Fix your pop up
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How to Take Your Pop up From Slow to Pro

Stop holding your surfing back with a bad pop up, learn from the professional surfers and how to fix your pop up so you can catch more waves every surf and have more fun.

Have you ever been to a shore full of rookie surfers? If yes, you are probably well-acquainted with the carnage they create in the water. There is little room to practice tricks; there’s a lot of falling and splashing going on and the atmosphere is stressful. It’s like the onset of a low-budget horror movie where the bad acting causes you more stress than the genre itself.

That’s because these surfers can’t get their pop up right. As a result, some of them just nosedive into the waves and create splashes, while some of them find it difficult to stand in balance after the pop up and look like acrobats. Some of them might just be paddling around stressfully because a bad pop up inevitably leads to that.

Improving your pop up to pro levels is important since that’s what sets the tone for the rest of your ride. To that end, we’ve prepared this tutorial for you. First, we’re going to take a look at bad pop ups and explain what the surfers do wrong. After diagnosing the problems, we’re going to move on to possible solutions.

Without further ado, let’s start with where learning surfers go wrong and why.

Bad Pop Up

Of course, there are lots of ways a pop up can go wrong. The most common examples we encounter can be summed up in three basic categories.

The first problem is related to awareness. A surfer needs to look toward where they want to go. If you can’t do that before or after your pop up, it won’t be good for your ride. 

Secondly, those who are just meeting the big waves for the first time tend to paddle too much in the flats. That results in anxiety and bad timing. 

Lastly, and most importantly, we see surfers who cannot tap into the wave’s energy. The moment the wave picks you up and lifts you is supposed to be a good moment; due to anxiety or some other reason, we see surfers lose their bearings and nosedive into the water in that particular moment. Well, it mostly means that your ride finished before it even started.

These problems are not independent of each other, either. Once one of them emerges, the others will quickly follow suit.

Not Being Able to Look Where You Want to Go

Intermediate surfers mostly are afraid that they won’t be able to catch the wave. The result is something between fleeing the wave and racing it.

When you’re running away, your eyes are generally fixed on your feet or on what’s immediately in front of you. The incoming danger prevents you from developing a thorough awareness of your surroundings. In the case of the paddling surfer, they’re fixated to the front of the board. Once your eyes are fixed onto the front, though, there is no telling where you’d want to go. In that case, you can’t tell what the wave is doing, either.

On the other hand, when you’re racing against something, the instinct is to keep checking. So, when a paddling surfer is racing a wave, they keep looking back either in fear or expectation. Yet, the frantic character of eye movement from the board to the wave and vice versa impairs the awareness of a surfer considering where they want to go.

Once they lose that awareness, the anxiety keeps piling up, and it becomes a vicious circle in which the surfer cannot ever take off in an efficient way.

Paddling in the Flats and Over-Paddling

Everybody loves flat water. Watching it when the sun sets while having a few drinks or lingering in it calmly are surely blissful activities. However, if you want to ride a wave, flats are not where you want to hang out.

The first thing you need to do is limit your time in the flat parts of the wave (which would be the “shoulder”) and reach the apex with the least paddling possible. When you spend too much time in the flats, the wave reaches you, and in fear of losing the wave, you try paddling in front of it. That’s scientifically impossible—no one can ever paddle faster than a wave approaching the shore.

As mentioned above, when you try paddling in front of the wave, you instinctively fix your eyes to the front part of your board and lose awareness. That inevitably leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to more frenetic paddling to no potential avail. As a result, you miss the opportunity to take off, and even when you don’t lose it, your take-off will probably be followed by a poor performance.

Tapping Into the Energy of the Wave

One thing we insistently emphasize here at OMBE is how instinctive a sport surfing is and how you need to be in the moment all the time. That is the case for popping up as well. Once you have that instinct, you’ll be able to recognize where and when the wave is going to lift you, and how you’re just going to glide into it. Yet, the two problems detailed above are mostly due to the inability to be in the moment and to listen to one’s instincts.

Again, what we have here is another vicious circle. The surfer is afraid to paddle to the apex of the wave because they haven’t yet developed the instinct, which would tell them that power of the wave is in the apex. And since they can’t go there, they can’t tap into the wave’s energy and develop that instinct. Instead, they are using too much of their own energy for paddling. If you tire yourself too much while paddling before your ride, there is a chance you won’t have the energy for the rest of it either.

Another common mistake while trying to tap into the wave’s energy is trying to paddle on top of the wave. Yes, you need to find the steepest point of the wave to make the most of its energy, but that’s not going to happen if you find yourself at the top of the wave. The energy is in the bottom, and that’s how you connect with it.

How to Fix Your Pop Up

The process leading to bad pop ups is vicious circles in almost all aspects: over-paddling results in more over-paddling; stress and anxiety result in more stress and anxiety; or when you start too far away from the wave’s energy, you pop up too far away from it as well and to no avail. Inevitably, working on how to fix your pop aims to eliminate all of these.

The Power of the Wave: John John’s Pop Up

You can see the kind of wave John John Florence is about to ride in the tutorial video. It’s huge (probably more than twice an average surfer’s height), beautiful, and kind of scary. When his brother, Nathan Florence, tries to pop up in it before John John, he just ends up nose-diving into the water. You can see how hard it actually is to adapt to the power of such a wave. However, when John John pops up, he makes it look so easy.

First of all, he doesn’t paddle. He isn’t trying to get on top of the wave and tame it. He just lies in wait coolly at the bottom of its steepest point for it to draw enough water. Lying at the bottom is important because that’s the source of the wave's energy, and John John knows this. When the energy of the wave is at its maximum, he’s doing what we call the Oreo Biscuit: keeping his feet down so that the wave can push from behind and lift his upper body. In turn, he ends up being more weightless in the front and he can see where he wants to go.

The more striking element of his pop up, however, is how relaxed he is even though he just saw Nathan Florence go down right before him. There is no tension visible in his upper body and no stiffness in his arms, hands, or shoulders. He’s just in the flow and sort of triumphant.

Moreover, you can also see how aware he is of his surroundings. The wave he popped up in is what we call a square wave. This type of wave is difficult for a surfer to “fit their board into” once they pop up. However, John John just takes a glance at the wave line and immediately finds his path.

Feeling the Energy: Kelly Slater’s Effortless Takeoff

The wave Kelly Slater is about to ride is considerably less scary than the one John John does, but the takeoff is no less impressive. 

He gets closer and closer to the steepest point of the wave, but unlike John John, he doesn’t lie in wait at the bottom of it since the wave doesn’t allow that. It just starts lifting Kelly, and he doesn’t try to fight it with frantic paddling; neither does he look around anxiously to ascertain his surroundings as well as the wave. This coolness is due to his experience, which allows him to know what the wave is doing, and because he knows how to respond to it.

A short time before taking off, you see him doing a paddling stroke or two, and then he’s suddenly up and riding as if he had divine intervention. The divine interruption in this case is feeling the lift of the wave on your board. More specifically, Kelly is fully aware how his board reacts to the energy of the wave, and once the board starts planing, he takes it as his cue to pop up. Then, he simply glides and rides.

There are also some other elements in his pop up that are worth emphasizing. Similar to that of John John’s, there is no tension in Kelly’s takeoff, either: soft knees, relaxed front arm, and a back arm that looks like he’s holding a cup full of coffee. That goes to show that he knows where he wants to go. As a result, he can point his arms in the direction of his ride with no stress.

Finding the Power Zone: Mason Ho on Some Dry Rocks

Mason Ho’s ride on dry rocks is not only worth mentioning because of his pop up in the power zone but also because of how in the moment he really is. And his particular takeoff and the following barrel ride have more dimensions than the ones we covered above. So, we’re going to take a more detailed look at this.

Focus

If you are an intermediate surfer who has just started riding in the shallow and rocky parts of the shore, you know how stressful it can be. The presence of rocks right below your board and the fear that they might ail you in unpleasant ways are capable of shifting your focus. 

Yet, you can see Mason doing bunny hops and crazy little turns and twists as if he’s dancing his way to the bar through a crowded dancehall. That is only possible when you’re in the moment and feeling only the wave and nothing else.

Paddling

Let’s go back to the pop up, though. After the praise we gave John John and Kelly for little or no paddling they did for catching the wave, you might now be surprised because Mason paddles a lot. But, when you pause the video and study the wave more closely, you’ll realize something: the wave has two tops as if separated by a ridge. To get to the power source, to the real bottom of the wave, Mason has to paddle over that ridge and the smaller top.

