Fifteen-year-old Ky is not feeling the stoke right now. It’s his first time out on the water with us, and he’s just gone over the falls. Positioned too far forward on his surfboard, his nose dug in and launched him face-first into a washing-machine cyclone of foam.
Going under like this is a sort of baptism for surfers, one that’ll happen over and over until he gets the feel, but Ky doesn’t know this yet. He manages to get his head above the water, hacking and sputtering before he takes another wave to the head, sending him tumbling through the whitewash again. When he finally manages to reel in the board tethered to his ankle and pull himself on top of it, he’s disoriented, coughing and clutching the board like a life raft. He’s seething.
Roberto, one of the group’s leaders, flashes us a quick look and nods in Ky’s direction. Using the silent language we’ve developed over countless Sundays on the water together, he’s saying You two stay with the group. I’m on it.
About 50 feet away, group leader Christopher lets out a primal coyote howl as two boys under his watch spring onto their boards and, wide-eyed and mouths agape, successfully ride a wave toward the shore. They flash a triumphant shaka to one another on the sand. We can hear them over the crashing shore break, roaring in celebration.
Adam (one of the authors here) is 75 yards away with two of our other OG Surf Circlers, both of whom have been with us since the beginning and now unquestionably identify as surfers. They’re pushing limits today on the larger outside sets. Nathan (coauthor) is occupied on shore, supporting our youngest member through an autistic sensory meltdown after taking his first dunk in the frigid Pacific waters.
So this one’s for Roberto. He paddles over to Ky and touches his shoulder. “You okay?” he asks.
Ky snot-rockets a noseful of seawater, cursing angrily under his breath. “Fuck this shit, man! I’m done. Surfing is dumb.”
With the benevolent intensity that only an Argentine Lacanian analyst can provide, Roberto intervenes. “Look at me, Ky. You were right there. Move two inches back on your board. Square your shoulders. Eyes up. Try again.”
This is a tough moment for Ky. A captain of his soccer team and regional track star with a 4.6 GPA, he’s accustomed to being the best at everything he touches. His parents were so used to seeing him in this golden light that they were shocked when he went missing for three nights a few weeks earlier. The car was gone, and with it, the illusion of their little boy. During his intake at our clinic, they told us they worried he was struggling with something unknown, darker than his toothy grin projected to the world. Ky, skeptical about group therapy but sold on the idea of becoming a surfer, thought he’d come out here and be a ripper. But the ocean had its own agenda.
Luckily, with Roberto’s unwavering presence and no-bullshit intervention, Ky decides he’s not ready to quit, and the two of them work their way through three lines of whitewash, back out to the peak.
An hour from now, once our surf session is up and our crew—four psychologists and eight teenage boys—returns to the sand, we’ll break down everything that happened in the water: the struggles, the triumphs, and the catastrophes. The ocean has just served as our Rorschach—stimulating, unpredictable, anxiety provoking, disorienting, and rich with information about who these young men are. We find meaning in the experience together.
It’s been almost five years since we put our heads together with Roberto and Christopher, our clinical supervisors at WestCoast Children’s Clinic, a community clinic serving predominantly fostered and adopted youth in Oakland, California, and started dreaming about Surf Circle, our therapeutic surf program for adolescent boys.
For the last two of those years, one Sunday a month, we’ve been piling foam boards 10-high on top of Nathan’s Mazda hatchback and heading out to meet our group at Linda Mar Beach, a mile-long crescent of coastline about 20 minutes south of San Francisco. Each session lasts three hours: the first half is spent surfing, and the second on the beach, where we have a process-oriented therapeutic discussion about whatever challenges the boys are facing in their lives. They spend a minimum of five months in the program, but most find something so meaningful in the encounter that they keep coming back.
Both of us started surfing decades before we created Surf Circle. Our respective teenage years were colored by family health challenges.
Hundreds of miles apart on the California coast, we each struggled as our parents grew ill and experienced untimely deaths. Independently, we found that the ocean provided not merely an escape from life on land, but a place to integrate trauma—a space to process overwhelming feelings and think about the unthinkable.
