Richy Bennett (pictured) is a performance psychologist who has worked with the Australian Paralympic Team. As surfing features in the Olympics for the first time, Debbie Gordon, Assistant to the Managing Editor on The Psychologist, asked him some questions; and also heard from Dr Nick Caddick about his work with veterans.
‘You explore your entire being’
It's easy to see the physical side of surfing. But what makes it psychologically special?
My whole life has been immersed in surfing. It was the first professional sport I worked with, so I initially came from this understanding that ‘only a surfer knows the feeling’. Now, from working across Paralympic sports, Winter and Summer Olympics, adventure pursuits and all sorts of human experience and performance domains, I understand ‘the feeling’ is available to all who immerse themselves in their activity of passion.
For me though, some of the truly special elements of surfing include the opportunity to play with 70 per cent of the planet – the ocean – and face your mortality in a force of nature that is completely out of our control. This is particularly useful in Western society, as there's a lot of social conditioning to always be in control. Yet even the world's best surfers regularly have wipeouts and may experience injury or fatality. So the opportunity is presented in surfing to explore your entire being, from the most amazing flow experiences to the most nail-baiting life-on-the-edge fear.
Surfing also offers deeply pleasant and moving connections with Mother Nature. Though I admire and learn a lot from the great work of many colleagues and researchers in psychology, I would say I’ve learned more about human nature and our psyche simply through surfing. When you're conscious about experiential learning through an activity of passion, you can intimately explore the entire range of human experience… the potential to engage with that, play with it, master it as well… I feel that's a very special element of surfing for me.
There's lots of research looking at the therapeutic side of surfing, for example Nick Caddick's work with soldiers and post-traumatic stress [see below]. I'm wondering how much of that comes from the environment, and how much of it is the actual surfing?
The natural environment is conducive to improved states of mind and well-being – even something as simple as being held by the ocean when you're paddling. Then when you actually catch a wave, it’s like being picked up, which may connect us with some of our earliest infancy experiences like being held safely in the bath or picked up by mum or dad.
The ocean is also a place that is non-judgmental, unconditional. It doesn't matter if you're a beginner or advanced, the same wave will hit you with the same amount of power. A big part of moving through adversity or trauma is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable again, to let go of the defence mechanisms, which is more likely to happen in a space that is free of judgement and condition. It’s beautiful to observe people slowly take quite noticeable risks in my surf therapy sessions. Once they experience what it's like to be ragdolled by a wave – the complete vulnerability, they let go and find it's actually fun. Then you can start to move through the fears that might be around mental health or personal adversities… to open up a dialogue where they feel safe and ready to communicate on a deeper level.
What's psychologically key to competitive surfing?
There are a few fundamentals; one is patience, particularly at the top level. The world championship tour means going to the best wave locations in the world during the best season, and waiting 10 to 14 days for the best swell to compete in a one to three day event. You wake up, the swell hasn’t arrived… what do we do for another day? So the surfer must be patient and have good ways to occupy themselves on the lay days. Then when the event is called on patience is key to ensure composure when the ocean goes quiet during a heat as well as to choose the best wave of the set when they appear.
Wave selection is fundamental as some waves simply won’t offer good manoeuvre potential, so it’s vital the surfer selects the best waves that will offer him or her the highest scoring opportunity. Ironically this can be a real challenge when the waves are pumping as all surfers love good waves! In competition the surfer must often have the patience to let good waves go to ensure they are in the right position for the great waves.
Being able to operate on your intuition is important too. Ideally you're in a mindset of observe-respond and simply going by feel. An experienced surfer will know a wave is coming before they see it as they sense all the subtle cues, such as how the water is moving and lifting them. The playing field is a spontaneous moving environment and the most important thing is to be in tune with the waves and be in the right spot at the right time for the best waves. Intuition applies during wave riding too; simply riding the wave by feel and trusting the quality of your performance will earn the high scores and so heat wins, event wins and goal achievement.
Is there a dark side to surfing – just needing to ride those waves?
There is both light and dark in surfing. The simple act of surfing generates so much adrenaline, endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin – all feel good body and brain chemistry – and surfers travel the world on a shoestring to countries that have all sorts of tropical diseases just to catch the wave of their life. On the light side, these are wonderful adventures. On the dark side the feel good chemistry can become addictive and the surfer may begin to make poor choices in wider life as they are so consumed by chasing perfect waves. It may not classify as an addiction from a DSM perspective… but from my own experience, where I have built my life around surfing, it was a long journey to let go of the attachment to surfing and genuinely feel true contentment with my surfing experiences, whatever the quality of the waves or other factors may be.
Another light and dark in surfing is that the ocean itself is anarchic. This allows for a wonderful sense of freedom, especially when the waves are uncrowded. However there are unwritten rules in surfing and often a hierarchy among the local surfers at each beach. When a surfer either knowingly or unknowingly crosses the line the response can be quite brutal behaviour that would be unacceptable in a more regulated environment like a tennis club. The key is to always take your ‘international passport’ with you – your smile – and observe how each line up operates, then gently and respectfully find your place to share in the waves.
