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Exercise and Sports Psychology

Bethany Hamilton: What makes a successful athlete?

Prerna Dayal

Bryant University


This application paper undertakes to elaborate various exercise and sport psychology aspects which are relative to the career of a well-known female surfer Bethany Hamilton. It looks at various aspects of her life, and how she applied certain sports psychology principals that helped her become a successful athlete and overcome numerous obstacles.


Bethany Hamilton was born in Lihue, Kauai, Hawaii on February 8 1990. She grew up with two older brothers Noah and Tim. All members of her family had a history and surfing and exposed Bethany to competitive surfing at age 8. Nature and Nurture both intended for her to become one the greatest athletes with her family’s support throughout the process. At age 9 Bethany received her first sponsorship by Rip Curl and by age 13, came second in the NSSA national championships in California.

On October 31st 2003 the water Bethany was lying on with her surf was gleaming and unruffled, what came next was a life changing event for her. She suddenly noticed something grab hold of her entire arm pulling her back and forth, until she saw a pool of red in the water realizing her arm was gone. Within no time the enormous 14ft Tiger shark disappeared into the deep waters. 13-year-old Bethany couldn’t fathom what had happed, as her friend slowly dragged her 200 yards using a surfboard leash. The shark bite was an extremely exasperating since she no longer had an arm; one of the most important tools for surfing. Bethany took it upon herself to change this notion and returned to the water just one month after the attack. The radical change in her body was difficult to adjust to, however, she showed astonishing recovery and a positive attitude. In an interview with ABC News, she mentions "Well, I think that I should just have a positive attitude toward things and the challenges coming up and if I have a bad attitude, then it's not really going to make it anything better. If I don't get back on my board, I'll be in a bad mood forever." This shows that she wasn't obligated to express that she could successfully bounce back, but most importantly for her own satisfaction. Bethany surfed for the love of the sport, surfing was in her blood, and she chose to outshine in the male-dominated sport.

Bethany began receiving a lot of support from her fans after returning to the waters. She used this opportunity to motivate others. Her father helped her get back into surfing, and her family was very supportive. She put her heart and soul into relearning how to surf as she mentions "the transition from two arms to one was far from easy". After one year of rigorous training, Bethany competed in the National Surfing Championship and won her first national trophy. There was no turning back for her she won several championships and began writing about her journey as a surfer. She was also awarded the Best Comeback Athlete by ESPY in 2004 and received the Courage Teen Choice award. Along with continued participation competitively and solely for pleasure MTV published her autobiography the same year called Soul Surfer: A true Story of Faith, Family and Fighting to Get Back on the Board. She received a worthy response for her best-selling book and created a documentary of the book in 2007. In the documentary she talks highly about her faith and how it helped her overcome so many obstacles as a teenager and after the release she claimed that her determination began to decline. She married Adam Dirks in August 2013 and announced that she was pregnant in 2015. Her husband encouraged Bethany to surf competitively and bring her spark back, just one year after their marriage she won the Pipelines Women’s Pro Competition.


Bethany Hamilton’s incident of a shark attack was the last thing a surfer could expect while surfing, she lost one of the very significant body part used for the sport. Losing an arm is not only frustrating for an athlete but also difficult to deal with during teenage years, where people are still learning about their bodies. The highest rates of issues related to body image occur during the teen and early adulthood years. However, Bethany was very motivated towards her goal and had a strong sense of self, she was unstoppable despite the harsh circumstances. She claims that her faith in god was something that helped her stay motivated even before the shark attack. Her confidence in god made her believe that everything that was happening to her happened for a bigger and much greater reason. It took the load off her shoulders and lowered her stress levels.

She had a high Achievement Motivation which is the desire to strive for task success, persist in the face of failure and have pride in accomplishments. In her interview with Tampa Bay she mentions (2015) "Just dealing with fame and becoming a girl and struggling with my body image and the media and this world that we live in is so incredibly challenging, it can really bring you down." Her journey was incredibly hard, but she had the power to bounce back hastily. She felt threatened in various situations while learning how to surf and swim again. Bethany mentions (2015) "I think at first, adjusting to life with one arm was essentially really challenging because I was so used to doing everything with two arms, and all of the sudden, I'm relearning how to put my hair up and relearning how to surf. I remember trying to paddle out surfing, and there were just waves crashing on me over and over again. Sometimes I would come in crying and frustrated and discouraged." Her achievements motivated her to further motivate other people and being a role model for all her supporters and fans. According to the 5 personality viewpoints Bethany successful fits into the Phenomenological Approach where the person uses they understanding and interpretation of the situation that determines their behavior. She interpreted her shark bite as a learning and never looked at it as a shortcoming she adopted a much more adaptive approach.

