In this article I will discuss the recent Mick Fanning Shark incident from a sport psychologist’s perspective and give an account of how Summit Performance Psychology would approach assisting Mick Fanning or Julian Wilson to make a safe and healthy return to the water and professional surfing after such a traumatic event.
Mick and the Shark
Mick Fanning, a pro surfer from the Gold Coast was recently involved in a shark incident in South Africa’s famous J-bay during a semifinal heat on tour. Fanning was surfing against fellow Queensland surfer Julian Wilson. The heat was broadcast live all over the world.
Fanning was approached by a 3.5 metre great white shark, which got caught in his leg rope before dragging him under water leaving fans and fellow surfers in shock and horror for several long seconds that followed. The shark repeatedly returned to him and his board surprisingly not biting either. Fanning fought the shark off the only way he could, punching it to let it know he was not dinner.
During the incident Fanning yelled to Wilson to go for shore. Wilson instinctually paddled for Fanning to help putting himself in serious danger, a truly amazing act of selflessness in sporting history. Fanning, separated from his board and swimming in open water turned to face the fish when highly trained rescue response teams picked both surfers up ending the incident. It was the first live broadcast surfing event to have such a close call and the media and social media response filled headlines worldwide. As a surfer, albeit a bad one, from the Gold Coast this event surprisingly affected me and many other surfers personally.
Mick Fannings Account:
Julian Wilson Emotional
Trauma response- what happens when we are exposed to a shark attack?
I am not saying Mick Fanning is going through these symptoms after his shark experience but the normal human response to traumatic events such as a close encounter with a big shark generally resembles this symptom profile. Mick’s incident even for a fearless pro surfer like him would most likely cause some of these symptoms at least in the weeks or months following the incident.
In a life-threatening situation in which a person is helpless to a threat to their survival they go into temporary shock and an intense fight or flight response. Every one of us has an inbuilt security system controlling our fight or flight response to threat (fear, anxiety, anger) and going through shock and trauma affects this system’s hardware short-circuiting its natural functioning. This change increases people’s sensitivity to threat and reminders of the incident and affects the mind and body in the following ways.
Physical symptoms post Shark Attack
- Increased sensitivity to sensory stimulus (fear/shock- loud noises, lights, crowds, etc.)
- Increased sensitivity to physiological feedback (awareness of heart pounding, trouble breathing, chest pain, chills or hot flushes, etc.)
- Increased resting rate of arousal (energy) increasing adrenalin and cortisol (stress hormone) leading to edginess, shakes, and dramatic energy changes
- Body discomfort- head and stomachaches, muscle tightness, lightheadedness
- Sleep issues (insomnia or hypersomnia)
- Appetite issues (over or under eating, binging on comfort foods)
- Feeling unsafe- unexplained nerves and fear, shakiness and teary
Mental symptoms post Shark Attack
- Emotion dysregulation- Emotional without reason (sad, angry, scared, anxious, etc.)
- Cognitive dysfunction- Feeling cloudy in the mind (attention, problem solving, memory, decision making)
- Sensitive and conscious of threat in environment (people and places)
- Make decisions based on fear more often than previously
- Wanting to withdraw from daily activities and social contact to be alone
- Flashbacks Intrusive memories of event like re-living it, sometimes with same emotional intensity.
- Feelings of confusion, loosing control or going crazy (fear associated with this)
- Irrational thoughts about danger and imaginary scenarios about probability of harm (risk assessment)
- Self-doubt, Self-blame, guilt, worry about future (associated with depression)
Tough Men & Tough Sports coping with trauma- Emotional Intelligence
For healing and recovery to occur after trauma there is a need for understanding, processing, experiencing and communicating unpleasant emotions rather than avoiding and suppressing them. This is a scientific fact.
The social stereotypes surrounding masculinity and what it is to be a ‘real man’ can make trauma recovery difficult for some men, especially those whose occupations and sub-culture values tough, fun loving, care-free fearlessness. Being a pro surfer requires fearlessness, no one can question that but having the social pressure to live up to such a frankly unrealistic stereotype after trauma is unhealthy. Feeling shamed, weak, abnormal or broken for being emotional and working through those emotions carefully is a serious challenge that Mick may face or at least may have to acknowledge when approaching recovery.
There is nothing weak or unhealthy about being vulnerable, upset and needing help from those around you after going through trauma. Real mental toughness is to be able to adapt to the circumstances at hand and thrive regardless of social pressures or expectations of others. In this case adapting means feeling, communicating and help-seeking. Suppressing these healthy needs after trauma and punishing oneself for experiencing trauma-related symptoms due to gender stereotypes can have very negative effects. Unresolved trauma can lead to other more serious mental and physical health issues such as major depression and substance abuse/addiction.
