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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SURFING WITH DR. BILL ROSENBLATT

Dr. Bill Rosenblatt is the real deal. A psychologist and surfer from Loch Arbor, Rosenblatt has been riding waves since 1963. For those not good at numbers that’s 50 years to be exact. You can bet this guy has a story or two to tell, in and out of the water. Rosenblatt is also one smart dude. I guess anyone with a DR in front of their name has to be. At least I hope so. He studied at Lehigh, Rutgers, Montclair State and Harvard Universities and specializes in stress management and behavioral medicine. “Doc” is also the cofounder of the Jersey Shore chapter of Surfrider Foundation and was the Chairman of the National Board for two years. 

A few weeks back, San Francisco resident Jaimal Yogis, a surfer and author of The Fear Project, a book about the psychology behind fear, spoke at Dauphin Grille in Asbury Park along with Dr. Rosenblatt. The event was truly inspiring and I decided to reach out to Dr. Rosenblatt and dive deeper into the psychological aspects of surfing.

 ZAPPO: As surfers we are drawn to the ocean by something much deeper than simply riding waves. The planet is made up of 70% water. Humans are made up of roughly 50 to 65 % water. With humans and earth made mostly of water, can there be a deeper rooted psychological factor that draws us to the ocean?

DR. ROSENBLATT: Interesting question Shawn. As a surfer and waterman I know that I feel an intimate connection with the ocean. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone or unique. When I’m in the ocean I feel at ease, safe, and at peace. When I’m immersed in the salt water I feel like I’m home, like I belong.

As you pointed out, we live on an “ocean” planet, in the words of the late president JFK “All of us have in our veins the exact % of salt in our blood, our sweat, and in our tears. We are tied to the ocean and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail (surf, swim) or (simply) to watch it, we are going back to whence we came.”

We spend the months prior to our birth immersed in a salty liquid, amazingly, immediately after birth newborns instinctively know to hold their breath, to move their arms and legs when under water as if to swim. Scientists tell us that marine mammals, like dolphins and whales, are in our family tree. We are connected to the ocean on a biological level. Maybe that’s why, as demographers tell us, everyone wants to live close to the ocean. Data suggests that within the next decades 70% of the US population will live within 50 miles of the coast.

Surfers, real, hardcore surfers, spend much of our lives focused on the ocean. We check the surf daily, we know the tides, the swell direction, and how the winds are blowing. We watch the weather’s impact on the ocean in a more intense way. This powerful pull is deep rooted in our psyche. I think we have tapped into something primitive, something that many people have suppressed in our modern world. In an odd way it seems as if we have reconnected with something deep seeded in our brains.

 ZAPPO: For many human beings, a connection to nature has been lost. As a result it seems there is a level of physical and mental illness associated with that loss. How is surfing or simply being in the ocean therapeutic for us?

DR. ROSENBLATT: Studies done by the National Geographic Society, as part of their Blue Zone project examining longevity, all point to the importance of being connected with nature. People who spend more time in nature tend to have less depression, more energy, an improved sense of well-being, and cope better with stress. We, as a species, were not designed to spend most of our time inside watching television, playing video games, or staring at the computer screen. We were made to be outside and to move. Couple the therapeutic impact of being in nature with our primal connection to the ocean, and you see how being a surfer has such profound impact and influence on who we are, how we see life, and on our states of mind.

On a much more simple level you cannot be a dedicated surfer and not be fit. Surfing is good for our health. In order to surf we need balance, strength, and flexibility. Most surfers, especially here in NJ, have to work at maintaining levels of fitness.

Unfortunately we can’t surf exclusively for fitness. Our surf is a bit too inconsistent. That’s why many surfers also have taken up stand up paddle boarding, biking, running, swimming, and yoga. Physical fitness and activity are also important tools for managing stress, depression, and anxiety. I actually suggest to clients that they should embrace getting active outside in nature as tools for managing their psychological/emotional issues.

 ZAPPO: What other “mental lessons” are we given through the act of surfing?

DR. ROSENBLATT: You can’t be a good surfer without being flexible of body and mind. Surfers know all too well that we can’t control the ocean. We learn early on in our surfing lives that we must “go with the flow”, learn how not to fight the currents and rips, but rather to use them. We ride the wave that we catch and each wave is different.

You cannot predetermine how you will ride a wave. You have to be flexible and pick the right board for the conditions. One foot summer waves in Asbury Park require different equipment and a different way of thinking than riding 20 foot Tres Palmas in Puerto Rico. Surfing in the warm water of a NJ summer requires a different set of tools and thinking than surfing big, cold NJ waves in early February. The sport requires it.

Research on the coping process, coping behaviors, and stress have led experts to conclude that those who are active, productive, and flexible are more capable of managing their lives, solving problems, and getting things done. Sound familiar? No such thing as being a passive or rigid surfer. Won’t work.

Surfing has many lessons. It is a wonderful metaphor for living and dealing with the challenges we are all presented with on a daily basis. After 50 years of surfing, I remain “stoked”, excited, and passionate.

Surfing has provided me with a wonderful life. I’ve had the chance to travel, see how others actually live –as surfers we generally prefer to be with the natives. It’s taught me to be grateful and helped me understand that some things are fleeting. It’s helped me learn to live in the moment and focus on and appreciate what’s around me rather than worry about the future or bemoan the past. Surfing has also provided me with friends, other members of a tribe, who are there to be supports. Another lesson, we all need social support, people in our lives.

I’ve been “surfing the waves of life” for many years and I trust (for) many years to come.

Check out “Doc’s” blog at www.surfingthewavesoflife.blogspot.com

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