Achievement of Goal Theory

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Bethany Hamilton gave birth to her first child after which she continued training rigorously since she had time constraints to train she used her time more judiciously. She competed in the WST Swatch Women’s Pro and stood in the 13th position. Bethany, claims that it was disappointing to lose, but it was also a good learning to motivate her so that she could do better in the future. She focused on both Achievement goals; outcome oriented as well as Task oriented. This determines that she placed a lot of stress on winning as well as getting better to reach optimal performance. She mentioned in an interview with The Guardian (2015) that "I want to make the most of it, so I feel like I'm wiser with my time now." Bethany experienced role conflict at this stage due to the conflicting demands of competing and being a mother. Yet she persisted to compete further and was supported by her husband at every step, he chose to be a stay at home dad to let Bethany fulfil her training requirements. She looked for more challenging situations and won third place in the Fiji Women's Pro Competition. In the process, she beat Stephanie Gilmore and Tyler Wright, who were the top-ranked surfers and world champions for surfing. She also got nominated for her first WSL Big Wave Award for her performance on the wave Jaws after her period of loss.


Competence motivation theory –feelings of competence, worthiness and control influence motivation. The basis of this theory is on the assumption that humans have an inborn motivation to be competent. The competence perception is relative to a person’s effective sate or urge. For instance in the positive effect of this perception, one attempts to follow success for mastery purposes while the negative side following lack of success in bid to improve. In the case of Bethany it was a positive effect as she sought to master the skill of surfing she once was an expert in. The urge to be perceived as competent after losing a limb may have also played a role of getting her back to the ocean once again she always said that sports should not have a disable section but a “section for those who are good at the sport in a unique manner”.


She always set extremely high standards for herself which is what made her a perfectionist. She spent hours training just to be on top, but she used every wave as an opportunity to train, make a mistake and pick herself up. Despite all other distractions after she began to gain fame she made sure to take out time for training. This is a great example of Adaptive perfectionism where there is a healthy commitment to achieve goals.


The term leader has many definitions, but one commonly used definition is that a leader a person who inspires a group of individuals towards the attainment of their set goals or a person who sets a good example to others on how something should be done. In conjunction with this subheading, it is very clear that Bethany Hamilton has portrayed leadership qualities through various actions she has shown to the society.

Bethany Hamilton's efforts to overcome her disability is relative to a whole group in the society who have disabilities. As it is the norm in the society, people either born with a disability or either those that have acquired a disability are seen as inferior to those people without any disabilities. It is prevalent in the modern day society that people with disabilities are looked down upon and are usually perceived to lack any ability to contribute something important to the society, but Bethany has beaten all odds to overcome that misleading perception.

By chasing her dreams and overcoming various obstacles that stood in the way, Bethany was able to overcome her disability and become a professional surfer. Having set such standards, she has shown other people with a disability that anything can be achieved if you put your mind to it. She has also set a good leadership goal by motivating them to pursue their dreams no matter the disabilities that face them.

Apart from the motivation she gives to people with disabilities, Bethany also sets a good example as a leader as run her charity works such as "The Friends of Bethany" which works to help amputees and survivors of shark attacks. On top of that, she has published some books such as: Devotion for the Soul Surfer, Rise Above, Ask Bethany and A Soul Surfer Bible which not provide motivation to people with disabilities but also to normal people who just lack motivation. Other attributes that portray Bethany as a leader is the perseverance, passion and the courage she has in doing what she does. Not many surfers have had encounters with sharks and still have the guts of going back to the ocean. The passion for surfing which is what made her go back to surfing is also a clear indicator she is an emergent leader as leaders love what they do without being coerced in anyway


