how to get better at surfing
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Confronting the mental side of surfing: why is surfing so hard to improve at & why can it feel like you are going backwards?

Sometimes it feels like you can never get better or we can spiral down into self-doubt and wondering if we will ever get better. This guide will show you how to get past that.

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Do you ever have those surfs where you’ve been training and you’ve improved but then when it comes to doing it in the water, everything feels like it’s gone backwards?

Or if you are really trying to push past some of your pain points and it feels like you just can’t get past them. No matter what, you’ll be plagued by this issue.

Or when it comes to act, you don’t, there’s something in there blocking you?

The harsh reality of surfing is getting over the mental side of things is much harder than the skill acquisition and whatever mental baggage we all carry, that will hinder our skill acquisition and how we enjoy our surfs.

If you’ve invested time into improving your surfing, you have a desire to change, and if that change doesn’t materialise, it can exacerbate your frustrations and put you in a slump mentally with your surfing.

It’s a shame but completely understandable that we all ignore and often play down the impact of the mental side of things.

But before we get into how to fix these issues and how to push past these pain points, we need to understand what’s holding us back. Until we do that, not much will change.

You need to get out of your own way

In surfing, we are our own worst enemy.

It’s a solo sport, it’s not that guy down the lines fault you didn’t hit that section or do what you wanted to. 

The problem is no one wants to admit when they are holding themselves back, it’s not fun and it’s not easy.

We need to allow ourselves to act without ourselves getting in the way of that. Think of it like there is a clone of yourself, standing by your side constantly being a negative cheerleader questioning everything you do. 

Our reasons for being stuck in bad habits, not performing to a certain level, not improving, are entirely on us in one way or another.

So if you want to improve you want to make sure you aren’t making things harder for yourself. 

The problem with this is most people just aren’t aware of it until they are so frustrated and it kills their surfing.

Be mindful of what you bring into the surf

You’ve heard it before here, tension, stress, fear, anxiety, these are killers of good surfing, being able to move freely and being able to commit.

You need to remove tension from your surfing and that starts before you enter the water and across the surf.

This will often show up with either clenched fists, very angry faces, holding your breath will moving, looking very intense and parts of your body locked, not moving and looking they are trying to protect yourself.

This is not obvious to see in yourself, but it’s extremely obvious to see in someone else. It will look awkward and stiff.

The solution to that is to breathe out, exhale, let go, soften your body and keep that up across the surf.

However, there is often a bigger issue, with most surfers trying to improve their surfing and that's the expectations you bring into the surf and how they can end up making or breaking a surf.

The biggest killer with that for most surfers is expectations of ourselves and this creates this snowball effect of I expect myself to do this or that. 

There is also the flip side of that where we put such low expectations on ourselves that we never see ourselves being able to do those things.

Then there’s I know I can surf better than this, what's going on? Instead of relaxing, that will usually push us to force things harder and harder.

This leads to another problem of trying too hard. Good surfing is effortless and we all want to mimic that, so why do we end up trying to make everything better by forcing it?  

How to overcome this

If you feel like your surfing is stuck, you can’t push past these pain points or you are finding something blocking you when you go try, here’s how to help yourself overcome it.

Set realistic goals

Set goals, but don’t set wild goals, your goals need to grounded in reality but also slightly push you forwards. They can’t be comfortable or easy but you can’t go from zero to hero.

Meaning, that you can’t go from never doing a cutback to doing a perfect cutback.

A good way to implement this is to be incremental.

Make the goals small and achievable, focusing on small wins and think of yourself being 1% better every surf. 

Finding joy in the small improvements is contagious and can get you out of your slump. For some people that can just be sitting at the peak instead of the shoulder, looking at the foam during a cutback instead of down the line. 

These are small changes that you can quantify, feel and go “yes I did it”.

It will create momentum and once that’s going, it’s hard to slow down.

Be curiosity driven

Be curiosity-driven, be in search of the feeling and play with your surfing.