When the four Surf Circle group leaders first met at the clinic back in 2015, we regularly consulted about our work with deeply traumatized yet profoundly resilient children and families. Of course, trauma work takes a toll—you can’t expect to impact clients without also being deeply affected—and our consultations often included discussions about our own self-care practices. Surfing helped each of us metabolize what we’d experienced in sessions. In the water, we felt simultaneously humbled and held, playing with something far more powerful than ourselves—and coming out of it more ragged and alive.
Many of the boys we work with have survived trauma—the death of family members, violence at home and in their communities—and are dealing with depression, anxiety, and isolation. In joining us, they often find that the ocean, much like their own environments, can be volatile. Some days, the weather and ocean are on your side and showcase the sunny California vibes we all fantasize about. But far more often, the Bay Area surf is large and unforgiving, with chaotic and powerful currents that can easily pull an inexperienced surfer out to sea. Learning to surf requires awareness, focus, and flexibility—perhaps the most essential qualities to navigating the complexities of life.
"When we hand a boy his first wetsuit and surfboard, the deeper meaning isn’t lost on us." PHOTO © ISTOCK / SUBMAN
The work we do has always had a strong social-justice element. Our conversations on the beach include reflections on identity, systemic racism, and inequity—but there’s another goal. These boys are at a pivotal age, when the way they carry themselves in a chaotic, confusing, and unjust world will mold the men they’ll become.
Dismantling longstanding, sometimes toxic notions of what it means to be a man is at the core of our work. Every member of our group wants what most of us want in life: to feel less alone, more connected, and better understood. And yet so much of the way young men in our society are taught to carry themselves gets in the way of these goals.
In the ocean, it’s impossible to avoid vulnerability. We’re land creatures by nature, and even the most skilled surfers are out of their element on the water. The powerful swells of the Pacific have a way of impacting the most ambivalent or defended of group members, and we join together in our circle softened by the experience, laughing at ourselves and each other, impressed and humored by our desire to return to the ocean despite being humbled by it.
As anyone who’s parented or worked with adolescents knows, they pose unique challenges to authentic engagement. Even if they come to your office of their own volition, and not at a parent or teacher’s prodding, it doesn’t mean they’re invested.
They don’t always take to therapy like other clients. Building rapport with them can be more difficult. Approaches that might normally soften a tough exterior or help develop trust with kids of other ages, like play therapy, often fall flat—especially if their trauma means they don’t feel safe letting their guard down. Another thing: these boys have an incredible bullshit meter. They can smell inauthenticity from a mile away. If your heart’s not in the work, theirs certainly won’t be either.
From this standpoint, and for this age group, surfing and therapy are a perfect marriage. There’s a mystifying cool factor to surfing. Smothered in sunscreen, sitting in half-unzipped wetsuits and hoodies, running our hands through the sand, and feeding our well-earned appetites with oversized burritos, there’s a sense of community and authenticity that’s difficult to quantify. Whatever struggles brought them to us—substance abuse, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, or grief—when they’re on the beach with their “boys,” they can come more fully into themselves.
The four of us facilitators also show up with authenticity. Surfing is a playful venture that reconnects us with our adolescent selves. Christopher sheds his formal pediatric neuropsychologist persona and plays so hard during our sessions that sometimes we have to remind him to stay with the boys instead of carving up his own waves!
It’s clear to these boys that we genuinely love surfing. But it’s also clear that we deeply care about each other. When we joined WestCoast Children’s Clinic fresh out of graduate school, Roberto and Christopher, both decades into practice, provided us with profoundly meaningful supervisory experiences. The mentorship dynamic, mutual respect, and shared values we developed are present in our relationships on the beach. When our crew gets into the water, we might split into separate groups based on experience level, but we’ll also seamlessly switch gears in the middle of a surf session, swapping whomever we’re shepherding as conditions demand. Like the ocean, we’re constantly in motion, adapting to these boys’ needs. We work to keep them at the edge of their competence but within their window of tolerance.