What are the common fears or psychological problem areas with pro surfers?
Number one, your career is time limited. People can play golf at the top level in their 50s and 60s, though most pro surfers retire around 35 due to the high level of athleticism. Plus every five to eight years there's another new crop of surfers bringing more youthful athleticism and next level manoeuvres. That's just how all sports evolve. So it’s important to plan well and look after the body and mind so that from the beginning and through to the latter phase of your career the worry of thinking ‘I'm not quite where I want to be, my time is running out’ does not enter the mind and become a detrimental distraction.
Then there's the whole experience of balancing public and private life as a pro athlete. Sometimes what unfolds in media might not be accurate or truthful, and that can have quite an impact on the athlete’s psyche. Pro surfing is a global sport and this can introduce challenging personal experiences, such as maintaining long-distance relationships, being away from your kids and missing key milestones and other important life experiences.
There are primal fears in surfing too. Locations like Pipeline in Hawaii and Teahupo’o in Tahiti present very high risk and unfortunately people have been killed surfing these waves. So a lot of preparation is done on how to manage fear and surf these dangerous waves safely and with a high performance mindset.
When you’re working with pro surfers approaching retirement, how do you help them through that process?
It’s best to start early and be conscious and proactive about career transitions. There are a couple of good reasons for this. One is that if they've got a passion for something else, it can be useful for their psyche and those downtime days to be nurturing that during their career. The other reason is that some athletes have career-ending injuries, which can hit their psyche like a brick. However, when the surfer has already sown some seeds for post-career, they will at least feel some comfort in knowing they have options.
Education and preparation for retirement is key. Transitioning well from traveling around the world surfing amazing waves, meeting lots of people and experiencing different cultures, to then coming home and picking up a day job and other responsibilities can be very challenging. So assisting the surfer to embrace all the values their new life is offering, such as playing in the waves with their children and continuing to evolve their relationship with the ocean is important, and as the whole family may be impacted we may include some family sessions too.
How has Sports Psychology’s approach to surfing changed over the years?
When I began travelling on the pro surfing tour in 2000 I was the first and only psychologist, though now many pro surfers work with psychologists in their local area and from time to time psychologists travel with surfers or surf teams. And while there are fundamentals in the practice of psychology and the typical mental challenges competitive surfers face – such as how to focus, be confident, be in command of emotions and make good decisions – how each psychologist works will vary depending on their training and professional experiences.
Psychologists may also work on the professional side, for example guiding the surfer on how to foster good relationships with fans and sponsors and achieve reciprocal return on investment by nurturing an authentic, appealing professional profile and delivering value in targeted projects.
For me, the model I created during my time on the surfing tour – the four core elements model, which is really five elements because there's a spiritual side – is still the one I apply today as it is simple, practical and highly adaptable. The adaptability is very broad too as I also apply the model with athletes and teams in Olympic, Paralympic, high risk adventure, corporate and artistic settings with great efficacy.
In addition I believe it is important to first understand the person and care for them as a human being. They just happen to surf. So beginning with understanding their current state in terms of being a happy, healthy human and the quality of their personal foundation is key, as this will guide how to nurture the mind-body-spirit of the human and so consolidate a sound platform for them to spring from for mastery, longevity and enrichment in their surfing performance and career. This is also how and where the door opened for me to work with many recreational surfers who simply wish to surf better, live better and evolve themselves mindfully through their surfing experiences.
Do you feel you’ve got more to offer now?
I’m always learning. What I learned on the pro surfing tour allowed me to offer new perspectives and narratives among Olympic and Paralympic teams, and my experiences doing summer and winter games campaigns allows me to offer new perspectives and narratives for surfers. I love storytelling and a lot of what I do is narrative and that's been important in the last decade, knowing that the Olympics is coming up for surfing. I can share story with the surfer’s about what it's like to be in the Olympic village, to be surrounded by 14,000 of the world's fittest athletes and the impact on ones psyche. This is where your adrenaline's gonna be, and you're not even competing yet! How will you regain and maintain your steady state when you're in one of the most adrenalised environments on the planet for a couple of weeks?
Does your approach differ when it comes to the Olympics? For most athletes, that's going to be the pinnacle of their career.
My fundamental approach does not differ, however due to the different challenges and demands of the Olympic experience the content may differ. I’ve been fortunate to work with many first-time Olympians. Every country will take a number of athletes along to an Olympic Games who met the criteria to qualify, though they’re not likely to be medal winners. It’s to give them a games experience as they know in four years they will be a true medal contender among the world's best.
That first experience involves understanding the village and how it works, the food hub, transport hub, just the whole operational element of the games system. So for me working with surfers, it's like they are first-time games athletes. Surfers know surfing, and every surfer that has made a games team for Tokyo has surfed at the venue. It’s more about the daily life and inflated media experience of the games, and whether they can keep a healthy perspective on it all. There’s a gold medal up for grabs in each category, and everyone wants that. If their perspective is not ideal it can be a source of internal pressure and anxiety, while other surfers thrive on the intensity of the moment, so individually the focus of service may differ so all team members can thrive in the games environment and deliver personal best when it’s time to step into that space.
And all eyes will be on them.
Yes, there will be more people watching than any other time in the history of surfing. Media presence and demands will be far greater than at usual world tour events too with many more cameras and drones and jet skis in the water, along with pre and post surf interviews. The ability of each surfer to achieve their ideal performance state with so much attention on their every move will be a deciding factor, and a healthy perspective on self, team and how to navigate the realities and demands both in and out of the water will be key.
Do you think you’ll always find surfing therapeutic, personally?
I was my first ‘surf psychology’ client, and I'm still booking regular sessions with myself. Mastery is a continuum and I feel the learning opportunities in surfing and living the surfing lifestyle are infinite. Surfing is just so much fun too and allows me to be fully immersed in nature, which is one of my deepest loves. So yes I feel surfing will always be therapeutic for me… it will always be an experience and pathway that spontaneously cultivates bliss as well as nurtures my body, mind and spirit through all the moments and phases of life.
- Richy Bennett combined his love of surfing and psychology to become the first psychologist to work globally on the World Surf League. His first book The Surfer’s Mind shares this seminal work. He has since enjoyed several senior roles within Institutes of Sport, National Sport Organisations, Commonwealth Games Teams, summer and winter Olympic Teams and was Principal Psychologist for the Australian Paralympic Team in Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games. See https://richybennett.com
Debbie also spoke with Dr Nick Caddick, Senior Research Fellow, Veterans and Families Institute, Anglia Ruskin University.
It’s easy to see the physical side of surfing. But what’s psychologically special about it?
When surfing, people are connected to nature and absorbed in the experience. It can be likened to mindfulness in many ways. A veteran I worked with captured it: ‘It frees you up. It’s freedom for those two or three hours, kind of like a bit of respite. It takes your mind off it. Just leave all that [PTSD] away somewhere on the beach and then, we’ll deal with that later. But for now, when we’re surfing, we’re going to have a laugh. And there’s not a lot you can do to not have a laugh; it’s kind of the antidote to PTSD in a way.’
When people started to claim that surfing had a therapeutic side, how was this received? (If there was scepticism, how did you overcome this?)
There was certainly scepticism. Those I think of as 'establishment' psychiatrists didn't like the deviation from NICE-approved therapies, whilst aspects of the popular press saw the potential idea of taxpayers’ money being spent on surf therapy as troublesome. Internationally, evidence for the therapeutic benefits of surfing – and being in nature more widely – is growing rapidly, which naturally improves acceptance and legitimacy.
Can you measure the impact of surfing?
I suppose you could. My research tends not to rely on psychometric measurements of well-being as I find them too simplistic and crude a measure. But they could have a place, and moreover, there are other things you could measure like social connections and employment progression in people engaged in surf therapy.
What are the findings?
My research found that regular surfing helped boost subjective well-being in veterans diagnosed with PTSD. It became, for them, a way of managing the day-to-day struggles they face with their mental health. They were pretty adamant that it was not a 'cure', but that surfing was something that helped them live with the problems they faced more effectively. Some who'd experienced suicidal thoughts even credited surfing with saving their lives, by giving them something to look forward to and taking them away from thoughts of suicide. That's a powerful story.
Do we know if these are long-term effects?
As far as I'm aware, academic research has yet to focus on whether surfing can provide long-term benefits to mental health and well-being over years. For some veterans I worked with, surfing helped get them through particularly difficult times in their lives, as a springboard to engagement with other programmes or employment. On that basis alone, surfing should be considered a meaningful way of supporting mental health and well-being.
Is there a ‘dark side’ to surfing?
There can be – some veterans reported experiencing a 'low' after surfing, akin to a 'fade-out' effect as positive feelings drifted away. Some were able to counter this when feelings of anticipation began for the next surf session, or by finding other ways to care for their well-being in between surfs (e.g., walking, yoga, playing music).
To what extent are any benefits to do with the context, i.e. being out in a striking natural setting?
Close contact with nature is a key aspect of the surfing experience, and of its impact on well-being. There's a great deal of wider research now supporting the importance of nature for psychological health and well-being. Surfing provides a very direct means of experiencing the natural world - by literally immersing oneself in it - thereby adding to the positive effects of the experience.
Why might surfing be particularly beneficial for Veterans?
Research suggests that if veterans have bad experiences of help-seeking in more traditional ways, they get 'turned off' very quickly. What's more, talking therapies and medications can sometimes be off-putting due to the individualised, clinical nature of the approach. Surfing – particularly in a group environment, with other veterans who understand the issues they're experiencing – can instead be seen as a proactive means of taking control of their own mental health, doing something positive to benefit their own well-being. This is particularly attractive to veterans used to thinking with a tough 'get on with it' mentality. The physically active nature of surfing (it’s not always easy to learn!) also resonates with their military background.
Surf therapy is now a growing global movement (and in 2017 the International Surf Therapy Organisation (ISTO) was formed). What next?
Expanding use of surfing (and for those living further 'inland', other immersive, nature-based activities) as a form of social prescribing would be a very useful means of helping more people to experience the benefits it offers.
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