Martin Dunn on watching John John

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Stu Nettle (stunet)
Talking Heads

Earlier this week, John John Florence dropped a clip with a difference. Though six-and-a-half minutes long it featured only nine waves, all of them shot on high speed film and played back in slow motion.

Now, slow motion can trigger irrational anger in many surfers, yet no-one complained after this clip. Shot tight it provided a glimpse of the stylistic and technical nuances of the two-time champ.

The common refrain with John John is that he keeps his arms low, and it's true, at times he does, yet there's much more happening then that simple observation.

To nut it out, Swellnet called up Martin Dunn. Martin's got 35 years experience as a coach, in which time he's worked with 25 CT qualifiers, making him arguably Australia's most succesful surf coach.

Also, Martin had conveniently spent two days on the beach at Newcastle filming both his students and John John who was also in the water. This came in handy when we threw some questions at him.

Swellnet: In your eyes, does John have a unique style?
Martin Dunn: Yes he does.

And what is it about his style that makes it unique?
Well, there are certain things about his surfing that are not perfect in the way that, say, Kelly Slater's technique is perfect. John John does things a little bit differently. Besides being a big bloke, a big man in stature, I suspect that he's also been gifted by his parents of having a more explosive body than the average.

Can you elaborate on that?
I mean just the way that his anatomy and his body works. Some people are sprinters, some people are long-distance runners. What I mean by that is some people are power athletes, they explode out of the gates, while some people can apply their power over time. So they've got lovely styles, but they're not very explosive.

I think John John, if he were in athletics, would be a high jumper, where he would be really good at one execution. The power that he could innately apply would be more than someone of a similar size and stature. That's what I suspect. Obviously, you need testing to do that, but that's what I suspect. He's got all that power going on, but he's also got that something extra about him.

Compared to many surfers, John John doesn't use his arms as a counterweight when pumping for speed or setting up turns. How is it that...
You're talking about his forehand action?

Ah, is there a difference with his arms going backside?
Yeah, on his backhand he uses his arms more traditionally. If you'll bear with me for a second...

Sure. (Keyboard clicks can be heard as Martin tees up some fresh footage of John John shot at Newcastle)
I shot a bit more of him yesterday. I've only come across two or three waves that I shot today. But if I look at his backhand surfing, he fundamentally has a very similar style on his backhand as other people.

He does..?
Yep. Other than that, backhand he tends to look down the line a little bit when he's doing a manoeuvre, which doesn't usually work yet obviously does for him, I think because he's got really good hip rotation. When you've got good hip rotation, your backhand can work really, really well.

On his forehand, you're right, the arms stay low, but I think he can get away with it, because I think inherently he's got that extra power that other people haven't got as much of - which is what I was talking about before.

Where in his body is the power coming from, if not by using the arms?
Well, I think it comes from the bending and straightening of his body, his torso, and it comes from the internal mechanisms of his muscles and structure of his body.

Again, I take it that he was born with that ability. Like, if he was an Olympic athlete, he would be in the power sports..

If he were an Olympic athlete..?
And he's not an Olympic athlete...well...he is now I suppose! (laughs)

You know what? When I look at his bottom turn - say when he's going into an off the top manoeuvre - he's got similar compression as other people, but yeah, his arms are low.

I filmed this wave yesterday where he did a huge layback and then did a big snap on a six-foot wave - very similar to stuff you've seen him do at Haleiwa. And as I'm talking to you now, I can see his arms, as you say, they're not out in counterbalance, they're down, his hands are down towards his knees and the like.

But then he goes into the bottom turn and the thing that he does differently is, unlike most surfers who, during a minor bottom turn, put their trailing arm out and it stays in front of the body like reaching to the wave surface, then maybe coming out of the turn the arm lifts up quickly. John does that action, where his right arm is in front of his body then quickly raised up, as part of his major bottom turn. Not many surfers do that. That's different.

OK. It's not something I've noticed.
Everything else is pretty much stock standard technique. The thing that's a little different is, as you say, the way he holds his arms when he's doing a manoeuvre.

When he first came onto the scene he was obviously very good, but he had a few flaws in his style. One of them was his forehand cutback. It felt to me that not holding his arms up higher, he couldn't maintain that flow and projection back towards the whitewash.
Yep. What he needed to bring it fully around and hit it hard, he needed the wave to be steep. Where he struggles on the cutback...say to bring it all way around is because he doesn't bend and hold the compression; he straightens his body a bit too early in the cutback.

Generally, that's a problem for a lot of tall surfers. But if the wave's got steepness and he does his cutback, it's equal to anyone else's: Mick Fanning, Kelly Slater.

It's interesting. Technique aside, the thing that makes John John so good, is that every wave he tries to do something exceptional. It may not be every manoeuvre, but every wave he intentionally tries to do something exceptional

I remember watching him at Bells a couple of years ago. He was out there and every single manoeuvre was committed. When he'd do a cutback, he'd bury the rail then do a high rebound. It was as if every single section was important to him.

There were probably twenty of the top guys in the world out there and their attitude was, 'OK, I'm going to surf well, and that might mean one classic manoeuvre per wave'. Whereas John John was trying to do two or three on a wave. 

Why would he be doing that?
I think it's just the fact that he wants to keep challenging himself.

In that area of performance, people often do a really big turn and the next one they'll have a breather. They'll come out of that big turn and then it's as though with that manoeuvre they've done their job for the whole wave. There's a number of surfers you see who will do that, they'll do one big turn and the next one will if the first turn is an eight the next one is a three.

Whereas John John will do an eight and then a seven five, and then he might do a nine. His mind is more focussed on absolute performances, the same way Toledo's is.

You know, absolute performance, every single section.

Where some people are content with a good turn, they're like, 'OK, my status is still high because I can do that turn'. Whereas for John John, his status isn't high unless he can do that turn, every time.

As a coach, would you encourage that sort of surfing?
Without a doubt. When someone's ready to move outwards...when they're ready to perform critical combinations, you're got to take them there. Surfers tend to get a level of mediocrity when they get good status. They might get good sponsorship, they might have good accolades from the people around them, and that can act as a barrier for their development.

And those that go beyond it..?
The ones who make the CT have got internal drive, otherwise they can't get there. It may not always come across that way, but I'd say John John very much has an internal drive.

Wanna surf better? Iron out the kinks in your style?
Visit Martin's online training tutorial.


Lottolonglong's picture
Lottolonglong's picture
Lottolonglong Thursday, 1 Apr 2021 at 4:58pm

I'm definitely a JJ fan
I hope his leg holds up this year

belly's picture
belly's picture
belly Thursday, 1 Apr 2021 at 5:33pm

Great read, what a surfer!!

frog's picture
frog's picture
frog Thursday, 1 Apr 2021 at 5:36pm

Having watched some coaching videos I think some of the modern coaches have harmed some surfers' styles. Wont name names but there are a few shocker wide arm pterodactyl styles out there in the pro ranks (more women than men perhaps to create power?). I strongly suspect they took on the wide arm big rotation turn approach but over did it by keeping wide arms too often and became stiff.

Skaters do amazing stuff with arms low.

Style is important and coaches should pick up on that more.

John John is such a good balance between the options. He started less arms and added more in over time. Connor Coffin is a good mix too.

batfink's picture
batfink's picture
batfink Friday, 2 Apr 2021 at 5:49pm

I agree frog. Always think that a surfer that looks best is one that is pretty quiet in arm movements, and all the body is in sync. See a lot of surfers where the arms are doing one thing and the hips are doing the other. A mate and I laugh about it all the time.

But I’m not talking good surfers or pros, just us enthusiastic plods and weekend warriors.

Roystein's picture
Roystein's picture
Roystein Thursday, 1 Apr 2021 at 6:15pm

Great article and definitely big fan of JJF. Love his YouTube stuff, surfing and non-surfing alike

flow's picture
flow's picture
flow Friday, 2 Apr 2021 at 10:10am

When you think of the Olympics you don't think about surfers.

jetson.rover's picture
jetson.rover's picture
jetson.rover Saturday, 3 Apr 2021 at 6:28pm

You're right.
I think about female gymnastics.
And I'm not saying that with seedy connotations.
I just think what they do is the most amazingly athletic a human can get with their body.

savanova's picture
savanova's picture
savanova Friday, 2 Apr 2021 at 8:59pm

Old skool occy is the benchmark of backhand surfing.

Spuddups's picture
Spuddups's picture
Spuddups Saturday, 3 Apr 2021 at 7:16am

Was thinking the same thing myself. Such a unique style. Surfers back then had such a range of styles when competed with today. Occy, Curren, MR etc, all instantly recognisable.

SI's picture
SI's picture
SI Thursday, 8 Apr 2021 at 12:21pm

Interesting comment spuddups. I get the feeling that the competition arena has become a bit “one dimensional”. You are either performing the circus trick flawlessly or you’re not. So, we are getting a lot of “clown” surfers in circus lineups. Very skilful they are; must give credit where it’s due, they accomplish trick manoeuvres but they often look strained or pushed too far or too “surfer focussed”, too “look at me” ego focussed. Whereas I’m not really impressed by such skill at all. I’ve surfed with the pros many times and they always make my surfing better just being in the water with them. But still, I stand by the idea that too much is made of their skill - which let’s face it, it’s not exactly rocket science!! Haha, let’s be honest !- it’s a flow thing to go with the flow of the wave, and people that can do that well always stand out as stylish in the water - they stand apart from the skill trickster type guys- for me those trick guys drive innovation and are cool, but I would never want to surf like them. Most of them just make the natural flow of nature look awkward and strained like they’re in a fight with nature instead of in harmony with it. But there are break throughs with these guys that one cannot ignore. People like Kai Lenny are doing things so innovative it’s mind blowing, which is cool on the big wave scene, but the average wave size scene is lacking a lot of soul now, there’s been a lot of old school “surfing cool” including culture out of the water that’s been lost to a more competitive drive for being the “best” or some other stupid aim. I’ve seen a few young guys realise this idea as they reach adulthood. At the end of the day it’s all nonsense...did you enjoy riding that wave? Did you enjoy being where that wave broke? Did you enjoy meeting someone in the water? (Well there are some of us that don’t really like too many other surfers in the water but funny, it includes most of us!!). Man, every surfer that is lucky enough to ride a wave - even just one wave - has been let clean into one of nature’s great gifts. If you have risen such a wave you are one of the fortunate ones, who has been gifted by nature herself!! Luck you!

theolderIgetthebetterIwas's picture
theolderIgetthebetterIwas's picture
theolderIgetthe... Friday, 2 Apr 2021 at 10:04pm

Are you looking radical...
Are you moving water....
Are you looking different/unique...
question mark???
these would be my coaching/judging criteria...
and in Johns case - I'd leave him to it...

I don't know the rules of ripping anyway...

tango's picture
tango's picture
tango Saturday, 3 Apr 2021 at 10:10pm

I think there's an argument for improvement for the pros, but in the same breath I think that the homogeneity of modern top-shelf surfing is a backward move. Yes, Kelly has perfect technique, but since he started dominating the scene after titles 3 or 4 it seems like everyone has tried to copy him to the point where the surfing has become technically high but the style component has really narrowed.

Take TF. These days it would be career suicide to surf like him but fark me, you cannot watch him at JBay in Fantasea and not be stoked. Or even The King, which would also cruel your chances. Some of that late 70s Hawaii footage of MR on a single is some of the best surfing I've ever seen. A bit like the long twin issue, really, where some of the good hipsters might not be able to push it to the limit on their craft but they're firkin stylish and their positioning keeps you guessing.

I don't really care to watch Medina or Toledo, but could watch JJF all day. I wish style and rail surfing got scored up more and the flapping and tricks got scored down! I'd probably watch all the comps if that were the case.

drodders's picture
drodders's picture
drodders Sunday, 4 Apr 2021 at 6:43am

I love how MD picked up the JJF has something special going on, mindset, physicality and style. This can’t be taught, everyone is different and has their own style, I like that. I actually think, KS, MF, AI, Parko all have unique styles, bits of others but their own, made them great to watch...