Mark Mathews
© Andrew Chisholm / Red Bull Content Pool

“Everyone is scared”: Big wave icon Mark Mathews talks fear and resilience

We caught up with big wave legend Mark Mathews to discuss the finer points of feeling fear (and doing it anyway).
By Oliver Pelling
8 min readPublished on
Big wave surfer Mark Mathews has made a career out of seemingly defying fear at every opportunity. But as his new documentary, The Other Side of Fear – streaming exclusively on Red Bull TV now – illustrates, reality isn’t quite so simple.
An introverted kid, Mark actually grew up pretty terrified of the ocean. It was only through obsessive practice, repetition and an absolute dedication to his craft that he was able to adapt and thrive within the barrels of the world’s biggest waves.
Now a sought-after keynote speaker adept at helping businesses inspire and empower their employees, Mark’s delivered fear-busting sermons to the likes of Google, Sony and MasterCard. But with The Other Side of Fear – which injects his personal story with his fear-facing philosophies – he’s glad to finally be able to share his ideas with a much wider audience.
We caught up with Mark to discuss the finer points of fear and resilience, and how perspective can be a game-changer for anyone looking to tap into their potential. There’s this assumption that people in ‘extreme’ sports are all flat-out maniacs but, more often than not, that’s not really the case, is it?
Mark Mathews: I think lot of people in the world of action sports are fairly overly-neurotic, which might seem like a strange trait for people taking risks to have. I think generally, we think a lot about the risks, and we have high levels of anxiety. But then these things keep us alive when we're doing these dangerous activities...
Mark Mathews has nearly 30 years of surfing under his belt.
Mark Mathews has nearly 30 years of surfing under his belt.
Sure. If you didn’t have this high level of neuroticism, of fear, you wouldn’t last very long…
No. You'll probably do some crazy, amazing stuff in a short period of time, but it'll catch up with you.
Tell me about The Other Side of Fear. It feels a lot like you channelling your life’s work and lessons into one film – is that about right?
Yeah. The narration element is from my keynote that I’ve been delivering for a while now. In that, I’ve condensed how I deal with fear and manage stress. And then we’ve added in more of the family footage and personal story lines, and it’s become more of a documentary.
That's what people don't get. They think if they're apprehensive about doing things, then they're just not meant to be doing that. That's not true. Everyone is scared.
Mark Mathews
How much of you putting this out there is about you trying to help people push through their personal limits, or to get to that next level?
Yeah, I have this with my clients when I talk. If I can leave an audience or a team feeling grateful for where they’re at in life, even though it might be tough situation, but also get them excited to take on a challenge, then I’ve done my job. If people can walk away from my talk feeling that, then that’s success for me.
These companies that pay me to come in and talk – I usually only get to speak to a small amount of people. So it’s nice to be able to share the same knowledge with people who might not otherwise be able to access one of my keynotes. That part’s cool too.
Mark Mathews deep in the belly of the beast.
Mark Mathews deep in the belly of the beast.
I think one of the things that might keep people from their potential, or from doing what they want to do in life, comes before fear – it’s almost like a fear of fear. We’re afraid to be uncomfortable. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, definitely. You've evolved to shy away from that feeling. It's a deeply ingrained survival mechanism that's in you, so it's not weird to feel that way. That's what people don't get. They think if they're apprehensive about doing things, then they're just not meant to be doing that. That's not true. Everyone is scared. That's the natural state, I think, of human beings: you're terrified of shit. That's your normal state, but then you build and develop skills that allow you to master environments and then not become scared and not be so scared of them.
So it doesn't matter if you feel that apprehension, you just have to get the experience and the skillset to master that environment. That's what I did over decades in the surfing world. It's just training, preparation, knowledge, skills of mastering the ocean as best I could. Then I could do something that I used to be terrified of doing.
I think that’s easy to forget. We might see you riding the big waves you ride and be like, "that's insane. How does he do that?" But you started when you were a kid, on much smaller waves and gradually got better and adapted to that environment over time. A lot of “success” or “confidence” is about repetition, right? Just doing the same thing over and over and over…
[I’ve been surfing] from eight years old, nine years old. It's a journey of just constant repetition. Over and over and over and over and over again, to the point that what people see is: “that looks terrifyingly dangerous.” But for me, it's not, that danger isn't there for me. Obviously there’s still danger, but not how it looks from the outside, because I have that skillset.
I look at a lot of other people, and what they're able to do, in the exact same way that people look at me and what I'm doing. Not just extreme sports athletes, but also business people taking crazy risks, managing thousands of employees, making tough decisions, all the stress they have to deal with. I look at single parents raising three kids. I look at people dealing with grief and loss. There's so many examples of extreme courage and resilience in the world that it's just proof that it's accessible to anyone, you know?
Mark Mathews celebrates the literal 'other side of fear'.
Mark Mathews celebrates the literal 'other side of fear'.
The film covers your horrific accident in 2016, and how you bounced back from it. I know you must be sick of talking about it – but where does that come from? What does it take to have something like that happen to you and to just be like, “OK, I’m just going to get back to what I was doing”?
I think there’s multiple aspects to it – there’s more than one thing that gives you the ability to have something go terribly wrong in your life and then overcome that adversity. You’ll see in the movie, but one of the primary things is support. My beautiful wife, Britt, was by my bedside the whole way through. Dealing with that pain, struggle and psychological turmoil – she’s such a massive part of me being able to get through that.
I think being able to shift perspective is important too. Meeting people who are going through things a million times worse than what you’re going through. All of a sudden, you can go from being frustrated and angry at what happened to you to feeling pretty lucky and happy, because it could always be much worse. If you can bring that perspective into your everyday life – that’s a game changer. It’s not easy. It’s like going to the gym. You need to schedule it in to your day to do that type of training and reset your perspective.
And I think the last piece is just your underlying motivation. Knowing what you want to achieve, having that direction. I knew I wanted to just get back surfing so I’d be able to surf with my daughter. I wanted to make sure I still had surfing in my family. That was the first step. And once I got there, I was able to reset and have a think about what was possible, the next bit…
Mark Mathews at Red Bull Cape Fear.
Mark Mathews at Red Bull Cape Fear.
The film talks about you being a pretty introverted kid. I feel like that can often be a pretty common trait in people who are prone to putting themselves in ‘extreme’ circumstances. Do you think there’s anything in that?
I don’t know if there’s any data on it…but for me, I’m always avoiding social situations. I’m way more interested in doing things away from big crowds. So big wave surfing is the perfect escape from that, for me. And maybe, as an introvert, you have a stronger inclination to get accolades and respect from people by doing something like that – because you don’t necessarily get a lot of it socially, because you’re not socialising as much.
Total stock question, but is there one thing you’d like the audience to walk away from The Other Side of Fear with? And if so, what is it?
There’d be a few things. I think just that message of being able to shift your perspective and knowing that life can always be way worse than it is. I think that’s such a valuable tool.
And then just being able to see that action sports people, people who do what I do, we’re not born different to anyone else. We don’t have any special traits that help us deal with fear. There are people from all walks of life who are showing acts of courage and resilience that are far greater than what any action sport athlete could do. So it’s possible for anyone to do it – as long as you implement the right principles and motivate yourself enough to get the experience you need. All these things that seem impossible, but they’re most likely not.

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The Other Side of Fear is available to stream on Red Bull TV Now.