The mechanics of surfing
Min Read Time

The Physics & Neuroscience of Surfing

Clay jumps on another podcast with Michael Frampton from Surf Mastery and dives into the mechanics and mental side of all things surfing.

Table of Contents

  1. Start The OMBE Method with Surf Mastery
  2. Potential and Kinetic Energy
  3. The Positioning and Movement of a Good Surfer
  4. The Intermediate Surfer’s Habit of Flight
  5. The Energy Output of a Surfer
  6. How Can You Change Your Perspective as an Intermediate Surfer?
  7. How to Have Control of Your Body
  8. The Neutral Stance of Kelly Slater
  9. The Importance of Flow
  10. Misinterpreting the Feedback: The Blame Game of a Surfer
  11. Lose Yourself in the Music
  12. Learning the Scales
  13. Ocean, Mind, Body, and Equipment (OMBE)
  14. Wrapping Up…
  15. Ready to Start the OMBE Method with 30 Day TRial?

Except for the essential workers who put their lives on the line for the good of the majority, the recent pandemic has affected us all the same way. We were stuck at our homes with little or nothing to do, and some of us carried on with work remotely.

Surfers and surf coaches were among those who had to isolate themselves away from their work and hobbies. Now, it might have come across as hellish for some surfers and coaches that we know, but that wasn’t necessarily the case for Clayton Nienaber. He took it as a chance to delve into the online content on surfing and other related areas to deepen his knowledge and take his coaching to even higher levels.

The interview he had on the Surf Mastery podcast provides us with highlights on what he learned during the pandemic. Of course, we can’t expect everyone to listen to the whole episode that lasts longer than an hour. So, we thought that sharing notes and stories that touch upon a variety of surfing-related topics in written form could benefit those who seek a deeper understanding of this beautiful branch of sports.

Without further ado, let’s get to the main points that came up during the conversation.

Start the OMBE method with Surf Mastery

Potential and kinetic energy

First, we’re going to remind you of one of the most basic premises of physics by telling you about the two energy types: potential and kinetic energy. If you have forgotten what these are, let’s recall: potential energy is the energy of an object when it’s stable, it’s the “energy of positioning”; on the other hand, kinetic energy is the energy of an object when it’s moving.

Think of it in surfing terms. There’s a wave that has traveled miles and miles in the ocean. It meets you when you’re on your board, lifts you above the water level, and drops you back. The water’s potential to lift you up is, in surfing terms, your potential energy. Similarly, when you catch the wave and start sliding on it, you are transferring that potential to movement. That is your kinetic energy.

This whole dynamic of physics can be further translated to surfing: if you get your positioning right, you’ll have more potential since you’re channeling the wave’s intrinsic energy to your body. Once you catch the wave, you’ll be able to realize that potential more easily. If your positioning is poor, on the other hand, you’ll have to use the energy of your body, which, as you can guess, is quite underwhelming compared to that of the wave.

The positioning and movement of a good surfer

Now, we urge you to watch the recordings of your surfing idols closely and see how they move. Or, maybe, just see how they don’t move.

Unless the situation requires it, a good surfer’s upper body will only move minimally. Their heads will be statuesque, their hands will have little or no movement, and their shoulders will stay stable no matter how they twist or lean. Yes, they compress and extend their knees now and then, but that’s not how they ride a wave either. They actually tap into the wave’s energy and channel it into their movement, which renders them as weightless as possible and their ride effortless.

Go to a nearby shore and see how intermediate surfers position their bodies and how they move. Unless you come across a hidden gem or a humble talent who doesn’t want to be discovered, you’ll likely see surfers with stiff upper bodies that move around awkwardly, stall their boards, and weigh on their back foot. You’ll see that they don’t know where to put their hands—like a high school student having dinner with their sweetheart’s family. You’ll see that they’re anxious and that anxiety prevents them from developing a direct connection with the wave. As a result, their performances are messy and uncoordinated like a Zack Snyder movie.

When on the starting block, there’s a reason sprinters compress their body and position their feet like that before the gun goes pop: it’s the best position that allows them to turn the potential energy into movement. Similarly, a good surfer should find the best position to tap into the wave’s energy and channel it into their movement; they need to match the potential with “the desired kinetic.”

The intermediate surfers habit of flight

It’s worth noting that the energy of the wave lies in its pocket. Yet, for the majority of beginner and intermediate surfers, the pocket of the wave is what a saber-toothed tiger looked like to our cave-dwelling ancestors.

Remember your basic psychology classes (if you had any). Our primitive ancestors had three main responses against such threats: fear, freeze, and flight. A beginner generally freezes when they’re faced with the pocket of the wave because it seems like a mouth that can swallow them at a moment’s notice. They’re used to riding soft and smooth waters of the shoulders after all, so expecting them to venture right into the pocket would be unrealistic.

An intermediate surfer, on the other hand, tends to flee towards the comfort zone of the shoulder, but what they don’t know is that they’re escaping the wave’s energy. They’re going to the shoulder because they’re able to surf well and fast there. When they check the distances they made on their GPS devices later, though, they might be disappointed; surfing fast and in a straight line doesn’t necessarily mean making great distances.

A great pro surfer like Mick Fanning, who surfs quite slowly yet rides the pocket by making lots of turns is still able to make more distance since they are not trying to build speed by themselves. They’re simply tapping into the wave’s energy and it moves them forward.

It means that the habit of flight, which ends up with you reaching your comfort zone, isn’t good for your connection with the wave and improvement as a surfer.

The energy output of a surfer

Let’s continue with the example of Mick Fanning. We already said that he rides slower, but there are also other traits you can see in his ride: his nose always faces the beach and he takes his time to go from the bottom to the top. Then, he fades his bottom turns to hit the lip of the wave and get speed from it. That’s why he’s able to cover up more distance than an intermediate surfer who just rides in a straight line with whatever speed they have.

But, the story here is not really about distance coverage. It’s once again about energy. The top-to-bottom movement of Mick Fanning means that he’s maximizing the wave’s energy. He uses the wave to gain speed and cover distance. Therefore, his energy output is quite low.

An intermediate surfer who sticks to the shoulder, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a luxury as the top and bottom of the wave aren’t far away from each other on the shoulder. So, they need to use their bodily energy, hopping and bouncing on the mid-face, and floundering, which results in much higher energy output.

Hhow can you change your perspective as an intermediate surfer?

Everybody probably heard the famous Bruce Lee quote in which he urges sportspeople to be fluid and formless like water. Well, intermediate surfers are mostly like ice: they are quite clumsy, stiff as a rock, and they don’t know how to be mentally flexible yet. Therefore, when they need to move, they move as a whole unit, yet the distinct elements of this unit lack coordination, too, like a raccoon on the dancefloor. Rather, their hands, which should be pointing towards the destination, are mostly flailing around causing imbalance.

What you need to learn first in situations like this is that there’s merit in the subtlety of movement. Waving and flailing around isn’t acceptable on a surfboard. Having understood the wave and its energy, the trick is to control the board by extending and compressing your knees and making subtle weight shifts whenever necessary.

To that end, you might have seen professional surfers such as Fanning or Slater adjusting their boards. A more responsive, more specifically dialed board means reacting faster and with the most minimal movements possible. The banana-shaped boards of Kelly Slater are a perfect example of this as they allow him to harness the most energy from the wave.

A beginner or intermediate surfer, on the other hand, doesn’t pay much attention to such details. It’s partially because they haven’t yet developed the correct technique and they aren’t moving their body well. Therefore, they pick the board that is allegedly in the right volume for them, which ends up being short, wide, and flat most of the time.

Yes, it provides them with speed on the shoulder, but honestly, they’re of no use in the pocket because they don’t allow you to connect with the wave. Simply put, if you don’t connect with the wave, there’s little chance that you’ll master the chops necessary to advance as a surfer.

How to have control of your body

A beginner cannot ride the board of an intermediate surfer. Similarly, an intermediate surfer cannot ride the board of an advanced one. That’s because they don’t have the necessary physical skills nor enough control over their bodies to ride more responsive boards.

So, the question is, how do you achieve that control over your movement? How do you acquire the necessary body coordination to improve your performance? How do you master your body and get the most out of it? The answer is simple: repetition.

