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Understanding how to improve your surfing: The four stages of learning new skills

If you want to improve your surfing, you need to understand the learning experience and all the highs and lows so you can navigate that without losing motivation.

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The Full Guide

For most surfers, trying to learn something new, change a bad habit or create a new habit can often lead to frustration.

Why am I not getting this?

How long do I have to do this until it becomes second nature?

When will it just click?

This process can lead you to lose motivation and worst case, give up and go straight back to your comfort zone.

Staying in your comfort zone is always going to leave you in the exact same place and your surfing won't change.

Understanding the learning experience

If you understood the learning experience and how these habits are formed or how they are fixed, would you not find that learning curve easier to navigate?

If you knew what ups and downs you’d go through, it makes navigating it all so much easier. You’re prepared for what's to come and you can embrace the suck.

Knowing that, you’ll find getting out of your comfort zone so much more motivating.

What you need to understand is that the body lags the mind. The first few phases of learning new skills and improving your surfing is going to be frustrating as you build awareness and understanding but the body is playing catch up and not moving the way you want. Hence, the body lags the mind.

The four stages of learning a new skill

When learning something there are four stages, unconsciously incompetent, consciously incompetent, consciously competent and unconsciously competent.

By understanding this framework of skill development you can understand your process of learning and how to kick those bad habits.

So let's back that up, it comes down to two parts, conscious or unconscious. All this means is do you think about it or not? Are you aware?

Then there’s competent and incompetent, can you do it or not?

Unconsciously incompetent

You are unconsciously incompetent if you are out in the surf and have no clue, no thought process, aren’t aware of what you are doing and can’t achieve what you want to do. For a lot of surfers, this is the wacky waving inflatable tube man and it looks bad.

Wild movements and no clue what each movement does or what you are trying to do.

Consciously incompetent

Consciously incompetent is the stage of being aware. You know you are doing it wrong but you can’t figure out how to do it. You are working through new movement patterns and trying to do them properly.

Or… you know you’re doing it all wrong but have no clue what to do

Consciously competent

Consciously competent is where you are aware of what to do and can do it, but you can only do it if you are thinking about it. This is where you are working on something in your surfing, like the pop-up but you can only achieve that when you clear your mind and think about that move. 

Any other thoughts become distracting and result in you failing.

The skill is not yet second nature, meaning you haven’t transitioned to unconsciously competent yet.

Unconsciously competent

It’s what we all want, it’s why we train. Don’t think, just do, feel it. This part of the process is now where the body has eclipsed the mind and acts on its own, it doesn’t need to be thought about.

This is where you’ll start to flow.

Connecting this to your training

If you’re improving your surfing, learning to surf, making tweaks, it doesn’t matter, you’ll have to go through this process.

What you want is to understand how it all connects together.

To get out of unconsciously incompetent you need knowledge, ocean IQ, to read the waves better to understand how movement works and how it connects to your board. You need to understand things and see how it is done.

If it’s not a small tweak, the first few steps will be awkward and this is where you are incompetent. Think of this as doing your first set of OMBE training for the first time. You’ve been blasted with knowledge, excitement is up but you have no idea how to practice it properly yet and are figuring it out.

Transitioning from land-based skill development to practising in the surf

Eventually, you start getting the training down and can do it on land but the problem most people face is connecting that to the water.

This is where most people get stuck and lose motivation. Ever heard this complaint or comment from the OMBE community?

“I’m a pro at the living room pop up but I can’t for the life of me do it in the ocean”.

This is the main thing this guide is tackling, but we needed the background and understanding first, so we could train the body.

Not being able to do it in the ocean means you are somewhere between consciously incompetent and competent. 

It’s not even a question of being able to do it unconsciously. This is where most surfers are going wrong. If you can’t do it in the ocean, you have to be conscious about performing the manoeuvre.

This is where the OMBE Method Training of trigger words and pattern interrupters comes in. You need something that helps your brain achieve the consciously competent part of the training. 

Using the trigger words the right way

The big elephant in the room though is you need to quieten your brain in the surf. Too loud and your distracted, bring tension and stress into your surfing or focusing on the wrong things.

Confused? The idea behind those trigger words and training is to take the pressure of concioucly thinking about it too much. You need to relax, take a visual que or remind yourself of what you need to do and then when it comes to actually doing it, not overthink it.

Its more about the mind than it is the body. Teaching the body to move is easy on land, no stress, no pressure, no distractions. Once you're in the surf, it's all about quietening the mind and letting it act how it knows to, you just need a very quiet reminder.

Let it flow and happen, you already know how to move, you need calm the mind to just do it. Relax, breathe through it.

There is such a fine line between overthinking it all, complicating it, thinking too much and forgetting to move and taking that small cue to just do this.

Think “where you’re looking is where you go” make it so simple you can easily follow it and it’s just enough of a cue to work on it.

As you apply this trigger word, pattern interrupter or silence all the distractions and just focus on doing that one thing, you’ll start to see success.

Starting to see success consciously

When you start getting it and being able to replicate it in the surf, it’s not do it a few times and move on.

If you bring in a new thought during this stage, overthink it or work on a different part of your surfing, I guarantee you, you will default back to consciously incompetent.


You were only able to do it if you thought about doing it with a calm mind.

You haven’t cemented that feeling and trained the body to do it without thinking calmly.

For each person that is a different amount of time based on your ability, what you are trying to learn and do you have the foundations to actually learn this skill?

That is a whole other topic but most people are trying to take 5 steps ahead and want to learn how to do a roundhouse cutback before they can even do a decent bottom turn. The bottom turn sets up the cutback. Pick the right line and you’ll improve your surfing, you need to do the movement at the right time in the right place. 

How long does it take to cement the skill?

Who knows, I actually don’t want you to go out and think I just need to do X number of these or a 1000 reps because it gives the wrong outlook.

There are studies that go into that and that can motivate you or demotivate you when you see time frames etc.

My advice to you is to chase the feeling, keep working on it until it feels good, work on making that part of your surfing smoother and chase a better feeling. When you don’t have to consciously think so much about doing something, you are progressing through the skill and will be ready to add a new layer or tweak on soon.

If you change it up and try to do something else and it all goes backwards, you need to go back, determine if there is a foundational skill you are missing, is it the wrong trigger word or pattern interrupter, is your mind and fear getting in the way or do you just need to keep consciously working on that one thing until it becomes more second nature.

That’s it, it’s a process and takes time. 

Embrace the suck, understanding each failed attempt is a learning experience towards getting it. You fail, you don’t think, you don’t move, whatever it is, analyse that after each failure and try to understand what went wrong. The initial phases will always be the body lagging the mind. You have to train it to catch up.

We’ve all heard the story, but how much sucking do you think Tony Hawk went through to get the first 900 in skateboarding?

A lot, a lot of sucking was done behind doors but then he landed it in competition, after the competition had technically finished, in front of a crowd cheering him on.

Put that into the context of surfing, who’s cheering you on each failed attempt and working through getting it? It’s gotta be you or the mates you surf with.

Look at the expression on his face during failed attempts, it’s pure frustration as he know’s he is close. Tony Hawk was working on something never done before. What you’re doing in surfing has all been done before, it’s easy and doable, you just need to find the right way for you understand it, train it, and then calmly apply that in the surf until you can do it without thinking, and that’s where OMBE comes in.

Embrace the suck and embrace the journey to getting skills to feel second nature, aka where you don’t have to think and the body can just do it.

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching