Former Professional Surfer

John John is the fourth Hawaiian to win a world title. Photo: WSL / Kelly Cestari

The Inertia

We love sports. We journey with the athletes through their highs and lows as if we are a part of their success and failure. We yell at TV screens, gesticulating wildly. We hoot with excitement and hiss with despair, engaging with every move our heroes (and foes) make.

We live from week to week, game to game, and contest to contest, to share in the battles. When that final horn blows we go back to our civilian life, passing flippant comments on performance and playing armchair quarterback for anyone that will listen. That time between the action is the real breeding ground for what haunts the minds of many elite athletes. It’s a struggle the fanatics don’t see until they land on the front page for all the wrong reasons.

We see so many elite athletes crumble under the constant pressures of competing, life on the road and the ever-present public eye. Just last week, former Australian rugby union star Dan Vickerman reportedly took his own life at the age of 39. Issues like performance anxiety, insecurity and fear of life after sport, seem to plague the minds of many athletes, with depression the all too common thread that connects those who have fallen.

Many of these tragic stories relate to the athlete’s own view on self-worth, exasperated by unhealthy doses of negative self-talk and a reliance on the affirmation of others (or their results) to form their identity and ideas around self-worth.

“When self-worth is contingent upon external validation, you are the puppet on the end of a string, and your moods tend to cycle between elation when you get the approval, and depression when you don’t. You are at the mercy of your social environment – a constant treadmill,” says life coach, Dr. Ian D. Coburn.

Surfing is certainly moving deeper and deeper into the professional arena as far as sports go. Globally recognizable surfers like Kelly Slater and Mick Fanning, along with the WSL changing its gears on reach, have all contributed to the sport’s elevation. That’s generally a good thing, but things like social media and professional coaching, there are heavier expectations being placed on the surfers we watch.

Dr. Kristin Neff, PhD, in her book “Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind,” says:

“Contingent self-worth is a term psychologists use to refer to a sense of self-esteem that depends on success or failure, on approval and disapproval. Several common areas of contingent self-worth have been identified, such as personal attractiveness, peer approval, competition with others, work/school success, family support, feeling virtuous, and even God’s love. People vary in terms of the degree to which their self-esteem is contingent on positive evaluations in these different areas. Some people put all their eggs into one basket, like personal attractiveness, whereas others strive to be good at everything. Research shows that the more your overall sense of self-worth is dependent on success in particular life areas, the more generally miserable you feel when you fail in those areas.”

Could it be time for professional surfing to consider athlete welfare and development officers, similar to those that has been employed by the National Football League in the USA and AFL and NRL in Australia? The pressures are largely the same in these mainstream sports as in surfing, and I’d argue, so is the need.

So what do Player or Athlete welfare and development officers actually do? There are many variations out there, but to simplify; their aim to ensure athletes gain an understanding of personal identity and are given a road map to assist in key areas of personal development and overall welfare.


In areas of personal development, they will identify opportunities and assist athletes in mapping out areas like career development (e.g. university or college, short courses, other passions and business interests) and also help manage career transitions (life after competing, whether retirement or through and after extended periods of injury).

Meanwhile, athlete welfare leans more toward assisting with the implementation of strategies to manage and minimize stress and coping mechanisms for athletes who may show increasing welfare or wellbeing needs.

The welfare and development officers serve as mentors, helping athletes navigate all these areas with all their associated pressures, providing bumper rails of guidance and support through personal mentoring and the plugging in of other experts in the fields of sports psychology, education, business, nutrition, and wherever else they deem necessary.

“One of the biggest difficulties that elite athletes face is that they’re expected to develop in the same way as everyone else, whilst experiencing an environment and challenges that are completely different to the ‘normal’ world,” says Rachel Jones, founder of Lift High-Performance Consultants. “As a result, it is often difficult to transfer what is learned in sport into the ‘real’ world’. High-pressure environments and the experience of achievement are also very reinforcing and few things outside of sport compare to the adrenaline rush that is experienced in elite sport.”

In the past few years, professional surfing has seen near deaths, season-ending injuries, loss of sponsors, retirements, shark encounters, athletes falling off tour and new (young ones) joining the elite ranks. In that alone, there are grounds for creating support structures to face the rigors of performing month in and month out while traveling the world.

Bede Durbidge who suffered an almost career ending injury in Hawaii at the end of 2015, said “It’s a great topic and one that’s never really been spoken about in any detail within surfing. The struggles athletes face around career transition are real – it’s no different to any other sport.”

“I had the full ride, from making the tour to falling off, to winning it,” Andy Irons once said about his own struggles. “Having people everywhere around you and wanting to be a part of everything you’re doing, and then losing and not being a part of the tour – then, where’d they all go? So it’s really hard, it can be tough. You go from getting so much attention and it can be addicting and when it disappears it can be a big shock.”

Athlete identity is key, and we should be working diligently towards educating, mentoring and supporting them where we can. While elite athletes may seem like invincible super heroes to their adoring fans, they are, after all, real people who face real challenges.

If anyone is listening. I put my hand up to help.


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