How to improve as a surfer
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Is surfing hard?

Surf can feel hard at times and progress is slow, but if you know the right things to focus on, you can make the journey easier and more fun.

There's an appeal to life spent under the sun and on the beach or waves. The chill lifestyle of a surfer bedazzles one, and the glamour of all the surfing movies ever made doesn't help either (neither does the Beach Boys' Surf's Up!). But, is surfing really as easy and laid back as you tend to believe?

All that pop culture aside, should you decide to pick up a board and jump onto waves, what can you really expect?

The answer is a lot. Surfing is a great sport, and it's quite fun too, but you are up against one of the greatest natural forces on earth: the ocean. To be able to succeed against the ocean, you need to have physical prowess.

That's not all, either. You might be fooled by the bright spectacle of surfers strolling on the shore with no care in the world, but being an accomplished surfer also means that you need to have a mighty mentality that won't easily bend in the face of hardships.

Here we're going to present you with what you need to know before starting with surf lessons and what kind of realistic expectations you should have when learning how to surf.

What You Need to Know Before Learning Surfing

Surfing is not at all like other sports in which the basics can carry you a long way and quite quickly. Rather, it's a surprisingly complex sport. Beginner surfers cannot be expected to just paddle out into the ocean and catch unbroken waves. The learning curve in surfing is quite different, can take a long time and it'll be one of the first lessons your surf instructor or surf coach will give you.

Our programs for beginners here at OMBE include a surf lesson that focuses on teaching you the progress of a surfer as well. We aptly called it “the Waves of Progression” and it covers every aspect those who're about to start surfing should know.

The Learning Curve: the Waves of Progression

Simply put, learning to surf comes in like waves: once you master the smaller waves of beginner stages, you move onto a bigger wave as an intermediate but not before going to the shore and readying the equipment that's more suitable for bigger waves. Similarly, to catch the next wave (which is probably a green wave) as an advanced surfer, you need to have another change of equipment.

Moreover, you need a different mental approach and a different set of physical abilities. As the waves get bigger, you'll need to do more paddling, your pop ups will need to be timed better, your muscle memory will need to evolve, and so on.

The Waves

Learning to surf pretty much starts with watching the ocean and the waves, and by trying to understand them when they're constantly changing. Only then can you start catching waves.

If you're not under the guidance of a surf coach yet, that includes learning geography and how to read surf forecasts, checking out surf conditions by frequenting certain surf spots, and picking the right surf spot that'll accommodate your skills and goals accordingly. In other words, you cannot just go to Nazaré and try riding huge green waves as your first wave. Well, that’s the case if you want to be good at surfing and have some regard for your personal safety.

For beginners, the right waves happen to be the soft and flat ones since the most important aspect for a beginner is to maintain a balanced standing position. As such waves don't bear too much energy, they won't allow you to generate too much speed; because they're mellow, you won't be wobbling about.

Therefore, you can start popping up in the right position with enough practice. With some luck and good surf coaching coming from either a professional surfer or coach or even an experienced friend, you may just catch your first wave quite easily.

As you progress through the stages of surfing, though, the waves will get bigger, and you won't stick to the flat parts as the real power you need to channel into your ride is in the wave’s face. Therefore, you'll need to forget what you learned in the beginner spots and formulate a new understanding of the waves as you go along.

That understanding and that readiness to change play a major role in learning to surf.

The Mind

Of course, psychology is an important aspect of all sports, but that may be even more so for surfing. Surfing is an individual sport, which means if you're taking surf lessons from professionals, you see how other surfers fare on the same path with you. When you see others catch waves more easily, you may start doubting yourself and thinking of quitting.

You might not need others to end up in bouts of self-doubt, either. You can ask all the experienced surfers that you know, and they will all give you the same answer: "Yes, you're going to get washed over quite a lot. Get used to it!" That's how they gained experience and got better. If you're expecting an easy ride on friendly waves, get ready for a giant duck dive towards reality.

In addition, remember what we said about the change in the waves you'll ride as you progress through your surfing journey: beginners ride soft, flat, and mellow waves, but for an advanced surfer, the good waves are the big, unbroken waves, as that's the stage when a wave is at its most powerful.

However, that power doesn't always appeal to the beginner who's used to riding the peaceful white foam, and then, the instinct kicks in: they fear the apex and paddle towards the shoulder of the wave where it's flat. You cannot get better that way.

Being brave in the face of a big wave and feeling the moment are important parts of the surfer mentality, and you need to be ready for that even before you start surfing.

The Body

The waves are a force of nature and the wave conditions are pretty much external affairs for a surfer. The surfer’s mentality, on the other hand, is an internal aspect and it's not altogether in our care since it's better left to the professionals such as psychologists and psychiatrists (as in our Mind Surfer program). However, there is one certain and precious asset in our control: our bodies.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the relationship between a surfer and their bodies is quite obvious if you want to make progress. Do enough push-ups, sit-ups, and squats, lift your surfboard, lift your dumbbells, and lift your thin friends up in the air, right? Sorry to break it to you that there's more to it than just being strong.

