How to improve your surfing
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How to get rid of tension in your surfing

Tension is the enemy and will stop you from having fun in the surf. It holds you back from moving freely and is the biggest cause of bad style and bad surfing.

How to get rid of tension in your surfing

There is a lot of ground to cover before becoming a good surfer. You need physical prowess, you need to develop an understanding of the wave, you need to know how to position your body to flow effortlessly. Without a relaxed upper body, though, no matter how strong or athletic you are, you’ll find it difficult to ride a wave. Today, I am going to guide you through how to get rid of tension in your upper body.

What the Pros Do

I am sure you’ve watched your fair share of surfers over the years before you decided to become one yourself, so you might have observed how effortless it seems then they’re riding a wave. Their composure and readiness to turn towards any direction the wave requires is simply admirable. Even the most observable of their movements are tiny unless they aren’t doing massive airs - and even when they are doing those crazy airs, it just seems to be coming to them naturally rather than forcing themselves. 

That is because they manage to direct their boards with their lower body: small weight shifts with little alterations in the positioning of their ankles, knees, and hips. And all these shifts are actually the results of the bare interaction between their feet and the board.

Beginner Struggles

However, when you are new to surfing, that tends not to be the case and instead of leading the board with your feet, you are trying to use your brain and your brain imposes itself on the process because you are understandably excited. Of course, nobody can expect you to have the composure of the greats or to develop the right mental approach on your first day, and you are a human being, after all. 

It means that you are thinking, occasionally overthinking, and trying to replicate a move you’ve seen a great surfer pull off while theorizing about it: “Oh, yes, I should crouch like this, bend rightwards from my belly with an angle of 37 degrees and grab the board by with my right hand at 78 degrees, and pull it towards my back in an elliptical…” When you are on the wave, though, all you can do will be struggling, and you won’t have a protractor.

In addition to overthinking, being anxious or fearing that you’ll fail will also result in a tense upper body. Even if you can ride a wave with an upper body like that, your surfing will not look appealing at all, and you won’t be having as much fun as you had hoped. Add to those the already exhausted muscles in your upper body due to all the paddling you did to catch a wave, and you’ll find it difficult even to govern your upper body. So, instead of the composure of a masterful surfer you’ll emulate the stiffness of a Roman emperor standing on his chariot on his way back from a victorious battle.

Why Does the Upper Body Need to Be Relaxed?

In short, due to anxiety, excitement, exhaustion, and overthinking, your upper body just won’t relax when it’s crucial that it does. This will cause your breathing to be uneven, and uneven breathing will further negatively impact the movements of your lower body. As a result, your performance will be a clumsy one at best. Just a simple crouch to grab the board will be quite a forceful motion, and the whole thing will turn into a vicious cycle in which more motion creates more tension. When you get back to the shore, somewhat downtrodden by the waves and with your head hanging low, you’ll feel a soreness in your neck and waist belt. The upper body that won’t know how to relax will bring you down in the end and maybe even shake your self-confidence.

And, yes, there are a lot of techniques for body relaxation that you might be familiar with: breathing therapy, yoga, getting a massage, meditation, and so on. Truthfully speaking, all these methods can help with the relaxation of the lower limbs. However, you can’t say: “Oh, let me do some yoga before paddling through those waves out there.” Surfing is just then and there, it’s in the moment, and you have to learn how to relax your upper body in that moment - on the water, while you are on the waves.

Tips for Relaxing Your Upper Body


What I am going to recommend for a relaxed upper body is not only good for relieving tension, but it’s also good practice for surfing: getting on a long surfboard and trying to cross-step without shuffling your feet on the board for however long it takes to achieve it. If your upper body is already stiff, you won’t be able to cross one foot over the other and you’ll end up shuffling, but as I said, surfing is then and there, and the only way to get better is practicing on the waves until you get it right.

Now, let’s say you grabbed a long surfboard, paddled towards a wave you had your eyes on, and tried to cross-step on that wave while also crouching. Let me simply warn you that you will fail. The trick to cross-stepping up and down the board on a wave is standing up straight and composed. The crouching position generally points to a fear - namely, the fear of losing control. But it also means that you have never been in control in the first place. Instead, you are controlled by your fear of failure.

Maybe there is even a life lesson here: you have to face what you fear in an upright manner. That’s how a composed upper body can let the lower parts relax and that’s how you can be in control of your board. Once you let go like that and manage to cross-stepp, you’ll realize that the movements of your hips, knees, and ankles all come naturally. I said that the master surfers look effortless even when they are doing crazy airs - that’s because they practiced this and they are still practicing it even while they are riding a wave in a competition.

Play With It!

Cross-stepping is not all you can do to relax, either. I talked about fear and anxiety, and there are other ways of being brave on a wave - at least, there are steps you can take towards feeling braver and that feeling will become a habit with enough practice. No, I am not going to give you the name or email address of an expensive psycho-therapist, don’t worry. I am just going to urge you to experiment and get yourself more acquainted with your surfboard. Don’t be afraid to take off backwards, for example, or to try spinning the tail out. I am sure you can find ways of experimenting and also having fun without worrying about getting a move right. A relaxed relationship with the board will make a more relaxed surfer of you, and that’s what we are aiming for here.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching