International Coalition for Therapeutic Surfing

Combining physical health and clinical life skills, in a neutral, non-intrusive environment

Three men in wetsuits wade into the chilly, Pacific Ocean at the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA. Carlos, a wounded warrior who is visually impaired, is gently led into the water by surf instructors and hoping to catch his first wave. The sounds of the ocean are daunting, but Carlos is unafraid and the look of determination on his face tells it all. Without hesitation, he puts complete trust in his surf instructors to lead him beyond the crashing waves. Carlos’s surf instructors yell as a wave is about to hit, giving him notice to hold on tight to their hands. Carlos goes beyond the break and with the help of his instructors lays on his surfboard. They wait out a few waves for just the right one. Then…he catches it! Carlos stands up on the surfboard, with his instructor boogie boarding on the back, and coasts into the shore where he is congratulated by other service members, volunteers, and instructors. This is Ocean Therapy at Camp Pendleton where the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation serves those who serve our country.

The initial idea for a therapeutic surfing program came to Carly Rogers when she was working with children with special needs as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard. She later wrote the Ocean Therapy program that is utilized today while earning her master’s degree in occupational therapy. “I have been able to witness the therapeutic effects of surfing. I’ve seen children jump out of wheelchairs, trying to get to the water’s edge. Now imagine the impact of being able to actually ride a wave?”

Therapeutic Surfing

Upon the tragic loss of Jimmy Miller, the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation (JMMF) was established to honor his life and memory. Jimmy was a skilled surfer and fellow friend of Carly’s. Carly presented her therapeutic surfing program to the JMMF board and they agreed it was the right fit. Today the JMMF conducts over 50 Ocean Therapy sessions annually, and serves over 650 wounded warriors, veterans and underprivileged children.
Halfway around the world, Joel Pilgrim an occupational therapist in Australia, developed a similar program, Waves of Wellness (WOW) Foundation. WOW is a mental health surf therapy charity, delivering innovative programs for people experiencing mental health challenges. WOW is growing at an exponential rate and is serving 120 people facing mental illness annually.

Joel Pilgrim’s journey began early in his career, when a young mental health client expressed an interest in surfing. By finding an activity that was truly meaningful and then engaging in it allowed his client to drive the recovery process as well as establish a trustworthy relationship. “This was groundbreaking. It was incredible to see what was achievable when you use the natural environment as a tool for recovery.” Joel saw a big discrepancy between what was needed and what was wanted, in terms of innovative approaches to mental health. This realization planted the seed for Waves of Wellness to grow.

The theory behind both programs is quite similar. They aim to combine physical health and clinical life skills, in a neutral, non-intrusive environment while improving social engagement and the quality of life of participants. The overarching goal of the surf programs is to increase perceived self-efficacy in individuals with physical and mental disabilities through engagement in the activity of surfing. It is predicted that by successfully engaging in surfing, these individuals will increase their self-confidence and belief in their ability to achieve their goals in other areas of life.

The relationship between the JMMF and WOW has grown tremendously over the past two years with mutual benefits to both like-minded organizations. As Joel explains, “Partnerships are the future. It means we are working together to pioneer the surf therapy industry by combining research and findings.” Partnerships leverage resources and push each other beyond what one thinks is possible. Carly and Joel identify that innovation does not occur through competition, but collaboration between their respective organizations. The continued development of partnerships, both locally and globally, will increase the knowledge base allowing occupational therapists to better serve their clients’ needs.

Therapeutic Surfing

As both programs were developed by occupational therapists, occupational therapy (OT) has been the driving force from the beginning. The Model of Human Occupation and Person Environment Occupation, emphasizing occupation as the interaction between the individual and their environment, are both fundamental to WOW and the JMMF (Kielhofner, 2008; Law et al., 1996). WOW also utilizes the Strengths Model, which focuses on strengths rather than deficits. Focusing on participants’ strengths is a huge benefit in helping them take control of their lives. Interventions are based on client-self-determination and the preferred setting for treatment is out in the community, where there is an oasis of naturally occurring resources. Within the Strengths Model people suffering from severe mental illness can continue to learn, grow and change (Rapp & Goscha, 2012).

Both leaders stress the uniqueness that comes with their program being directed by an occupational therapist. The role of the occupational therapist is imperative to ensure the participant is set up for success. The occupational therapist provides consultation and assessment to target the functional and environmental barriers for successful engagement. Additionally, the occupational therapist performs in-depth task analysis for the occupation of surfing, adapting the task to fit the participants needs. With support from the occupational therapist, participants use intrinsic motivation to engage in the act of surfing. This allows the participant to utilize surfing as a therapeutic tool for wellness.

Programs like the JMMF and WOW want to challenge the community of occupational therapists to spearhead innovation. In order to ensure that occupational therapists are delivering contemporary opportunities and therapies for clients, occupational therapists need to continually think outside the box. “We have to breakdown the stigma of mental health; a four-corner room setting may not resonate for people of all ages.” states Joel. It is important to introduce innovative and creative messages of engagement to help guarantee that services are attractive and accessible. As Carly points out, “The flexibility and vastness of OT is both our strength and weakness. Since it is so vast, it is hard to describe and draw our discipline’s boundaries. Yet because of this, we can be creative in our interventions. Helping clients discover their intrinsic motivation to engage in an activity is what makes them feel good. It is what makes them feel alive.”

Kielhofner, G. (2008). A model of human occupation: theory and application. (4th ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins.

Law, M., Cooper, B,. Strong, S., Stewart, D., Rigby, P., & Letts, L. 1996. The Person-Environment-Occupation Model: A transactive approach to occupational performance. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 63(1), 9-23.

Rapp, C. A., & Goscha, R. J. (2012). The strengths model: a recovery-oriented approach to mental health services. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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