In 2016 Sam Glyn-Jones accepted a job at a University on the South Coast, organising events as part of a student integration initiative.
With a degree in sports management and a passion for healthy living, Sam quickly recognised that these events were beneficial in providing students with social support, but would not address the deeper wellbeing issues that many students were struggling with.
“The service is successful in helping students socialise and integrate, but we receive more and more referrals for people suffering from loneliness, anxiety and mild depression. Many of these students were on a waiting list for counselling or therapy and our service was an interim option to help them mix with other students. It felt inappropriate to suggest someone attends a social event such as a quiz night when they are so emotionally vulnerable. They needed more in the way of peer support and holistic wellbeing intervention. I wanted to introduce alternative healthier pathways and in particular a sport that had supported my mental health for many years – surfing.“
While Sam was researching surf therapy and taking the necessary steps to offer it as a service, one of the students tragically took their own life. “We knew he was at risk and waiting for professional help, but I returned from a week away to find out we had lost him. It was devastating. It was always my hope to spend more time with him and I had a little dream of getting him in the waves with me. Unfortunately we never got that chance.”
I wanted to introduce a sport that had supported my mental health – surfing
Sam studied the principles and outcomes of established surf therapy projects such as OneWave in Australia before testing a short referral partnership with UK charity The Wave Project. With support from the University, Sam joined forces with surfer and psychotherapist Nico Grilo developing their own surf program as part of Sam’s PhD and Nico’s MSc.
“36 students were referred from wellbeing counsellors with the majority experiencing mental distress, primarily depression, anxiety and panic attacks. We would meet them individually, explain the history and principles of surf therapy and make sure the program was a good fit for them. The outcome statistics we collected during the programme were extremely positive, but it was the anecdotal and emotional evidence that convinced us this could change people’s lives.”
Defining Surf Therapy
The International Surf Therapy Organisation describes surf therapy as “an intervention that combines surfing and structured activities to promote psychological, physical and psychosocial wellbeing”. A definition Sam and Nico fully embrace.
“The activity benefits of surfing are no different to other sports – serotonin and dopamine release, combined with improved fitness and cardiovascular state but it offers so much more psychologically. Often we hear people describe feeling completely at one with nature. You are bobbing around in the water, looking out to sea, breathing in the air with the sunshine on your face. You leave your problems on the land, washed away when you step into the water.”
You are completely and utterly focussed on the present moment
The term flow state is often associated with surfing and cited in research exploring the benefits for those dealing with trauma. It’s a sense of fluidity between body and mind where you are in total absorption beyond the point of distraction. A feeling Sam recognises. “Surfing puts you in a state of flow perhaps more than other water activities. Getting into position, paddling through the breakers, riding a wave and then waiting for the next set. You are completely and utterly focussed on the present moment.”
Nico believes the process of surfing is symbolic of life. “In the water, you spend 1% of your time standing up and riding a wave. The other 99% is spent paddling, finding a way to get into position and being hit by waves. You need to enjoy that struggle. That 1% elation represents the high points of your life, but life feels different when you learn to be mindful and enjoy the other 99%. When you walk towards the water, are you worrying about the waves that might hit you or are you grateful to feel the soft sand in between your toes? Surfing can stimulate the senses as it is immersive and connect the participants with their environment without specific rules. Just like life”
The non competitive nature of surfing sets it apart from many sports as the primary focus is catching a wave and standing up. It instigates a camaraderie and shared adrenalin rush as you celebrate your own achievements whilst cheering on those around you.
The programmes run by Sam and Nico are now well established as part of their Dorset based organisation Resurface, but it is has become so much more than a surfing referral program. They have introduced cold water swims, yoga and community social events to provide a comprehensive peer support program for 18 to 30 year olds.
Sam reflects on the values behind the organisation. “You are not coming to Resurface to become a good surfer, you are coming here to build social connections with like minded people who have gone through similar experiences. You can enjoy all the benefits of the physical activities we provide, but can also build a social life around people that are adopting healthier environments.”
Personal growth was one of the key themes identified in Nico’s research. “Participants understood and described their personal growth, how this was experienced within Resurface and how the ocean enabled personal growth to happen. There was an automatic expectation of learning how to surf; however, once immersed in the experience, there was a realisation that these sessions were about more than learning how to surf.”
Sam recognises that he is simply introducing activities that have been fundamental to his own wellbeing. “I used to get in the sea early each morning and light a little fire on the beach. Despite being on my own, that ritual would set me up for the day. Now we have embedded it as part of our monthly Rise and Conquer sessions. Last February, forty people joined us to embrace the cold water benefits and start their day watching the sunrise over the ocean. We had dogs, guitars, firesticks and cushions providing a non-judgemental space that we feel is missing from so many people’s lives.
Many young adults describe living a lower level of life and struggling to integrate. Aside from work and home, they are craving what many refer to as “a third place”. For others that third place has become an unhealthy environment built on social drinking and recreational drugs. Our mission is to provide an alternative space where people can positively connect through healthy physical and psychological experiences.”
It is an alternative form of group therapy that Nico strongly believes in. “Rather than feeling expected to focus on their problems, these non-traditional sessions make people feel more at ease to take part.”
Supporting a Community
Despite the setbacks of coronavirus, Sam and Nico have clear plans to build on the success of the program, offering it to older adults and public sector staff who need wellbeing support. Resurface is expanding organically, supported by their local community, the university, the NHS and Mind’s Get Set to Go programme. Built on the experience and dedication of two passionate founders, Resurface is having a significant impact on a community that needs it.
As one of their participants testifies “it is like a different world, I step away from the day-to-day challenges life throws at me and into this welcoming community, a safe place to just be myself. It’s changed my life”.