Richard Bennett - Surf Psychologist
When did you get your first surfboard?
I got my first board when I was 14, a 6’0 Watercooled shaped by Kym Thompson. It was a rounded pin thruster with purple fins and served me very well for a couple of years. My older brother Andrew helped me out because I didn’t have any money. He also found me a job so I could pay him back.
We grew up in Melbourne and our aunty had a beach house down on the Mornington Peninsula, so we were in the water from day one and could basically swim before we could walk. My family spent a lot of time together at the holiday house and it was here I first fell in love with the ocean. I vividly remember playing in the shore break at Sorrento and Gunnamatta with Andrew and our sister Lisa. We’d dare each other to get as high in the lip as possible without going over the falls. Inevitably one of us would get caught and slammed by the shore pound, which we all found hilarious! Andrew got me into surfing too and I always felt so confident in the water having him around.
What do you love about surfing?
Everything. It’s interesting because surfing simply became part me and so in some way it’s part of all areas of my life. Initially it was the playfulness in the ocean, I loved the feeling of lift and glide on a wave and getting thrashed and battered around in the water. The comfort of being in the ocean was something that just came naturally too. I still love the playfulness and connecting deeply with Mother Nature. I also feel the ocean is a beautiful place of truth and unconditional love, and when we commit to her we find she offers unlimited opportunity to discover our own truth and love, and how we may connect and share more of our inner beauty with the people and planet around us.
Do you have a session that stands out as your most memorable?
I’m fortunate to have a couple of hundred sessions that stand out in my mind as most memorable. One of my happiest memories is when I first moved permanently to the coast. The moment I turned 18 I got my driver’s license, put my boards and dog in the car and moved to Torquay. I remember that year, the first year where I surfed pretty much every day. I surfed Winkipop a lot and experienced a really quick learning curve and progression in my ability. There was an established pecking order out there too and it felt good to start connecting with the local surfing community and slowly finding my place in the line up through hard work and determination. You really had to charge and have a go to gain any respect back then, so I was also learning the value of humility and commitment and developing a deeper sense of confidence and belief in myself. The whole experience really sparked my awareness about how simply going surfing can enrich us in all areas of life.
Can you tell us a bit about your education, was psychology always something you wanted to do?
I’ve always had an interest in the things people do and how and why they do it, especially artists and musicians, like Jimi Hendrix, who was so creative and did amazing things with his craft in his short career that are still yet to be matched. In terms of surfing, I have always been fascinated by big waves. As a kid my bedroom walls were plastered with posters of guys taking on places like Waimea Bay. I just thought there must be something really special about those guys to be able to do that, to face mortality and conquer fears.
I explored psychology during secondary school so when I finished year 12 and was offered a place in an Arts Degree at Deakin University I chose the psychology major. I was fortunate to have some great lecturers and really enjoyed the course. I had an interest in sport psychology too so did a project with triathletes for my honors thesis. I also volunteered at a hostel for disadvantaged children and young offenders in Geelong, which was very rewarding. So I began to vision becoming a Psychologist and how I could help people in life and in sport. It was around this time I had a dream to become a psychologist on the ASP world tour so I could work in the profession I love within the sport and lifestyle I love.
What was your first job out of University?
I first worked in Public Mental Health. I had the desire to work in sport psychology, but the field was small back then and I really wanted to start practicing and developing my applied skills. I worked at Portland Community Psychiatric Service on the far south west coast of Victoria for three years from 1997 to 1999. Portland is a fairly remote regional area so our team would manage everything from crisis situations to long-term case management. We also worked closely with drug and alcohol services, police, doctors, hospitals, the indigenous community and other local services. It was challenging work and at the same time I found it deeply rewarding to assist clients and their families achieve significant improvements in their mental health and quality of life.
Professionally it was also the ideal beginning for my career as it was like being thrown into the deep end of human experience. I had excellent peer support and quickly developed the skills and confidence to manage any situation. It’s been a great foundation to my work in sport and performance as when you’re on tour or in the unusual and often intense Olympic or Paralympic Games environment things can go wrong, and often very quickly. So my clinical and counselling skills were of great benefit during my time on tour and were also a requirement for my roles with Olympic and Paralympic teams.
How did you move from clinical to sport psychology and the tour?
Every day in Portland I was dealing with people’s fears, some with an organic base and all with dysfunctional thinking styles. I realised that though the triggers and setting may be different, the fear experience a human has in sport is basically identical. So I started applying the paradigms and strategies I was teaching my clients to manage my own fear in surfing bigger waves. There’s plenty of big swell and big creatures in the water in the far south west of Victoria and not many people around, so I spent a lot of time developing my mental game and building my confidence to surf the reefs and offshore bombies by myself.
