May 13, 2021

Three life lessons you can learn from surfing

Ever seen a big wave? And we’re not talking about the little breakers at your local swimming hole; we’re talking about the circa 50ft walls of water that you’ll only find off the coast of places like Tahiti. For the surfers that dare to paddle (get towed) out to these monstrosities, the risks are literally a matter of life or death: if you’re not slammed headfirst into a reef, you’re wiped out and pushed under the surface at pressures high enough to burst eardrums.

But for champion big wave surfer and three-time Oakley Big Wave Award winner, Mark Mathews, there is no better teacher of resilience than mother nature.

Mark recently joined WarriorU podcast hosts, Trent Burnard and Bram Connolly, to discuss his turbulent career and excruciating 2016 injury at the hands of a big wave. Now recovered and back surfing some of the biggest and heaviest waves in the world, everything the Red Bull athlete has learnt about mental grit, he says, has been as a result of surfing:

1. Know what you want and take every opportunity to get there

There are multiple nerve-racking moments in the lead up to surfing a big wave, says Mark. One of the most memorable? When you first paddle out and are waiting to catch the huge mountain of water hurtling toward you.

‘The only way you can actually get on the wave is to be perfectly positioned in this narrow window, where the wave looks like it’s going to break on you but doesn’t,’ says Mark.

‘There’s a moment where the horizon goes black and all you can see is a mountain of water coming towards you. Every ounce of your being wants you to paddle as fast as you can out into the ocean, so the wave doesn’t break on you. But if you paddle too far out, you’ll never catch it.’

And, for Mark, life isn’t much different. The key to reaching your potential and pushing through adversity is knowing what you want, and having the meaningful motivations to paddle into the challenges.

‘I did the competition circuit for a bit, but I was never really naturally gifted or talented – I was only ever average at best. That said, I really didn’t want to go and work, and I really wanted to be a professional surfer, so those motivations outweighed my fear of big waves,’ says Mark.

‘It’s important to spend some time working out exactly what you want from life, but also what you want to avoid. The only way you can decide to take on something stressful, is if you have direction.’

And when the rare chance to realise your dreams does come along? Position yourself to grab it with both hands (or, in this case, feet). Mark got his lucky break by jumping at a photoshoot opportunity with Tracks Magazine when his career was only in its infancy.

‘I couldn’t understand why the Editor was calling me – a relative nobody in the sport of surfing at the time – to come on the surf trip. I found out later that he had invited 40 other surfers on the trip before he got to my name. Every single one had declined because he was asking them to surf this huge, mythical wave that broke at the bottom of Tasmania,’ recalls Mark.

‘I saw an opening where I could forge a career in the sport by surfing waves no one else would surf. I said yes, the photos and footage went out into the world, and I got my first surf sponsorship off the back of it.’

2. Fear is a gift. Embrace it!

When you fall off a big wave – and you will fall off – it hurts.

‘It’s like time freezes – everything slows down and then you feel the wave suck you up high, and then it feels like you drop off a waterfall. The moment you hit the water, it’s like concrete,’ explains Mark.

‘Underwater, it’s like a 100ft washing machine, smashing you and roaring. Then it will dissipate, and you can start the long, tough swim to the surface.’

So why does he do it?

For Mark, difficult times are inevitable. Instead of trying to avoid challenges (they’ll just find you anyway), seek them out. You are exponentially more resilient if you decide to take on the fear.

‘If fear and difficulty are forced upon you, your central nervous system reacts like a prey animal would react. It’s like you’re being hunted – you don’t deal with stress well in that state,’ says Mark.

‘But if you decide to take on something scary, your central nervous system takes on the functionally of a hunter – it’s like you’re hunting down a moment.

‘In the end, there’s probably a whole lot more in you, that you don’t even know about, until the situation forces it out of you.’

3. Always find a reason to feel lucky

Surfing big waves comes with big risks. In 2016, Mark was wiped out by a big wave while surfing on the south coast of NSW. Landing feet first on a reef, he fractured his leg, snapped ligaments, tore an artery and destroyed the nerves that controlled his foot.

‘I remember waking up in Canberra hospital, in blinding pain, and looking down at the mess that was my leg. I was told by my surgeon I’d never surf again,’ says Mark.

But there’s always a reason to feel grateful.

Consumed by depression, Mark isolated himself from those closest to him in the weeks following. His surgery wounds weren’t healing and the antibiotics weren’t working, he says.

That was until a chance encounter with a teenage fan and quadriplegic, Jason, who was recovering in the same hospital.

‘Everything changed for me from the moment I shook that kid’s hand. I had been laying in that bed for the past six weeks so full of self-pity, anger and frustration…and then in the blink of an eye, I felt like the luckiest person in the world. If I had hit the reef any other way, I could be dealing with what that kid was dealing with. And here’s him dealing with it, with so much courage,’ says Mark.

‘Within ten days of meeting Jason, all the infections from my surgery wounds were gone. The only thing that had changed was my mindset. Now that I felt happy and lucky, it changed the way my body healed.’

Keeping the faith has worked out well for Mark. Eighteen months later, he was back on a board. And today? He’s at almost 60 per cent of his former capacity – still surfing; the star of Red Bull Documentary, The Other Side of Fear, and a well-known keynote and motivational speaker.

The major take-away?

Similar to surfing a big wave, resilience requires direction, dedication, courage and gratitude. When you’re mentally tough, you’re one step closer to reaching your potential – and all the gifts that come with it.

‘Every surfer is trying to get themselves positioned inside the barrel of the wave. It’s like the full force of the ocean surrounding you as one big water cave. And there’s this moment when you know you’ve done everything right and you know you’re going to come out the other side of the barrel, and you get to just enjoy the next four or five seconds…’ says Mark.

‘As the late Andy Irons described it – it’s like being touched by God.’

Listen to the full podcast with Mark Mathews.

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