HOW NICOLA ATHERTON TAKES HOLD OF FEAR AND USES IT TO HER ADVANTAGE
4 MIN READ
"EVERYONE IS A NOVICE UNTIL THEY'RE NOT"
Nicola Atherton has spent her career using fear to her advantage.
The former pro surfer and junior world surfing champion was also a Bronte and Bondi lifeguard, and the only female (at the time) to appear on the TV show Bondi Rescue. Most recently, after two years of preparation, she became a full-time firefighter in Sydney (ya, we know!)
Here, Nicola talks about managing fear, learning to be brave, and why failing isn't the worst thing in the world.
I got caught out recently surfing at a reef pass. This massive wave came through that was easily three times the size of the rest. Usually, you can get to the deep part and it won't break, but this thing was going to break across the whole reef.
I had a decision to make: I could panic and make the situation worse, or I could take a deep breath, get really calm, shut my eyes, and picture white. When I do this I try to stop all thoughts and just go limp, so I can focus on using what's left in the tank to get me to safety.
It's nice to know those instincts still kick in, even though I haven't been in competition-mode for a long time.
"IF YOU'RE ALWAYS SCARED OF FAILING,
YOU'RE NEVER GOING TO BE IN A
WINNING FRAME OF MIND."
When I was professionally surfing, I would experience anxiety. At the time I just thought it was normal pre-heat nerves. Now, looking back, I know I was having anxiety attacks.
I was so scared of what would happen if I lost my sponsors or fell off tour. I was living in this one competitive year and it was my entire world. I had no perspective on what was important. I'd put that win on a pedestal, and even though I didn't have it, I was already afraid of losing it. It was a weird paradox.
Now, I try to be really comfortable with the chance of losing. You have to find the tipping point where you can accept potential failure, and take it for a lesson and all the positives it might bring. If you're always scared of failing, you're never going to be in a winning frame of mind.
I still have negative thoughts but I'm more accepting of them. If something keeps reoccurring I don't try to fight it – I try to observe it and figure out why.
The moment you get flustered and panic is when things start to unravel. I like the challenge of trying to remain calm and make good decisions under pressure – it's part of the reason I wanted to become a firefighter.
I have little internal chats with myself: "stay focused, stay calm". You might not be able to change the way a situation unfolds, but you can change the way you react to it.
"WHEN THINGS GET REALLY SHITTY,
I PUT MY HEAD DOWN, POWER ON,
AND SAY TO MYSELF "THIS TOO SHALL END"
Resilience is all about preparation. As a firefighter, I have this huge tool box on wheels. I need to understand what every piece of equipment does, so in a high pressure situation I have the clarity and logical thought process to be able to try to make it better.
The job's not hard at the time, it's afterwards. I had a job involving a fatality. The family's world had just been shattered into a thousand pieces, and watching them made my heart break. Me and my team did everything we could to help, but things didn't work out the way we wanted them to. It makes you appreciate life. You go home and tell your family you love them.
I try to remind myself of the best aspects of my life so I can push through the parts that don't go as well. When things get really shitty, I put my head down, power on, and say to myself "this too shall end".
I've gotten good at saying no. When I'm disorganised and have taken on too much, I just need to stop. I write lists or mindmap everything, and whatever I don't need right now I put on the backburner.
I get grumpy when I say yes to stuff I don't really want to do, so if I'm not feeling it, I just say no! It's important to look after yourself.
Failing can be a huge hit to the ego, but ask yourself: what is the worst possible outcome? Don't worry if you're a bit slower than everyone else – stick with it. Everyone is a novice until they're not. If you're comfortable, you're not pushing yourself.
I enjoy being awkward, and then looking back every six months to a year and seeing how far I've come – it's wild!
Follow Nicola on Instagram
Interviewed by Dee Behan
FOLLOW ALONG ON THE 'GRAM