hitting people in the surf
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Look where you want to go: How to avoid hitting people in the surf and all-round improve your surfing

Are people getting in your way in the surf? This week will cover that but also how looking where you are going is the solution to so many of your problems in surfing.

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The Full Guide

This one is easy, right? Where ever you want to go, just look there. It’s so obvious, we do it all the time in our daily lives and know to do it for practically most of the time we are awake.

So why the hell don’t we do it in the surf then?

Going to do a turn and see someone in the way? Most people freak out, freeze and kick the board away or do something similar, not finishing the turn.

What about beginners, just catching the wave or riding it and someone is in the way and it’s like this person is a magnet drawing you to them, can’t look away, can’t steer away from it, you contort your body in every way to try get away from them, but somehow still end up veering right towards them and either colliding or narrowly colliding them.

This happens so often in any crowded line-up, regardless of your skill level or what you are riding. 

People in the way will always be in the way, can’t fight it, but the fix to avoiding these collisions is so easy in nature but hard to implement due to the state of your mind.

It is also, the same fix for pretty much everything you do in surfing.

Look where you want to go….always

Take away the collision, the fear aspect and the mental part of things, we’ll get to that later.

If you want to go somewhere on the wave, you have got to look there first. If you can’t see where you are going, how the heck do you expect to figure out how to get there?

If you don’t look back at the foam during a cutback, how are you going to get there? 

You have to look through your turns, not at them. Looking back your spray cuts the turn short, it disengages the twist. Not following through with looking through the turn, cuts the turn short.

Take this out of surfing and look at golf, obvious case not to stare at the ball or stop the follow through when swinging a club. Exactly the same thing in surfing. You’ve got to let the movement flow and that includes where you look.

At least have the decency to look at the wave

Bringing this back to surfing, at least have the decency to look at the wave. If you don’t see what the wave is doing, you can’t respond to it. You can’t time anything nor figure out how much to put into those movements.

You get all this information from looking at the wave and observing it.

Surfers who are in flow, are really just reading the wave and then timing their movements well and moving efficiently to match what the wave is telling them.

So next surf, try paying a bit more attention to what the wave is doing and start noticing more. This may feel counterintuitive but you are doing less to feel more. Slowing down, to speed up.

You first have to read the wave, and then if you want to ride down the wave, you have to look at where you want to go. If you look right down at the very bottom of the wave though, you will go straight down and potentially nose dive or go out into the flats.

Want to go back up the wave, you have to look at the lip first, if you go to do a bottom turn and look at the shoulder and not the pocket, you will project to the shoulder every time.

Not a single chance you will hit the lip in the pocket if you are stuck looking at the shoulder. 

Try this exercise next surf

You can also try this next part on a skateboard or slow your surfing down to feel it.

Start with some motion or on the wave and simply find your neutral stance, relax and breathe. Now you can control where you are going by looking where you want to go. Much easier on a skateboard as you have all the time in the world. But by slowly changing where you are looking and holding this, you begin to move in the direction you are looking.

It’s the same thing again with looking and pointing. Look where you want to go and point the hands and knees in that same direction. Your board will follow. You are sending the signal to say hey, go this way and it’s not being muddled in confusing whacky flailing arms and stances.

Use your peripheral vision

So we do this every single day, day in day out, task after task. We take in the world around us via our peripheral vision. If you are driving your car, you don’t look 5 metres ahead of the car to figure out what traffic is doing, how tight the corner is or whatever other information you need to keep driving safely. 

If you don’t use your peripheral vision, things start getting dicey or in bumper to bumper traffic, and you don’t notice everyone else slowing down until it’s the car in front of you. It’s too late and you’ve gotta slam the breaks.

You need to do the same thing in surfing. 

Often you’ll see people at surf schools will be staring straight down at the nose of the board like they are mentally saying “stop moving, why won’t you stay still?”. They have no control over the board and can;t see the people in front of them. They are not looking where they are going and basically turning their board into a mechanical bull machine, responding to it and fighting it’s every movement instead of telling the board what to do.

If they looked up to where they wanted to go, and used their peripheral vision, they would stabilise the board and see all the people need to avoid and be able to pick a line.

It’s the same with turning, you need to observe everything around you within your strike range, what is the wave doing and who is in the way so you can pick the right line to take.

Surfing is all about the line you take on the wave and the easy solution to changing your line or not changing it starts with where you look.

Want to improve your turns, change where you look. 

Want to improve your position on a wave, change where you look and use your peripheral vision.

Your mind already knows what to do

Something we never notice is that by looking and using our peripheral vision, our mind knows what to do. By simply looking at all the information in front of you and taking it in, the mind can do all the subconscious maths to figure out how to make that happen. 

If you think about this outside of surfing and think about going down a steep hill or climbing over the rocks at more secluded beaches. Your brain will often connect all the dots and subconsciously move the way it needs to achieve that result, so long as you are calm and relaxed and looking where you are going, not down at your feet.

