EXCLUSIVE | Richard Bennett is the surfing world's premiere sports psychologist; he has helped some of our biggest surf-stars tackle a range of problems and issues. Richard has just released a new book, 'The Surfer's Mind' and he joins us today for an exclusive chat about how much the mind comes into play when surfing.
Hi Richard, can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into surf psychology?
I have been involved in the field of sport and performance psychology for over 15 years now. My first job after university was actually in clinical psychology. I began applying the clinical paradigms I was using to assist clients with fear related disorders, such as phobia’s, panic and anxiety disorders, to manage my own fears in big waves. The results were immediate and I shared my strategies with local surfers who also achieved great results. I wrote an article on managing fear in big waves for Tracks in 1999 which led to a series of articles on various surf psychology topics. I received a number of very positive responses, one from Rob Bain who at the time was top 5 on the world tour. We caught up on the phone and he said the information I have been sharing in my articles and the skills I have as a psychologist would be very valuable on tour. My dream had always been to work as a sport psychologist on the world tour of surfing so after speaking with Bainy I promptly resigned from my full time job, packed my boards and began creating the role of Surf Psychologist on the ASP World Tour.
I was on tour full time from 2000 to 2003. My first event was the prestigious Hot Buttered/Ocean+Earth Pro Junior at North Narrabeen. It was a classic event from a psychological perspective as Terry Fitzgerald applied the “slalom” heat system for the first time and as he explained the system to the young competitors it was amazing to see many of them become so mentally rattled. By mid 2003 I had completed all the research and interviews for my book so decided to base back in Torquay to finish the manuscript and in April 2004 I released The Surfer’s Mind at home during the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach.
In January 2005 I accepted a position at the NSW Institute of Sport and moved to Sydney’s northern beaches. I work closely with many of Australia’s top summer and winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes and fulfill a number of senior roles, including National Team Psychologist at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games and Beijing Olympics, Australian Team Psychologist for the Beijing Paralympics and National Team Psychologist for the recent Vancouver Winter Olympic campaign.
I continue to work privately with surfers and many other athletes and teams. I also work with a broad range of “performers” including extreme athletes and adventurers, corporate executives and teams, and artists such as writers, actors, singers, dancers and musicians.
Who is your book 'The Surfer’s Mind' targeted towards?
The Surfer’s Mind is targeted towards all surfers. When creating the book I consciously researched and interviewed top free surfers, competitive surfers and big wave riders to ensure specific detail for each area of surfing. I also consciously interviewed young grommets through to elder surfers such as Clyde Aikau and Peter Cole, male and female surfers, and surfers from every continent or “ocean”. So whether you want to win a world title, ride a 100ft wave, balance your passion for surfing with other meaningful commitments in life like family and career, or simply surf better each time you hit the water, there is much value in the book for every surfer. Interestingly, though surfers were the original target, I also receive very positive feedback from athletes and performers from many sport, artistic, business and educational settings who have bought the book and applied the learning’s to their own unique performance domain.
How will reading the book benefit a surfer, or what will a reader come away with after reading the book?
The book gives a simple framework to enhance surfing performance. Practical guidelines are also provided to assist the reader to develop key mental factors and strategies for improved awareness, confidence, focus, creativity, goal setting, decision making, desire and several other core mental skills for enhanced performance in free surfing, individual competition, team competition and big wave riding. Guidelines are provided to become a complete waterman and to create a successful career as a pro surfer. A whole section guides how to mentally develop young surfers and is ideal for surf coaches, parents, teachers and team managers. There’s information and strategies to manage a range of common experiences we have as surfers such as localism, injury and aging. In addition, over 70 of the world’s best surfers share their mental secrets for success in surfing and wider life.
The simple framework, along with all the information, strategies and elite surfer quotes presented in the book can also be easily applied for enhanced performance in all areas of life. In addition, the books core theme is personal development through our love and connection with the ocean and so throughout the book the reader is guided towards opportunities for mindful evolution and enrichment through living the surfing life.
If there was one thing you would want every reader to take away with, to know and remember, what would it be?
A free mind is a powerful mind. The best way to free your mind is to let go of attachments, transcend fears, trust your intuition and keep things simple.
We read and hear a lot about surfers being in peak physical shape and how important physical fitness is to compete and surf at our best, but we don't often hear much about the mind. How important are the two elements to work together in unison, and does one affect the other?
Harmony of mind and body is the basis for peak performance and they certainly affect each other. For example, to ride big waves you must develop a number of specific mental skills, such as the ability to relax in intense situations. You must also develop a number of specific physical capacities, such as lung capacity. When you know you can stay relaxed mentally and you can hold your breath for a very long time you will no longer be fearful of wipeouts and much more confident to charge in big waves.
Harmony of mind and body is really just the beginning for peak performance in surfing; we must also be in harmony with our equipment and the ocean. Along with the Aloha Spirit, the four core elements of mind – body – equipment – ocean form the basis of the simple framework I present in my book for enhancing surfing performance. The barrel is a peak experience in surfing and riding a perfect barrel is a wonderful demonstration of mind – body – equipment – ocean in pure harmony. Hence, a good mental tip is to set your intent or focus on achieving “harmony” each time you go surfing.
You touch on a lot of the different aspects of surfing and the lifestyle that surrounds it, one in particular that caught my attention was the section around localism and surf aggression. What advice would you give to those that surf crowded city beaches day after day and literally have to fight for a wave?
Well firstly I believe the only time it’s appropriate for surfers to really “fight” for a wave is when the wave is threatened by developers, pollution or poor council or government decisions. Joining an organisation like Surfrider Foundation and volunteering your time for the protection and enjoyment of our oceans, waves and beaches is the best way to look after the waves and ensure there are plenty more clean waves to ride for future generations.
Unfortunately crowds are increasing and though most surfers know the core rules and a few breaks are well regulated by locals, most line ups are largely anarchic environments. Theories such as territorial behavior, social learning, the “us and them” phenomenon and competition over scarce resources can collectively explain why aggression and fights for waves happen in crowded line ups. However, the bottom line is that each individual surfer is personally responsible for their attitude and behavior in and out of the ocean. The ocean is no place for fighting. If a surfer wants to catch more of the set waves in a crowded line up my best advice is to work on improving paddling ability, line up positioning, surfing ability and as in football and rugby, focus on playing the wave not the man (or woman). Be mindful of crowd changes too so you can time your surfs for when less people are in the water or make the choice to find less crowded waves elsewhere.
In competitive surfing there are a number of different personalities, take for example the difference between Irons and Parko. Irons obviously with a very competitive mind set that says 'I must win' and Parko's seems to be a lot more relaxed. What sort of effect do these two mindsets have on ones surfing, and is one better than the other when it comes to competition surfing?
If you want something that is very hard to achieve, such as a world title, you must really, really want it. Athletes who are very competitive have that intense want, that very high desire to win and be the best, so a highly competitive nature can be a real asset for world title campaigns. However, being highly competitive all the time can also lead to burnout. A relaxed personality can have positives and negatives too. An athlete that is naturally relaxed may manage highly intense situations better and experience better mental recovery between heats and events. Though an athlete that is too relaxed may let their opponent dominate them and miss opportunities.
The key is to optimise your natural personality strengths through balance and timing. Mick Fanning demonstrated this very well last year. During events he really wanted it and balanced his highly competitive nature with sound composure in the moment. Between events he allowed himself to relax fully and so achieved the necessary mental recovery and refreshment to peak again at the next event. Mick also describes his 2009 World Title campaign as a much more enjoyable experience than the campaign for his first title win in 2007.
What advice would you give to a young surfer that's working towards getting noticed and making it to the next level of competitive surfing?
Mindfully improve all core elements of your surfing performance. Develop the necessary mental skills, feed and train your body well, develop a sound relationship with a shaper you trust and be fully involved in all elements of your equipment, learn the secrets of the ocean and consciously develop a deep relationship with the ocean so you feel naturally in harmony with the waves everywhere you surf. Build a solid support network around you. Join your local boardrider club, find a good surf coach, and engage specialist expertise from a sport psychologist, physical trainer, nutritionist and medical specialists as required. Be aware too that surf team managers always have their eye open for new talent, so keep your resume updated. Obviously competitive results are a great way to be noticed, though short movies of yourself surfing and showing an element of your natural personality, surfing or other skills that may provide unique appeal, can also be helpful.
Do you have any intentions of bringing out another book or an extension of what you've released?
The Surfer’s Mind is now in its second print and is both a recommended and prescribed text for a number of surfing and tertiary courses. I have also completed further research in surf psychology and already extended specific sections for several surf and performance programs. I love writing and am always experimenting and creating new resources for clients so will continue this work and when the time feels right I may also create another book.
Any final words mate?
Developing our mind and evolving as a surfer and a human being begins with awareness. For example, when we are more aware of ideal line up positioning we can catch the best quality waves; when we are more aware of how another person is feeling we can respond with love and compassion; when we are more aware of our impact on the environment and what we can do about it, we can modify our choices and behavior to look after the planet and live in harmony with Mother Nature. To be more aware we must simply open our mind to what is going on inside us, around us, and to the opportunities we can discover or create to become a better surfer and a better human being. Enjoy the ride…
Make sure to check out Richard's book THE SURFERS MIND.