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Surf course empowering youth with mental resilience

Otorohanga College student Tasmin White enjoyed the surfing experience at Fitzroy beach. - Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

Surfing is often seen as the preserve of athletic beach-blonde guys and girls who are able to handle the power of the ocean with ease, but now a programme in Taranaki is tapping into surf culture to teach self-confidence and resilience to people from all walks of life.

Charles Gibson, a former school principal, became inspired to start the Surfing for Life programme while watching TV and deciding what to do with the rest of his life.

A lifelong surfer, the 52-year-old was convinced of the transformative powers of surfing.

"It's a tough thing to do and it pushes a lot of people outside of their comfort zones so for example when we are outside our comfort zones we engage in a lot of negative self talk.

"So it's about making people aware of their negative self talk and giving them strategies to turn that self talk into positive self talk."

Surfing for Life is based at the new ICL Construction Surfing Taranaki HQ at Fitzroy Beach in New Plymouth.

On a typical day, a group hits the surf under the guidance of professional coaches before heading back to the HQ for workshops.

Mr Gibson said this was where the real work was done - after putting people into a challenging situation, teaching them how to manage the emotions that come out of it.

"We give them strategies to turn that around to make it more positive. For example, we teach them about having a mantra both if it's on the sports field or in life.

"We teach them to visualise and visualisation is really important because you have to attach emotions to it."

Mr Gibson said one of the most difficult things to do was teach people to breathe properly - especially when they were under stress.

Otorohanga College head of physical education and health Leighton Parsons brought a group of Year 10 girls to take part in the programme.

"At this time of year we normally head out to Raglan and take them to hire boards and things but this had a bit extra to it.

"I liked the idea of the mental resilience and the leadership and all the other things they offered so I was like we've got to get amongst this."

Mr Parsons said the programme had delivered on its promise.

"He actually connects the skills from surfing into the mind stuff. The resilience, the mental toughness which is really important with our youth right at the moment.

"Making our kids a bit tougher. Making them comfortable with feeling uncomfortable in an unfamiliar environment, that's really important.

"And just seeing them buzzing at the end of yesterday's session made the whole thing worthwhile for me."

And the girls were getting the message too.

Tasmin White had never surfed before this trip and was enjoying the experience.

"It was a lot more tiring than yesterday. I guess my arms were sore but it was all right. There were some good waves out there."

Ms White was thrilled to have managed to stand up on her surfboard.

"It's just really, really cool like, I don't know, you just feel like a king."

Alyssa Waldron said opportunities to go surfing in Otorohanga were pretty rare so she was making the most of it.

"I was quite proud of myself. I got quite a few waves and it was real fun watching other people fall over. It's just a good laugh."

Ms Waldron enjoyed the buzz of actually riding a wave.

"It's a really cool feeling. It's just like you feel real confident and proud of yourself."

Mr Gibson said Surfing for Life had so far catered for school groups and sports clubs but he was hoping to open it up to other community groups and corporates.

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