The simple part: you need to be flexible and have enough endurance to fight the waves. A majority of professional surfing actually consists of paddling and lying in wait in the water, so if you don't possess the attributes that can help you handle these, you'll find that it's very difficult to ride a wave once you pop up. Moreover, assuming the right position on the board requires a certain level of spinal flexibility and mobility. For those, you might even have to attend yoga sessions.

The difficult part: as the waves you ride change, your muscle memory needs to evolve, too. If you’ve watched enough surf competitions, you might have observed that those who started surfing on small and choppy waves (like Brazilian surfers) find it difficult on huge green waves (like those in Hawaii).

That's because their muscle memory is based on the ones they grew up on. That'll be the case for you when you progress towards advanced stages, too. 

The Surfboard

The last but not least important aspect you need to heed before taking surfing lessons is picking the right surfboard. Similar to everything that we said above, that also seems simple, but Clayton Nienaber—the founder of OMBE—is a master surfboard shaper who has worked with names like Dane Reynolds and Kelly Slater, so you can believe us when we say that it's not an easy process either.

Okay, for beginners, it might be a bit easier, as there are many surfing guides that recommend the boards you should use to catch your first wave and why they’re suitable. Yes, we're talking about the notorious soft top foam board, which is quite thick and big.

Those boards are better for beginners since they absorb the energy of the wave to a great extent due to their thickness. As a result, novice surfers figure out their balanced stance more easily. Moreover, since they're heavier than other boards, they don't transfer the wave's flow to the rider. It's like they are in a state of pre-given balance.

However, once you start surfing bigger waves, you'll realize that your needs from a board will become more technical, and the big board you've been riding all this time doesn’t do the trick anymore. Your knowledge of the waves and how your body works will also become more advanced at this point. 

Therefore, it's important for you to interpret the feedback your board(s) give you when riding correctly and pick your boards accordingly.

Key Points You Need to Know After You Start Surfing

Now that you know what to expect from your journey should you decide to learn to surf, you're ready to take the next step and see what more experienced surfers focus on.

This part of the journey is also inevitably based on the four elements mentioned above (OMBE: ocean, mind, body, and equipment), but in a little bit more detail. For example, your wave knowledge won’t only help you pick the right surf spot but also predict the moment when a particular wave breaks and how it does so.

In addition, we need to inform you on some technical basics of surfing such as finding the balanced stance, how to (or not to) paddle, or how to pop up in a green wave.

Like all sports and even all other aspects of life where we are in constant contact with other people, surfing has its own ethics as well. So, knowing about the surf etiquette before going to the beach and “wreaking havoc” is also quite crucial.

The Importance of Wave Knowledge

There are two boxes you need to tick before going out for a surf session. One of them is the safety of the surf spots for beginners. Beginners mostly stick to beach breaks as it's better to fall over in the sand. In some cases, they might prefer point breaks, too, as long as they trust their skills in terms of surfing, swimming, and safely falling. But, if you decide to go surfing on reef breaks, you better make sure that your abilities won't fail you.

The other box is reading surf forecasts. It's the only way to ensure your trip to the shoreline is not a redundant one as they inform you about surfing conditions on any break and on any given day. If you read them, you can see whether the waves will be suitable for you or not and act accordingly.

Besides those two, having wave knowledge means that you know about the stages of a wave and where they hit their apex or start breaking on the ocean. For example, a single wave undergoes four main stages: (1) it starts as a bump, (2) draws water from the bottom of the ocean with the help of the wind and becomes a green wave, (3) breaks (mostly on sandbanks near beach breaks), and (4) becomes whitewater.

As a rookie, with enough observation, you can easily figure out where waves of the same kind will break and turn into flat whitewater (or white foam) that you can easily practice on. As you gain more experience, you'll use the part of observation that relates to the unbroken and where they're more powerful.

In the end, knowing these will decrease the time and energy you put into paddling and make catching waves much easier.

Achieving the Balanced Stance

The balanced stance can be divided into two phases: the first one is popping up to a balanced stance, and the second one is maintaining that stance for the rest of your ride. However, you can't practice for those right there in the ocean because you're going to get wiped out a lot, and it won't do any good to neither your body nor mind.

Don't worry, though, as there are many land exercises and simulations that'll help you achieve the desired stance.

Popping Up to a Balanced Stance

One of them is BOSU surfing. BOSU balls used for balance training in fitness are a good substitute for a surfboard on a wave. Hopping on the ball from a pop up position is going to help you assess where you are in terms of balance.

In the end, you'll know why you shouldn't be looking down but forward while popping up and learn to straighten up your upper body as soon as you land on the ball. Moreover, you'll see why a back-foot stance is not right for surfers as it makes the ball roll forward and causes you to duck dive. Soon and with enough practice, though, you'll figure out the proper stance.

Another way is doing enough land simulations on your surfboard in the pop up position. Press the top of your feet at the tail of your board, lift your upper body while your hands or on the sides of the midsection of the board, and tilt your head forward. Practice jumping up to a surf stance like that until you're sure that you're balanced.

Maintaining a Balanced Stance

We said that the big boards rookies ride are ideal for learning to surf since maintaining balance on them is easy, but there are still a few aspects you need to be wary of if you don't want to get wiped out.

One of them is the front foot stance. When riding a wave, you need to lock your front foot to the middle of your board to maintain balance and do weight shifts, turns, and leans by subtly moving your back foot. Most of the time, beginners find subtlety quite difficult and start moving on their board as if they're in an ‘80s-themed party, which causes them to wobble and fall off.

Another important aspect is hand-eye coordination. You need to look at where you're going all the time. If your eyes are elsewhere, checking the wave behind you, checking other surfers, or the imaginary albatross you're trying to hunt, there's a good chance that you're going to get wiped out.

In addition, your hands should always point towards the direction of your ride and move very minutely like a tightrope walker. If you wave them around as if to say high to a friend watching you from the shore, well, no matter how ontologically balanced your board is, you're going to go off balance and fall over.


Just sit on the beach and watch other novice surfers trying to catch waves. What are they doing? They're paddling like crazy! They're paddling like they don't give a damn about riding a wave! They're paddling like it's the only reason they're out there in the ocean!

What happens, then? They're too invested in paddling that they're not even looking up to see where the wave is and how it's approaching. They don't see if there are other surfers lining up to catch that particular wave. And when the time comes up to catch it, it's always too late, since they were too focused on paddling.

Okay, let's not do any injustice to anyone. Some beginner and intermediate surfers do have an awareness of their surroundings. Yet, there's also another problem arising among those: they're trying to do impossible and start paddling in front of the wave, trying to beat it to the shore, as they're too afraid to catch it. Whether you're trying to race the wave or just pop up albeit in low confidence and by mistiming it, the result will be the same: you're going to get wiped out.

Once you're able to read the waves and once you're sure about your balanced stance, though, you won't need to paddle that much. Even in the advanced stages when you're catching unbroken waves, you'll just position yourself in the apex and do the Oreo Biscuit having felt the wave's lift.

Sure, you need to work on strengthening your back and be ready to paddle a lot if you're aiming to compete in tournaments, but let us tell you that paddling is pretty overrated when catching a wave.

Surfer Etiquette

Being in constant contact with others on the ocean or on the beaches brings along certain responsibilities. That's why we need to care about surf ethics.

Surf ethics and the surfer's responsibilities can be divided into three categories: the ocean, the non-surfers, and the surfers. Now, let's see what they are and why.

Responsibility Against the Ocean

People who see surfers on their TV or when scrolling YouTube are jealous of you because you're in the ocean and it's one of the most beautiful, most amazing, most jaw-dropping entities on earth. Yet, throughout history, humanity has found various ways to pollute the ocean's habitat, whether they were on the ocean or just sitting in front of their TV set.

As surfers, we're visiting some of the places where it's at its most beautiful and least polluted either to compete or on a surf holiday. During these times, we need to make sure that it remains that way, and not only because our work totally depends on it, but mainly because that's how it should have been.

That obviously includes the principle everyone on the planet should bear in their minds: not polluting the water even when we're not surfing. In addition to that, in recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of plastic-free and eco-friendly surfboards, shoes, and wetsuits. So, now it's easier than ever to be a sustainable surfer.

In the end, we should do everything in our power to preserve the beauty that gives us such joy.

Responsibility Against the Non-Surfing People

First of all, being a beginner generally means having a thick and long board, which you have to carry through the beach and across a crowd of beach-goers. If you're not careful about how you carry that board of yours, you might cause some upsets in the crowd and get a few frowns.

Secondly, as we said, we're traveling across the world most of the time. These travels are mostly to certain beaches where there are locals with different lifestyles, beliefs, and habits. Being respectful to them and their space is as equally important as being respectful to fellow surfers.

Responsibility Toward Other Surfers

Of course, you know that you should be respectful to fellow surfers who are trying to learn surfing and frequent the same beaches as you, but there might be a few aspects that have escaped your attention.

One of these is that you should never try catching someone else's wave. You see that surfers line up in a certain spot on the ocean. It's not because they want to seem neat for the spectators. If you're afraid that you'll miss your chance to catch a wave (as most people who only started their journey do), don't worry—the ocean has never run out of them so far, and it's highly unlikely that it'll happen anytime soon.

Maybe more importantly, though, you should never ditch your board in the ocean no matter how far away you're from the others. These boards are 5-foot long in the least, but they can be as long as 9 feet or more. Add to that the force of the wave, and you'll get a huge mass moving with incredible speed. You can easily imagine how horrible that would be.

Wrapping Up...

So, let's ask the question again: Is surfing hard?

Now you know what you can expect from your journey. You know how complex a water sport surfing is, how you should adapt to the waves and in which stages, and the abilities a surfing career requires. You know that you need to be patient and you should respect the ocean.

Based on this knowledge, we think that it should be you deciding if it's easy or hard. After all, it depends on your personality, and no one knows you better than your own self.

Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching