Mind Games with Mike Dowdy
This interview appears in the May issue of Alliance Wake
Mind Games w/ Mike Dowdy
by Garrett Cortese
What do you do when your mind starts to mess with you? What do you do when you can coordinate and control the most athletic of body movements while launching yourself over ten feet into the air behind a boat towing you 22 mph but you can’t control the thoughts swarming in your head? Like a blitzkrieg of mental explosions, those thoughts can bombard Mike Dowdy without warning, compounding on top of each other in a fury of uncontrollable mayhem. For most of his professional life this is the battle Dowdy has waged. Not one with learning new tricks and pushing the boundaries of wakeboarding farther than anyone thought possible, but rather a battle within himself and his own mind.
From the outside looking in Mike Dowdy has it made; unbelievable abilities on his wakeboard, some of the biggest sponsors in the sport – including a pro model board and bindings, a house on a lake, a beautiful girlfriend… and he just turned 22. But from the inside looking out the world of Mike Dowdy isn’t as cut and dry. When winning becomes more than a result, but a way of life, it can be more than just unhealthy; it can be crippling. And when you can’t win anymore because you’ve blown a knee and you’re off the water for the majority of a year; that is purgatory. It is there where Mike Dowdy found himself through most of 2014: physically incapable of riding and mentally powerless to handle it all. Ask anybody in his inner circle and you’d find out that the stress and pressures of being a young, top-level pro rider with self-inflicted unrealistic expectations were getting to the kid from Michigan.
But Dowdy’s signature determination got him healthy – physically, at least – and back on the water in epic fashion. He didn’t just come back from an injury, he stormed into 2015 and proceeded to blow everybody away. His X-Games Real Wake part was an in-your-face assault of some of the most progressive boat riding the sport has ever seen. And he followed that up by placing third overall in the Wakeboard World Series standings. But it wasn’t enough to ease the onslaught of self doubt, especially when results weren’t up to his seemingly impossible standards. It came to a head at the end of the year, when a triumphant victory at the Houston Pro was followed up by a lackluster result in Cancun. Mike’s mind taunted him until he couldn’t handle it anymore. He broke down and knew it was time to do something about it. My conversations with Mike ranged from what he is doing about it, to his Real Wake performance, to studying his psychological makeup, to hydroponic gardens, and beyond. Ultimately I came to realize that Mike is one of the most interesting riders you can meet in wakeboarding today, and his openness about who he is, who he was, and who he wants to become is refreshing – especially in today’s hollow world of social media lives.
Real Wake was the big deal last year, let’s start there. Were you happy with your Real Wake part? Did you do everything you wanted? No, but I think that’s the nature of a video part. There was one trick I really wanted to get but unfortunately I just ran out of time. Other than that though I’d say it’s the best video part I’ve ever put together. I had a lot of tricks in there that I wanted to land, so I was pretty psyched. Have you landed that trick since then? No, it’s still a work in progress (laughs). What did you think of how your part was received? I thought it was a testament to boat riding – that it’s not dead and gone. I thought it was cool how stoked people got on it. Obviously I recognize that the sport is going in different directions – and that’s something that I want to be a part of. I want to be good at rails and I want to winch more, but just at that moment in time and in going for a Real Wake part, I obviously wanted to play to my strengths so I stuck with boat. I don’t know if people know this, but Shredtown voted for you in the contest. Yeah, that was cool, especially because they didn’t have any boat riding and I didn’t have any winching. So you do see yourself doing more than boat riding in the future? Yeah I’d say so. It’s cool to be an all around good rider. When you look at guys like Raph and Rathy who are good at everything it’s inspiring to me to go out and push myself and learn new stuff. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about: to keep growing and learning. How hard was it to go into filming for Real Wake in your first year back from knee surgery? It was definitely tough mentally. When you’re off the water for six to eight months it does a lot more damage than just make your riding rusty. I had to take the bull by the horns though and go for it. I had this opportunity in front of me and I didn’t want to not take advantage of it because of some fears. You’re sitting there like, “Okay, Danny Harf has four X-Games gold medals. This is gonna be all over the world. If you want to do it you’ve got to give it 110 percent.” And I still have some of those fears today, like “Man, what if I get hurt again?” but it’s just something where I’ve had to learn to direct my attention elsewhere. As a wakeboarder you just have to be okay with the uncertainty and know that life will be alright one way or another.
How do you use your vision/goal board to help you with your riding? I make a vision board every year and it just keeps me grounded to things I want to achieve. There’s a lot of shit going on in my life: I’ve got a lot to juggle just being a wakeboarder with different contests, demos, obligations, etc, but I’m also a homeowner with a mortgage, I have a serious girlfriend, we’ve got two dogs, and other real world stuff… and I’ve got to be able to juggle these aspects of my life. So the vision board really gives me the opportunity to set some things in stone that I want to achieve and helps keep me focused on the goals that I have. I can ask myself each day what am I doing to make it one step closer to these things I’ve written down. How did you get into this practice? It’s just something I’ve done on my own. Especially after my knee injury I was just so upset – I had a lot of doubts and uncertainties, like why did this happen to me? It stemmed from that. I was always obsessed with my performance and just trying to get better. I’d ride really good at home, but then go to a contest and suck. It made me want to figure out why. Last year was the first year I started using a vision board and I charted all my successes and tried to figure out key attributes on days that I did really well. So I really started to try to get inside my head and figure out what helps me and what doesn’t help me. Everyone has a brain, and one of the mental strength consultants that I did meet through Red Bull told us that the average human has 70,000 thoughts a day. Obviously trying to manage that constructively is pretty challenging, but he told me that having appropriate goals makes it easier to manage and stay on track. So did you feel like you were playing mind games with yourself? Oh yeah. I definitely still do. It’s a learning process and I still haven’t figured out the right answer – or if there even is a right answer. It’s just a matter of figuring out what works for me – going inside my own mind and seeing if something doesn’t work, then going back to the drawing board. And then if something does work, how can I expand on it to help me more going forward? It’s kind of a game. A tough game. Yeah definitely. I think some people are comfortable having a thought and letting it pass – without giving it a second thought, you know? They don’t try to capture it and use it in a constructive way. That’s really what I’m trying to do. I’m not different than anyone else; I have a million thoughts going through my head, too. I’m just trying to learn to manage them in a more constructive way so I can achieve these high levels of performance. Well and you take being a professional wakeboarder seriously. Yeah, too seriously sometimes (laughs).
Was wakeboarding consuming you too much and you were always thinking about it? Yeah, for sure. It was pretty much at the end of 2015 when I won the Houston Pro and then went to Cancun and didn’t even make the finals. I had a complete meltdown. That’s when I realized I was taking things way too seriously and I needed to step off the gas and just take things as they come more. So that’s when I started doing more psychology research and stuff. What are those thoughts like for you? It was mostly self doubt. A lot of negative thoughts consumed the majority of my thought process, which I think is true for a lot of people today. I would say things to myself that I would never even think about saying out loud to another person. It’s the single hardest battle I have ever faced, and one I continue to face today. For me, a lot of it comes down to tolerating mistakes. When I would do bad in a event, it was an emotional roller coaster, with disappointment and frustration at the front of it. It was discouraging to ride bad in a contest knowing there was so much more in the tank. I think for me I’m going through a perspective shift where I’m learning to decouple myself from wakeboarding. To where I’m a person who also wakeboards, not a wakeboarder who is also a person. I think it’s important for my growth to make this change and recognize that my self worth doesn’t hang on the results of every event. Early on after winning Jr. Men’s you got big sponsors – Nautique, Billabong, Red Bull – right in a row. Did you put even more pressure on yourself because of that? Yeah, definitely. But I think it stemmed from even farther back when I was competing in grassroots stuff. I had a lot of success when I was young so winning became really important and I hated losing – couldn’t handle it. But that approach to anything isn’t going to optimize your performance – when all you’re thinking about is winning. There’s a process to things, so you have to figure out that process and figure out what works for you. When I started getting success and sponsors I expected to win and I think other people expected me to win, too. But I’d only been thinking about winning and not about the process, and that wasn’t permitting me to do what I was capable of doing. So it’s been a long road of just trying to figure out myself, really, and try to make sense of who I am as a person and what my purpose is in life, because I’ve learned there’s a lot more to it than just winning. How do you keep wakeboarding fun when… When I can make it so stressful on myself? Yeah. I think actually going to the gym helps me keep it fun, as crazy as that sounds. Lifting weights sucks, but I’ve found that I burn off my negative energy at the gym, too. So when I’m out riding I don’t carry that negative energy with me anymore. That helps with the frustration I can experience when I allow pressure to build up, so even if I have a bad set I can just take my board off and tell myself it’s cool, I can ride again later. As for just keeping it fun, I’ll go out and do a run of just basic tricks. Like I’m pretty bad at switch toeside, so sometimes I’ll just go out and have fun trying to make myself get better at that with a switch toeside indy or backside 180. Playing around with simple stuff can keep things fun.
