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Meet the International Surf Therapy Organisation

Exploring Surf Therapy as a global and life-changing practice

October 9, 2020 

From September 28 to October 9, we are highlighting the stories and work of our 2020 Beyond Sport Global Awards Shortlisters who are using sport to ensure healthy lives and well-being for all. The International Surf Therapy Organization is one of them. Learn more about the inspiring work they are doing to improve mental health and the quality of life with surf therapy around the world. 

“If COVID, if the civil unrest has not shined the brightest light ever on needing more mental health support and certainly alternative methodologies, surfing became the answer!" says Kris Primacio, Director of the International Surf Therapy Organization (ISTO)

Based in practice and research, ISTO is a global community advocating for Surf Therapy to become a best practice intervention to support mental health. Combining surfing and structured activities to promote psychological, physical and psychosocial well-being, ISTO is working to be the backbone organization to the sector, providing evidence-based curriculums and data collection tools to support new and existing surf therapy programs. 

Through the power of partnership and the ocean, ISTO is on a mission to popularize surf therapy as a method to support mental health.  

“Traditional therapy, I sit and talk about myself, and I can BS my way through it. I cannot BS a wave. A wave will teach me a lesson every single time, whether I’m open to it or not. Surfing is a union: of myself, the ocean, my board. If I can allow all three to work in unison, I can be still,” says Nick Perdomo, a US Marine Corps Veteran and ISTO Ambassador. 

Nick became an advocate for Surf Therapy from the first day he climbed on a surfboard and has since referred dozens of his Veteran friends telling them, “it’s not just a sport, it’s a life-saver.” 

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This deep connection to the outdoors in oceans, lakes and rivers sits at their heart as captured by scientist and wild water advocate, Wallace J. Nichols, who explains the unique spark of the ocean: “there is science that shows how being near, in, on or under water can make us happier, healthier, more connected and better at what we do.” 

Through research and evaluation, ISTO has already demonstrated its excellence in research and understanding through partnering with the world’s first Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Surf Therapy, developing an e-journal for practitioners around the world and supporting the first international symposium on the subject. 

Constructing an international network that collates research on its benefits of preventing and treating social, behavioural, health, economic and other challenges is what makes ISTO unique. Achieving therapeutic benefits while catching waves may not be new, however, documenting the emotional, physical and psychological effects of surfing has only just begun. 

“When soccer closed this summer, when baseball closed, when basketball closed, when all the camps closed, every person in Los Angeles went to the ocean,” laughed Kris. “So, we have more surfers out there seeking some kind of activity than never before.” 

ISTO’s participants - referred to as athletes - are all encompassing, including children on the autism spectrum, war veterans facing homelessness and addiction, cancer survivors, children with mental and physical disabilities, LGBTQ members, high-risk youth and more. 

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These athletes are dispersed globally across five continents, crossing geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds, even in places that might surprise you like Berlin, Germany and Russia. This just shows how universal surfing is, and more than that, how effective it is. 84% of ISTO's athletes left feeling much happier after being on the ocean. 

Surfwell operating in Cornwall, UK is an example that sprung to Kris’s mind when talking about the amazing and unexpected organisations they partner with. 

“Starting with a couple police officers on their surfboards they saw their brothers and sisters hurting and having suicidal tendencies. They wanted to help their companions and quite literally on their surfboards said why don’t we take them surfing,” chuckled Kris. "They are the first program that is specific to police officers and funded purely by them." 

Surfing can be an aid for almost anything. With ISTO’s ‘Go far. Go together.’ mantra, we can understand that just as the ocean runs and stretches around the globe, so does Surf Therapy. The hope for Surf Therapy to become a prescribed method for well-being and mental health is not far off. 

The International Surf Therapy Organisation’s A New(er) Method of Intervention program is a 2020 Beyond Sport Global Awards Shortlister in the Sport for Health and Well-Being category. Learn more about the rest of this year’s Shortlist and follow their journeys at beyondsport.org/journey 

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