The fact that they experience not only healthy male relationships in action but the transmission of knowledge across generations is huge for them. They’re participating in a true exchange. They’re learning how to surf from us—and how to care for themselves, for each other, and for their communities. We’re learning from them, too—what it means to be a teenage boy, in the shadow of #MeToo, who’s lived through a devastating pandemic, all while his life is being broadcast on Instagram and Snapchat.
When we hand a boy his first wetsuit and surfboard, the deeper meaning isn’t lost on us. It’s a rite of passage, and we treat it with the reverence it deserves.
When the boys tell us that they forget we’re psychologists or that we’re doing therapy, we know we’re in the sweet spot. At its best, therapy feels like a deep, free-flowing conversation, with peaks and lulls. Like a reef below the water, our technique and intention give shape to the waves above.
The day’s agenda is a little like the elements of a healthy relationship. First come boundaries. We start by teaching the boys to keep a safe distance from strong currents, whipping winds, and heavy surfboards flying in the mayhem. We tell them how far they’re permitted to venture out. Then, we move into commitment: they pledge to stay close to us, to communicate with us, to be honest about their limits, and to look out for each other. In turn, we commit to staying with them and trying our best to keep them safe. Trust begins to form.
When we enter the water together, the ocean provides us with a wealth of information about these boys and how they move through the world. How do they engage in risk? Do they charge chaotically into a wave headfirst, or stop to contemplate their next move? Do they get overwhelmed easily? When they wipe out, do they get back up and try again, throw a fit, or call it quits? How readily do they accept feedback? If we offer a word of advice, can they let us in, or do they assert independence?
Aside from the rich clinical information gleaned, surfing provides something inherently therapeutic. As marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols notes in Blue Mind, a connection with water and the rhythms of the ocean does incredible things for our minds and bodies.
Surfing is a unique venture, in that it’s both a solitary act and a communal experience. Although we’re always near one another, there are quiet times when we look around and see the boys sitting alone peacefully, bobbing in between sets, and peering out on the horizon like contemplative monks. As Winston—a six-foot-five 16-year-old who struggles with debilitating depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts—recently told the group, “The surf was trash, but I love playing in the shorebreak and connecting with the ocean. I felt free out there.”
We’ve also noticed another form of connection happening when we’re bobbing on our boards in between waves: the unfolding of profound conversations. The fact that they might be cut short at any moment by an irresistible rolling left peeler actually facilitates deeper communication. Many parents find that the best conversations with their kids happen when eye contact is limited and a slight distraction is present—when they’re in the car, on a walk, or building a Lego ship together. This experience in the water, with choppy conversations interspersed with all that the ocean offers, is similar in that it provides just the right amount of emotional intimacy for the boys to be ready to drop in deeper on land.
"In the water, we felt simultaneously humbled and held, playing with something far more powerful than ourselves—and coming out of it more ragged and alive."
There’s no doubt that something therapeutic happens on the water, but for most of these boys, the healing effect doesn’t come into full view until we’re back on the beach, talking about what, exactly, happened out there.
As they exit the water one by one, returning to our pile of clothes and towels, we each begin the onerous process of peeling off our neoprene wetsuits. Some of the noodle-armed boys struggle sheepishly and humorously, asking for help yanking off a sleeve. After everyone has dried off and changed, we form our circle and pass out burritos, still warm from our insulated cooler bag.
Our conversations always begin casually. Often, the boys talk about who’s got what in their burrito, comparing the salsas from last month’s taqueria to this month’s. Other times, they share moments of silence as they chow down.
One day, as we sit and break bread together, we watch the ocean we’ve just emerged from, dotted with surfers still out in the lineup. Some rip across the face of the waves with a level of skill and apparent ease that’s almost impossible for the beginners to comprehend.
“That shit is harder than it looks,” starts Ky, the soccer star.
“Oh, definitely. But I saw you charging,” responds Winston.
Ky shrugs off Winston’s comment, eyes fixed on the sand he’s smoothing out in front of him, meditatively.
“Anyone else remember their first time in the waves?” asks Christopher, subtly moving the conversation in a therapeutic direction.
“I got wrecked.”
“What do you remember feeling?” Roberto asks.
“At first I was like, damn it’s cold! I got pounded. It was hard to think,” snickers Diego, a small but energetic 14-year-old, who looks about nine. Diego has ADHD, and as a result of some poor choices—doing graffiti and getting into fights at school—he got kicked out of two middle schools before joining Surf Circle.
“Yeah, like, chaos. The waves kept coming: boom, boom,” adds another boy, pounding his fist gently on the sand.
Diego continues. “Right. I was fighting, swimming with everything I had and getting nowhere. And I was raging!” He pauses. “But then, it hit me. I had to wait. I was fighting too much, wearing myself out. So I waited, and it mellowed out, and I caught this wave, and it was like . . . time stood still. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
“So you learned something about yourself from this,” reflects Adam.
Diego nods. We wait, brought into a space of reflection, the silence punctuated by the waves crashing behind us.
“What did you learn?”
“Well, that sometimes I gotta push. And fight like crazy. But not always. Sometimes I gotta wait. You know, be patient. And that was big for me. Not just in the water, but everywhere.”
Ky is watching the dialogue unfold, seemingly intrigued, but not quite sure what to make of all this.
“Ky, what’s this like for you, being here with us, hearing us talk about our experience?”
“Yeah, I’m not really sure. Different, I guess. Just mostly thinking about how mad I got out there. I was really pissed off. I honestly expected to come out here and own it. But I sucked. It still feels like my nose is full of ocean water.”
“Well, that’s a given, you’ll have a sinus full of salt water even when you’re ripping,” Adam jokes. “But don’t give up. You’ll get there.”
“I honestly came here pretty pissed off,” Ky admits.
“How come? Did your parents make you sign up?” inquires Diego.
“Yeah, but I didn’t mind that really. Surf therapy sounded way better than the alternative. I’ve been pissed off for a while. Just kinda fucked.”
“I feel you,” Winston says. “I think we probably all do.”
Several group members nod their heads in agreement.
“I usually keep it locked, but getting my ass kicked out there just brought it,” Ky says.
“Do you have a sense why this experience you just had with the ocean evoked something so powerful within you, Ky?” Roberto asks.
“I guess I just sorta felt, like, out of control. The waves were ripping the board from me even though they looked hella small. Then, every wave I actually caught, my nose dug in, and I was shooting straight into the face. I mean, I kinda got that one ride at the end, and that was dope. It felt like I was flying. But it was really shitty to feel so weak in the beginning.”
Roberto smiles. “What you’ve just shared is beautiful, Ky. I see you—this tough, strong, young man, built like an athlete, and yet you can sit here and talk to us about feeling weak, too. Thank you for that, because I know exactly what you mean, and you’re bringing yourself here on your first day with us.” He pauses. “You said you’re angry for no reason, but I’m not so sure,” he adds.
“I guess I’m just tired,” Ky responds. “Trying to take care of all the things in my life. I don’t know, it’s just too much sometimes. I feel like there’s this 100-pound weight on my shoulders all the time—to get straight As, to push myself in sports, to always perform, all of it. Sometimes I’m not sure I can handle it.”
“It’s a lot of pressure to be strong all the time,” Adam responds. “To have our shit together, to be competent and in control. And yet, if we’re honest about it, so much of life is out of our control. And it can be scary to learn how to tolerate that feeling.”
Several group members nod. Ky shifts his body language. He’s no longer staring at the sand in front of him. Now, he’s looking at his peers and physically leaning into the circle.
“I feel like I can’t fuck up. Like, if I do, everything will go to shit. My parents are always so stressed dealing with my younger brother, so I can’t put anything else on them.”
“What’s wrong with your bro?” Winston asks.
“He’s got cystic fibrosis. It’s horrible. I feel so bad for him. He should be the one out here getting help.” Ky looks away, shoulders slumped.