At OMBE, we use simulations and surf skating practices to make you repeat the same moves over and over until you master them. That’s the only way to get to know your body, diagnose where and why you fail, and overcome your shortcomings. Then, we’d urge you to repeat what you’ve learned out in the ocean.

You’re afraid of the sheer force of the wave approaching you and you freeze? Well, paddle towards waves with similar attributes until the ice your body melts. You’re afraid that the pocket will swallow you and you’ll return to the shore with your head hanging low? If you hold onto that fear, the habit of sticking to the shoulders will swallow your career and dreams.

The rationale behind these teachings is as simple as the answer itself: the higher the risk, the better the reward.

The neutral stance of Kelly Slater

Two years ago, Clayton had an amazing interview with Kelly Slater, where they discussed almost every aspect of surfing in detail. Unsurprisingly, the conversation yielded lots of profound points. One of the most striking points was the neutral stance Kelly came up with as a result of his excursion into golf. It’s indeed a stance that can benefit a young surfer who wants to be more flexible while making turns.

Briefly, the neutral stance is a readiness to move in any direction the wave requires between turns. Even more basically, it’s a position in which you’re both alert and relaxed. You need to be alert because you still need to gauge where and when you should turn. You need to be relaxed because with a tense body, no matter how athletic you are, you won’t be able to accomplish the turn.

Moreover, a neutral, relaxed body means that you’ll be absorbing impact. Take soccer injuries as an example. If a player is trying to preserve control of the ball as their feet are firmly in the ground and a defender swoops their legs with a sliding tackle, there’s a good chance there’ll be a serious injury. If the first player’s feet are ready to move from the ground at any time, on the other hand, the injury will just be a scratch no matter how horribly they’re tackled.

In surfing, we’re face to face with a power far superior to an incompetent soccer player’s challenges: the ocean. As you progress through its stages, the waves you ride grow in force as well. So, the neutral stance of Kelly Slater helps you absorb the impact of the sheer power of the wave, and use its force to move better.

The importance of flow

Speaking of Kelly Slater, it’s impossible not to mention flow since you can’t really see a surfer with a better flow than him. It’s also possible to claim that there’s no other surfer who can understand the ocean better than him, but that’s the same as our previous point. After all, it’s impossible to understand the ocean without being able to flow on it. In this sense, Bruce Lee’s “Be like water” becomes more meaningful in the context of surfing.

One example of that can be observed during turns. A rookie surfer with little or no understanding of the waves generally goes into turns with too much speed. When you start a turn with too much speed, you’re trying to push the water violently and you end up aerating it. What follows is the tail of your board sliding out and you losing traction.

If you try taking turns slower and more in line with the speed of the water, on the other hand, they’re going to be smoother, and even if you don’t gain speed all the time, you won’t be losing any. In a sense, it means that slow is smooth and smooth is somehow fast.

In martial arts classes, the students who try to impress teachers or potential opponents by throwing fast punches and kicks are quickly shown their place because one of the first things taught there is to be slow. When you throw a punch slowly and smoothly, it has more of a sense of direction. Only when you know where to punch, the force of it can mean something.

It’s no different in surfing. You need to listen to the wave, get feedback from it, and interpret your turns following that feedback.

Mininterpreting the feedback: the blame game of a surfer

When you’re not moving with a sense of direction or without heeding the feedback your moves get from your opponent in martial arts, the ultimate feedback is quite clear and very difficult to misinterpret: you got a really a good beating, you failed, there’s no denying it, and you can’t blame anyone for that.

In surfing, though, you can only start interpreting your performance consciously if it’s filmed. Of course, when you’re washed over by a wave and when you fall over, it seems like there’s nothing worth interpreting and the result is similar to that of a good beating, but that’s generally not the case with rookie surfers.

They always find certain external factors that they can blame: the wind, the bad waves they get, the surfboard being ill-fitted to their surfing skills, etc. You can rarely find one who looks inward and diagnoses their own faults such as unnecessarily dropping their hands to their side or catching rail.

However, as a surfer, the only thing you can really control is your body. If you’re going to progress through the stages of surfing, you need to be able to recognize where your body fails and work on it instead of blaming factors that you have no control over.

