Can you get better at surfing? | Sending Swellnet

It seems like a simple question and at some basic level the answer has to be yes. We all came out of the womb, but somehow we have John John and Gabe doing ridiculous things on the waves. They got better. Most people who surf have managed to work their way into at least one basic skill set.

So let me rephrase the question: once you’ve established your skills at, say, 18, 20, or 25, can you keep improving?

Can you keep improving, can you improve your skills as an adult?

Spoiler: I say no, with very few exceptions. Here’s why.

Before you drop below the line, think about your homie Smitty getting better as an adult. You might find a name. You won’t find five. Think of the guy or girl who catches the most waves in your house, who surfs more than anyone – probably your buddy Smitty. Maybe they ride a hundred waves a week.

Smitty rode the hundredth wave just like the first. To correct..?

What catalyzed this topic was a series of instructional YouTube videos made by Scottish mountain bike star Ben Cathro. Improving Mountain Biking has been broken down into ten video segments beginning with a video on how to learn new skills. I was struck by how incredibly simple the process was compared to surfing. Cathro and a non-expert friend picked a new skill, broke it down, practiced it, and in the first episode nailed it. Too easy.

With a fully repeatable platform – the bike and the floor – they were able to achieve their reps by doing what Swedish psychologist Andres Ericsson called “deliberate practice” which is defined as “the engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in one area.”

Ericsson was the granddaddy of expert performance, a major influence on Malcolm Gladwell who came up with the famous 10,000 hour theory for learning mad skills. Neither man has tested their surfing theories.

While it doesn’t reference or even understand Ericsson’s work on expertise, a whole cottage industry has sprung up in surfing over the past decade designed to make you surf better, usually to a small or large sum. Nick Carroll’s books and video series were among the first modern incarnations, CT coach Martin Dunn has also been in the game for some time, YouTube star Kale Brock has focused on intermediate beginners and has found a willing audience, Brad Gerlach has his Wave- Method Ki, great South African waver Matt Bromley has a series, and now Ace Buchan has released a product to improve the skills of aspirants.

I probably missed a few. It is a booming field.

I have tried most of them and should describe any improvement as marginal, contingent and temporary.

From 2019 to 2020, I launched a major offensive to improve my skills. Great boards, good fitness level and the first year of La Nina coincided with when I felt like I was doing my best surfing ever. Then, a mental health crisis related to family confinement derailed the program and surfing had to drop to the bottom of the priority list. Whatever small progress I made, it was abandoned or just seemed too insignificant to continue. Wound struck. I couldn’t find the formula for the magic picture. In bodybuilding parlance, “I couldn’t lock in the gains.”

Improving is hard work. The hardest work is mental. Riding a wave happens so quickly, on such an incredibly complex surface that is the result of a matrix of natural forces and bathymetry that you cannot navigate your way through it. Reflection and reshaping of mental models must be done away from the ocean. Then you have to be prepared to translate those different mental models into different physical actions on a wave, which feels incredibly alien and goofy. How many waves are you ready to slaughter? How many sessions will you sacrifice to learn something new?

Want to watch the elite tier? Good. Skill sets are notoriously impervious to change there too.

Heat strategy aside, did Mick Fanning really do anything different in 2018 than he did in 2001 at twenty?

Have we seen John John’s 2017 high water mark in Margaret River broken by further performance gains over the next five years? Something as high as his backdoor alley oop in 2016?

Carissa Moore did a slick tune in Merewether Shore in 2021 and since then… nothing.

You will need to invoke the GOAT as an exception to prove the rule. At 40, he produced two of the greatest tunes ever seen competing at Bells Beach and New York in the early 2010s. Otherwise, his small surf skills are clearly receding.

The GOAT and its Bells Hail Mary Air in 2012 (Cestari/WSL)

We’ve seen the immense difficulty of improvement play out in real time this year on the women’s circuit. Despite tens of thousands of dollars in prize money, live broadcasts and open lineups as an incentive, elite athletes – who have no responsibilities other than to improve their surfing and perform world-class – have not been able to handle hollow lefts.

Can you surf worse? Sure.

At the elite level, the QS makes people surf less well. It’s a graveyard for proficient levels of surfing. Watch one of the raw clips of surfing in Bali with the local shredders in some good waves. Now go watch a QS heat in typically shitty surf. It destroys skill sets! People come out of long QS campaigns like worse surfers. The opportunity cost of surfing so much rubbish instead of good waves is significant.

Improvement is a seductive siren song on every level. Learning new things is incredibly sexy right now in this post-COVID era where work homers seek to make their extra free time more meaningful. Surfing is not immune to these broader cultural trends, especially among the COVID newbie boom cohort.

Yet reality encroaches on fantasy. We were told that the wave pool would be the solution to a quick improvement. Nearly seven years after Slater unveiled the Lemoore Tub, and four years after it debuted as a competition site, we have yet to see a material difference in performance levels there. On the contrary, performance has regressed to a more “safety first” standard. Almost three years after Melbourne’s Wavegarden opened, we’ve yet to see an army of QS wannabes flying out of Tullamarine after honing their skills in the Tub.

Seth Moniz pulled off a backflip in the Waco Tub, but four years later we have yet to see that replicated in the ocean. The promise of wavepool-mediated skill-set progression has been an illusion, a fantasy, a mirage in the desert appealing primarily to beginner-intermediate vanities.

We’re told that improvement and progression is the way to go and it’s the best way to have fun on a sled. Does even that sacred cow have to be lowered to the bottom pen and shipped? It seems the surf culture as a whole has already decided this question and I’m just saying it out loud. Mid-90s fishes, finless boats, alternatives, the mid-length revolution…it’s all about giving up on performance enhancement and relaxing in the ride.

If I think of my most memorable releases of the past decade, two immediately come to mind. A ten footer I whipped and went on the 2016 Nor’easter black swell and bomb landed at Kirra during TC Oma in Feb 2019. Maxing out and red-lining the whole wave on a 7’6″, total exhilaration but in all honesty i fucked it all up on both waves the video footage aside from the crash would definitely be devastating.

I know I could have done more, but could these waves have felt nothing better? Been more memorable? What was amazing was that I rode them, not how much I rode them.

Do not be afraid comrades. There is still room for improvement, as our Russian brothers are currently demonstrating in Bukit and the rest of Indonesia. Good waves, not too big, are the only proven way to improve. It seems incredible that the Woz, as a top body for professional surfing, cannot recognize this simple fact, while amateur surfers everywhere can.

You can’t get better – it’s too hard – but you can enjoy it more.


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