Focus on how to have fun, how to change the feeling, what can you do differently and just let your curiosity drive you forwards.

Focus on that rather than the outcome.

The goal for that play then becomes less about doing and more about exploring. There is no right or wrong, there’s no self-deprecation where we put ourselves down, it’s all about yes I explored this and felt or found this out. Ok, what’s next?

Understand the learning experience

Just having an awareness of the learning experience and the four stages of competency will help. Understanding where you are on that journey will go a long way as you will know how to adjust your expectations and navigate that experience and embrace the suck.

The main gist of that is there are four stages:

  1. Unconsciously incompetent
  2. Consciously incompetent
  3. Consciously competent
  4. Unconsciously compentent

It all boils down to, are you aware, aka conscious or not, and can you do it, hence competent.

For most people struggling with something, you will be aware of that solution or that fact you can’t do it. You’ll be consciously incompetent.

And this ok, we all go through this, but you need to acknowledge and accept that path and how long it may take to be consciously competent, which really just means you can only perform that task if you think about it.

This is where the body learns slow and the mind learns quickly. Aka the body lags the mind.

If you understand this process it is going to give you a lot more acceptance of the process and be easier on yourself.

Don’t be hard on yourself

This also means, don’t be hard on yourself. Some people may benefit from this, but for most people it will be just you screaming at yourself saying I can’t do it.

Go back to being curiosity-driven and celebrate the exploration, not the inability to do something. 

Adjust to suit

Linking back to your expectations, if the conditions and your personal situation doesn’t align for what you are trying to do in the surf, don’t push it, adjust to suit.

Take those 5 minutes to observe the conditions and see what's going on.

You may be really wanting to work on something but if the conditions don’t allow it, don’t force it.

Don’t be afraid to mix things up and rotate what you work on each surf. Constantly pushing the same thing over and over, without results is frustrating, but seeing small wins and wins from different areas will continue to push you forwards.

Make mistakes - fail forwards

If you can’t fail, you can’t learn. If you can’t learn, you can’t grow.

Just have a go and focus on doing rather than not doing. Ask yourself maybe rather than find ways to doubt yourself.

Break the movement down in parts

If you really get stuck on certain parts of your surfing, breaking it down into parts can help you find the issue and move past it.

This will allow you to train small fixes, small changes that you can feel and quantify to the actual change you made. 

If you want to implement this you can practice a sequence called whole, part, whole. This can happen in all one session or you can split it up if its easier for you.

This is to keep you focused and cement the whole movement where you first work on the whole movement. Then focus on making that one part better, everything else is just a distraction, make that one part of the movement better.

And eventually, bring it all back together with a focus on doing the whole movement again.

This is a really effective way to fix issues in any sport.

An example in the pop up is keeping the chin up and always looking where you are going. You could just practice belly boarding the whole drop and keeping your chin up. Learning how that one part impacts your pop up, resisting the urge to look down at the bottom of the wave. Then combine it back together and feel the difference.

Summary: How to start each session

We need to be aware of the things we bring into each session, are we in a good head space, is there something big and loud going on outside the water? 

Am I stressed or tense and can I be more relaxed?

Do I have some bad expectations of myself or the conditions? What do the conditions allow you to do?

Be curiosity-driven and set small achievable goals that push yourself forward. Make mistakes!

Understand where you are in the learning process and don’t be hard on yourself for being there.

Your goal every session

Your goal each session is to relax and have fun. 

If you’ve been training, then you want that to show in your surfing, by adding pressure onto ourselves, we reduce the chance or efficiency of ourselves doing that.

You need to create the environment for yourself to best succeed. 

This usually means not trying. Backwards but as we’ve just mentioned, trying too hard, expectations, stress, tension and anything else you bring with you will kill your surfing.

Focus on how you can have fun each surf, isn't that why surf in the first place?

Written by
Luke Hardacre
surf coaching