15 tips to improve your surfing
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How to Surf Better | Top 15 Tips for Intermediate Surfers

Not sure how to improve as an intermediate surfer? Here are 15 tips that will bring back the stoke, give you things to train and detailing the issues intermediate surfers face.

Surfing is not all sunshine and fun. It’s like other sports: it has its own peaks, plateaus, pitfalls, shortcomings. Students mostly experience the negative aspects of surfing once they make the transition from the beginner stages to the intermediate ones.

That particular transition brings along lots of changes. You need to have more physical prowess: better flexibility for twists and turns, a stronger stance to maintain balance on bigger waves, more accurate timing when popping up with adequate lift and speed, and so on. But, obviously, none of these attributes are there by default, so some rookies find it difficult to adapt to the requirements of intermediate surfing. They might even quit because they think that they cannot progress anymore.

If you are one of those, let us intervene before you start considering bailing out. In this tutorial, we are going to provide you with fifteen tips that’ll ease your transition and improve your surfing on almost all fronts—all provided by Clayton Nienaber of OMBE Surf.

Tip #1: Understand Your Board

As a surfer, you have only two tools you have control over: your body and your board. Once you are on a wave, there is not much that separates the two. You become one with your board. That’s what you see when you watch videos of the surfing greats. They are not doing much to control their boards except for little weight shifts and minimal tweaks. It’s as if they have grown their board out of their body as a new organ at the end of an evolutionary process.

However, that is not a default process. For that fusion to happen, you have to pick the right board that fits your body and surfing technique. 

If you are a serene surfer who doesn’t need to move much on the board, you can go with a thin, sensitive board. On the other hand, if you are a messy surfer that won’t stop flailing around, it’s better to stick with thick boards. Thick boards will be less sensitive and won’t react to the movements of your body as much as the thin ones would. Once you master your stance and have full control over your body, though, you can progress to more sensitive boards.

Tip #2: Less Is More

Let’s keep on with the movement on the board. You’ll see lots of rookies moving their arms and hands frantically on the board mostly because they are afraid of losing control of the board. If it was limited to arms and hands, it wouldn't be much of a problem, but it can never be limited as such. As a result of those movements, their upper bodies start flailing as well, and the result is unwarranted weight shifts accompanied by, well, loss of control. In short, it’s a process that starts with the fear of losing control and ends up with a loss of control.

That’s also the case when you try to kickstart your board to gain speed by hopping and bouncing on it. It’ll just stall your progress and disrupt the connection between your body and the wave.

To break that vicious cycle, you have to listen to the wave and tap into its energy without moving your body in panic. Assume your stance and move along with the wave by doing less. It might take time to master it, you might fail and find yourself underwater in your first attempts, but it’s better than tiring yourself with dancehall moves or hops and bounces.

Tip #3: Surf the Pocket

In the beginning stages of surfing, students mostly ride smooth and flat waves. When they get to the intermediate stage, however, they need to ride bigger waves with shoulders and pockets. Probably as a result of old habits, you might opt for the shoulder where the wave is flat. But, the shoulders of intermediate waves are not really suitable for a dynamic ride with twists and turns.

The power is in the pocket. The flow in the pocket will provide you with the speed and momentum you need. So, don’t be afraid to surf the pocket.

Tip #4: Slow Your Bottom Turn

Everybody knows that bottom turns are a crucial aspect of surfing, but sometimes the timing aspect is overlooked by coaches and surfers alike. Nonetheless, timing is as crucial an aspect of surfing as the capability of pulling off turns. For a successful bottom turn, you need to have impeccable timing.

Lots of rookies tend to do bottom turns with all the speed they have at their disposal. However, the trick is slowing down to allow the wave to have downward momentum first. Therefore, you have to learn to pace yourself and time your turns.

Tip #5: Look Where You Want to Go

Another understandable rookie mistake is looking at the wave just to make sure it is what you think it is. It’s understandable because you’ve just been introduced to these kinds of waves, and they might be a little stimulating—if not downright frightening. Yet, once you lose sight of where you want to go, you might end up doing circles without much progress. When you realize you don’t know where to go, a moment of hesitation might result in you getting wiped out.

It generally happens when a surfer is about to make a turn. Even if it’s for just a moment, you can see that they look down at the wave line. Then, when they try to make a twist, they get the timing wrong. That’s why it’s important to always look where you want to go. Don’t worry about the wave and let it do its job.

Tip #6: Twist to Turn

Another common mistake related to the body coordination of an intermediate surfer; bigger waves require more physical flexibility, but flexibility without coordination doesn’t count for anything out there.

If you just twist your upper body for a turn, you will fail. If you just shift your weight on your lower half yet maintain a stiff upper body, you will fail. A good twist employs all of your body. It starts from the ankle and goes all the way up to your head. Although unusual, to master that twist, you could even watch videos of golfers and see how they contort their bodies while hitting the ball.

Most rookies just change the direction of their shoulders for a turn. As you might surmise by now, it should start from the bottom like a golfer’s twist. Then, by pointing your knees, you’ll open up your hips and have more power to accomplish a twist and turn.

Tip #7: Surf Front-On

The natural course of human movement is forward. We walk forward, we run forward, we jump forward. Unless we are a character in an action movie chased by cops, we mostly drive forward. That is because our bodies are designed to move forward and not sideways or backward. It’s the same in surfing. All the successful pro surfers are front surfers. 

Surfing front-on is also helpful in terms of peripheral vision. We already emphasized how important it is to look where you are going. You’ll realize that this particular attribute is quite limited when you surf on your side. If you need more convincing, you can imagine or even try running sideways. You’ll probably have difficulty looking in the direction you want to go and you won’t have your full peripheral vision. Consequently, you won’t know what’s on the side you turned your back on.

Tip #8: Take Off on the Peak

Moving from soft and flat waves to bigger, greener waves is not easy. One tends to go back to their old habits or fear that the steepness of the wave will swallow them whole. With that kind of anxiety, though, even taking off on the shoulder of the wave becomes difficult, and a bad takeoff inevitably affects the rest of the ride. Moreover, reaching the shoulder requires more paddling, and more paddling means more unnecessary fatigue.

Instead of sheltering in old habits and serene shoulders, you have to overcome that fear and anxiety and take off on the steepest point of the wave. That way, you’ll be able to just glide in it, and you’ll have a speed boost that’ll spare you hops, bounces, and potential embarrassment.

Tip #9: Generating Speed

Generating speed where there’s seemingly no way to do it might seem like a grand mystery, but the answer is right there, staring at us in the face: the wave itself.

Think of it in terms of biking. While biking, there are two ways to generate speed: pedaling or going downhill. In surfing, you are lucky because your hill is right there behind (or beneath) you: the wave. Use its energy to get a speed boost by compressing and extending.

You can also do the counterpart of pedaling, which is twisting and turning in short intervals. However, it’s not going to look well, and most of us love surfing because it’s a nice spectacle. When you use the wave, though, you’ll be gliding on the water effortlessly, and you’ll be the nice spectacle.

Tip #10: Foot Placement

One thing you should never forget is this: the wave pushes the board from behind. That means, you have to control the board on the tail, which in turn means you control the board with your back foot with tiny weight shifts and movements in your toes and ankles. Therefore, the back foot needs to have some freedom to move.

The ideal way to ensure that freedom is planting the front foot a bit more forward than usual and stacking most of your weight on it. It will allow you to move your back foot freely during twists and turns. It will also ensure a speedy takeoff.

Tip #11: Copy and Paste

Watching the recordings of old surfing contests or spending some time on the beach just looking at casual surfers are not just good pastime activities. You can learn a lot if you study their movements and try simulating them by yourself.

You will see a master pulling off an incredible move. When you study it closely, give it some thought and try replicating it. Your understanding of the ocean and surfing will benefit from it. Not only that either, as once you get the gist of it, you’ll be stimulated; once you’re able to identify the mistakes and key elements, you’ll be more motivated.

Tip #12: Stop Standing On Your Board

If you are an intermediate surfer, you’ve probably heard a lot about how important your stance on the board is. In that case, this tip might come across as weird to you, and you might be asking, “Hey, what are these guys talking about now?” Well, apparently when we were telling you about your stance, we weren’t exactly talking about standing on the board, but rather maintaining balance on the board.

Surfboards are not exactly designed for you to stand on either. See, in surfing, you have to do lots of turns and twists, and the boards are designed with that in mind. Leaning on the board instead of trying to stand while doing turns will render you more weightless, and less weight means more speed. Therefore, minimize your time spent standing and maximize turns for a more weightless ride.

Tip #13: Focus

Most of us who are into surfing love it when we think about how it allows us to be in the moment. If you ask the pros, they will probably tell you the same thing at some point in your conversation. Unlike other sports, you cannot develop a long-term strategy for your ride. A particular wave happens only once, and you need to feel the wave to react accordingly right then and there.

That being said, this great aspect also makes surfing a little bit difficult for over-thinkers and for those who want to calculate their moves beforehand. Once you start doing that, though, you’ll be losing focus and you’ll jolt out of the moment. 

Being there, feeling the moment, and seizing the moment whenever the wave allows is key to a good surfing performance (and even a career).

Tip #14: Be Your Own Coach

No, this is certainly not a tip that somehow found its way to OMBE from the self-improvement shelf of our local bookstore. Yet, it’s related to OMBE and it’s crucial for self-improvement.

OMBE stands for the four main elements of surfing: the ocean, the mind, the body, and the equipment. So, we urge you to record yourself surfing (or ask a friend to do that for you) and watch the recordings with the following questions in mind:

  1. Where is the ocean? What is it doing? How do I connect with the ocean? Where am I on that wave?
  2. How is my body doing? Is it gliding effortlessly and with enviable flow? Or is it just trying to fight the ocean?
  3. How do I relate to my surfboard? Do I have full control of it? Is it accelerating or slowing down?

Of course, you can’t see how your mind fares only through a recording of your surfing, but you can reflect on it regardless. Our 13th tip above will certainly be helpful for that.

Tip #15: Have Fun

Sometimes we feel pressure when we are trying to learn new stuff. That pressure is multiplied when there is fear of failure or when there is no visible progress in our performance. Overall, it makes us forget what surfing really is. Contrary to the first sentence of this tutorial, it’s fun, and that is something we need to remember even when we are struggling with our progress.

The fun is not only in the act itself. You can experiment with boards, you can try out new equipment, or you can just have fun in the water paddling without purpose. You can try body-surfing too, and see how a more direct relationship with the waves makes you feel. Even if you don’t benefit from it in terms of improving your performance on the board, you’ll surely realize that it’s a therapeutic exercise in the least.

Pro surfers might not have the luxury of fun anymore because they do it for a living and that’s probably something they rue every chance they get. You are not one of those. So, as long as you have the luxury of fun, make the most of it.

Wrapping Up…

The transition to intermediate surfing requires you to forget most of what you learned in the previous stages of your journey. As a result, most young surfers find it difficult to adapt to new waves, equipment, or the physical demands of intermediate surfing. It either throws them into bouts of self-doubt or makes them consider quitting because they feel like they cannot learn anymore.

The 15 tips provided for intermediate surfers by our head coach Clayton Nienaber will help your adaptation. They are not only great practical tips. Understanding and applying them will acquaint you with the ocean, surfing, and your body and mind. So, take your time, practice, and don’t be afraid. The ocean isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Jeremy Dean

surf coaching