What do you do when you feel like you’re taking wakeboarding too seriously? How do you tell yourself “timeout”? I just wait. I don’t know how spiritual other people are, but I believe in God to the fullest, so I think God has a plan for me and everybody else. Sometimes God will have an answer for you right away, but sometimes he wants you to wait. I just try to be patient and know that there is a bigger purpose. Trying to force it usually just makes it worse. Like the expression that the only thing you can control in life is the way you react to things? Exactly. Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it. In terms of controlling your career, what impact do you want to leave on wakeboarding? What do you want to be known for? When I was younger I always wanted to be the best, that’s what drove me. I wanted to be the next Danny Harf or Parks. Now that I’m here where I’m at though, I understand that that isn’t achievable. There is no next Danny or Parks, because it’s all subjective – what people like or don’t like. I can only be the best Mike Dowdy. So I think the mark that I want to leave is that you can overcome whatever you want. You can be resilient in life and achieve whatever you want to achieve. You can shift your perspective – in my case there were periods where I was too cocky or too angry or whatever – but you can change. And you can learn and progress yourself as a person. When you tell yourself to take a timeout from thinking about wakeboarding, what do you do? What do you do for fun? I have a lot of house projects I really like to get into. I’ve really gotten into my hydroponic garden and growing different vegetables and herbs. I like hanging out with my girlfriend and the dogs. Hockey – we went to the Red Wings vs. Lightning game in Tampa the other night for my birthday. I really just try to leave competitive wakeboarding on the water and try not to think about it when I need time away, because the more you think about it the more it eats at you and the more negative it can become. As you try to remove negative thought processes from your life, but also being a super determined and focused rider, what motivates you? There are so many things that motivate me, it’s never one particular area. A lot of people are familiar with a psychology theory called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Model, which describes what motivates humans to take the actions they do. Basically there is a lot of science that shows that there are always factors that are altering what motivates a person. For me, I try to stay motivated by creating a cycle of learning and mastering skills, and then learning new ones and starting the cycle over. But this isn’t always an easy task. With so much going on in my life it’s sometimes easy for my motivation to get hijacked. I just try to get myself rebalanced and refocused to what I really want in life, which is the ability to keep growing as a person first, and a rider second.
What advice would you give then to a 15-16 year old kid that wants to be a great competitive wakeboarder? Be willing to learn. I see a lot of kids, even guys that I’ve lived with, that think they have the answer to everything, which is foolish. If you’re not willing to learn and you’re not willing to understand the process behind things, then you might as well just get out of the way because there’s going to be someone coming along who’s willing to take that step. I was one of those people that pushed myself to learn, Harley was one of those people too. A lot of kids coming up are just focused on the end result, like calling themselves a pro wakeboarder, or saying I landed a double flip, but they’re not focusing on the process of what it takes to get there. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned? Hmmm… probably to just let your riding do the talking. I think a lot of people get really defensive and can get overwhelmed when they see other people having success, especially with social media. People are always comparing others and stuff like that, so I think you just gotta learn that you’re your own individual. I learned to be comfortable being my own person, that I can’t just compare myself to all these other things. If you let your riding do the talking and you’re willing to grow as a person and go the extra mile to get there, then good things will happen. And the next step in the learning process? I’ve basically made it this far in my career with tons of help from my family, friends, and sponsors; along with a lot of willpower. But most people know that willpower is a finite object and isn’t sustainable. That’s why I’m trying to look at different ways of thinking because I can only run on willpower so long before it runs out. That’s why I’m so motivated to learn more and continue to evolve and grow. So in all that you’ve been through the last few years, how would you describe yourself in ten words or less? Someone who is always learning, someone who is always becoming.