Despite Bethany facing many adversities, she has used many of her accomplishments to inspire faith and hope among those who lack motivation. After her attack, Bethany kept a confident attitude, and she hoped to proclaim the word of God and inspire others to have faith anmd trrust in God too. "Raised in a religious family, she clung to the idea that she was part of a greater plan" (Hamilton 2012). Bethany made appearances on many talk shows such as Oprah, and she was interviewed for numerous newspaper and magazine articles that were printed globally. Additionally she has a movie based on her novel ‘The Soul Surfer’. Bethany works hand in hand with organizations such as the World Vision Foundation to help children with disabilities, and taking it upon herself to attend mission trips with her church to help others such as visiting Thailand to help reconstruct homes after a tsunami disaster (Hamilton 2010).

Furthermore, Bethany started a non-profit corporation called 'Friends of Bethany' to help other people who have lost limbs; the organization provides emotional support and tries to help families in monetary need with supply of prosthetics. Also, Bethany's novel Soul Surfer reached the top of the bestseller list, and one of her main priorities for writing her story was to help others deal with difficult moments and find relief and faith in God to overcome their strife’s (Hamilton 2012). Bethany has also won several inspirational awards such as the Best Comeback Athlete ESPY Award and the Special Courage Award at the Teen Choice Awards in 2004 .Also, she has maintained to surf competitively and has won numerous surfing awards. In 2004, she placed fifth in the Pro Junior NSSA regional event in Hawaii only after few months on making her comeback. In the year of 2007, Hamilton completed in the top 20 surfers at both the U.S. Open tournament in Huntington and the Reef Hawaiian Pro competition.

She finished as the fourteenth position on the Women’s World Qualifying Series in 2008 and 2009. Bethany believes, "It's exciting to know that by being who I am and all that I've been through, I've had a positive influence on those who require overcoming a barrier to accomplish a goal" (Sandler, 2007). All in all, Bethany Hamilton has achieved many great accomplishments and inspired millions of people worldwide to keep their faith and strive for achievements despite adversities that they have encountered.


Also referred to as PST, is a consistent practice of psychological or mental skills. Such mental skills include regulation of arousal levels or maintenance of concentration skills. Psychological skills training is very important to sports participants because at times they fall victim to various mental letdowns or their mistakes thus this mental aspect often overshadows their physical performance aspect but PST functions to regulate this kind of behavior( Kornspan, 2009). With this kind of training sports men and women can enhance their performance as they are well equipped whether mentally or physically.

For people like Bethany who have had a traumatic experience, this kind of training can come in handy. This is because this traumatic experiences usually affect the performance as traumatic experiences are bound to affect subjects psychologically. For Bethany, after losing her hand, she had to make many readjustments, especially in her training. The reality of surfing with one hand was also hard to accept, but eventually, she overcame all these setbacks. Were it not for her attributes of a tough mental athlete she could not have made it. The attributes that make a mentally tough athletes include, remaining unaffected by competition and adversity for instance in the case of Bethany the shark attack leading to amputation to one of her hands did not deter her from pursuing her dreams. Through rehabilitation conducted medical professionals, surfing training and intense workouts and the right mental attitude, Bethany is what she is today.


Communication can be simply defined as the action of conveying anticipated meanings from a person or a group to another group or a person. Communication is a very important aspect of the day to day events of every individual. For individuals who have verbal impairment established forms of communication have been established which help them to go about their lives like normal people.

For people who have undergone any traumatic experience, communication is very important. This is because it helps in reducing the trauma that may have been inflicted and ultimately, eradicate it. For the case of Bethany who also had a traumatic experience, communication came in handy to erase the trauma caused and thus healing emotionally so as getting back to surfing. Frequent communication with family members and concerned professionals helped a lot. In her book The Soul Surfer, Bethany explains how she used to joke around and make fun of herself with members of her family and hospital attendants which in return assisted her to accept who she was eventually helping her overcome her trauma.

Communication to her worldwide readers through her books about her spiritual journey has strengthened her as she talks about her acceptance of the events that happened. Bethany talks about accepting the situation without asking any questions why it happened to her but rather embracing it and growing stronger in God's faith. Her books also act as a source of motivation to many of her readers globally who are about to despair due to trauma or other similar adverse situations.


