Can You Get Better At Surfing?
It seems a straightforward question and on some basic level the answer has to be yes. We all came out of the womb prone yet somehow we have John John and Gabe doing ridiculous things on waves. They got better. Most people who surf have somehow managed to wangle their way into a basic skill set at least.
So let me re-phrase the question: Once you have your skill set in place at, say, 18, 20 or 25 years of age, can you continue to improve?
Can you keep getting better, can you improve your skill set as an adult?
Spoiler: I say no, with vanishingly rare exceptions. Here is why.
Before you let loose below the line, think about your mate Smitty who has got better as an adult. You might come up with one name. You won't come up with five. Think of the guy or gal who catches the most waves at your local, who surfs more than anyone - probably your mate Smitty. Maybe they ride a hundred waves a week.
Smitty rode the hundredth wave exactly the same as the first one. Correct..?
What catalysed this topic was a series of YouTube instructional videos made by Scottish Mountain Bike star Ben Cathro. Improving at mountain biking was broken down into ten video segments beginning with a video on how to learn new skills. I was struck by how incredibly easy the process was compared to surfing. Cathro and a non-expert pal picked a new skill, broke it down, practised it and within the first ep had nailed it. Too easy.
With a completely replicable platform - the bike and the ground - they were able to get their reps in doing what Swedish psychologist Andres Ericsson termed “deliberate practice” which is defined as, "engagement in structured activities created specifically to improve performance in a domain.”
Ericsson was the grand-daddy of expert performance, a major influence on Malcolm Gladwell who came up with the famous 10,000 hour theory for acquiring mad skills. Neither man tested their theories on surfing.
Despite not referencing or even understanding Ericsson's work on expertise a whole cottage industry has sprung up in surfing over the last decade designed to make you surf better, usually for a small or large fee. Nick Carroll's books and video series were some of the first modern incarnations, CT coach Martin Dunn has also been in the game for a while, YouTube star Kale Brock has focussed on beginner-intermediates and found a willing audience, Brad Gerlach has his Wave-Ki method, South African big waver Matt Bromley has a series, and now Ace Buchan has released a product to improve the skill sets of aspirants.
I've probably missed a few. It's a rapidly growing field.
I've tried most of 'em and would have to describe any improvements as marginal, contingent, and temporary.
2019 into 2020 I put on a major offensive to improve my skill set. Great boards, good level of fitness, and the first La Nina year coincided to where I felt I was doing my best surfing ever. Then, a lockdown mental health crisis in the family derailed the program and surfing had to drop right down the priority list. Whatever little bits of progress I made were discarded or just seemed too trivial to pursue. Injury struck. I couldn't quite find the magic board formula again. In bodybuilding parlance, "I couldn't lock in the gains.”
Improving is hard work. The hardest work is mental. Riding a wave happens so quickly, on such an incredibly complex surface which is the result of a matrix of natural forces and bathymetry that you can't think your way through it. The thinking and reshaping of the mental models has to be done away from the ocean. Then you have to be ready to translate those different mental models into different physical actions while on a wave, which feels incredibly foreign and kooky. How many waves are you prepared to butcher? How many sessions will you sacrifice to learn something new?
You want to look at the elite level? Fine. Skill sets are notoriously impervious to change there too.
Heat strategy aside, did Mick Fanning really do anything different in 2018 compared to what he did in 2001 as a twenty-year old?
Have we seen John John's 2017 high water mark at Margaret River broached by any new performance gains in the ensuing five years? Anything remotely as high as his Backdoor alley oop in 2016?
Carissa Moore did one slick air in the Merewether shorey in 2021 and since then...nothing.
You'd have to invoke the GOAT as the exception to prove the rule. As a 40 year old he produced two of the biggest airs ever seen in competition at Bells Beach and New York in the early 2010's. Otherwise, his skill set in small surf is clearly going backwards.
We watched the immense difficulty of improvement play out in real time this year on the Women's tour. Despite tens of thousands of dollars prizemoney, live broadcasts, and cleared lineups as inducement, elite athletes - who have no other responsibilities except to improve their surfing and lay down world class performance - weren't able to deal with hollow lefts.
Can you surf worse? Of course.
At the elite level the QS makes people surf worse. It's a graveyard for performance surfing levels. Watch any of the raw clips of surfing in Bali with the local shredders in good waves. Now go watch a QS heat in typically shitty surf. It destroys skill sets! People come off long QS campaigns as worse surfers. The opportunity cost of surfing so much garbage instead of good waves is significant.
Improvement is an alluring siren song at all levels. Learning new things is incredibly sexy right now in this post-COVID era where work from homers look to imbue their extra leisure time with more meaning. Surfing is not immune to those broader cultural trends, especially amongst the COVID beginner boom cohort.
Yet reality intrudes on the fantasy. We were told the wavepool would be the solution to rapid improvement. Nearly seven years on from Slater's unveiling of the Lemoore Tub, and four years on from its debut as a competition venue we are yet to see a material difference in performance levels there. If anything, performance has regressed to a more 'safety first' standard. Almost three years after the opening of Melbourne's Wavegarden we are yet to see an army of QS aspirants flying out of Tullamarine after honing their skills in the Tub.
Seth Moniz pulled a backflip in the Waco Tub, but four years later we are yet to see that replicated in the ocean. The promise of wavepool mediated skill set progression has been an illusion, a fantasy, a mirage in the desert mostly appealing to the vanities of the beginner-intermediate.
We're told that improvement and progression are the way forward, and that they're the best way to have fun on a sled. Does even that sacred cow need to be taken down to the bottom paddock and dispatched? It seems that the surf culture as a whole has already decided that question and I am merely saying the quiet bit out loud. Mid-90s fish, finless, alternate crafts, the mid-length revolution...all of that is predicated on letting go of improvement in performance and relaxing into the ride.
If I think about my most memorable rides over the last decade, two spring immediately to mind. A ten-footer I whipped and went on the Black Nor'easter swell of 2016 and a bomb set at Kirra during TC Oma in Feb 2019. Maxing out and red-lining the whole wave on a 7'6”, total exhilaration but in all honesty I did fuck all on both waves. Video footage, apart from the drop, would be deflating no doubt.
I know I could have done more, but could those waves have felt any better? Been more memorable? What was amazing was that I rode them, not how good I rode them.
Fear not comrades. There does remain one method of improvement, as currently being demonstrated by our Russian brothers on the Bukit and the rest of Indonesia. Good waves, not too big, are the only pathway with any proven track record for getting better. It seems unbelievable that the Woz, as the peak body for pro surfing can't seem to recognise that simple fact, whilst recreational surfers from all over the world can.
You can't get better - it's too damn hard - but you can enjoy it more.
Sign up for my sixteen week online course for just USD $500 and I'll show you the secret.
// STEVE SHEARER