Clayton Nienaber Interviews Kelly Slater
An interview with Kelly Slater deep diving into the world of surfing. Clay and Kelly cover how golf has affected his surfing, flow, learning new moves, the fundamentals of surfing and more.
Kelly Slater needs no introduction. There are only a few names in the world of surfing that have had a bigger impact. More importantly, though, there is no other surfer who has won eleven championships—he simply has no contender when it comes to being hailed as the world’s greatest surfer ever.
His fame is not restricted to the ocean coasts either. Should you visit Central European or Asian landlocked countries and gather around children who have never seen the ocean in their lives, they can tell you at least a few words about him, even if those words are only about the character he played in Baywatch.
So, I surprised him with a Skype call, and he was understandably pissed off; he was expecting the interview to be conducted in an exchange of emails and seeing that there were cameras involved inevitably led to minor tension. Even if I hadn’t been nervous about interviewing the GOAT before, I definitely was then. But it didn’t take long for the anxiety to dissipate because we share a passion for surfing, and you can’t be in too much of a bad mood when you are discussing something you are passionate about.
When asked how he is able to talk about an 8-second wave for 20 minutes when other surfers can’t even remember when or where they’d fallen into the waves, his response echoes my expectations: “I've always been so in love and passionate about surfing.”
Although that moment comes toward the midpoint of our talk, it’s the perfect augury and it’s what describes the tone of the conversation overall. Being able to remember every little detail about just one wave and what you were thinking and feeling while riding it is especially impressive if you consider that Kelly Slater says that he’s actually not good at remembering things.
But it’s a wave we are talking about here: “I think it probably burns into my memory a little clearer than other things.”
The Right Mental Approach
Let’s get back to how it started, though, to the basics, and even to the separation of the mind and body or how the two coalesce in the making of a phenomenal sportsperson. I want to particularly ask him about this because that’s what you see in professional athletes who really leave unmistakable marks in their field. Take Megan Rapinoe, Serena Williams, or Kobe Bryant, for example. The moments they shine on the pitch or the court, you can also see the sparkle of a mental might that intoxicates the audience. So, I ask the master about whether either takes precedence in mastering one’s craft: the mindset or the physical ability.
Upon this question, he recalls the “short little choppy waves” of Florida and how he watched them. If you’ve ever been to Florida, you can see where he’s coming from. To acquire the chops to ride those waves, first, you should acquire the mental flexibility to understand them. But, that’s not all; you have to study how others have been handling them, to learn from the already established masters of the sport, and to have “the right mental approach to learn.”
He says: “You grow up around, you kind of become.” It means that having the right mental approach doesn’t only consist of meditating on surfing or waves, but also putting them into action with enough practice. In that sense, watching the greats and trying to understand why they do what they do pays dividends. “Mentally, I'm envisioning it physically,” he says, somewhat quizzically about the moves he’s seen, but in the end, it’s all part of understanding the technique, “And you have to understand the technique. That all becomes kind of the essence of what you're doing.”
Flow as the Criterion of Professional Surfing
Envisioning potential movements beforehand might be crucial for every step of the surf, but the flow of a surfer almost entirely depends on it. So, it’s only expected that a surfer like Kelly Slater would advocate for having flow as one of the judging criteria of professional surfing, which is now an Olympic sport. When asked about why he pushed for it, he says that it wasn’t the entire focus of the group and that theirs was a case that stood for style rather than flow:
I think you need to include all things. I think it's a little bit funny that style kind of disappeared from it. But then again, style is an opinion of what you think of how someone looks, really; that brings in more of a subjective thing instead of an objective thing.
The other two main criteria a surfer is judged on are power and speed, and you can see how they are totally objective. The surfers and spectators love surfing because it looks beautiful and awe-inspiring, but judging it based on two objective and crude criteria like power and speed could reduce it to just bounces and hops. So, judging how a surfer “flows one thing to another and to another” and how they link them is instrumental to preserve the beauty of it all.
If you aren’t convinced of how much it would contribute to the spectacle, listen to what Slater says about how they came up with the idea:
And to be honest, part of that came from Tony Hawk's video game. I think because you would get more points, the skaters realize there are more technical things together. It's worth more. And it kind of became a part of Tony Hawk Pro Skater. And so, in some way, I think that has some sort of influence, the idea that you would link one thing to another to another, so flowing it all together. And that was a way to kind of show some mastery.
