It’s tough transitioning from a beginner to an intermediate surfer. It takes guts and a hell of a lot of determination to get back on your board and paddle out after eating sand for the one-hundredth time that session, while everyone else in the line-up seems to be effortlessly tucking into barrels and pulling off 360 airs. As if it isn’t hard enough being the only girl in a sea of testosterone; not only do we have to overcome the battle against other surfers and the challenge of the backbreaking dumping wave, but we also have to conquer the hardest force of all, our own mind. One negative thought is enough to throw you over the lip, instead of dropping into your best wave yet. The ocean is the single most dynamic and changeable sports field in the world, where no two waves are the same, so it is no wonder that it takes years to master the basics of the sport.
The point I’m making is that surfing is hard! But us surfer girls are natural born thrill seekers and we’ll do anything to re-live that head high drop we seemed to pull off last week on a fluke, even if it takes one hundred more humiliating body slams to get there. Over the past year or two I’ve come to realize a few tips which have helped to make my surfing a little more smooth and consistent. Some of them may seem pretty basic, but I have found that people tend to forget the basics when they feel like they’re ready to move on to other maneuvers. The pros say it’s vitally important to form a strong foundation before you build from that. Here’s the top 10 things I’m concentrating on when I’m in the water.
1. Powerful Paddling – The experts say we paddle for about 70-80% of our surf session, so it’s needless to stress how important it is to have a decent stroke. My years of elite swimming training have taught me that a long, deep stroke is the most efficient form, as opposed to short and fast as I see all too often with people learning to surf. It’s easy to forget this in the midst of a panic paddle for a wave, but make it a conscious act next time you’re out. See for yourself how much easier the paddle out feels and how much easier it is to get on to the wave when you have a long and powerful stroke.
2. Deeper Duckdives – Duckdiving requires a lot of upper body strength, something which doesn’t come naturally to most girls. It’s especially difficult if you’re still riding a buoyant beast of a board as a learner (in which case, shifting all your weight forward and using your knee to help sink the board really helps). I recently became aware of how important it is to perform a good quality duckdive, when I was in the midst of a hellish paddle out and I was pushed 2m behind my friend with ever wave we duckdived. I started to focus on pushing down harder with my arms to go deeper, then directing the movement of the board forward to oppose the force of the wave, rather than just lazily floating up when the wave had passed. Once you have reached the surface, start paddling immediately! No time for dilly-dallying, as your mother would say. I found that putting more energy into your duckdives, actually helps to conserve your energy by making the paddle out quicker.
3. Positioning – The ability to read the waves comes with experience in the water. At the intermediate level, you should be able to identify where the peak of the wave will be and so position yourself just behind it to get ready for a set. However, it’s not as simple as that for many of us because fear gets in the way. Often we force ourselves away from the peak and sit a few meters across, on the shoulder of the wave where it will be smaller and you won’t have to compete with all the experienced surfers. Seems like a great idea, right? Wrong! It’s actually harder to catch a wave on the shoulder than it is on the peak because it tends to jack up and become steeper in that section, which makes the takeoff extra challenging. However, on the peak it tends to be less steep and more forgiving for the takeoff. So, even though it’s bigger on the peak, it’s actually easier, not to mention heaps more fun. So next time you’re out amongst the competition, be confident and sit on the peak. You have just as much right to be there as anyone else does.
4. Pause – One fateful evening, I was given the best piece of advice and after that everything just clicked. My friend and I were hitchhiking back home from the Quicksilver Pro surf competition in the Gold Coast, true Byron style, and a surf instructor so happened to pick us up. As we drove home, I was complaining how my popup wasn’t fast enough so I kept getting on the wave too late, or not getting it at all. We went for a quick sunset surf in Byron and he had one look at my popup and said “you’re getting up too fast, slow it all down. Paddle, pause for a second or two to look at the wave and feel it, then pop up when you feel like the wave has caught you.” My takeoff transformed from frantic desperation, to smooth and controlled. I learned that you have a lot more time than you realize. Next time you’re paddling on to a wave remember to paddle hard, then take a second to breath before you pop to your feet, it makes all the difference.
5. No Knee Pop Up – I don’t know a single female surfer that hasn’t struggled to shake off the step up, instead of pop up, bad habit when moving from a minimal to a shortboard. On a shortboard, your toes are dangling off the end of your board, there’s nowhere for your legs to help you propel up to standing, so we slide up to our knee and step up from there. This becomes a two-step motion, where the knee shifts all your weight back and you lose a lot of speed before you’ve even stood up, causing the wave to race away from you leaving your positioning on the wave all wrong.