So that’s how my work in Surf Psychology began, I was basically my own biggest guinea pig. It was great too as when I was applying the clinical approaches to myself I would find myself simply observing my experience in the moment, which is ideal because you’re not thinking about outcomes when you’re pinned deep after copping the lip on a 12 foot close out, you’re thinking about what you’re doing right now to manage it. And that’s it, you have to live exactly in the moment rather than get ahead of yourself and think about what could happen, or what happened if you got a fright during your last heavy hold down.
I started writing about my experiences and in September 1999 Tracks magazine published my first article on how to manage fear in big waves. I followed this piece with three more surf psychology articles and received some great feedback, including from some surfer’s on tour. One surfer was Rob Bain and we ended up having a phone call. Rob shared some of the highlights and lowlights of life on tour and said a professional with my knowledge and skills would be very valuable for the athletes and the whole entourage. I was stoked to learn how valued a psychologist would be on tour and I also recognised the opportunity to transform my dream into reality was now. So I resigned from my job and went straight up to Sydney for the Hot Buttered Ocean & Earth Pro Junior at Narrabeen in January 2000.
Rabbit [Wayne Bartholomew] was ASP President at the time and I remembered reading that he was really into the mental side of his surfing during his world title campaigns, so I gave him a call and told him I’d love to offer my services to the tour. Rabbit was really interested and asked me to put a proposal together for the ASP meeting that February. Bugs also connected me with Bushy [Robert Mitchell], who was on the Board for Surfing Australia and also the director of the then Billabong Pro at Kirra. The ASP meeting was closed so Bushy delivered my proposal on my behalf. We caught up afterwards and he told me everyone loved it and ASP would be happy to give me full access to events and resources around the world, however, they had no budget as they’d never thought about employing a psychologist on tour before. I was so grateful for the offer of support and I’d been planning a surf trip around the world for years anyway so said I’d self fund to make a start and see where it leads from there.
It was an amazing time in my life as it seemed all the planets were simply aligning for me. I had no prior history or relationships with ASP or Surfing Australia, or competitive surfing at any level, yet the right people began coming in to my world at the right time and all I had to do was ride this new wave. I have observed this often among my clients when they’re really on a roll. I believe when mind and heart are in harmony and we’re truly living our inspiration we consciously become one with the beauty, grace and abundance that surrounds us.
How long did you spend on the tour?
I was on tour from 2000 to 2003. The first year felt like a fun surf trip. I was surfing all these new waves and meeting lots of interesting people. I also got to know the athletes through providing education about surf psychology and how it could enhance their performance, professional career and personal life, conducting yoga and meditation sessions, and engaging them in applied research.
From a research perspective I had the ideal set up where I was in the field with access to an elite athlete population that had rarely been investigated, while my colleague Dr Peter Kremer was working in an academic setting so had access to all the latest literature and data analysis programs. Peter and I did three projects together while I was on tour. Our first was on ideal preparation and mindset for peak performance, which everyone was interested in. When I arrived in Europe I began sharing the findings and one of the surfer’s said he’d like to work with me. He asked “How much?” and I didn’t really know as I hadn’t thought about the business side of running a private practice yet. So I looked into reasonable fees and terms for service and we worked together through the Europe leg. He made a couple of finals and other surfers I’d started working with achieved great results too, so word of mouth spread and my practice grew from there.
My first season in Hawaii was a magic time for me personally and professionally too. All the waves I had dreamed about riding for years were right in front of me and fortunately it was a great season for swell. I was frothing so much I surfed Waimea, Pipe and Sunset all on my first day. I was also keen to learn about the origins and heritage of surfing in Hawaii so I really immersed myself in the Polynesian culture and was fortunate to meet many wonderful locals who embodied the spirit of Aloha.
Randy Rarick, Bernie Baker and Faith Wenzl from ASP Hawaii were so welcoming too and connected me with the doctor for the Triple Crown events Dr Leland Dao, who has become a dear friend. I did a lot of caddying, interviewed many of the top big wave riders for our second research project and worked with a number of surfer’s who performed very well.
When I turned up at the first event for my second year on tour the athletes welcomed me and many shared their appreciation for my commitment to surfing and willingness to have a go, as much as for having my professional services available on tour. Ironically the more I surfed the more work would come my way too, so I really felt blessed that my reality had evolved beyond my dreams.
What were some of the professional challenges you experienced on tour?
One challenge I had was educating about the client-psychologist professional relationship. The lines in the sand are very clear in the clinical setting where I’d come from, however they were not so clear on tour, partly as the tour is like one big family and partly as there had never been a psychologist on tour before, so it was all new for everybody. I had to be highly mindful of building trust and rapport among members of the “family” while at the same time maintain integrity of the professional service relationship.
My approach was to be friendly without becoming a friend, and to educate about the efficacy of me remaining an autonomous, objective service provider, for example to maintain confidentiality and impartiality, particularly when I worked with two or more surfers at the one event. Professionally it was one of the biggest challenges I’ve had and prepared me well for my later work with Olympic and Paralympic “families”.
When did you start writing The Surfer’s Mind?
I started the book during my second year on tour. After my first year I put together a mental skills training manual so I could simply photocopy relevant pages for the surfer’s I was working with and one said “Rich, you should write a book”. I’ve always loved writing so started looking into it and speaking with people in the publishing world. One contact suggested I interview all the surfer’s on tour and include their quotes in the text.
Even though I was primarily working with competitive surfers, I had done quite a bit of work and research with big wave riders and free surfers too and so really wanted to write a book that would appeal to every surfer and be useful for every surfer. I was also mindful of how deeply surfing has touched me and how being a surfer has shaped my life and much of who I am, so along with sharing core mental skills to surf better I also wanted to present the wonderful opportunities we have for personal development and enrichment through fulfilling our surfing potential and living the surfing life.
For the next two years I conducted about 80 interviews with surfer’s from the whole spectrum of our sport and lifestyle. By the end of the Australian leg on my fourth year on tour I had collected over 100,000 transcribed words from the interviews, data from our three research projects and all my professional observations. I decided to step off the tour and set up a creative space at home in Torquay to finish the book. It took me about six months to complete the manuscript then another three months to build the book with the help of a typesetter and a number of other people who specialize in specific sections of a book, such as the index. During this time I also gathered the photos and did the artwork and layout for the photo pages.
I launched my book at Surf World Museum in Torquay on the 8th of April 2004 and am pleased to have just celebrated it’s 10th birthday. I really enjoyed the experience of writing my book and am both amazed and heartened by all the kind feedback and gratitude I’ve received and how my book is making a meaningful contribution to the world of surfing and beyond.
What did you do after the tour and the book?
Right after releasing my book I did a surf trip around Australia doing talks for boardrider clubs and selling my book to surf shops and bookstores along the coast. When I returned home I began exploring new professional opportunities and Peter Kremer let me know about an opening in the Sport Psychology Department at the New South Wales Institute of Sport. My application was successful and I enjoyed six years at NSWIS working with athletes, teams, coaches and sport scientists across 50 or so sports. I also engaged with the national network of sport psychologists and began working on four-year Games campaigns. I loved all the new challenges, learning and relationships, and found it very rewarding to be involved in summer and winter Olympic Games campaigns and lead psychology services for our Australian Paralympic Team in Beijing and London.
Sydney was great for my private practice too. I continued my work in surf psychology and enjoyed connecting with local surf coaches like Hamish Nelson and his squads in Avalon as well as through Surfing NSW. It was also a pleasure to connect with Barton Lynch and become involved in his BL Blast Off event, which really is a classic, benchmark event for young athletes. Sydney has a very diverse population of performers too and I expanded my private clientele to include AFL and rugby players, actors and actresses, dancers, choreographers, writers, musicians, school sport teams, corporate teams and professionals.
I moved home to Torquay in February 2011 then once I finished my contract with the Australian Paralympic Team for the 2012 London Games I basically took nine months off. It was great to relax and reflect on my career and allow a space for new inspirations to emerge. I love working in surf psychology and continue to consult with all levels of competitive surfers, big wave riders and free surfers. I also recently created my new practice “OM Psychology” and am enjoying sharing services locally, consulting more in environmental psychology and evolving my performance services in all sports, adventure pursuits, the arts, health, education, career and corporate settings.
What do you love about your job?
I love people and I’m inspired by the opportunity to cultivate the best in people. I also love the limitless opportunity to be creative and to cultivate the best in me too.
Rich recently delivered a talk about core elements of surf psychology – in particular the mindset and approach of big wave riders – to illuminate the basis for high performance and personal enrichment in all our sporting, business and wider life adventures. The talk includes a clip of some work Rich did with Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones for Storm Surfer’s, Pipeline poetry from Gerry Lopez and a number of insights from Kelly Slater, Clyde Aikau and other top surfers Rich has shared time with. Watch the talk below.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of releasing The Surfer’s Mind Rich is offering book price discounts and donating $5 to Parkinson’s Victoria for each book sold during April-May.
Where can we find you online?
Posted by: Troy Roennfeldt, on May 14, 2014
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