If it’s good enough of a spectacle for a video game, wouldn’t it be the same for live sport?
How His Golfing Experience Influenced His Approach to Surfing
Were you to compare golf and surfing superficially, you may somehow be justified in your error of thinking of them as the opposite sides of a spectrum. When a golf club is raised, the spectators and golfers hold their breath, there is very little movement; when an athlete is on the surfboard, though, everything happens at a frenetic pace, and they have the crashing waves for company. A surfer will even outrace a golf cart with little to no effort at all!
But, when you separate golf and surfing from their surroundings and reduce them to a relationship between the athlete and their medium, you’ll see that they have an essential commonality: the importance of body positioning.
As a sportsperson who excels in both, Kelly Slater has enough insight to offer on how there is more technique involved in golf and how that helped with his approach to the body position while surfing.
When I got into golf, I started reading books about golf and stuff and studying what made people good. And I became really obsessive about it. And I realize that in terms of the professional sport, golf is so far ahead and looking at technique way ahead of where surfing was. And at that time, I got really passionate about technique because of golf, because I learned so much from golf. So I would watch a lot of videos, a lot of surf videos, and kind of picture almost like a neutral position, and that in between any turn, you could be in a neutral position and go anywhere with any approach from that place.
Of course, he too is aware of how much of an influence the surroundings have when it comes to a direct comparison. In golf, the golfer has more control and liberty since everything else is akin to non-existent. In surfing, it’s mostly the surfer who's non-existent and the wave is omnipotent, omnipresent, and maybe even omniscient: “You can do only what the wave allows. And you can't do anything really more than that. You can't force something that can't be done, so you need to look for your moments.”
However, he says that the “neutral position” can help you a lot when “your moments” come, and understandably, I want to hear more about this “neutral position”.
Listen Carefully, Kids! Kelly Slater Explains the Neutral Position!
It’s only natural that those who are new to surfing would be anxious about getting their body positioning right and try too hard with over-twists and over-pushes. Here is what the greatest surfer I have ever seen says on how the neutral position should be:
I would say you wouldn't be too squatted and you wouldn't be too upright. You'd be kind of a net, sort of slightly banked, ready-to-bounce position, and your weight is balanced between your feet and between your toes and heels, whatever that sort of becomes for you. And from there, you can turn and twist in any direction, and you can weigh forward or back, putting weight into your toes or heels. You can extend or squat more. So it's somewhere in the middle of all that it's making sense of.
Of course, there’s no exact science (yet) that would guide you to that neutral spot. Everybody has a different body build, but according to Slater, you’re looking for the “stress-free spot”; the spot in which you are in total control, allowing you to move in any direction the wave requires: “You can be in the most extreme sort of place on a wave. But if you have some kind of center neutral spot, you still can be in control.”
Grabbing the moments the wave presents you with also depends on—once again—understanding the wave. This relationship between the body and wave brings me to another chapter in the life of Kelly Slater, the chapter when he was body-surfing at the Pipeline, Hawaii, and whether doing that on a regular basis resulted in his better understanding of the waves.
Body Surfing and How It Helps With Understanding the Waves
Having done even a little bit of surfing, one comes to appreciate the wave; even to respect it. To echo Slater’s words, you and your actions exist for as long as the wave allows.
Now, think of it as a direct relationship between your body and the wave without the mediation of a board or fin. It’s just your body making acquaintance with the wave in the closest proximity possible—maybe the one thing you respect the most in the whole world. It’s like me interviewing Kelly Slater. Imagine what potential that direct connection bears when it comes to grasping the wave:
You feel the wave out, feel the energy, understand how the wave works. And you know, at the end of the day, it makes you appreciate every wave you have a bit more because even a so-so wave while body surfing is a great wave.
The whole experience was worth it for Kelly Slater because of the sheer liberty of it, even at the cost of making another legend—Mark Cunningham—mad in his little shed on the beach of Oahu because Slater and his co. were surfing without fins. “I think body surfing is the only truly, completely, absolutely pure form of surfing and body surfing without fins,” says Slater, and even Cunningham throwing fins at him and his friends in anger wasn’t enough to change that conviction.
How to Deal With Bad Feelings and Negative Thoughts
It’s clear that body surfing means exultation. When you go into the water and let the waves wash over you, it feels good to be totally immersed in the movement of the water, as if the waves also wash away your worry and anxiety. But it doesn’t last long, and surfing is not as rewarding as it looks in terms of washing away bad feelings. Some of us might be discouraged from even picking up a board and walking coolly towards the ocean due to negative thoughts and feelings. So, I ask him how to focus on the moment and just feel the wave as he did while body-surfing.
First, he judges me for asking a question that is not exactly related to surfing. I am worried that my flow is not as good as Slater would like, but we get it back on track quickly. “Everyone needs to figure out a way to process their emotions,” he says. The neutral position we talked about seems to be something that you can’t achieve while also carrying emotional baggage, and you have to be stress-free.
However, the fear of failing and the prospect of having a rather unpleasant encounter with the waves due to bad mentoring might be the source of stress. So, I ask about how to process that fear and how to prevent trying too hard. The answer is pretty straightforward: “More often than not, you are going to lose,” he says, “so, get comfortable with it.”
Comparing your abilities and seeing whether you are better than them is only relevant at the end of a competition for him: “At the end of the day, I'll see if it's better than the other guy and if it's not, I have to work on getting better.” While the sun is still up, though, all you can do is focus on yourself, your abilities, your mental approach, and not on what others are doing.
The Part Where I Couldn’t Resist Asking...
Everybody knew that this moment would come. I knew it, my friends knew it, and Slater himself probably knew it and was waiting for it to happen. And it happens. I ask him how he can be so great at everything does.
His flow is brilliant, his style has influenced generations, he’s quite powerful, and he’s also speedy. How? Is it because he has a deeper understanding of the wave than most or is it because he possesses certain magical powers that allow him to bend over backward?
He laughs. I don’t know whether he laughs at my question or at my naive admiration for him, but he answers the question in a technical manner: “Speed all comes from the basics, you know, it's just climbing and dropping on waves and having the right board, the right fins.”
So, there is no magic involved there. However, his greatness is not only limited to the field of surfing. He’s also a great golfer, actor, and musician. You know what? He’s even good behind the wheel of a racing car. As there is apparently no magic at work here, I ask him whether it’s a skill honed over the years.
He responds almost by reminding me that he’s great at making jokes as well: “If I was early to things, I would probably not be as good a driver. I'm late to every flight I've ever flown.”
If Kelly Slater Could Travel Back in Time to When He Was Younger, What Would He Say to Himself?
I know that it’s somewhat of a cliché question, but I believe my timing is perfect. Kind of. After establishing how great he is at everything he tries his hand at, what better direction to go than asking him about whether there is something that would make him even greater?
Everybody wants to change certain things in retrospect; like bad childhood memories or family relations that could have been better. Kelly Slater doesn’t suggest otherwise either. He is the son of a bait-and-tackle shop owner and an emergency medical technician, so his childhood didn’t have the glamor of his successful years. Naturally, he has some stuff he would change if he ever got the chance to do so.
Regardless, he doesn’t give any details on what those changes would be. And he probably doesn’t need to since he acknowledges that without all the good and bad we have experienced so far, we wouldn’t have become what we are now:
It made me who I was and that drove me to accomplish what I have. So I guess, in essence, I'm just saying I've used my challenges and my gifts together to kind of accomplish what I have. Everybody has those things. It's just learning how to decipher.
Here we come back to where we started: what makes a great professional what they are is that mental approach; the mental approach that allows you to understand the waves.
The Secret of Learning a New Move
Maybe it’s not a good idea to start my question with the claim that Kelly Slater didn’t invent many moves, but hey, I told you I am nervous. That’s not enough of an excuse, though, because the greatest surfer of all times says that he’s on the defense here and somewhat jokingly goes on telling about the airs he invented. And he is right. He did invent a couple of influential airs such as the double rotation and the rodeo clown, and he was one of the first surfers to have done air reverses (even though he didn’t invent them).
And that’s actually what I really wanted to ask. He’s not breaking his neck to be a novel act, but whenever there’s something new, he has no trouble replicating it as if he invented the move. I want to learn the secret to that if there is one.
He admits that he doesn’t understand “some of those things”, like when the surfers who are able to pull off those airs are “waiting or un-waiting” for a twist, turn, or compression, but makes a connection between learning “massive big crazy airs,” and growing around them as well as becoming them.
Once again, he mentions skating and Tony Hawk: “Tony Hawk did a 900 and then some kid that was like twelve years old did a 1200 or something.”
It’s a known fact. Kids are good at imitating anything they see from the grown-ups. What really helps them is that they don’t think about what they’re doing or they don’t pay any mind to whether they can do it or not: “They're like, oh, okay, well, I'll do that.” There don’t seem to be any secrets to learning a move for Slater other than growing up with it.
Yet, to be able to keep up with the times, you have to master some new moves as a middle-aged surfer as well. Then, we arrive at the importance of being in the moment and having a “flow state.”
The Flow State of Mind
Surfing is not really a field you can sit down and wildly theorize about. Everything happens in the moment and you need mental flexibility as well as the physical ability to decide on your next move and realize it. Most of the time, it’s quite difficult to separate those, and it all happens in “flow”. Being able to accomplish a new move on your first try is no different than that for Kelly Slater:
There is a sort of, like, flow state you get in. You know, when you start to understand. You can try something over and over and beat yourself to death because you don't have the essence of the feeling of it. You can't picture it in your mind and your body, but once you picture something, you can do it.
Picturing an air excludes thinking about it. You are not trying to envision how to grab the board or how to twist or bend your body when you are picturing a move. Instead of overcomplicating it by thinking about it, a surfer in a “flow state” is able to just picture it. The example he gives is an air from Taylor Steele, the producer and director of many surfing videos in addition to being a great surfer himself. He wanted to do it, and he accomplished it on his first try because he was in the “flow state,” which enabled him to achieve the “neutral position” we talked about before.
Still, he gets back to “growing up with it” and how it helps with the development of the flow state early on. Young surfers seem like “they were born with this knowledge already,” and he explains it with a great analogy:
You know, it's like when a little chicken knows [that] when a hawk flies over its head, it needs to hide. And it has fear. For some reason, it's probably never seen a hawk. You know, it's a couple of days old, but it knows that thing's going to eat me. It becomes part of the surfer DNA once.
The Difficulties of Judging Professional Surfing
A friend of mine has a rather elaborate question that he wants me to echo to Slater. Obviously, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for not only me but also those around me. It seems like a good time to ask about the difficulties of judging professional surfing because we have all but covered the difficulties of surfing itself so far.
If the wonderful line uttered by Kelly Slater hasn’t been ringing in your ears since the first moment you read it, it should now: “You can only do what the wave allows.”
It’s the wave that carries the surfer and it’s the wave that gives the surfer the potential to do inventive airs or reach crazy speeds. A mediocre surfer can have a relaxed time on a good wave and do awe-inspiring stuff, whereas a good surfer might find it difficult on the stubborn waves they have to ride. After all, we can never ride the same wave twice. So, wouldn’t it be better to have different judges assessing three different criteria: the wave potential, the flow, and the technique?
Slater agrees with me on the importance of having and maintaining a variety of judges and recalls the last year’s semi-final heat between “John John” Florence and Frederico Morais, which was won by the latter: “A lot of people didn't think the better surfer won that heat because John John did much more radical stuff.”
It all depended on what the waves allowed during that heat. Moreover, according to the 11-time world champion, when the performance is judged within preset boundaries, there is the risk that the surfer is justifiably trying to get scores without minding style or flow, and it decreases the overall aesthetics of their performance and the spectacularity of the sport.
In the end, I don’t know if he thinks whether a more elaborate system of judging could help with justice, though, because he says, “It’s hard to judge. It’s like judging art.”
How to Judge Surfing Better According to Kelly Slater
While judging art—or in this case surfing—can be difficult, certain improvements can be made: “You want judging to push progression, I think, ultimately, but you want it to respect the basics. So you have to try to get those two.”
A few years ago, Kelly Slater and some other established surfers ran a surfing event in Fiji, and they used a different judging system based on their own criteria. It wasn’t anything complicated, either: two judges to score technique and two judges for the artistic side of surfing, all of whom were surfers themselves. At least on the surface, the criteria seemed to be the two completely opposing sides of judging, so he expected the scores given by the sets of judges to have big gaps between them. Especially considering how even scores on the same flow differ in big competitions, that was quite a reasonable expectation. But, the scores given by judges in Fiji were surprisingly close to one another.
The judging experiment in Fiji was a one-off thing and, as we said, the judges were surfers themselves. When it comes to professional judging, though, Kelly Slater thinks there is a communal aspect to it; even pressure on the judge due to the community of judges:
There's always been this award given out to the most consistent judge of the year, which means the most mediocre, average guy who never says, “That's great,” or “That's bad.” He never stood somewhere. He kind of just went, “I'm right in the middle of everybody.”
