The Surf Paddling Interview With Clayton Nienaber
A deep dive on surfing, the influence of surfers like Kelly Slater and Dayne Reynolds had on the industry to how we can learn lessons from life to incorporate into our surfing.
Recently, our head coach Clayton Nienaber was a guest in the Surf Paddling podcast. The conversation took two episodes, which is almost an hour and a half, and the topics were quite varied.
They talked about how and why Kelly Slater is so fast on water. They shared the secrets of renowned pros like Taylor Knox. They produced lots of surfing metaphors (to be honest, it was mostly Clay, and he’s really good at it) and touched on common surfing mistakes that rookies make. They also discussed the importance of equipment and the right mental approach since Clayton is both a board shaper and a surfing coach.
Of course, not everybody will have the time or opportunity to tune in to the podcast itself as it is quite lengthy, and podcasts are not everybody’s cup of tea. So, we at OMBE decided to boil it all down in written form.
Those among you who are new to surfing will find tips and insights that will help you improve. The more experienced surfers, though, can read about stories that they will empathize with, have a laugh at, and nod their heads silently. Even those of you who are not into surfing at all might have something that will surprisingly draw your interest. “Surfing is just a big metaphor for life,” after all.
We all know how fast Kelly Slater is, right? He is still probably the fastest surfer out there, and you can’t only credit his superior wave choices for that. Surely, there must be another reason, and one of the first factors that comes to mind is his surfboard.
Clayton once had a chance to surf on one of Kelly’s surfboards. He thought it would be like driving a Ferrari: the board would start accelerating even before you hit the gas pedal. But, as you can guess, that didn’t happen, and Clay stood on the board somewhat disappointed and baffled.
Then he asked himself why he loved Kelly’s surfing to find an answer. The answer was naturally Kelly’s bottom turns. He took off, put the board on the rail, and there it was! The board was flying like a rocket!
As surfing coaches, we tend to talk a bit too much about how to stand in balance on a board. However, we don’t mean that you should be standing on your board and letting it slide in a straight line.
The answer to Clayton’s confusion was actually this: the surfboards of our day are not designed with straight surfing in mind. They work best when you are surfing on the rail, leaning towards one side or another. When you stand on them, it pushes the water and that causes friction, hindering speed generation. When you are on the rail, on the other hand, you have less weight, and the wave does the pushing.
Only a surfer knows the feeling
It might sound a bit like a billabong commercialromantic, but it’s true: surfing is a feeling. It might be the main element that separates it from other branches of sport. Surfing is a feeling because the ocean doesn’t allow you too much time to think and you cannot go into the water with elaborate strategies. It all happens there and then in the moment .
Here, we see lots of surfersyoungsters that come with certain preconceptions about riding a wave, and we see how they fail. We also see how people who try harder are not really getting anywhere. It’s all because preconceptions, fear of failure, and overthinking make the athlete tense and obscure “the surfer feeling.”
It’s not only something that newbies suffer from either. When Clayton was on tour in the 1990s, he tried too hard to go fast, to impress the spectators and judges, to squeeze the most points from waves that just weren’t right. That resulted in tense performances with little flow and aesthetics, and arguably no self-contentment.
The way to overcome this particular tension is remembering to have fun and to feel the waves. In other words, you should be present and sensitive to the waves energy. enjoy the waves. Once you progress and start surfing on the power zones of waves without the aforementioned tension, you’ll get a taste of being connected to ocean mind body and your equipment.t that surfer feeling. And once you get a taste of it, it’ll be difficult to let it go.
The Origin Story of Clayton Nienaber Shaping Boards
There is a part in almost every hero’s superhero’s origin story when they feel like social outcasts and how that leads to their self-discoveries. Of course, we can safely say that Clayton is no superhero because we work with the guy every day, but his origin story is not too different either.
As a diabetic kid who had to give himself shots with gigantic injections in school during his teenage years, it’s only natural that he felt a little left out. One way to drown those feelings was pulling away from all that and going out surfing. Yes, surfing has a therapeutic effect like that. It also played a major part when the time came to serve the South African military forces, which was mandatory. When everyone in his cohort was in the service, Clayton’s family sent him to the city so that he could focus on his surfing.
