After enduring a life-changing injury, Aussie big wave surfer Mark Matthews thought things couldn’t get worse. But the Redbull athlete soon slipped into a deep depression, his life forever altered.
During Mental Health week and ahead of the release of his new film – ‘The Other Side Of Fear’ – we spoke to Matthews about overcoming his demons.
Definitely fearful. I was so scared of the ocean when I was young that my mum used to have to rescue me all the time. I was also a nervous and shy kid on land. I score high in introversion and neuroticism on personality trait tests, I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. I have a hyperactive mind that can spot a million possible dangers in everything. I think I’m still pretty much the same nervous child, personality wise, but the difference is that I have a whole bunch of skills that allow me to manage the scary situations. Skills to surf huge waves and manage heavy wipeouts and skills to manage social situations and public speaking. I think that’s what overcoming fear is about. Getting experience, acquiring knowledge and skills that help you master situations that once used to scare you. Getting that experience is a tough journey but if you want it enough you can do it. I just really, really wanted a career as a professional surfer when I was young. I wanted it more than I feared it.
The most nerve-racking and difficult moments to tackling 50ft waves are in the lead up. From a week out when you see a huge swell on the forecast and you know you're going to be surfing huge waves at the end of the week, it's really stressful, lots of tossing and turning at night, lots of mental movies in your head of how you might get injured or drown.
It can be exhausting, my mind always seems to forecast future situations to be way scarier than what they end up being, which is kind of good in a way, because when I'm finally out in the big waves I sometimes have a sense of relief, like, this isn’t as scary as what I thought it was going to be.
Don’t get me wrong, its is still scary, when it's your turn and a huge wave looms in front of you and you have to quickly analyse it and then commit, and you swing around, put your head down and start paddling as hard as you can, hoping that your split second analysis was right and that you’re in the right position, then the wave picks you up and your all of a sudden looking down a sheer cliff of water and even if you want there’s no turning back at this point.
You jump to your feet and then it's like a drop on a huge rollercoaster, but you have to control it and steer it so you don’t wipe out. You’re not forward thinking at this point just, reacting to what the waves doing, if you do everything right you find yourself standing inside a huge barrelling vortex of water, surrounded by the full force of the ocean, it's hard to explain the sound, the roar or thunder or tons of water crashing around you. And you're there balancing on this tiny piece of foam and fibreglass travelling at blinding speed right on the knife's edge of catastrophe. And when you make it safely outside one of these waves, you're overcome with joy and a spin tingling relief, that right there, that moment, that is the pinnacle, the best moment in the sport of surfing. My heart’s pounding just thinking about it hahah it's been too long since I got to travel and surf some big waves!
One of the main mental challenges was the initial frustration and despair of realising that I had done permanent physical damage, that my leg would never be the same and I would have this disability for the rest of my life.
I’ve had lots of injuries throughout my career but they would always eventually heal and I would be back to normal again. But this time it wasn’t going to heal no matter what I did. And that meant my surf career was over. That was tough, so much of my identity was built into being a big wave surfer, it was hard to have that snatched away especially when I was at the peak of my career both ability and financially.
And then on top of that was the pain, constant relentless burning in my leg. I think I’m pretty good at dealing with pain, never really needed much more than Panadol in the past, but this was different, I had to take every painkiller under the sun just to get moments of reprieve. So all of that became the perfect cocktail for slipping into a dark hole of depression. Not the same depression that some poor people feel with that is more chemical or physiological that doesn’t match their external environments, that definitely seems a lot worse. Mine was totally environmental, I had clear reasons for my sadness, my life had changed radically. I was bed bound so no exercise, I couldn’t sleep because of the pain, my career was seemingly finished so there was financial pressure and so on. As annoying and upsetting as it all was I still felt like there was enough hope in that, because I knew what was causing it therefore I could work to solve it.
When I was going through my tough period, I was fortunate enough to meet a young guy called Jason Apps in hospital. He had just broken his neck snowboarding, and was now a quadriplegic. Just meeting Jason and seeing the courage and resilience he was showing in the face of a situation that was a million times worse that mine, totally shifted my perspective of what I was dealing with. I stopped thinking I was the victim of this terrible accident, and instantly felt lucky about the situation I was in. That allowed me to let go of a lot of the frustration and anger and feel more moments of joy and happiness, I started to laugh at things again, I started sleeping better, having more energy, I started hanging out with friends and family again, eating better, and all that snowballed and really made the difference in how I recovered.
Don’t get me wrong though, I still had plenty of dark moments, but they wouldn’t last as long, because I would just regularly focus on how much worse my life could be, I would actually feel the nerves, anxiety and sadness of what it would feel like to be way worse off, and then feel the relief, gratitude and happiness that I didn’t have to deal with that, and that would highlight all the things in my life that I was really thankful for. I found it really energising to do that consistently, I treated it like doing physio or going to the gym, I would schedule these gratitude exercises into my day. Learning to reframe your perspective is a powerful tool.
Preparation and experience are the secret. Well, they are not much of a secret, but I think they are often overlooked. People, including myself, are often looking for an easy mental hack that can take the fear and anxiety away, but there is no mental hack that can make up for a lack of experience, skills or knowledge.
Psychologists call the process of getting that experience: Voluntary Exposure Therapy, and it's really the only proven treatment for overcoming fears, anxieties and maintaining focus and calm under pressure. The big wave surfing version of this is wrestling at the bottom of a deep pool with a free diver who can hold their breath longer than I can. I'm trying to get to the top to breath and he’s trying to hold me down till I pass out. This training makes being held underwater by a big wave seem easy. That way I can access my skills on a wave because I'm not overly concerned with the wipeout.
Find the expert or expert coach in whatever field you want to master, learn how they do what they do and then do the work, step by step exposing yourself to the scary situations, learning new skills and knowledge of how to master that environment, and if you do enough training and preparation you will give yourself the best shot at remaining calm under pressure.
Before I’m about to walk up on stage to speak in front of an audience of people. If I have done the work in preparing and I'm still nervous, I like to work on shifting my mindset from what the audience is going to think of me – are they going to like the talk etc (standard introverted thoughts) to, what can I do for this audience? What information can I share with them that could help them in their lives? In that sort of service mindset I’m much less anxious, it stops me dwelling on what they are thinking of me.
It's similar in a way to surfing where I switch from focusing on the career results of a surf session; trying to get a great photo, or footage for a movie, or winning an award or event, to just focusing on the experience of riding the waves, not the external concerns of results and judgement.
Everyone goes through and deals with hardships in life, and everyone feels better discussing them – you need to know and believe that, then It won’t be as hard to ask for help. On top of that, you are doing your mate a favour asking them for help, the opportunity to help a friend, loved one or stranger in need, is what gives life meaning, and the byproduct of having meaning in your life if happiness.
It’s so powerful that it might even be worth it. If you can find someone to help yourself in a tough time, then look for someone, anyone that you can help with something, it might help make you feel better and even clarify what you need to do to help yourself.
At the moment yes. I’m still going to surf big waves but not as a career. Public speaking is now my career, surfing big waves is going to be for fun. Which I'm very excited about!