

At the end of the day, success is when preparation meets opportunity, no matter what sport or business we’re in.

No matter what sport we’re dealing with, or even what business we’re in, there’s always those times where we confront a hurdle, a problem, and there’s always a solution for that. It all comes down to our preparation. At the end of the day, success is when preparation meets opportunity, no matter what sport or business we’re in. I have a few ways to really mentally prepare myself, whether its surfing waves over 50 feet or competing in the Ultimate Waterman. For me, visualization and manifestation [plays] a huge role in my success, whether it’s with journaling or with forms of meditation such as mindful tapping. [They] really allow me to refocus myself in those times during competition, on the clock, or in a pressured event where I can bring myself back to composure and be confident in my preparation.

On the mental tools that help him stay focused

We enter that time in our meeting or when the competition starts, and all of a sudden, we’re nervous. We’re shaking. And those are the times when we can either succeed or break. I like to relate this to a huge wave crashing on your head: you could hesitate for a moment and hyperventilate or you could lock into that state of flow, be confident in your preparation and know exactly what you have to do to make it through this challenge. [I have a] few tools that I use to set me up for competition to get myself in the right head space and to be mentally prepared. I like to be in control of my moment, but also be confident in the moment. If I forget about doing these practices, there’s a big difference. And I’ve had times during competition where I’ve had to stop in the middle of a heat, reset and rely on one of these practices. It allows me to change my mindset, alter my state. Sometimes that’s all it takes. As physically demanding as a lot of these sports are that I practice, at times, it’s more mentally tough than it is physical.