A year after that, he started working at the Safari surfboard factory, spraying boards. That was the very factory responsible for producing Spider Murphy, which was the choice of some pros including Shaun Thomson. During his time at the factory, he learned how to airbrush, gloss, and laminate. After work, he would work on shaping reject boards with a friend.
One of the first boards they shaped together was called the Ugly Duckling, and the shape of it was quite befitting its name. However, that didn’t stop their financially underprivileged friends from buying these boards and riding them.
Evidently, Clayton didn’t stop his board-shaping escapades there.
How the Board-Shaping Business Grew
Back when he was a new board-shaper in the business, Clayton was also competing in tournaments, but he never rode his own boards. He stuck with the Spider boards produced in the Safari factories. Yet, thanks to riding popular boards, he had a reference point for his own shaping endeavors. So, it worked quite well for both his surfing and board-shaping.
The help he got wasn’t only from the boards he rode either. He had a friend named Baron, who was another shaper. Where Clayton failed to identify the exact nuance of a board he made—whether it was good or bad—Baron would be able to diagnose a problem with pinpoint accuracy.
When Baron shaped a board, Clayton would ride it and tell him how it felt. This mutual feedback resulted in a more articulated understanding of the surfboards from the pair, and that’s how the business really started to grow.
In ten years, they were exporting boards and producing gear for huge names like Dane Reynolds and Kelly Slater.
The Dane Reynolds Influence
Can a board-shaper be confused by an order from a client after ten years in the business? The answer is apparently sopositive. See, Clayton surfboards & co. were focused on maximizing speed when they shaped boards because that was the order of the day back then. But, one day, Dane Reynolds asked them to make a board that was specifically good for turns and not at all for speed.
Clayton was understandably confused upon hearing the order and his immediate reaction was admitting that he didn’t know how to do that. The common conception about surfing back then was that surfing needs to be fast. Most surfers thought speed would solve all the problems they had. However, at some point, Dane Reynolds realized that speed didn’t help you with turns. On the contrary; it made turning more difficult, less fluid, and considerably less appealing.
If you think about it now, and especially if you think about it in terms of turning a car while going fast, Dane’s order makes a lot of sense. Yet, back then, he had to explain himself: "I want a board that I can put on rail, and it holds through the turn." Clayton had no chance but to comply with the idea, and he came up with a board that had more curves than usual because it was made with rail surfing in mind.
Now, if you try riding the board Clay shaped for Dane Reynolds, you’ll see that it doesn’t “want” to go forward; at least not in a straight line. That was what Clayton experienced after making it, too, and he didn’t like it despite Dane’s encouragement., but we need to remember that Clay was not exactly an experienced surfer then.
Nowadays, though, he can appreciate the superiority of rail surfing, as we shared earlier. And surely, Dane’s order has had a major impact on his evolution as a surfer and a coach.
The Kelly Slater Influence
You might think that witnessing two great names like Kelly Slater and Taylor Knox discuss surfing right in front of you would certainly be a pleasant experience, but you might be wrong. When Clayton first heard them talk, for example, he was afraid that either they somehow forgot to speak English or he did so himself.
What Kelly and Taylor were discussing that day was actually about the biomechanics of a surfer’s body. They were talking about how a low center of gravity while making a turn would increase the surfer’s gain from the rail. They were talking about delaying turns, which was only a new technique back then. They were talking about how to tuck the knees to lower the center of gravity.
The arguments they presented were not only for making the most of turns in terms of earning points from the judges. They put more appeal to their ride because they weren’t only motivated to ride the waves, but rather ride them with style. They also admitted they’d feel bad after losing to a surfer with horrible style.
One striking discussion point that day was about joining the dots. One dot was the top of the wave and the other was the bottom of it, and the point was joining these dots together as close as possible. If your dots were too distanced from each other, it meant that you were riding flat and not getting any power for your turns.
All these discussion points led Clayton to develop an interest in the biomechanics of surfing, which now plays a major role in our coaching here at OMBE.
The Biomechanics of a Surfer’s Body
Kelly Slater is not only a great surfer but also a pretty good golfer, and his excursions into golf benefited his understanding of surfing, especially in terms of technique. In golf, the golfer has to twist their body to hit the ball, and there is a lot of technique involved even in the simplest of hits. The important bit of that twist is keeping the back straight while turning the upper body, and if you watch Kelly closely, you’ll see that’s exactly how he makes his turns as well.