Lose yourself in the music

Surfing is a quite suitable metaphor for other aspects of life, but also, other aspects of life are quite suitable metaphors for surfing. One of those aspects is music.

Let’s say that a song came up while you’re driving home late at night, and you liked the song and saved it to listen to it later. When you go into the shower, you remember it and put it on, and start yelling along without regard for the music. Later, in a meeting with some friends, you tell them that there’s this song you’re obsessed with, and you play it while you keep on conversing.

All these situations have something in common: you’re never completely immersed in the song itself because you’re focused on something else, be it driving, showering, or conversing. Yet, you know that you like the song, and that might even lead you to learn how to play it on the guitar, for instance. That’s how people take an interest in surfing and jump on boards.

After a while, you go to a karaoke bar, and that particular song you liked so much is up. Once the music starts, you start paying attention to the rhythm, to the changes in melody, you see the lyrics on the screen and realize that you’ve completely misunderstood them.

It’s a completely different experience and makes you understand that you need to pay more attention. So, that’s when you should look for a music teacher, or in our case, a surfing coach.

Learning the scales

To continue with the analogy, what do you actually learn from a music teacher? Well, the first things that come to mind are scales and rhythm. In the beginning, repeating the same chords again and again or playing a song until you get the rhythm right will probably frustrate you. Soon enough, though, the rhythm will come to you as given and you’re going to hit the following note by heart.

In surfing, once you start feeling the rhythm of the waves, you’ll almost intuitively know what your next move will result in. Then, the external factors and the type of board you’re on will matter much less. You’ll be able to transfer your wave-related instincts from a regular surfboard to a mid-length one, or from a twin-fin to a longboard.

In the long run, that also means you’re ready to be creative and you’re ready to have fun in the face of big waves, which is the equivalent of a jam session in music. The sense of rhythm and harmony is given, you’re in the flow, and you’re having fun without giving any thought to what note to hit next. That’s the point where your creativity and movement are inseparable, which is the ultimate goal of surfing.

Ocean. Mind, Body, & Equipment (OMBE)

A layperson would see surfers on the screen of their TVs and, just by looking at their bodies, would think that you need a certain level of physical prowess to be a surfer, but you see that the emphasis throughout this interview is not at all on the physical capabilities of a surfer. Rather, it’s all about developing an organic connection with the elements you need for surfing through a profound understanding of them: the ocean, the mind, the body, and the equipment.

That’s our emphasis here at OMBE as well. We’re trying to teach how the surfboards work by guiding you on aspects of boards like how they fit into a certain type of wave or which kind of board is most suitable for your surfing style and technique.

We’re trying to inform you on how the human body moves on a surfboard, what sort of strength you need for extending and compressing during turns, and what parts of your body you should focus on for twisting and leaning.

We’re telling you how the waves work, which part of it you should ride to make the most of its energy, and what you need to do to improve your wave reading.

And, maybe most importantly, we have psychologists here who help you understand the mind of a surfer and overcome mental obstacles that prevent you from approaching surfing in the right way.

You might ask: “But what about teaching how to surf? Don’t you ever do that?” The answer is no, we aren’t trying to teach you how to surf. Based on all the components of OMBE listed above, we’re trying to teach you how to move and how to tap into the energy intrinsic to waves. And these are more valuable than surfing by rote.

Wrapping up…

Many surfers cling to an expensive surfboard as a means to improve their skill; others overcompensate on physical fitness; a third group overthinks about how to ride the wave of their dreams but freezes when actually faced with it. Heck, perhaps you’re struggling with all three.

Okay, maybe you’re not showing all the symptoms listed above, but there are lots of beginner and intermediate surfers who have at least one such misconception about surfing. And yes, ultimately, a good surfboard, a strong and flexible body, and dreaming of the waves you want to ride are all necessary. Yet, they aren’t the essential elements that make a good surfer.

A good surfer is the one who can interpret the energy of the wave with an intuitive understanding of it, which is developed and molded by repetitive exercises, and channel it into their performance by minimizing their own energy output. That’s what you see the surfing greats do, and that’s what we’re aiming for here at OMBE.

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Written by
Jeremy Dean
surf coaching