This is something I learned as a young apprentice carpenter climbing around on house frames and building the frames for roofs. You have 70mm of footing and the more you fuss over the fear or questioning every step, the worse I would move and more likely I would fall. If I moved with purpose and looked to where I wanted to go, my balance was 10x better. It’s the same thing as climbing rocks with a surfboard. 

Your mind will figure it all out if it knows how to move and can see the path. This is the same with doing your bottom turns and following through with other turns. This is why we don’t need to overthink our surfing too much as the body will find what's comfortable and figure out the math, how hard to push, how high to jump, how fast to twist or how hard to lean. It’s all subconsciously figured out by taking in the information and looking where you are going. 

Avoiding collisions in the surf

Bringing it back to avoiding collisions. It is the same concept when you are in that moment of panic, thinking oh crap this person is in my way and they are not moving. You’ve locked eyes and thought just move you dingo, trying to send them some mental message.

This is inevitable at every crowded break, there will always be someone in your way, regardless if you are a beginner just trying to find your feet or you are working on your turns. Someone seems to always magically appear in the wrong spot and freeze up, making it even worse for you.

The solution is obviously not to stare at them, despite how magnetic of a presence they have. Look where you want to go.

If that is directly into their face, then so be it, but ideally, we want to avoid these people and surf the wave without missing it.

So at this point, you need to pick the right line if you are doing turns, how can you fit it in with that person being there and if you are just going straight and cruising, you want to look in the opposite direction.

Too often people will contort their bodies away from the person but still look at them. Try doing that where ever you are now, and you’ll probably notice it the weight or feeling of your feet connecting to the ground change much. If you follow through and look away in the direction you are contorting it will change that feeling drastically.

If you are cycling and something runs out at you, it’s a similar thing, the best thing we can do is 100% send the signal to your board via where you are looking and your body to go in a direction completely away from that hazard or person. 

Look at them and all you will do is draw yourself closer. 

So next time, look away from them, point the fingers and the knees to where you want to go and watch the board slowly follow rather than risk a collision. This is purposeful movement. 

It’s the same with turns

If you are going for a turn and someone pops up out of nowhere, we will often freeze as I said earlier. There is this initial moment of panic and this can kill the turn altogether. Most people then lose their confidence and think, if I don’t do this turn properly, I could end up hitting them. 

I get it, but that’s a quick way to build up negative self-talk that can snowball and destroy your confidence in crowded lineups. 

The goal then is to pick the right line and follow through with the turn, ignoring the person altogether.

Easier said than done but it’s the only solution other than using your peripheral vision beforehand to pick a better line knowing you can’t trust where this person will be.

If you stop where you are looking during the turn, you are killing the turn. Same thing with skating, you aren’t looking at the ramp, the pocket of the wave or the person in the way. You’ve got to have that confidence and relaxed approach to follow through and keep the turn going, otherwise, you will simply stop the movement halfway through and that could make it worse.

Fear and the Mind: The elephant in the room

The big issue with all of this is your mind, how quiet and relaxed it is. If your mind is racing and you are scared, which you may not even be aware of, it will control where you look.

Case and point being a collision with someone, don’t want to hit that person so you look at them more. This is putting you in freeze mode where you aren’t moving or responding due to the fear of hitting this person.

This is the same with most intermediates running out into the shoulder, it’s a subconscious fear response putting you into flight mode. Changing where you look will force you to deal with that subconscious fear. Until you deal with that you will never change your surfing or the thing you are working on.

There was this amazing success story from Matt Lee, click here to watch it.

This was part of our monthly zoom call for our monthly challenge, this one all about changing your line. In this, Matt spoke about this exact process that changing his line was all about changing where he was looking but that forced him to confront this fear but the reward was a feeling like he had levelled up his surfing drastically.

So regardless if you are changing your line, following through with your turns, or avoiding a collision, you have to be able to first be relaxed, not stressed or running from fear so you can actually respond to the situation. You get that ability by facing the fear and taking control away from it.

Fear is only as powerful as the control you give it. If you take it away and make it less powerful or block out the noise it sends to your brain, it has less of a control over you. By facing that fear constantly, you begin to normalise it and get used to it. Your comfort zone expands and it will eventually become a thing of the past.

This all comes back to the OMBE Lens I mentioned last week, all of these things I’ve discussed are applications of the body and you can’t do them effectively if the mind is loud, negative or responding to fear. 

Looking where you want to go starts with the Ocean and paying attention to it, you don’t know what to do, when and how much unless you look at the wave and pick your line. If you quiet the mind and know how to do it, you can allow your body to do it. It is then a case of removing tension in the body, doing it properly and being on the right tool for the job.

To wrap it up, change where you are looking, change your surfing. You have to first see something before your mind can figure out how to get there. By doing this you may have to face some fears and relax.

If you are avoiding a collision, look away from them completely and move with purpose. Trust yourself to control the board and not look at them and it will be fine. If it’s halfway through a turn, think next turn pick a better line if someone is near or follow through with the confidence and imagine they aren’t there, fight the distractions.

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching