Your Reflexes Are The ‘Make or Break’ Factor

Words by: Hunter Visser

When was the last time you got hurt? Were you thinking about what you were doing? Were you looking at where you were going, or what could be coming at you?

Chances are you weren’t.

And chances are, your reflexes didn’t save you, which is often the ‘make or break’ factor in how severe an injury can be…

Photo courtesy of Long Beach Lodge, Tofino BC

Back in August, I was surfing in Tofino, BC. I’m a beginner surfer and had only graduated from the ‘whitewash’ to the real waves a few days earlier. Two important habits any surf instructor will tell you to build are ‘be patient’ and ‘look where others are around you.’ The reason for these two warnings–especially during peak tourist season–is to remind you to look out for other people and their surfboards. When you’re out in the water it’s easy to forget how much a surfboard can hurt you (they’re big, dense, heavy, and can travel with a lot of force).

It was nearing the end of our week-long surf trip and I was improving drastically. My timing was getting better for catching waves, I was starting to feel like I had the hang of it! 

I had already been in the water for a few hours, and it was getting towards the end of my session. All of a sudden I saw it coming in–the wave I was waiting for–and I was in perfect position! I looked to my left, looked to my right, and took off paddling for the wave, assuming the surfer to my left wasn’t going for this wave giving me right of way. Just as my board was picking up speed and I was preparing to stand up, I took one last look to my left. Before I had a chance to react there was a ten-foot surfboard colliding with my nose. I knew instantly my nose was broken. Fortunately, I wasn’t knocked unconscious, but I felt light-headed and suspected a concussion had resulted from the impact. 

As I rode the wave in on my stomach I started to feel frustrated. This was the best wave of the trip, I was in the best position I had been all week to catch a wave, and I had caught it perfectly (albeit on my stomach). As a reward, I received a broken nose and a concussion—just my luck. I also felt frustrated that the other surfer had gone even though there wasn’t a chance he would be able to catch the wave from his position. What happened was, he tried, realized catching the wave was futile, and kicked his board away as the wave crashed over the top of him. 

After visiting the hospital to reset my nose and confirm my concussion I sat down and thought to myself, what could I have done to prevent this injury? 

The reality is, I didn’t get a reflex. Because I hadn’t built a strong habit of looking at others in the water and where they were going, I wasn’t able to anticipate the ten-foot surfboard coming straight at my head. If I had stronger habits with looking before moving in the water, I could have seen the other surfer and waited for a different wave, or at least tried to stop the surfboard with my hand.

Missing a reflex isn’t just a surfing problem, this happens in every sport. There are rules in many contact sports to prevent hits from behind and coaches repeatedly tell their athletes to look before crossing the ice or field to avoid blind hits. 

In my life, the majority of my injuries have come from times when I didn’t get a reflex. It makes sense; if you don’t see ‘it’ coming, how could you possibly react in time to minimize the blow, fall, or hit. 

This brings us back to the importance of working on our habits with eyes on task:

  1. Move your eyes first before moving (in high traffic areas, on the field/court/ice, around corners, in the change room, etc.)
  2. Look for line-of-fire potential before moving (other players, blind-side hits, in the gym, parking lots, etc.)
  3. Look for things that could cause you to lose your balance, traction, or grip (shoelaces, slippery floors, wet grass, sweaty hands, ice patches, etc.)
  4. Get your eyes back on task if you’ve been distracted (while running/moving, receiving a pass, etc.)

Simply working on these four habits will help us not only prevent injuries they will help us improve our performance.

Eyes on task = Focus

Focus = Performance

PS – It took me around two months to recover from my injuries and I’m grateful to feel back to normal.

Will I go surfing again? Certainly.

Will I work harder on my habits of looking before moving next time I’m in the water? You bet! 

Have a fun, friendly, safe, and healthy November!

~ Hunter Visser

For more info on HeadStartPro, the Critical Error Reduction Techniques, a full list of performance-related habits, and other strategies for achieving peak performance check out our online courses for coaches and athletes:

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