Getting back in the water- Mind and Body Recovery from Shark Attack
The Summit Performance Psychology approach includes mind and body strategies to get back to the high performance zone after trauma in sport.
Body- Physical and emotional recovery from shark attack
The obvious first step is get back on the horse, re-enter the water. Easier said than done in this case with several recent Australian shark attacks occurring this year including two in the last week within 100km of Mick’s home. It was recently revealed by 60 minutes that Fanning may have spotted a fin in one of his first surfs back on the Gold Coast. However, getting back on the horse is something Mick is already doing, shown through the media’s coverage of his first steps; surfing at Snapper Rocks on a small crowded day and his first solo surf at his home break with a jet ski look out and family on the beach.
But how does Mick re-enter the water in a healthy way that helps ward off fears and re-establish security and the ability to get into the zone and compete. Competition surfing requires 100% focus, effort and commitment?
The answer comes to us first from Behaviour Therapy to treat phobias and fears using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) or Graded Exposure. Like all techniques discussed below this is a scientifically validated or evidence-based technique using a step-by-step process. A person exposes themselves to their fear in small controlled doses while activating their relaxation safety response through breathing and mental techniques. It is critical that the person does not escape or in this case leave the water until they feel calm and safe. This is why it is important to consider each step carefully so as not to overload the fear systems at any step. Each challenge is slightly more outside the person’s comfort zone than the last but controlled and planned with deep breathing, imagery and positive thinking to establish calm.
Non-surfing steps for Mick or Julian may involve watching footage of people swimming with sharks and eventually work up to doing a cage dive or open water dive with sharks. To construct surfing steps variables such as deeper water, longer surfs, less social support and smaller crowds would make sense in planning steps to increase exposure to fear gradually. Eventually the biggest challenge would be paddling out at J-bay before next year’s ASP tour re-visits the location to surf some waves at the place it all went down. It would be great to see Mick out in the water next year at that comp.
ERP re-sets the brains security system and resolves irrational fears at the physical response level. This technique helps fix the hardware that short-circuits during trauma and is critical to recovery. However humans are not just products of physical responses. Thought plays a role in perpetuating fears after trauma as well.
Mind- Mental recovery from shark attack
There is no doubt that after a shark incident a person’s thoughts, beliefs, memories and other aspects of their mind would be somewhat effected, even on land. Fear-based thinking, distraction and self-doubt could disrupt Fanning’s ability to get back into the water, stay positive and compete at 100%.
Two psychological strategies for dealing with the effects of negative thinking that Mick could draw upon come to us from techniques targeting negative and irrational thinking common with depression and anxiety treatment. The first is Cognitive Restructuring, which means identifying, challenging and replacing thoughts that cause distress or effect functioning. This involves challenging and replacing automatic fear-based thoughts with more rational and positive alternatives.
In Mick and Julian’s case he could draw upon 3 sources for rational positive thoughts to balance his mind once he identifies negative thinking.
- His own extensive experience in the ocean in sharky waters- no attacks
- Scientific facts about shark behaviour and prevalence the shark attacks
- Political Shark advocacy message commonly expressed by surfers
The demonization in politics, media and entertainment of sharks as aggressive monsters is completely inaccurate and leads to illogical fear mongering in response to shark encounters, weather violent or non-violent. If the number of incidents of people entering the ocean in Australia or South Africa annually was compared to the number of genuine shark attacks we would see mathematically that it is similar to winning the toughest (and worst) lotto known to man. Like most politics ‘shark politics’ and ‘shark reality’ are very different, leading to confusion and unnecessary fear and hatred for sharks. The reality is sharks are big fish and rarely attack humans and the chances of being bitten are far less than being hit by lighting (A performing artist illustrating an important shark message- AMAZING!).
Common political responses include shark culling where vast numbers of sharks are killed in an attempt to reduce shark attack danger. This creates environmental damage because it disrupts the balance of the eco-system. The irony is that those effected most often, surfers are the biggest shark advocates and rally against such killing as a response, choosing instead to advocate respect for their habitat and safety. Mick can write down grounding realistic and positive thoughts from all three sources to utilize in the water when his mind tends towards fear-based thinking about a shark incident repeat.
The other thought targeting technique Mick can utilize is called Defusion. Defusion, in contrast to challenging and changing negative thoughts, occurs when we can notice, label and get distance from automatic ‘Shark Attack’ thoughts. Getting distance from thoughts reduces our emotional struggle with them. This technique comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) involving the practice of observing the mind in the present moment and calmly accepting what ever comes and goes through it without struggle so we can do what really matter to us.
With Defusion we learn to identify thoughts as passing events rather than as facts or accurate judgments of our situation and ourselves. To learn defusion Mick simply practices recognizing fear-based thoughts and labeling them ‘the Big fish script’ when they do come into the mind. He accepts them without struggle and observes them and their effect on his body but does not act on the urges to escape or get hooked into a negative spiral of thoughts. He then refocuses on his senses and breathing in the present moment and continues with his surfing. Defusion could help Mick or Julian to avoid buying into any shark attack thoughts making it much easier to re-allocate attention to the task at hand and stay calm. With time the Big Fish script becomes less and less distracting and distressing for them.
Anyone who watches Mick on tour knows he uses meditation in his pre-surf routine to prepare his mind so he may naturally prefer Defusion to Cognitive Restructuring, as it is familiar and less labour intensive to practice.
Attention- recovering focus after a shark attack
As you can imagine after a shark encounter like Fanning’s distractibility in the water would increase. External events would be distracting, such as a crest in the water resembling a fin. Internal events such as thoughts and sensations would also be more distracting. Staying focused on surfing is critical to success and mindfulness may be a great tool in recovering high performance focus.
Mindfulness is a technique of training one’s mind that comes from Eastern meditation practices and is very popular in therapy and self-help for its documented wellbeing and performance benefits. Mindfulness refers to observing the world or the mind in a non-judging, curious and accepting way where one attempts to reduce analytical thinking and increase absorption in the present moment. It improves the ability to stay present and tune into the senses and to monitor and manage distraction and emotional struggle with the Big Fish script and fear. Mindfulness improves both focus and self-awareness.
Mick Fanning already does meditation before his heats. He knows the benefits of mindfulness meditation in centering attention and building the muscle of focus and self-aware during competition. It would be easy for him to transfer this skill for dealing with shark fear distraction (physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, urges) if it arose. In this case Fanning could use mindfulness to learn to observe, accept and tolerate his bodily discomfort and negative thoughts during re-entry. Mindfulness can help Mick to let go of struggle with fear and persist through uncomfortable but important training exercises to re-enter the water focused on what matters.
Finally mindfulness of breath and controlling breathing will be essential for Mick’s re-entry if he has fear and Adrenalin in his system reducing his ability to stay calm. Due to surfing’s demands on the lungs and strategic breathing to cope with wipeouts and duck diving mindfulness of breath will help Mick stay safe, relaxed and focused when re-entering big powerful waves.
Social support- Help-seeking in recovery from a shark attack
Last we will look at the role of social support in psychological recovery from trauma in terms of both promoting wellbeing and performance.
The social response by other competitors and fellow surfers immediately following the traumatic event was remarkable. In Mick and Julian’s support true comradery and mateship was shown by the surfing community on and since the day of the incident. Mick broke down in tears describing the gathering of surfers after the incident and the importance of this community over competitiveness in surfing. Feeling loved and safe after such an event is an important foundation for recovery.
There are two kinds of social support worth considering in his recovery:
- Solution-Focused support– help solving problems re-entering the water
- Emotion-focused support– help feeling safe again and dealing with emotional fallout
There are three main sources of social support in Mick’s recovery:
- Psychologist or counselor– trained objective support to speak openly and process thoughts and emotions. Psychologists can assess level of symptoms and treat trauma at a clinical level.
- Coaches and trainers– support to re-enter the water and train again in healthy way that meets requirements of his step-by-step behaviour therapy plan to conquer shark fears.
- Family and friends– support with general life adjustment and emotional changes after trauma. Provide a safe and positive environment and help Mick to get back on his feet.
Family, friends and a psychologist provide significant emotion-focused support to ensure general wellbeing is supported. Coaches and trainers provide significant solution-focused support to help control his environment when re-entering the water, such as driving a boat or jet ski or surfing with him during recovery. It is important that Mick and Julian have people around him who he trusts with tough emotional moments during re-entry into surfing because the phases of behavioural therapy will push him out of his comfort zone.
From what I can see as an outsider looking in, Fanning has strong family and friends and highly trained coaches and support crew by his side. I predict his re-entry into competition will be healthy and holistic. It is not about the time he takes but his ability to build a strong physical and psychological foundation to preserve his consistency and longevity in the high performance high-pressure sport of surfing.
Good luck Mick and we wish you the best from Summit Performance Psychology!
Abra Garfield (MAPS), Principle Psychologist