That knack for mediocrity does not only arise because of the desire not to stand out but also because they have to judge performances on such a consistent basis and in “long, tedious hours” that it becomes sort of a shortcut. Especially the judges who have been doing it for many years are probably quite bored with it, implies Kelly Slater, simply because “it's a thankless job, it's a tough job.”
The solution for that would be employing ex-pro surfers as judges in big competitions without tiring one judge too much. In the end, if you are being judged by someone who’s never surfed themselves, wouldn’t you have every right to argue against the scores they gave to your performance?
But if there's some guy, you've never seen him surf, and you don't know what level he's at or you have seen him surfing, you know, what level he's at, and you're like, well, how are you scoring this?
An Incident Where Kelly Felt Slighted by the Judges
You might be hailed as the greatest surfer of all time by almost everyone on the planet, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll get an easy pass from every judge, or that you’ll get a wave on which you can impress even the most rigorous professional judges.
Slater remembers having such a wave in a heat against Freddy Patacchia a couple of years ago. “It wasn’t the best wave I had,” he says simply, but you can guess that he did everything he could on it and that would be enough most of the time:
I surfed that wave really good. I flowed. I was fast for the wave was fast. I was pacing myself where it was slower, and I was never losing speed. I wasn't bouncing around, you know, and I threw five different types of maneuvers in.
There is no disrespect for Freddy Patachhia from the Slater end, though. He acknowledges that he is also a good surfer, but during that heat, he was more fortunate in terms of the wave potential. The wave Patacchia had ridden didn’t change its pace at all, according to Slater, and that enabled the surfer to do nine off-the-lips in total. Although those were quite powerful turns, they were more or less the same. Yet, at the end of the heat, Freddy Patachhia got a score of 8 whereas Slater received only a 5 despite the difficulty of his wave.
Slater’s ride might have had more variety as well, but in the end, that didn’t matter either because judges like certain things more. What they like and don’t like may start from little things such as body positioning and could get personal at worst: “Sometimes they don’t like you and they like the other guy.”
No matter how many objective criteria are to be included in the judging system for the sake of progress, the judges are only human, and we are inherently subjective.
The Importance of Surfboard Designs
Kelly Slater testing one of my boards (Clayton Surfboards) in South Africa. Right before he broke his foot.
Sure, getting into that “flow state of mind” or achieving the “neutral position” is as important as having the physical ability to be a great surfer, but that isn’t the only tool a surfer has. The surfboard is at least worth a mention. So, I have to bring it up with Kelly.
Luckily, our conversation takes place right after he lost to Jordy Smith in a heat, and the most remarkable difference between the two was the length of their surfboards: Kelly Slater had a 5-foot board while Jordy Smith rode a longer one. Could have Kelly Slater done even better if he’d ridden a longer board?
He immediately recalls the Billabong Challenge, where he rode a 6’6” board. The Billabong events were all professionally recorded, so he says he didn’t like his surfing when he watched the footage of his performance.
Then he reminds me how many years he’s been doing it. It’s been 38 years since his first contest. I do confess, at this point, I feel a little bit embarrassed about asking whether he could do better on longer boards, but thankfully, he doesn’t hold it against me and goes on to talk about how he got used to surfing smaller boards. It was apparently an utterly practical choice. Due to the tide radius of the waves on the Snapper Rocks in Australia, longer boards didn’t fit into the waves, so he opted for smaller ones.
Of course, like most of the professional surfers, Slater designs his own boards and explains the logic behind his designs simply as “purpose-driven.” Over the years, he has witnessed that they meet their purpose on some waves, and on others, they simply don’t.
However, he absolutely denies that the reason for Jordy’s win was because his board was longer. It was “a wave mistake more than anything”: “I gave him the best wave of the heat and he beat me with it.”
When we convey our thanks to each other and turn off our cameras, I take a deep breath. Not only because I have no reason to be nervous anymore but also because it went well. Well... well? It went absolutely great.
It’s one thing to read the interviews conducted by others and try to peek into the insights provided by the greats, and another to conduct an interview yourself and experience it first-hand.
Taking a look at my notes, I realized once again how much respect he has for the waves and how effortlessly strong his mental attitude is. The learning never ends. I just want to go out, jump onto my board, and ride the waves now.