Surfing teaches patience, mindfulness, courage and persistence, often without the surfer realising that they are developing essential life skills.
From a subversive subculture in the sixties, surfing went mainstream, and found success as an effective form of therapy.
When an individual begins surfing, elusive highs are sparingly interspersed between tenuous struggles, sometimes for survival. Like most sports that take place in nature, surfing teaches resilience. Beyond the fact that simply being near the ocean can make you feel calmer and more creative, the mechanics of the surfing experience provide a range of other benefits.
The goal, which is to ride waves of energy manifested in liquid form, is enough motivation for surfers to construct an entire lifestyle around this single, simple pursuit. For non-surfers it might seem bewildering but, in the words of 11-time world champion surfer, Kelly Slater, “Surfing is my religion, if I have one.”
Researchers have identified surfing as a gateway to flow state, providing fast access to experiences of ‘ecstasis’, which, instead of being a thought or emotion, is, instead, the lack of both. The practitioner feels selfless, timeless, effortless and rich.
Certainly, seeking bliss from surfing is a goal pursued by legions of wave-warriors around the world. Dr Sven Hansen describes how surfing can change your life by teaching flow, agility, emotional awareness, physical conditioning, calm and bounce.
1977 surfing world champion, Shaun Tomson, agrees when he says, “Surfing is all about uncertainty. That feeling of taking a risk, that leap of faith every time I jump into the ocean, that paddle out among things unseen — all of these make surfing very special.”
The combination of challenge, independence and freedom make surfing an ideal treatment for sufferers of PTSD, and excellent results have been achieved by combat veterans using surf therapy both in the UK, USA and New Zealand.
To follow the path of the surfer, one needs to overcome constant and shifting obstacles. Even advanced surfers will testify to the fact that it never gets easier, because the better we get at surfing, the more challenge we seek. The path of the resilient professional is no different. As we gain trajectory and develop self-awareness, the challenges we choose in life, become increasingly bold. The further we ascend, the more perspective we gain, and more options we see for navigating the landscape.
In surfing, big waves are less scary when you’ve developed a foundation of skill and practice to underpin high performance. Deliberate, consistent practice enables fearless pursuit of flow.
Resilience in practice
The core of resilience is developing bounce, courage, connection and creativity. Surfing provides a canvas upon which the practitioner develops a playful practice — some might call it a dance — that facilitates growth in all of these areas.
Surfing is not a race. In a race, our objective is to win the prize, to achieve the objective, to be first. In surfing, the journey is the reward and the obstacle is the way. No-one surfs to get to the end of the wave fastest. We surf to ride waves to the best of our ability, hoping always to glide and flow a little better than last time. It is a lifestyle, an art form, a dance with mother nature, and an experience of hypofrontality.
As Andy Irons said, “Surfing is like being kissed by God.”
Surfing, like resilience, reminds us to enjoy the journey and make the most of the experiences that we encounter along the way.
There is not an experienced surfer alive who hasn’t learnt bounce. In the beginning of a surfing lifetime, before our shoulders have strengthened and we’ve learnt the rules of the ocean, we are, in no uncertain terms, smashed by waves. The ocean is the epitome of a zen master. It will sometimes allow you to explore your passion but, as swiftly as an advanced surfer rises to their feet, will crash down upon you, leaving you flailing in turbulent waters.
Bounce is the ability to recognise the predicament, rapidly become calm and turn to face the ocean once again. The paddle out in surfing is the struggle. No-one learns to surf without first learning how to paddle out into lines of unrelenting white water. With strength, skill and timing you will usually find a way out to where the waves are breaking. If you don’t, then you need to practice bouncing. Or be more strategic and move to a break better suited to your ability.
Surfing legend and author, Gerry Lopez says, “No matter how badly you get caught inside, if you can just hang in there and keep paddling, the set is going to pass and there will be a lull afterwards. So don’t give up, just take your pounding, wait until the set passes, then make your move.”
So you’ve made it out beyond the breakers and are ready to ride your wave of opportunity. But so too are many other surfers, also searching for their moment of flow. When your wave comes – and it will – you need to paddle like your life depends on it. The drop may be daunting, the crowd may be predatory, the location may be dangerous, but you won’t be paying attention to any of that. Like a resilient professional, you’re clear, decisive and confident in your skills and ability. If you fail, which you will often, you have faith in your ability to bounce back.
People are very much like waves on the ocean. We see each other as entities moving around, seemingly independent and free, but we are completely interconnected in mind, body and spirit. We were born to humanity and float upon life’s currents, sometimes drifting aimlessly and other times charging toward our dreams. In the water, the surfer is connected to those around them through situational awareness and (sometimes) camaraderie. But the surfer is also connected intrinsically to the ocean, the biological home of all life. Surfing gives perspective and perspective is the heart of emotional intelligence.
Surfing is the physical embodiment of flow. When you ride a wave you are presented with an opportunity. How you choose to ride it, in that fleeting moment, is limited only by skill and imagination. The more you have practiced, the more options you will have to ride creatively. The elation from surfing a wave creatively is difficult to surpass or define. Surfers call it ‘stoke’, and it is written on faces at car parks from San Diego to Biarritz, Cape Town to Raglan. There is joy in pushing a little harder, or leaning more successfully into the best turn of your life. The most magical and elusive opportunity in surfing – the tube – offers the peak experience. It doesn’t always turn out well but, when it does, enjoy the view.
As with all peak experiences, we build up towards them, following a cycle of struggle, release, and flow. Importantly, we also need to allow time for recovery and reflection.
Resilience extends further than just having the tenacity to keep paddling out, even when the ocean crushes you. Developing skills of life mastery enable you to grab hold of fleeting opportunities and make the most of them. When you are calm, courageous, focused and in flow, you act with confidence and secure opportunities without anxiety or distress. This is living harmoniously. You are practised and able to free yourself from the shackles of uncertainty through your exceptional preparation.
On a practical level, as a surfer, you realise that if you are not eating well, or staying fit, your performance suffers. It is difficult to wake up for the serene dawn session if your sleep has been compromised. You need rest to surf your best. The same foundations apply in life.
Surfing provides an immediate and immersive environment within which you can fast-track the development of key life skills. It’s not for everyone, but neither is being a resilient professional.
Bradley Hook is a partner at the Resilience Institute. His book Surfing Life Waves was published in 2012 and he is the founder of surfing magazine, surfd.com.
He is a dedicated practitioner of resilience, with a focus on lifestyle mastery.