You have accessThe ASHA Leader ArchiveMake it Work1 Jun 2017

Stress and the Surfboard

Learning to surf gives an SLP insight into managing stress and overcoming challenges.

    When I took part in a surfing adventure two years ago, I didn’t realize the experience would become a turning point in my life and provide new professional insight.

    After some basic surfing instruction on the beach, we took our boards into the ocean. My surfboard was heavy and difficult to manage with the onslaught of the waves. Each wave seemed to carry me several feet back, and I struggled to maintain ground with each successive swell.

    The instructor came over and said, “I promise the wave is stronger than you are. Let it carry you, instead of the other way around. Put your weight on the surfboard, and use it to ride over the waves that come at you. Don’t try to dig in and push through them.”

    I started riding out the waves. Each one still carried me a little closer to shore, but it was less stressful and I didn’t lose as much ground.

    Once we were far enough from shore, we tried to surf. I managed to stand on my first attempt, and spent the next hour trying to get or stay on the board. I expressed frustration to the instructor, who told me, “Surfing is ultimately about falling and then learning to get back up again.”

    I finished the afternoon with a different mindset, not thinking about how things were “supposed” to be. By being more present and less anxious, I spent more time riding waves than struggling to stand on the board. At the end of the day, I realized that the same waves that were initially overwhelming, tossing me and my surfboard in the water, were the same waves that I rode into shore with a huge smile on my face.

    I captured my thoughts in a journal entry, using the acronym SURF to organize and remember what had been helpful that day, and how it relates to my work as a speech-language pathologist and continuing education provider.

    I realized that the same waves that were initially overwhelming, tossing me and my surfboard in the water, were the same waves that I rode into shore.


    Our mind-body condition affects how we feel, whether it’s in the waves of the ocean or a treatment session. Self-care is not a cure for every problem, and it does not guarantee an automatic smile in every session. However, self-care can provide a buffer against the stresses of life, as well as help us stay on track toward goals. With good self-care, we are more apt to respond instead of react.

    It can be as simple and impactful as regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Self-care varies from person to person. Over time, I’ve realized that meditation, journaling, yoga and cardio exercise, hydration, reasonably healthy eating, and time with friends make a positive difference in how I handle stresses of daily life.


    The fifth habit in “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey, is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In my surfing lesson, I needed to let go of my assumptions and ask more questions. Curiosity about our own experiences often leads to curiosity about other’s experiences and perceptions. This dialogue can help us understand the situation, person or incident and respond more appropriately with clients, colleagues, professors, students, supervisees and supervisors. If someone is acting in a confusing or frustrating way, consider asking questions instead of making assumptions.

    When we understand what motivates and challenges others, we can relate to them and coordinate more effective treatment and education.


    Not only did our surf instructor get to know our goals and hesitations about being on a surfboard, he also was equipped with years of experience, relationships with local vendors for the best gear and maintenance, and data about the ocean environment. He was right there with us in the ocean, coaching us on how to do the work ourselves. But he was also working closely with his environment and other professionals.

    We are equipped to support a client’s diagnosis or teach a course. However, when we understand what motivates and challenges others, we can relate to them and coordinate more effective treatment and education. What challenges, lifestyle or family situation could be impeding their progress? Can we partner with other professionals to better meet client or student needs? Our skills and knowledge are most beneficial when we use them in partnership to meet individual needs.


    When I was worried about whether or not I could stand on the surfboard, I couldn’t get my footing. However, when I visualized myself landing upright on the board and sailing in, I nearly always followed that picture in my mind. Where our minds go, our bodies follow.

    With clients, colleagues, supervisors or students, our focus can determine our direction. Focus on the good and the potential in yourself and those around you.

    Of course, even when we focus on the SURF ideas, we may find ourselves in difficult and challenging situations. I use another acronym—DARE—to help me collaboratively establish boundaries and move forward:

    • Design your mindset carefully, as over time, you will likely live up (or down) to that image.

    • Approach yourself and others with compassion and respect.

    • Request someone else’s perspective or insight when you find yourself feeling confused or frustrated.

    • Expectations and relationships often drive the clinical setting. Remember that others tend to rise to the behaviors that you regularly demonstrate, especially if they know they have your support.

    Author Notes

    Sharon Rice, MS, CCC-SLP, is the founder of, which provides continuing education in leadership, supervision and clinical topics. She is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 11, Supervision and Administration, and serves on its Editorial Review Board.

    Additional Resources