Your Surf Break

How to Maintain Good Mental Health in the Modern Age of Surfing
James G. Carroll MA LMFT

James surfing in Costa Rica

Surfing has changed and will continue changing. In the various ‘line-ups and peaks’ through-out coastal zones a general mantra of complaint can be heard, “Everyone surfs”! Indeed, we have Russian grandmothers surfing Cardiff and folks from Ohio traveling to surf the break wall in Lahaina. More populations utilizing the water means fewer waves for everyone and more stress in securing waves in what is supposed to be an ‘Aloha’sport. There are other new stressors to the activity as well. New watercraft like stand-up boards and even jet-boards add to a more competitive water place. Cultural changes like early retirement or surf P.E., home-schooling, competitive surf team practices, surfers bringing their children and grandchildren out to surf add more people in the line-up. Magazines and commercials often use surfing as a catch-all to excitement seemingly adding fuel to the frenzy. The technological advance of surfing information on the Internet is a culprit as well. Many traditional strategies to avoid crowds like surfing during the work week, traveling, or harnessing ‘secret spots’ seem to be more and more ineffective. One Cardiff surfer describes it this way, “The soul has been ripped out of surfing”. This type of change can cause anger, apathy, fear, and even violence.

There are however many things an individual can do to mitigate these negatives in the face of change. Here are 8 tips that just may save your next surf outing…

Change your mental construct. Try finding one new positive concept that you can apply to your next session. E.g. “Yes there are more people in the water, but I still tend to get waves as I am well acquainted with the break”. Training your mind to the positive tends to exclude negative thoughts. It is like grooving a golf swing. The mind remembers what we put in it.

Say hello to the person(s) you have identified as that day’s problem in the line-up. It is harder to stay mad at someone you are engaged with and might actually become your friend. This is a conduit to forgiveness. Forgiveness benefits you and reduces anger-try it.

Stop judging and mind reading. E.g. “I bet that kook is from Arizona and thinks he‘s killing it”. Reframe this to, “Being human I sometimes jump to conclusions, just for today I will forgo trying to figure everyone out”. Judging can be a fertilizer for anger.

Let go of old surfing beliefs and expectations. Take a moment to admit that the sport has changed. It is ok to be sad here and grieve the change. When you have done this, look to the things that are still special about surfing and celebrate them! This can create a rebirth of sorts. What have you got to lose by trying it?

Change your surfing environment by surfing ‘off’ times like dawn patrol or surfing breaks that still hold swell even though they are blown-out. This limits crowds and thus the negative stimulus. Less negative stimulus means less anger.

Don’t tie up the whole of your identity in surfing. If you have a total surf identity there is more chance of a bad attitude if something goes wrong with that identity because it represents the whole of your being. Better to have a broad range of things that make up your ‘self’. E.g. “I am the mother of two who is returning to school to get a masters who really loves surfing” or “I am a 58-year-old single man that enjoys serving my community who loves surfing”. Having a plural identity allows us to transition to another part of ourselves when we are having a bad day.

Have something else to do on those super crowded days. This can take the form of a non-surfing paddle sport or a cherished second sport like tennis, or even heading off to the desert for a dose of solitude. Giving yourself permission to do something else can be liberating.

James with his wife, Karen

Cultivate hope. E.g. There are currently several open water technologies that could revolutionize surfing or consider that wave parks may reduce the population at your home break. There are positive things that will happen with surfing that we haven’t seen yet. When we hope we limit fear. Fear is the main ingredient of anger. Hope equals less anger, which is good for the soul!

The mind is powerful and can be used to our detriment especially when things important to us change. This phenomenon can be limited if we are willing to use that same organ to ward off negativity ultimately guiding us to better mental health.


James Carroll is The Therapist in Boat Shoes practicing in Encinitas, Ca.