A surfer in the air above a large wave with snow-capped mountains in the background.
Head injuries are prevalent in many action sports, such as surfing. (photo by Marcus Paladino Photography)

People often associate concussions with traditionally hard-hitting sports like football, ice hockey, boxing, and rugby. In fact, most concussion research, to date, has focused on these types of sports. Those who study concussions have given little attention to non-contact, individual, and alternative sport settings such as surfing, despite studies indicating high rates of head injuries in many of these types of activities. As an avid surfer who does research on action sport subcultures, I recently conducted a study that explored concussion among surfers on the Canadian West Coast.

Contrary to many mainstream sports, surfing lacks both formal key figures (coaches, referees, medical staff, and teammates) and formalized rules (timeframes, scoring, and arenas). Given the lack of key figures and formal rules, I wanted to understand how surfers obtained information about concussion and how they were treating, diagnosing, and preventing the injury within the larger surfing subculture. Through interviews with 12 experienced surfers and participant observations of surf breaks along the West Coast of Canada, I concluded that surfers tended to demonstrate mixed or ambiguous understandings of concussion. For example, the majority of participants knew that concussions were a type of head injury, but they often lacked knowledge about common symptoms, treatments, and protocols to follow when faced with a suspected concussion. This ambiguity fuelled some participants’ decisions to surf through their concussive injuries, downplay the severity of concussion, and in some cases, outright ignore their concussive symptoms. In general, surfers were willing to push through their concussive symptoms for three primary reasons: 1) having a limited amount of time to surf at a particular location, 2) pressure from other surfers in the water, and 3) to avoid missing out on favorable wave conditions.

With respect to the first reason, surfers often stated that they would be more likely to continue surfing with a concussion if they were on vacation, in a remote or difficult to access surf location, or at a location for only a short period of time. Additionally, some surfers claimed that they would be more likely to continue to surf while concussed due to the specific surf season. For example, a number of surfers noted how the best surf in Canada is often in the winter months due to the larger swells produced by Pacific Ocean storms. However, because of this shorter surf season, surfers indicated they would be more inclined to push through their concussive symptoms as a way to catch the larger and more consistent waves. This not only demonstrated the unique sporting environment in which surfing takes place, but also highlighted what previous concussion research has shown—that the sporting environment, such as the importance of an event, can influence an athlete’s willingness to (not) report a concussive injury.

With respect to pressures from other surfers, a number of participants indicated they would be more likely to surf with a concussion if there were other surfers present in the water. They also noted how surfing with friends often placed additional pressures to downplay or ignore their head injuries as a way to demonstrate to friends that they were “real” and “dedicated” surfers. Such findings illustrated surfers’ general willingness to seek out both risk-taking behaviours and thrill-seeking experiences in order to stay out in the water and present themselves as committed surfers.

Another key reason why surfers continued to surf with a concussion was due to the wave conditions present that day. Participants suggested that the conditions and size of the waves influenced surfers’ decisions on whether or not they would continue to surf following a concussive injury. As one surfer put it, “It’s super based on the waves. I mean, if the waves were the best I’ve ever seen, I’d have to fight…I would fight a concussion.” Similar responses were echoed by other participants in the study, illustrating that for many surfers, the thrill of wave chasing, and the search for transcendent experiences (through the catching of waves) appeared to outweigh their general concerns of concussion. Through interviews and participant observations, it became clear that underlying social, political, (sub)cultural, and environmental factors appeared to influence many of the surfers’ attitudes toward and understandings of concussion within surf culture, while also illustrating that ideas linked to risk seemed to influence many of the surfers’ decisions to continue surfing while concussed.

While this research stemmed from gaps in literature and my own personal experience of concussion, one of the main motivations for this research project was the story of Harley Taich and her experiences with a surfing-related concussion. Taich used her platform as a popular professional surfer to create awareness about the severity of concussion in surfing by authoring a children’s book, entitled, “Heads Up!” The Story of Finn and Reef, which educates children about concussion, the acceptance of injury, and importance of allowing time for recovery when dealing with a brain injury or other illness.

Through efforts from people like Harley Taich, and calls to action from researchers studying concussion, such as sociologist Dominic Malcolm’s call for a public sociology of sport-related concussion, more-and-more individuals are beginning to use their own (social media) platforms and public outlets to discuss the larger social, political, and (sub)cultural influences and implications of concussion within sporting cultures. For example, work from this project has been featured in media outlets such as The Guardian and Globe and Mail and has had the capacity to reach much larger audiences because of these public engagements. Through a commitment of sharing new and important information about concussion with larger audiences, it is both my hope and anticipation that the public dissemination of concussion knowledge and research has the ability to stimulate important conversations, networking, and new collaborations amongst various stakeholders, as we try to better understand this complex injury. These collaborations should include the voices of medical professionals, coaches, trainers, researchers, parents, and participants, as the voices of athletes are often excluded from important conversations about concussion. For example, taking a holistic approach toward the topic of concussion, and in collaboration with a number of stakeholders, Surf Canada developed one of the first surf-specific concussion protocols for surfers to engage with following a suspected concussion. Through similar efforts, and by accounting for and including a wide range of perspectives, researchers studying concussion can create a space where important issues related to concussion recognition, management, and prevention can be discussed and put into action through educational platforms, protocols, and policies across sporting bodies.

Nikolaus A. Dean is a PhD student in the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. Nikolaus’s research interests lie in areas related to the sociology of sport, youth (sub)cultures, action sport research, qualitative methods, and sport and leisure studies. A full version of the study, “‘You’re only falling into water!’: Exploring surfers’ understandings of concussion in Canadian surf culture” can be found in the journal Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health.