improving your surfing step by step
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Improve your surfing by breaking it down into steps you can train

By breaking surfing manoeuvres down into steps, you learn the fundamentals of that movement and can progress faster through each step to understand and apply the full movement.

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The Full Guide

When you're working on improving parts of your surfing or learning something new, there are two ways to go about it.

The hard way...or the easy way.

Most people go out and say I'm going to go learn how to bottom turn or nose ride etc and try to do it all at once. 

Think, "from to zero to 100" or zero to hero...

Doing it that way usually ends up in failure and getting frustrated.

The next time you go to learn something, I want you to follow a rough system to make that process easier for you to learn whatever you are working on.

Breaking it down into steps and understanding Progression based learning

By breaking the manoeuvres or skills into steps makes the whole process easier. It's about learning the pieces of the puzzle and then eventually connecting them. Not learning it all at once, it is easier and more effective to focus on one thing at a time.

Think of it this way, would you go and learn how to air reverses in surfing with the expectation of getting air, rotating and landing them all in one go?

No, you wouldn't. You'd break that down, you'd learn to get air first, then how to land them and eventually, how to rotate.

So why are most surfers trying to learn every aspect of a manoeuvre at once? Why learn how to do a perfect bottom turn from the get-go when you could learn to incrementally break it down and learn it piece by piece.

What is progression based training?

This is something we include in our structured training programs and it is incredibly effective. It is seen throughout sports and especially at the gym.

It's the process of breaking down a movement into smaller easier versions that allow you to follow a path to work up to the full version. 

As each stage becomes easy, you move to a harder version that then introduces a new part of the movement or makes the movement harder to learn.

Why progression based training is easier

By trying to do everything at once, you make it hard, you can't make one change and measure how that impacts your surfing. If you do 5 new things, how do you know what's working and what isn't?

As you progress through the progressions, you are putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Understanding different parts of the movement and how they connect.

You are learning one feeling at a time and playing with it to better understand it.

It introduces each part of the manoeuvre exactly when you need them and matches your confidence level. If you aren't ready to move on you will know, you will get feedback from either not being to do the next step, getting frustrated or feeling like you don't get it and it will elude you.

That is key feedback to say you are missing something.

Why bother with this in surfing?

The point is you need to do this with everything.

If you want to learn to nose ride, everyone jumps to the part of wanting to understand how to nose ride, they've skipped over everything that gets you to that point.

Just to get to start learning to nose ride, you'll need to be able to:

  1. Neutral Stance
  2. Cross step just 2 small steps and revert to Neutral Stance
  3. Read the ocean and understand what the wave will do, when to cross-step and control the board.
  4. Being able to position the board in the pocket so the board is held by the pocket so you can cross-step to the nose without nose-diving or falling off the wave.
  5. Connect sequences of cross-stepping - cross-stepping all the way to the nose. It's not a rush or mad dash to the nose.
  6. Cheater fives or hang five

That's a rough list, you can move the order around, but you'll need to be able to understand and do those 6 things well just to start working on your nose riding effectively. 

Otherwise, you may fluke your way into the odd nose ride, but how will you effectively recreate it when you want to, when will you know when to nose ride and when to cut back to the pocket? It's going to affect how much fun you have, as you are missing parts of the puzzle.

Understanding progression based training outside of surfing

There is an easier way to go through this and that's to take surfing out of the equation. We can all see the progressions easier when it's applied to more familiar movements.

If you think about other sports, movements or practices that you do, you can probably start to think of progressions that you've worked on to move forwards to harder versions.

Yoga, gymnastics, skating, etc. The list is huge. 

However, I want to talk about a skill that is very different to surfing but extremely familiar in difficulty and in how understanding the progressions is the only way to advance.

How learning to handstand will help you understand progressions in surfing

I'm a huge fan of callisthenics, movement and strength training primarily through body weight. There's a massive skill element to it and an even bigger reward when unlocking certain movements.

I've been working on my handstands and burning through the progressions to nail those long hold handstands. No walls.

The point of this is there is an order to it, and for most people, they will think I can just go and try a handstand, but very quickly they will get frustrated, resulting in them trying to figure out how to learn it and going back to very simple basics that don't even resemble a handstand.

How handstands are similar

Much like surfing, the first thing you need to do to learn handstands is learning to fall. Sounding familiar?

If you aren't comfortable falling, it will hold your surfing back tremendously. If you can't fall out of a handstand, you will never get to attempting them away from a wall.

So the first step is learning to cartwheel and slowly transitioning that cartwheel to attempting to do a handstand where you instantly kick out into sort of cartwheel.

The first breakthrough

The first breakthrough comes after you know you can always fall safely and are no longer worried. Stress is gone, you know the worst that will happen. The equivalent in surfing is obviously to fall a lot and relax. You don't have control over the conditions, but you have the option to fight or relax during a wipeout.

Diving into the progressions

As you progress, you start in frog stand aka crow pose, which is like a squat with your hands on the ground and knees in your armpits. You then need to push and hold your feet off the ground. You may think this is training strength, but it's actually about learning control, learning that your hands are what control the movement and keep balance. You have to train them to push and pull and work like your ankles would. Strength helps, but the main factor in a handstand is control and stacking your limbs.

Is this starting to sound very familiar?

If you were working on a bottom turn, your first steps are learning to fall, stacking your stance into a neutral stance and learning to lean, learning to control that movement and playing with the extremes. 

Continuing the progressions

As you work through handstands, you work through kick-ups against a wall to align and try to catch yourself using the control in the hands. Eventually, you'll move onto various versions with your legs supported, handstands against the wall, chest to wall etc.

Chest to the wall handstands are great, this is 100% about stacking. If your shoulders and hips are not stacked, you will struggle with handstands. The only way is to overcompensate with a lot of strength or stack. 

Again, this is surfing, stacking the limbs and moving with purpose and control. It's not about wild movements and hoping for something to happen. 

Surfing isn't about reacting to your board, it's about surfing the wave and reacting to what the wave does.

Surf the wave, not your board.

Progressions are teaching you the fundamentals

Learning these handstand versions and progressions are all teaching you and forcing you to acknowledge you don't know the fundamentals of that movement. As you work through them, you are becoming more familiar with them and understanding why parts of the handstand won't work for you unless you do these fundamentals.

You can now start picking apart your technique, identifying the issues instead of getting frustrated.

You can now go, "oh I didn't stack, I fix that and try it again". That's huge and extremely powerful.

This then leads us to the next most important part of this.

Instant feedback will progress you faster: film everything

If you film yourself doing a handstand and you're not stacking, you will see it straight away.

It's obvious, the camera never lies.

If you move awkward, it will feel awkward. If it felt awkward, it will have looked awkward. Again, the camera never lies.

You can use this feedback to identify where the movement was wrong, felt awkward or looked awkward. You've worked through progressions and can begin identifying the possible issues that are creating that mistake.

So if you weren't stacked for a handstand, you go back and stack, film it and rinse and repeat until you can capture that stacked feeling.

Otherwise, film a friend who can do it and compare.

Tying this back into surfing

Right, we aren't here to learn handstands, but they are fun. By breaking it away from surfing, it becomes easier to see the steps and agree on how important they are.

Handstand can be scary if you don't know how to fall, but as you get to this point, it's about working on holding them, free of any support.

This is the same with so much of your surfing. You need to feel the power zones, read the waves, learn to lean, move the body efficiently and stop fighting yourself with wild uncontrolled movements.

You have to work through each part of the movement trying to add the next layer onto it. 

Summary & Implementing this into your surfing

Identifying the progressions in surfing is hard, no two waves are the same, which then means it's harder to figure out what to work on or what's affecting you. 

If you are working on something in your surfing, try to break it down. 

Ask yourself, is there one part of this movement I can work on alone.

In nose riding, it's cross-stepping and before that, it's your stance.

With doing turns, it can be the stance or it can be twisting more efficiently, opening up, looking in the right directions etc.

You'll be surprised how much of surfing can be broken down into parts, the goal then is to pick one of those parts and work on just that part until it becomes more natural and less of a conscious effort to think about.

So much of this can be simulated with land-based training. 

A lot of similar movements can be done on a surf skate. You can work on these progressions and then the only work you have to do is translate them to the water. Adding in that element of reading the ocean, timing and positioning.

If you can film it, do it. Get a friend, get a tripod etc. Film your land-based training. Do a few runs in the skatepark and then come back and review it. Look for what looked or felt awkward. Compare the runs and then try to implement one small change. Keep it simple. Then film the next runs.

This will massively open up the progression pathway. 

Always try to analyse your mistakes first, don't just go I don't know what's wrong and ask someone else. Do that first, get an idea and then ask the OMBE community what they think could be done better. Take it with a grain of salt but there is a lot of good feedback there.

Don't beat yourself up if you don't know the progressions, you can always jump into our structured training programs if you want to follow along or just pick one thing and try to figure out a positive change.

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching