As the surf therapy charity opens the UK’s first official surfing centre in England specifically for people with disabilities in Croyde, we catch up with Founder and CEO, Joe Taylor.
Cornish-based charity The Wave Project has treated thousands of children and young people suffering from anxiety and depression through their nationwide surf therapy courses for over 13 years. We chat to Joe Taylor about the great work the charity does, the evolution of surf therapy and blue health, and their plans for the future.
WL: Hey Joe! How is everything at the Wave Project HQ right now?
Joe: Good! I suppose we’re at a point in the charity now where we’ve done a lot of work on gathering evidence and evaluating our work, trying to understand how surfing and surf therapy improves mental health and well-being in children and young people. A big part of the work we’ve done in those 13 years has been trying to understand that. I think we’re now at a point where we’re really confident that it works.
We’ve done over 2000 case studies and seen a consistent level of improvement across different well-being measures, especially confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and some evidence around reductions in anxiety, improvements of trust and relationships.
So what we want to do now is say right, we know this stuff works, we know how to deliver it well, we want to do more of it and our goal is to roll out surf therapy practice more widely in the UK, liaising with other charities and NGOs in other countries and trying to advise them. It’s taking off around the world and I think we want to be part of that help.
WL: When you started this charity did you anticipate that The Wave Project would be such a nucleus of leading this charge globally?
I think I could always see almost straight away that there’s something in this that could be scalable, because surf therapy is quite a simple intervention. What you do is you take people surfing but with peer support and in a very emotionally supported way. I knew there were a lot of barriers to convincing people of the efficacy of it, and everyone was sceptical at first about surf therapy. They thought it was a bit hokey and it wasn’t a serious therapy. However, I believe therapy is anything that’s good for you and improves your well-being.
Nearly all of the children who do it, they enjoy it and they find it fun. For probably quite a high proportion of them, they experience significant change, especially around building friendships, feeling more confident and more self-belief, or just simply enjoying being outside, going surfing, being in the water, and opening up those doors to these children that perhaps might not have had the opportunity.
The other thing we’ve done is reduce the stigma for children and young people’s mental health. I think young people find it very hard to talk about mental health. So actually the whole issue around having to admit there’s a problem is taken away, and you can just say, “Well, I just want to feel better. I want to just go and hang out with people. I want to go surfing.”
WL: There has been mounting scientific evidence proving that blue health has profound benefits for both mental and physical health, which is amazing.
I think there are two strands to that evidence. One is all the stuff that’s emerged around blue health, like being outside, being in nature, and also being around other people, the whole social component to good mental health at the end of the day. It’s clear now in a way that it wasn’t 30 or 40 years ago. Good mental health is also so contingent on good relationships, and being in a group in which you feel comfortable is really, really critical. And if you can take that group outside, you get the double whammy of group therapy with the outdoor benefits.
The other bit that I think has become more clear over the last sort of 20 years or so has been the neuroscientific evidence… So what’s actually going on in the brain? Neuroscientists have now identified the bits of the brain that seem to influence those components of happiness and well-being.
One is having sustained positive emotions, as opposed to a kind of short-term casual experience. Resilience is a really important component, and the ability to bounce back from problem-solving. Then, empathy, so the whole bit about interacting with others and then that kind of mindfulness piece around living in the moment, being present in what you’re doing right now. So if you look at something like surfing, what I find really fascinating is all of that comes together in one activity.
WL: The first official surfing centre in England specifically for people with disabilities has opened in Croyde. Tell me about the opening and its importance in surfing.
There’s been a lot of work gone into it because it’s not just about opening a building. It’s been about partnerships between us, Surfing England, the local surf school there, Surf Southwest, the local community, the local MP, the owners of the beach, and the site. We’ve put in specialist disabled parking and built this fantastic changing room that’s got a long ramp that wheelchair users can get up and down on their own and get in and out of independently.
You could be a severely disabled wheelchair user, arrive there in your car, take your wheelchair up, get changed without any help, get back down again, and go surfing with the specially trained adaptive surf coaches who are residents at the surf school.
There’s been a whole training program that’s been part of it, lots of new specialist surf equipment. It’s amazing, and it’s all about trying to make people with disabilities have an equal ability to be able to go surfing. 13 years ago when I got into this space there was nothing for disabled surfers at all.
WL: It just looks like The Wave Project is always going from strength to strength. What can we expect from you in the future?
Well, we have a growth plan. We want to reach 15,000 young people through surf therapy by 2027 in the UK alone. We’re going to do that by partnering with other organisations, rolling out our programs, taking on more surf school partners, working with Surfing England, developing more training, and working with wave pools as well. So yeah, it’s about growth. We think surf therapy is good for young people and we want to do more of it. So if anyone wants to help us do that, then we’d be more than happy to hear from them.