Of course, the technique of keeping the back straight is not only limited to golfing either. Whether you look into yoga or boxing, you’ll hear gurus and coaches teaching you—and even urging you—to keep your back straight while doing twists and turns. That’s because it’s how you preserve and even generate power. That’s how you benefit most from the power of the wave as well.
However, as Clayton admits, no matter how well the coach understands this, it’s quite a challenge to convey the idea to a surfer. Teaching a rookie surfer how to make their turns with an upper-body twist where they have to keep their back straight proves even a more difficult challenge. Yet, he developed some tips and tricks to that end, and one of them is the coffee cup posture.
Here, most of us underwent the treatment of the “coffee cup:” the surfer imagines that they are holding a cup full of coffee in their hands, and the turn is actually passing that coffee cup to someone behind them. Whenever we work on our turns, he’s asking us to pass the coffee cup and not make a turn; it simply works. Although you don’t realize what a good turn you’ve made at the moment (because, well, you are just focused on passing the coffee), you soon see that your surfing is elevated to new heights.
The Secret of Taylor Knox’s Bottom Turn
Imagine that you met one of your idols on an idle day. You are sitting on the beach peacefully, and there is nothing to do. You start listening to the questions inside your mind and inevitably want to pester your idol who is just sitting beside you.
Clay meeting Taylor and having the chance to spend time with him wasn’t all too different. But, he didn’t want to overdo it with crazy questions about every Taylor move; he thought of it as if he had only one question to ask and only one aspect he could steal from the legend. So, he asked him how he was doing his bottom turns.
After hearing the question, Taylor Knox laughed and paddled out into the ocean, leaving Clay clueless and kind of embarrassed. It took Taylor two days to come up with an answer, and it was “It’s just a feeling.” Remember the surfer feeling mentioned above? Yes, it was like that feeling.
Still, he tried to give technical details as well. Not all the details were immediately comprehensible, but Clay managed to figure them out in about four months. Understanding them well enough to explain and teach, though, took much longer, but here it is, after all these years. To pull off bottom turns like Taylor Knox, you have to “point your bottom hip and push it, and drive it like a pelvic thrust up to the top half of the wave.”
Think of it as riding a bicycle. When you are turning, you are leaning, but when you are done with your turn, you are straightening up. Or, imagine you’re on a trampoline; when you want to jump high, you compress and then straighten up. Once your back is straight, it can twist, and that was the essence of Taylor Knox’s bottom turns.
Benefits of Body Surfing
Body surfing is quite fun, but if you’ve heard about the experiences of some great surfers, you might have realized that it’s also quite influential in terms of developing an intrinsic understanding of the ocean. As a kid, Clayton did his fair share of body surfing at shore breaks with his friends, too. So, he knows that there are not many other exercises that can beat body surfing when it comes to understanding the waves. Therefore, body surfing ended up being one of the courses we teach here.
One of the reasons it’s so beneficial is that it doesn’t allow you to be flat on the wave. Trying to be flat on the wave or riding in a straight line while always staying above the water are two common mistakes rookies make.
When body surfing, on the other hand, you need to be sideways. That way, the draw of the wave can suck you up, lift you, and push you. That’s how you gain speed. At OMBE, we talk a lot about how you should tap into the wave’s energy since that’s where you acquire the energy you need for a good ride. Feeling that energy without the mediation of a surfboard provides you with a better (and instinctive) knowledge of it.
It’s an essential course of our Waterman program for a reason.
The Right Equipment
Even in this podcast episode alone, there is enough emphasis on how the surfboards of our day are not exactly designed for the surfer to stand on. They are more suitable to be ridden on the rail because that’s how you make yourself weightless on the water and let the wave push you forward.
In that sense, the specific board design Dane Reynolds asked for might have been a turning point for Clayton, but we also have to admit that not everyone can ride like Dane or Kelly. And, if all the board shapers started to produce designs that forced the surfers to ride only with the correct technique, they’d go out of business soon.
That’s especially the case when talking about rookies who are yet to overcome certain mental barriers and reach the physical prowess required to ride big waves. Therefore, while producing equipment for clients who are still in the learning stages, you have to emphasize comfort and not technique.
You could think of the surfboard as the running shoes of an athlete preparing for a marathon. You can’t expect them to train in shoes that are making them uncomfortable, like stilettos, even if that’s somehow the correct equipment. They need to feel comfortable because it means one less mental load and that’s how they get to know their body and improve.
It’s the same in surfing. For a learning surfer, feeling relaxed and focusing on your body is more important than the right equipment.
Some Surfboard Types, Who Rides Them, and Why?
There are many types of surfboards with different kinds of features: single-fin boards, twin-fin boards, asymmetrical boards, boards that only work well for one particular surfer because they designed it themselves, and so on.
However, the boards don’t have much of an impact on the performance of a surfer nor are they influential in terms of technique. The relationship works the other way. Let’s try to explain it with examples.
Tom Curren and His Skimboards with Foam
Tom Curren is indubitably a legend, and to say the least, his body form is quite enviable. Of course, he has lots of followers who try surfing like him, and when they see him riding these skimboards with foam, they want to try that, too. But, Tom Curren rides these weird boards because his body is moving so well and comfortably that the regular boards don’t present a challenge for him anymore. So, it’s about how the body moves.
Jamie O’Brien and Single-Fin Boards
Yes, there are still people riding single-fin boards as if surfing hasn’t progressed an inch throughout the past millennium. They are really difficult to ride, too, as you need a different stance to control them and as turning on them requires cruder weight shifts. Yet, Jamie O’Brien can ride them like it’s not a big deal because his body allows for that.
A New Brand of Surfers and Asymmetrical Boards
Nowadays, more and more great surfers started to ride asymmetrical boards, and that’s not because they provide the surfer with better technique or they are the correct equipment for a new brand of surfing school. It’s just that these surfers are so comfortable with their bodies, they want to see what next step they can take and what next challenge they can head to.
OMBE and Twin-Fins
We are trying to get our students acquainted with rail-surfing, and the twin-fin boards we have are ideal for that. If you’re not riding them on the rail, they just slide out. And it’s important for progression.
Should You Change Equipment When You’re Struggling?
You might be one of those who hang around the shoulder of a wave or who struggle to join your dots. Some of you might even blame your equipment for such shortcomings and think that changing the board can benefit you. Well, let us tell you that the board’s generally not to blame.
When you end up on the shoulder of a wave or when your dots are too wide, it means one simple thing: you can’t read the wave when you’re standing on the board. For that, Clayton has another solution: body-boarding.
Catch the wave lying down on the board and ride it. That way, you’re surprisingly more capable of reading the waves. But, as soon as you stand up, you’ll probably find yourself on the flat parts of the wave once again. Even when riding the same line, you wouldn’t always join the dots and therefore, you’d turn more abruptly and end up on the shoulder.
Lying down lowers your center of gravity, so you need to lean more when doing a turn. Leaning more means that you are more on the rail and weightless. That way, you can make the most of the wave’s push and have a longer turn to accelerate. In a sense, you are optimizing your body to use the board more to its potential.
Therefore, what you need is not a change of board when you’re struggling, but a deeper understanding of how your body should relate to it and the wave.
A Generation of Ugly Surfers
There are surfers who cannot help but venture toward flat waters and then there are surfers who are flat themselves. Remember how bad Kelly Slater and Taylor Knox felt after losing to a competitor with horrible style? Well, that horrible style is mostly due to surfing flat.
Once upon a time, the act of coaching young surfers was not as complicated as it is now. For decades, the coaches just yelled at us to stomp our back feet. And when we stomped our back feet, the boards would slide out, and then they would tell us to get bigger fins to prevent sliding, but that would make the boards very difficult to turn. In short, you either had speed or the capability to turn; having both was a miracle only people like Kelly could pull off.
When you inattentively watch Kelly do a turn and see how he twists while completing it, you’d emphasize the twist as a coach; as if that’s the only thing he does. You can easily observe it when people are surf-skating in the street, too. They just hammer the twist in the end and think they accomplished a good turn. These decades-old habits and lack of attention create a generation of ugly surfers who are just flat on the board and who just hammer twists.
What Kelly actually does is lean with finesse when turning and make the turn longer on the rail. That is something you cannot achieve by stomping your back foot. Moreover, during those turns, you can see how his upper body is stable and his back is straight. He doesn’t even twist while turning, but just gently leans. And when he does twist in the end, it’s the golfer’s twist, from bottom to top.
The Golfer’s Twist
Golf is not as hectic a sport as surfing, and you only move while hitting a ball, but that move requires an amazing amount of body control.
When hitting the ball, all the weight and pressure is handled by a locked front foot. The back foot, on the other hand, comes up a little bit on the heel while you are slightly turning back. The movement starts from the bottom. First, there is a very small twist in the back foot’s ankle. It’s followed by a turn in the knees, hips, and then the shoulders. The whole body turns like a corkscrew. It’s not a twist forced onto a certain part of the body, but rather a twist that requires all parts to act in harmony.
However, when you watch flat surfers, you see that they lock both their feet on the board. Sometimes not even their knees or hips can move, and even when they move, the knees just point forward and the hips backward, which is not a pleasant sight at all.
As a result, they end up having only their upper bodies for twists and turns, and they fall. Even if you don’t get wiped out like that, the performance generally doesn’t have any artistic and sporting appeal at all because your twist is basically broken.
When you master the golfer’s twist, though, you’ll observe that your body will be more relaxed and flexible on the board. As a result, your turns will be gentler and considerably more beautiful.
Surfing Is Just a Big Metaphor for Life
You can hear Clayton explaining almost every aspect of surfing with ample metaphors throughout the episode: it’s like riding a bicycle, it’s like running a marathon, or it’s like jumping on a trampoline, and so on. But, none of those can beat the big metaphor that stares you right in the face (even when it’s not uttered) once you’re well-acquainted with what coaches teach and what sports psychologists advise: surfing is like life.
You can think of it in more romantic and literary terms. The ocean is life in general and the waves are the hardships it throws your way. If you want to ride those waves successfully, you need to be strong and flexible; you need to have a bit of an experience about what kind of wave you’re confronted with; you need to develop an intrinsic knowledge of it; you need to be both cautious and fearless. Most important of it all, you need not fear failure because the wave will wipe you out at some point no matter how masterful you are. Nobody can wade through life without making any mistakes either, and that’s how you learn your own strengths and weaknesses.
You can also think of it in more practical terms. Remember how Clayton found it difficult when he tried too hard to impress and left the shore with no self-contentment at the end of the day? Back in those days, his friends didn’t have a care in the world and would paddle out into the ocean even when they were hungover from last night’s party.
Yet, they were all so relaxed on their boards since they had no worries, and as a result, their performances were solid and fluid. That’s quite like life, too: if you overwork yourself and miss out on all the fun, there can be little self-contentment at the end of the day; you can’t even reap the results of your hard work.
So, don’t forget to enjoy yourselves out there.
A Common Mistake: Sticking to the Flats
As you’ve probably realized by now, one of the most common mistakes you can make is sticking to the flat parts of the wave.
Surfing education mostly starts with riding flat waves. Therefore, when a surfer moves on to bigger waves, the flat waves appeal to them with the promise of a comfort zone. The pocket of the wave, on the other hand, appears as how a saber-toothed lion did to our cave-dwelling ancestors many millennia ago. The rookie thinks that the flat parts are safer, so they can ride better out there.
However, the power of the wave lies in the pocket, and that’s where you need to ride to progress your surfing. Our ancestors didn’t only fear, freeze, and flee. At some point, one of them made a spear out of wood and tried fighting the threat no matter how dangerous it was. And that first fight probably had a major impact on the progress of humanity as a whole.
Unlike that first spearman, you have the luxury of coaches, mentors, and many videos of surfing masters online. See how they lie on the board in wait for the wave, then how they arch their back, glide in, and breathe in the pocket. Go out and practice the same way. Feel the wave’s energy, learn to listen to the wave, and do what it tells you. Don’t be afraid of it and just embrace that energy.
Otherwise, you’ll be just spending a blissful day in the ocean and will never know what surfing is really about.
The ocean is not the same everywhere. For example, Brazilian shores have short, quick, and probably horrible waves whereas Hawaiians grow up in powerful ones. While Japanese waves are only knee-high, you’ll encounter big ones in Jay Bay or Australia. As a result, a surfer who’s used to a certain type of wave will find it difficult to ride another.
Evidence of that can be seen in the WCTs of the last 10 years or so. Brazilian surfers who are used to riding choppy waves find it difficult surfing the ocean at Jay-Bay. That’s because they developed a fast twitch muscle memory due to the wave character in Brazil. As a result, they are doing everything faster than they should and their turns and airs lack fluidity. To a coach like Clayton, their surfing inevitably looks terrible to watch.
However, slowing down fast twitch muscle memory is probably more difficult than speeding up a slow one. The latter might be challenging as well but not because you can’t learn; it’s rather that you’re used to looking for power in a wave and the knee-high ones won’t provide that.
If you do have fast twitch muscle memory, on the other hand, no matter how hard you try, there is a big chance that your timing will be a bit off every time. You might not always look like you are doing a breakdance to a Beethoven symphony, but the fluidity you’re after will probably keep on eluding you.
One way to overcome that, though, is traveling more. Filipe Toledo did that, and you can see how his rail-surfing has completely changed over the past two or so years. Now, he’s more comfortable and fluid, and his recent performances at Bells Beach and Jay Bay can attest to that. The fastest surfer in the world managed to slow down.
Surfing Without Fins
There are no fins in wakeboards, bodyboards, or snowboards. One thing that’s common in wakeboarding, bodyboarding, and snowboarding is that your riding takes place mostly on the rail.
Nowadays, we are witnessing a revolution in surfing, too. There is a new generation of surfers who don’t use fins, and honestly, they are killing it. They have better style than most because that’s what finless boards require: knees pointed forward, hands up, and an ability to compress and extend like a ballet dancer. Compared to them, those who still use fins seem much flatter.
How to Correctly Order Surfboards
Clayton is a great surfboard shaper, and we aren’t only saying that because he’s our boss but because he’s really good. Trust us. Well, if you don’t, Dane Reynolds is a testament to that, but even if you’re not Dane Reynolds, you can still confuse him with weirdly worded surfboard orders.
We stressed how important the design of a surfboard is for better performance, but having that design realized is mostly down to you relaying your order with clear specifications. And to provide clear specifications, you need to know what you’re feeling when on the board; you need to be able to translate what its feedback tells you.
For example, are you catching a rail when trying to surf fast or when you lean for a turn? Then, you need to specify precisely that when you’re ordering a board—yes, even when they’re your friends or coaches.
Finding the right board is a process of trial and error not only for the surfer but also for the shaper. For that, once again, you need to provide ample feedback and tell the shaper where and when the board failed your expectations with crystal clarity.
Don’t forget that saying, “This board sucks,” can never be accepted as feedback by a professional. Our experience here shows that the surfing shortcomings of people who give feedback like that is mostly down to their technique and positioning and not their boards.
DIPI (Danger, Important, Pleasurable, Interesting)
Of course, when Clayton says, “It’s not the board that is the problem, it’s your body. Fix your body,” it’s not always a pleasant experience for the learning surfer. They might feel embarrassed about that accusation, they might develop a reproachful attitude against their coach, and they might think of fleeing. That is what we call a “social threat,” and it’s part of our Mind Surfer program here at OMBE, which we are developing with the help of a wonderful psychologist, Kym Bancroft.
In this program, we came up with a concept called DIPI. The letters respectively stand for the following: danger, important, pleasurable, and interesting. They signify the stages of a surfer’s mind throughout their learning process. For instance, the social threat a learning surfer sees in their criticizing coach falls into the category of “danger”.
Again, let’s remember Clayton’s attempts to impress and the result. There was another factor there that can easily be interpreted as a social threat: the will to impress friends and family, which is either the result or the reason of a certain fear, the fear of not being able to meet the expectations of others. Being aware of such expectations also alerts something in the brain of the surfer that prevents them from being there and focusing on what’s important.
To be able to progress, to be able to reach the stage where you can focus on what’s “important,” you need to overcome these potential dangers. That’s why we have the Mind Surfer program.
Only once you get rid of your fear of what you deem to be a danger can you really start focusing on what's important. However, what’s important varies from one surfer to another.
If you have the physical prowess but just can’t look at where you want to go while riding a wave, you’ll be able to work on that. If you lack the necessary body-hand coordination, you can now focus on that.
We are going to diagnose what weaknesses you have and then handle them one by one.
We always keep saying how you should enjoy yourselves out there and how fun surfing actually is. But, that can only register after you’ve taken care of the danger and learned what’s important.
Then, you can seize and cherish every moment you spend on the waves. And when the day is done, you can carry your surfboard under your arm when the sun is setting as if you’re in a surf movie from the 1980s.
The word interesting implies a sense of adventure and exploration, and that’s the last stage in the becoming of a surfer’s mind.
Conceivably, when you fear potential “danger,” you cannot go exploring even though you have enough sense of adventure. Or, when you’re not yet able to diagnose what’s important, exploring further territories won’t help you with your progression. And, if you cannot enjoy your time out there in the ocean, there is little reason for you to paddle toward new zones.
However, once you pass through all the previous stages with success and start exploring the potential of waves and your own body, it means that you have taken a giant step forward.
Waves of Progression
DIPI focuses on the mental development of a surfer, but obviously, that’s not the only development a surfer has to make. Therefore, Clayton developed a more thorough concept that incorporates both mental and physical aspects of surfing.
It’s called “waves of progression,” and its premise is quite easy to grasp. There are three basic stages of surfing: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. However, a surfer doesn’t progress through these stages as if they are stepping stones. Neither do they advance as if climbing a straight slope. On the contrary, to get from one stage to another, you need to forget what you learned before.
For example, as a beginner, you start out riding on soft and flat waves. But once you move on to the next stages, the waves you encounter are nothing like those. That requires you and your body to develop a new understanding of waves. Similarly, the board you ride on flats cannot be much help for the more powerful waves you are going to ride. So, you need to change your board and familiarize yourself with the new one.
The most important bit is not the changes you have to undergo, either. The need to forget what you learned before means that you are going to start from scratch. Just when you think that you accomplished something, you are going to start making mistakes all over again. And every time you get wiped out, if you are not ready for it mentally, you are going to find yourself in bouts of self-doubt and consider quitting.
Here, by teaching you what to expect from your surfing journey with waves of progression, we aim to erase that self-doubt before its potential emergence. After all, mistakes and wipeouts are essential parts of your learning process.
Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
The mistakes and wipeouts in the transition period from one surfing stage to another are actually part of negative learning. If you can’t unlearn, you’ll start plateauing, and that’s due to having a fixed mindset.
There are two mindsets we encounter whenever we have to deal with surfers who are in the transition period.
One of them is the fixed mindset, and its workings are quite mysterious. First, the mind is fixed on being a cool person on the board. Whenever the surfer falls or fails, their immediate reaction is, “Well, I cannot be the type of surfer who makes such mistakes, I always have to look cool and well on the board.” That kind of thinking signifies high self-esteem.
However, once that person realizes that they keep making the same mistakes, their thoughts evolve towards self-doubt: “Well, I am not good at this, I cannot progress anymore. This is the best I can ever do.” We can say that what really ails them is their mindset that cultivates hasty conclusions like they are the gospel.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, are hungry for learning, and instead of oscillating between huge ideas about their self-worth and self-doubt, they enjoy trying even though they fail. Moreover, they are not afraid of trying new things such as riding a different part of the wave. Even when you fail, the courage that a mind set on growth enables progress.
So, just go for it without paying any mind to who’s watching you, when you are going to get wiped out this time, or how you are bound for glory.
The Superabundance of Surfboard Types
Here at OMBE, we encourage trying out new things and we celebrate all kinds of diversity without a question. However, the growing interest in recreational surfing and all types of surfboards that accompany it is something we simply can’t overlook. In that sense, the increase in the number of potato-shaped surfboards is especially worth a mention.
Since Clayton is a board shaper himself, he has some strong ideas about those. You might have already realized how he champions rail-surfing and with good reason: the fluidity of rail-surfing is what makes this particular sport so appealing. Yet, potato-shaped boards, which are short, thick, and wide, are quite difficult to turn, and as a result, the surfers seem quite flat on them even though they think they’re putting on great performances. You might ride a hundred meters flat on these boards, but for an educated eye like Clayton’s, you’re only going to look ugly.
But, how did these boards gain such popularity? It comes down to marketing. The board companies see a legend like Kelly Slater ride a potato-like board once and they immediately put it on the production line. And, since Kelly is the idol of many surfing enthusiasts, you start seeing these boards on every shore, under the arms of people from every age group.
The reason why Kelly picked such a board for a certain competition, on the other hand, gets lost in translation. However, with the guidance of Clayton, we can safely say that following the suit of masters in terms of equipment choices doesn’t always help with learning and progressing.
How the Type of a Surfboard Affects the Learning Process
Throughout the two episodes of the podcast, you can hear Clayton making lots of references to biking. He doesn’t miss the opportunity to do so when explaining what role the type of a surfboard plays in the learning process of a newbie, either. So, if you are wondering whether a thick and short board or a long and narrow one will be more helpful for you, listen closely now.
Think of how we’re encouraging our kids to learn biking. The norm is putting training wheels on the bike. The reason behind that is allowing more space for the kid to maintain their balance on the bike and feel comfortable in the end. However, once you take the training wheels off, you see that the kid can bike only in a straight line, and whenever they need to turn, they lose their balance. It means that maintaining balance with the help of extra wheels doesn’t teach the kids how to sit in balance on their bikes.
There is also another method for teaching kids how to bike: making them ride bikes that have no pedals. This proves to be a more useful method since the kids have to lean and twist while making turns and will have to maintain their balance when, say, going downhill.
We can say that thick, short, and wide boards are like a bike with training wheels. They only provide an illusion of balance because the board does the standing on water. Yet, when it comes to turning, that illusion quickly dissipates.
Long, thin, and wide boards, on the other hand, might be a bit difficult to stand on as they are not exactly built for that purpose. However, when you are on the rail or when you are turning, you need to lean and twist, and that’s actually how a surfer maintains their balance.
The Joys of Surf Coaching
Our notes so far might be indicating that surf coaching is a rewardless job. It’s as if all of it is about being riled up against a generation of ugly surfers, or those who don't have a growth mindset, or those who keep making wrong equipment choices just because that’s the recent trend. But that’s not the case at all.
A surf coach (in this case, Clayton) is happiest when they see what they taught did get memorized and illuminated the student. For example, we’re teaching a paddling and takeoff technique called the Oreo Biscuit here. Generally, new surfers put too much energy into their paddling, end up forgetting their whereabouts afterward, and miss the apex of the wave that they should glide in. When they finally understand how less paddling and more awareness make it easier to take off with the Oreo Biscuit, you can see their eyes shine. That illumination gives the coach a sense of joy as well.
These are what Clay calls “light bulb moments,” and a coach is pretty much aware of what these kinds of moments mean to a learning surfer. You are only at the start of your hopefully long journey, and you figured out something. The part the good mentoring plays in the process of figuring out is not even that important for you since you’re alone when you are facing a wave. Whatever piece of advice or feedback you get from your coach, at the end of the day, you’re the one doing the hard work. So, you shine as if a light bulb is hanging over your head.
And when they see you shine, your coach shines as well. That’s their reward, and that’s their joy.
This conversation may serve many purposes for those who are new to surfing or who are considering jumping on a board and paddling out into the ocean.
First, it may be an accelerated introductory course for rail-surfing. Rail-surfing is a must if you want to ride waves in style, and if you read or listened to it carefully, now you know how to improve yourself when on the rail.
Secondly, it might give you an idea of what to look for when picking up a surfboard. Clayton is a great board shaper and an amazing coach, so you can trust whatever piece of advice he gives when it comes to board design and how it affects your surfing performance.
The third purpose it serves is the insights from the established names of the surfing world. There are anecdotes about legends like Kelly Slater, Dane Reynolds, and Taylor Knox. Even if you’re an advanced surfer who doesn’t need the experiences of others to improve more, you might have found certain aspects that made you go: “Hmm…”
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there are many life lessons here. Yes, most of them start with the mental development of a surfer, but as Clayton said, “Surfing is just a big metaphor for life,” and a surfer with strong mental attributes mostly means a human being with a strong will and an idea about how to enjoy life. What else is there in life, after all?