In addition to that, you can see how there is little movement in the water at the bottom of the wave and how fast it is at the top. That little movement from which the wave will draw water soon actually provides the surfer with the time they need to catch the wave and stand up on their board. If you try popping up at the top, there is a good chance the water that’s moving down will throw you and you’ll end up nosediving.

That is because the water from the bottom of the wave is in an upward motion. The water at the top of the wave, on the other hand, is moving down in line with gravitational forces. We here at OMBE are mostly referring to takeoffs as catching a lift, and for that lift, you first need an upward motion from the wave. It doesn’t only give you time to stand up and find your balance, but also speed and energy when you time it right.

How He Looks Where He Wants to Go

Remember how both John John and Kelly glided into the waves: no tension, no doubt, standing up and just looking where they wanted to go. It’s the same with Mason Ho. He just stands up with a twist in his knees and looks at where he wants to go with the concentration and posture of a 100-meter sprinter whose eyes are already fixed on the finish line. And then, he assumes the coffee cup posture we saw when Kelly popped up.

There is more to body-eye coordination than just looking, too. Take a closer look and see how he maintains his balance on board. Most surfers just look flat on their boards after they pop up because their boards are mere vessels for them that they don’t know how to control. When you distribute your weight flatly on both feet, it means that you’re just going where the relationship between the wave and board takes you. 

What Mason does, on the other hand, is stand on his front foot so he can control the board with his back foot. That way, he can point his knees in the direction of his ride as well. Furthermore, his chest is open and it faces the same direction with his front hand, knees, and eyes. This body coordination is the key for barrel riding.

Is Mason Ho Biking or Surfing?

Our head coach Clayton Nienaber loves making connections to other sports while explaining surfing, and Mason Ho’s ride is quite fitting to make references to biking.

First of all, his hands are so still, stable, and even when they move, they move so gently, as if he’s afraid to spill the coffee cup. But his knees are always on the move, shifting weight and direction, absorbing the force of the wave by compression and extension, and maintaining balance throughout. 

Moreover, if you watch his barrel ride closely, you can see how his hands move up and down, but in a controlled manner. As we said before, he’s riding on dry rocks. And just like a biker would, he uses his hands to steer the board through and around those rocks with almost microscopic movements.

The moment he turns his left palm toward the rocks right on his left is a very good example of this. By doing that, he leans to his right side a bit, again like a biker, and manages to stay away from those rocks and rides more on the rail.

How to Fix a Badly Timed Pop Up

Not everybody has impeccable timing and some of you might be wondering whether there is nothing to salvage from a badly timed pop up. Like, you spent too much time at the bottom of the wave, you realized the power of the wave is about to throw you, so you just pop up before it’s too late.

Well, the important thing in situations like this is trying to keep the tail down no matter what. As soon as you are withdrawn from the bottom of the wave by the upward motion of the water, you’ll realize that the tail is coming up and you’re on the verge of nose-diving. And since you missed your opportunity, there isn’t enough time for you to just calmly glide in. 

In that case, you can just put pressure on the tail by locking your back foot on the board. Of course, it won’t give you the control you want because you won’t have any front foot towage, but once you maintain your balanced stance, you can achieve that towage by doing a back foot twist.

Conclusion

One of the main reasons for a bad pop up was over-paddling or paddling in the flats rather than having the courage to go towards the power source of the wave. When you over-paddle, you don’t only tire yourself excessively and unnecessarily, but also create tension and anxiety, which leads to a vicious circle that produces more tension and anxiety.

As a result, you can’t feel the energy of the wave. Also, keeping your chin up and feet down becomes difficult, and when you keep your chin down, you can’t see where you want to go.

The pop ups and takeoffs of greats like John John Florence and Kelly Slater show us how to minimize time spent paddling and maximize the energy of the wave with the Oreo Biscuit. The example of Mason Ho is basically when paddling can be justified. 

All these three, on the other hand, just glide into the wave and look where they want to go while assuming the “coffee cup” posture. Moreover, once they stand, they are not flat on their board; rather, they put weight on their front foot so that they can control their board from its back.

Once you study those more closely and start feeling the energy of the wave, though, you can shed away your anxiety and pop up like a pro.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching