Finding The Tools To Overcome Adversity
It was something that I always dreamed of as a kid. To grow up and be a professional surfer, travelling the world and getting perfect waves. I was fortunate to make that dream a reality with hard work and a lot of sacrifices.
When I was 21 I met my wife, Tarryn. I was in the best form of my life. I came in 5th, 2nd, 3rd, and then 6th on the WSL World Tour. And in 2010 we had our firstborn girl. That threw a bit of a spanner in the works to my preparations for tour, as I had to make sure I put enough time and effort into my new family and into my training and the work I needed to do to achieve my goals. That year, I fell to my lowest ranking of 22nd. And 22 was the cut-off to make the world tour. So yeah, it was a big shock to me.
I guess, on reflection, I wasn’t the best at dealing with change. I used to get quite comfortable with my environment and the way things were. When I had to evolve and do tour life with a family, that made me really learn how to adapt and be better with time management, and being more present. That’s what I was struggling with big-time – being present. I’d go to training and it would feel like I wasn’t really there. I felt torn between my family and my life as a professional surfer. It was definitely a struggle for a couple of years, and then I finally worked out how to balance family life and tour life. And just as importantly, care for myself, to ensure I was achieving the things I wanted to do personally. Through having that balance, I started climbing back up the rankings…
…And then I got injured. That threw another spanner in the works!
In 2015 I had a horrific wipe-out while surfing in Hawaii at Pipeline. It was the final event of the year and I was right on the cusp of a top ten finish, which was my goal for the year. I paddled out in my heat against Keanu Asing full of confidence, ready to give it my all. I paddled into this great wave, then things changed really quickly. I went over the falls and was pole-driven into the reef. I got absolutely obliterated! I blew open my pelvis and tore the abs off my bone. I was in a world of hurt. I was taken straight into hospital at Waikiki and was operated on straight away. I nearly died.
Following surgery, I couldn’t walk for four months. I just felt like I got stripped back to nothing.
Even though it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me, looking back I can really draw on the positives from the injury. It really made me connect properly with myself, and my family. It gave me a better overview of what life’s all about really. I’m so grateful that the whole experience played out for me. The injury and my experiences in the subsequent months led me in a different direction, both personally and with my professional career. The slowing down, not racing through life. It made me realise through reflection what was really important to me.
I soon realised that, at the end of the day, your identity as a professional athlete ends.
At 34 years of age I found myself transitioning from being a professional surfer to working in a 9-to-5 job. It was a massive change to my way of life, and I found that change difficult.
I wasn’t afraid to reach out and call people to ask how they dealt with the transition out of professional sport. So many professional surfers and athletes have struggled with this change, but no one talks about it. I was really surprised that no one really talks about this stuff. There’s obviously so many other surfers that have been through the same thing, but a lot of them have just bottled it up and dealt with it internally.
People need to know that it is okay to talk about your feelings and to discuss the emotions we have that are brought about by life’s experiences. It’s a good time in surfing, and in society, to make sure we are having these important discussions. The conversations I had with some ex-surfers, my wife, and my friends helped me gain a better understanding of some of the emotions I was feeling due to my career change.
I guess in adapting to change, you always think “I’ll be right”. But you don’t really know you’re struggling until you actually start feeling like crap. I was feeling the same terrible feeling day after day, and it wasn’t going away. It was then I realised that maybe I should get some help.
For me that’s where I was at. I always try to pride myself on self-awareness. Normally I am able to figure out why I’m feeling a particular way. During that time, it was definitely a bit trickier and I didn’t feel like I had the tools to do it on my own, so I reached out and got some professional help. The psychologist provided me with some tools I didn’t have, and that’s made a big difference in my life. It gave me a really good overview of my identity as a surfer, my identity as a husband and father, and my identity in my new working role. Seeing a psychologist really helped me understand my feelings and why I was feeling certain ways. Surfing sort of makes you selfish at times because it’s so individual. Seeing a psychologist really challenged the way I think, which is a good thing.
I feel like I’ve learned a lot in the last two years. From where I was, to where I am at now, it’s reshaped my thinking. Instead of pushing things away, I sit with them a while and try to understand why I’m thinking a certain way.
It feels really uncomfortable asking for help. But if you don’t ask for help, it’s just you and yourself. And it’s a lot harder on your own.
We’re hitting the road next month as part of Men’s Health Week event series. Leading Psychologist and Author Dr. Clive Williams will be sharing the stage with Former World Champion Surfer, Mark ‘Occy’ Occhilupo.
Blokepedia is piloting a workplace health program designed specifically for men. Consisting of a mix of online resources and face-to-face (or webinar) education sessions, the program aims to support teams and individuals to optimise their social, emotional, and physical health.
Jimmy Rees to host new web-series that sets out to explore some of the issues and life events affecting men across Australia.