Successful athletes have various common traits that often contribute to their success. They are consistent in their day to day workout and fitness routines. Despite losing one limb Bethany has learnt to exercise intensely to keep her body fit for surfing competitions a trait she has acquired.They have realistic expectations and work towards them. It was absurd for Bethany to think after her injury she would go on with surfing normally. She knew it was going to be a hard journey and put her mind to it. A trait she acquired and learnt after her ordeal. They have a burning desire to improve on their mistakes and to perfect what they do. Bethany passion for surfing is what made her go back to surfing even after the incident which is not an acquired trait. They have unwavering focus on their set targets. Despite having trouble to get back on the board Bethany did not despair rather she put more effort which is an acquired trait.


Arousal regulation refers to the ability or the capacity to be in a position to control your emotions. Arousal regulation is important because of the following reasons: it helps people to remain focused, it helps subjects to take control of their emotions and final it assists in recuperating from various setbacks (Thatcher & Rahman, 2011). The setbacks may include injuries, poor performance or maybe failing to make the cut for the travelling team.

In the cause of Bethany, an amputation of a limb was the setback she was facing. The loss of a limb or any body part is not an incidence many people are likely to take lightly or overcome whether adults or children, but Bethany was determined to do so. The ability to put her emotions under control helped her understand what is, cannot change. Bethany in her book The Soul Surfer explains how she had made a decision not to pity herself or allow anyone else to. She was not willing to sit around and do nothing either. Bethany also explains how most of the times she would come out of the water after she was unable to swim or keep balance but ultimately she was able through keeping her emotions in control and eventually focusing.


The imagery in sports basically refers to using all your senses while rehearsing your sport in your mind. Imagery in sports has a number of benefits which include: boosting the ability to compete effectively, it helps the subjects involved to make the most out of training, it assists in helping the subjects involved to remain motivated and finally it helps subjects to keep in good form even when training is hard or next to impossible at all especially after injuries (Kornspan, 2009).

In the instance of Bethany after the aftermath of the shark attack, through therapy, she was able to recuperate. But the major setback she faced was learning to surf without an arm. It is her visualization of seeing herself getting on that surfboard that enabled her to do so without forgetting support from family and friends and the great love for surfing.


To conclude, Bethany Hamilton's is a passionate surfer who was inspired by her parents and siblings and religious faith, struggled through hardships caused by a shark attack, yet used her achievements to encourage others to have faith and hope. Bethany overcame a tragic shark attack that could have ended her surfing career or even ended her life, yet her determination to believe in herself and God has made her known globally as a living miracle and motivation. Bethany believes, “I’m living proof that there’s no such thing as a handicap. It’s only in your head" (Hamilton, 138). As she proceeds to travel around the world while attending and volunteering to aid others in need, Bethany will continue to develop her legacy as a strong-minded and caring soul. Bethany strives to prevail as an icon of hope and inspiration by touching lives through her platform of faith and sport. Overall, Bethany Hamilton’s legacy of faith and hope to overcome difficulty will continue to live on even long after her time.

Bethany Hamilton set an example for millions of people and made various contributions to get her personal message out in the world. She used her experiences for personal growth and life skills. She continues to be an important figure and inspiration, a fearless and courageous woman.


Barney, L. (2016, August 25). Bethany Hamilton: surfing with only one arm isn't as hard as beating the stigma. Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

Bethany Hamilton talks surf and overcoming obstacles. (2015, May 13). Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

Hamilton, B. & Rikkers, D. (2010). Ask Bethany : FAQs : surfing, faith & friends. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zonderkidz.

Hamilton, B. (2012). Soul Surfer : A True Story of Faith, Family and Fighting to Get Back on the Board. New York: Simon & Schuster UK

Kornspan, A. (2009). Fundamentals of sport and exercise psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Sandler, M. (2007). Bethany Hamilton : follow your dreams. New York: Bearport Pub.

Surfing Star Bethany Hamilton Goes Inside The Ride Of Her Lifetime. (n.d.). Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

Thatcher, J., Day, M. & Rahman, R. (2011). Sport and exercise psychology. Exeter England: Learning Matters

News, A. (Ed.). (2005, November 21). Young Surfer Tells Tale of Shark Attack. Retrieved November 15, 2017, from

Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D.). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology. (6th edition.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


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