Many intermediate surfers don’t even realize they’re using their knee to get up. It wasn’t until my friend and I filmed each other and watched it back in slow motion that we both realized we were still using our knees. Since then I’ve been doing some land training to increase my upper body and core strength every morning to make my popups more explosive. Every time I go to popup, I now focus my attention on my back foot to make sure it goes straight to standing and I know the front foot will take care of itself. Once you’ve mastered the popup, you will see a dramatic improvement in the rest of your surfing because the take off will either set you up for a fail or an ace wave.
6. Angle Your Board – When you start to ride bigger, steeper waves it‘s very important to angle your board diagonally across the wave on the take off. Some waves may look like a vertical decent into certain death when you’re angled straight down the face, but if you change your angle by about 45degrees to face down the line then waves that seemed totally un-ridable become super fun, fast rides. To do this you’ll need to paddle harder than you would normally as the force of the wave won’t help you as much and dig your inside rail into the wave. Also, it’s vitally important, DON’T LOOK DOWN!!! The rule of surfing is, where you look is where you will go. So if you look down the wave on the takeoff, then, not only will you freak yourself out by how high and steep it is, but you’ll also go that way and it probably won’t be pretty. Instead, set your sights around 5m across the wave and look where you want to go, because that way, you’ll get there.
7. Loosen Up – Great style is something all surfers hope to achieve, whether they’ll admit it or not. I’m not talking about who’s wearing the trendiest wetsuit or who’s got the most stickers on their car. Style in surfing is all about how gracefully you ride the wave. Some people can make riding a 10ft barrel look like they’re performing a waltz with Mother Nature. Others can hypnotize you with they’re effortless sways and sprays on a 2ft baby wave. Next time you’re on a wave, remember to relax and loosen up because it’s all too easy to tense up when you feel like the wave is doing everything in its power to throw you off. Feel the motion of the wave and let your body intuitively respond as if you were part of the ocean itself. Change your state of mind, stop thinking and just go with the flow.
If you’re struggling with feeling natural on a surfboard, I strongly advise you to buy a longboard skateboard. It has helped my surfing heaps. Go out for a midnight skate when there’s no cars about and dominate the concrete swell. It not only helps to build your style, give you better balance and more power in your turns, but it builds your confidence too. When you’re bombing down a hill and on the verge of speed wobbles, the prospect of a broken collar bone and bare skin on a concrete cheese grater is enough to keep you on your board and defy the inevitable. This feeling of “I can’t fall off” transfers over to your surfing and you’ll find that you’ll manage to stay on your board in situations you had previously thought impossible. It’s all in the mind.
8. Mind Over Matter – It’s so easy to get bogged down with negative emotions and to beat yourself up during a session when things aren’t going your way. Someone in the line up might be an aggressive surfer and always drop in on you, or you may not be performing as well as usual. Whatever the reason, those negative thoughts are only going to have a negative impact on your surfing. I can't tell you the amount of times I could have caught a wave, but failed because I didn’t have faith in myself or my board. I firmly believe that a huge proportion of surfing ability comes from mind control. On another fateful sunset surf, I sought advice from a wise old surfer who told me to “Stop thinking! All good surfers are airheads.” Genius! As well as the Zen approach, I also find positive affirmations really effective. Change all your I can’t‘s into I can‘s and all your negatives into positives. You’ll be so much happier for it.
9. Say Hi – A friendly smile and a hello can go a long way. Call me a weirdo, but I can’t help but find it awkward when you’re sharing the waves with a stranger in a vast empty ocean and neither of you even acknowledges each other’s existence. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to exchange life stories or anything, I enjoy the peace and tranquility of the sea as much as the next person. But a passing comment from a happy fellow surfer definitely changes the vibe for the better and instills a feeling of unison amongst everyone in the water. It’s all about having fun and as they say, happiness is only real when shared. You’ve got the power to be that happy surfer who changes the vibe, so do it!
10. Power – Ultimately, most of surfing performance is based on power. It’s vital in every aspect of surfing, from duckdiving and paddling, to popups and turning. You won’t realize how vital it is until you do a bit of land training and see the difference for yourself. Incorporate some sit-ups, press-ups, the plank, squats and popups into your daily morning routine and you’ll see a massive improvement in your surfing after just a couple of weeks. This extra power will be the driving force to propel your surfing onto a whole new level.
These are the top ten things I concentrate on when I’m in the water, but the one thing I never forget is that, when it comes down to it, it's all about having fun. Feel free to leave a comment and share any gems of advice you’ve been given about surfing throughout your experience. Share the wisdom and spread the stoke.
After note: This article was shared on the Surfgirl website and was received very well, with 1800 "likes" and 26 beautiful comments. There is nothing more inspiring and encouraging than to know that you've helped someone on their surf journey; it makes it all worth while. So, big thanks to you all for your kind words.