“Wow, Ky. You’re holding a lot,” Christopher responds. “I see how deeply you care for your brother, and the ways you really try to protect your parents from any extra stress. And I’m hearing that there’s a cost to that—that there’s a real narrow path you feel like you have to walk, is that right?”
“But you need support, because you’re struggling too.”
“I guess I am. It’s different talking like this, especially to a bunch of guys. It’s kind of intimidating at first. But it feels good. It’s hard to find people who actually want to talk about real things.”
“I see you doing an amazing job here of sharing what’s real for you, Ky, and I see a lot of heads nodding at the last thing you said about it being hard to talk about real things,” Nathan responds. He turns to the rest of the group. “Why do you guys think that is? Why can you talk this way here and not other places?”
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot actually,” Winston says. “I think that, especially for guys, we’re not allowed to talk like this, about our emotions. Because if you do, you might pay for it.”
“Can you say more about the cost?” Nathan asks.
“So in middle school, I was super depressed and started cutting. I told some friends I was hurting because I knew I was in deep, and I thought they could relate. But they totally shut me out after that. They were in my crew. And then my crew shut me out too.”
“How painful,” Christopher responds. “The stakes do sound pretty high. If you talk about real stuff, sometimes you risk being shut out.” Many of the boys nod their heads.
“You’ve gotta be careful about who you talk with about the deep stuff,” Diego adds.
“For the rest of you,” Christopher continues, “how do you connect with what Winston and Ky are saying? Do you relate to this fear about sharing your feelings, or needing to be strong and in control, or the anger and fear when you feel like you’ve lost it?”
Another veteran member, Sebastian, chimes in. He’s been struggling with binge drinking since his parents’ divorce. He leans in, indicating his desire to share. “You know, I totally get what Ky’s saying about the ‘man code’—you know, don’t be weak, man up, and stuff. I feel like some of the worst decisions I’ve made come from trying to be strong all the time.”
“How do you mean?” encourages Christopher.
“Oh, man. I guess if Ky’s being real I’ve gotta bring it too.” He takes a deep breath. “Okay, well, what I’m thinking about is something I’m not proud of. Right before I joined Surf Circle last year I did something hella stupid. I was with my friends, and we were super cross-faded,” he starts.
“Cross-faded?” Roberto asks. “Sorry—I’m an old guy and a foreigner, you gotta help me out here.”
“Oh yeah, like high and drunk at the same time. Anyway, we snuck into this apartment complex, and went on the roof, and were up there, and I was like, ‘Guys, let’s throw these bottles off the roof.’ So we were tossing beer bottles from like 10 stories up, and I started streaming the thing on Instagram Live.”
The group is silent, all eyes locked on Sebastian.
“Yeah, I know. Really bad. Anyway, after our third bottle we heard two people yelling from below. And I guess they were walking, and it almost hit them.”
Sebastian winces as he looks out at the ocean.
There’s silence again. We’re all shocked to think of him engaging in something so reckless.
Diego breaks the silence. “Why did you record that?”
Sebastian takes a breath, taking in the question. “It’s maybe weird, but I kind of think I wanted to get caught.”
“How do you understand that, Sebastian?” Adam asks. “We’ve all done stupid shit that we regret. I know I have. But what about wanting to get caught?”
“I think I felt like Ky. In over my head. But in a different way, like with all the weed and the drinking and stuff. And it’s real weird, but it’s true—on some level I wanted my parents to know.” We all nod. “I didn’t think that while I was doing it, but now, I think that was part of it.”
The circle is silent again, reflecting on everything that’s been shared. The boys see aspects of themselves in Sebastian, in Winston, in Ky. We see ourselves in them, too.
It’s moments like this that give a new meaning to the phrase holding the space, and as the conversation continues, we four therapists hardly intervene. We watch the boys challenge and validate one another on a scale that would make our efforts pale in comparison. Boys who are used to projecting a confident, collected façade drop the front when they see their hidden, vulnerable selves reflected back to them in their peers. Those who’ve long felt silenced—by parents, teachers, and other authority figures in their lives—finally feel free to speak.
The Stoke Is Real
There’s a term in surfing known as stoke, used to describe the deep-down, in-your-core feeling of liberated joy. We see it in a boy’s eyes when he manages to stand up on his surfboard for the first time, or when he catches his first big wave. Parents sometimes tell us that their children walk around with a happy glow for days afterward.
In the two years we’ve been doing this work, that stoke, that sense of excitement, has only grown for us. After group, in our car ride home together (which also serves as our clinical consultation time), we four therapists almost always find ourselves saying, “That was even more powerful than last month’s meeting!”
These boys constantly challenge, surprise, and inspire us. Not every session is easy, but we always leave the beach feeling more fulfilled than exhausted—and that’s saying a lot because, at the end of a Surf Circle day, we’re spent.
"We watch the boys challenge and validate one another on a scale that would make our own efforts pale in comparison." PHOTO © I STOCK / COURTNEYK
The field of surf therapy is still in its infancy, as is our program. We have no doubt something truly therapeutic is occurring, and yet we’re still learning together about the interplay between our time in the water and on land. There are many other therapeutic surf programs scattered in various places, all doing incredible work, and we’re learning from them too. There’s even a national conference of surf therapists organized by the International Surf Therapy Organization.
Sitting together in the sand, smothered in sunscreen, and half-dressed in our wetsuits is a far cry from the psychoanalytic world we come from. We spend our weekdays in the comfortable, mostly controlled environments of our private practice offices, and then on weekends, we shift to the ocean—a truly uncontrollable space. The contrast is sharp, and the transition isn’t always easy to make. But we know Surf Circle is a great therapeutic adjunct for teens already in treatment, and an effective introduction to something therapeutic for those who’d never think to set foot in a therapist’s office. We’ve even seen instances where it’s inspired a teen to pursue therapy for the first time, or return to it after a bad experience.
While we’d love to grow Surf Circle, to raise enough funds to provide free services to families in need, pay for transportation for the kids to and from the beach, hire more staff, and develop an all-girls wing led by female therapists, as well as an all-gendered group, we’re not trying to make this the biggest therapeutic surfing program on the West Coast. For now, we’re content to know that we’ve expanded the frame of what a therapeutic encounter can be.
After the five-month Surf Circle program ends and some of the boys graduate, some check in with us months later. They share how Surf Circle helped them overcome their struggles. Some have even gone on to become leaders and activists in their communities.
Other boys, like Sebastian and Winston, choose to stay with us. Not only are they still learning, but they’re helping us usher in the next wave of Surf Circle members, helping them realize that it’s okay to be vulnerable, to speak in the language of feelings, and really reflect on what they want for their present and future selves.
These days, with the help of the group, Ky is learning to let go of his perfectionism and ask for help. He’s becoming more accepting of himself when he stumbles, in and out of the water. And last week, Sebastian told us he’s getting better at communicating with his parents. He still drinks and smokes on occasion, but much more responsibly.
“I don’t want to live my life all careful, but I also realize I can’t be reckless,” he said in a recent session. “It’s all about calculated risk. I’ll send it on a big one, but I’m not just gonna paddle out at 25-foot mavericks.”
“That’s what’s up,” Winston replies. “You need that crazy spirit out in the waves, but we all have limits.” He gives a playful shove to Sebastian, who rolls back in the sand laughing, holding his burrito aloft in one arm and stretching out the other to catch his balance.
The day is almost over, and a few parents have already pulled their cars up to the coastline. A flock of seagulls announces its departure, flying low over the water until they’re tiny dots on the horizon. Christopher and Roberto turn toward the crashing waves, squinting out at the sea while the boys run and chatter behind them.
In moments like this, in the presence of a power you can’t quite harness, words fail. But that doesn’t mean we’ll stop trying to harness it. For as long as we can, we’ll suit up, tuck our boards under our arms, and run into the waves, knowing we’ll find something truly therapeutic out there.
CategoriesThe Larger Conversation First Person Clinical Practice & Guidance Issues & Developments Anxiety & Depression Kids & Teens Mind, Body, Brain Society & Culture The Field Trauma
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