This is a question I get asked a lot by clients, and I think it’s a fair one. Whenever I try something new I’m always keen to know how long it will be before I crack it! It is not easy to predict how long it will be before someone ‘learns to surf’, so it’s not ideal to try and give a value to it as that could result in a sense of failure, and also, at what point is someone surfing? Is it when they are shredding a green wave out the back? Or trimming along a smooth face? Standing up in the white water? Sliding along lying down on the board? Body surfing in on the wave, without a board?
Many people would say trimming along a smooth face is the flashpoint of surfing, fair enough. But that’s not always attainable to everyone, and I prefer the answer ‘from the moment you start having fun’. Cop out? Not so much. In the early days of a surfer’s life, having fun is the easy part and standing up is the hard part. As time goes by, it can be the other way around. Tom Curren, former two-time world champion and arguably the most stylish surfer going, once said ‘the best surfer in the water is the one having the most fun’. I mean, why else would you do it?
Years ago I had yet to step foot on a surfboard. I was watching people at Fistral Beach and wondered how long it would take me to ‘become a surfer’. I was sure I would know that moment when it arrived, be it that summer or some years later. Well, seventeen years later and I can say that flashpoint moment has not arrived for me. Hopefully not because I totally suck at surfing (!) but because when I think about it I still feel like I am on the same spectrum as when I began, the spectrum that starts with the organism most unlikely to surf, let’s call it a dawn redwood tree, and ends in the organism most likely to surf brilliantly, aka Kelly Slater. So all of us are somewhere on a scale between a tree and Kelly Slater when it comes to surfing. Really? Well, dogs surf in on boards, cows surf in on tidal bores (for a bit), seagulls surf the air pockets in front of ocean swells, tiny sea creatures are pushed in by white water, trees fall in during surges, in fact, just about anything that is mobile enough to get to the water can be pushed in by the surf and experience movement thanks to the power of the sea. I’d call that surfing.
Even if someone has no intention of ever surfing they are on the spectrum somewhere. The spectrum is a measure of the potential for success on the next surf, and not a measure of past achievements. So, it is very possible for someone to move along the spectrum, ever so slightly in Kelly Slater’s direction, without even getting wet. Picture a colleague or friend of yours that may have heard of surfing, but has no idea how it really works. Imagine taking them blindfold to an empty beach, putting a board under their arm, walking them out, whipping the blindfold off and telling them to catch a wave. Would they even know what way around the board went? Or how to get on it? Or what sort of wave they should go for?
Imagine the same person, but this time, you’re going to spend ten minutes with them overlooking the surf, and you’re pointing out what the waves are, the people surfing them, talking about the board, how to get on it, what they can expect, won’t their chances of success of being pushed in by the surf on their own terms have improved at least a little bit? In just ten minutes you have moved them a little further along the spectrum towards King Kelly. You have educated them, brought about a mental adaptation.
I think we adapt to being better at surfing in three core ways: mental, neurological, and physiological. The mental aspect of course involves thought. You can change thought patterns instantly. You have the potential to learn something the second you are shown it: here’s a picture of a surfboard, now you know to pick up a surfboard instead of a rake. Neurological deals with the connection between the brain and the muscles. These adaptations take longer to bring about than mental ones, but are still pretty quick and can be brought about on the day. You don’t need to build any more muscle or cardiorespiratory fitness, but by practising a new skill using what you already have you get better. And then we have physiological adaptations. This refers to strength, speed, endurance, stamina, flexibility. These changes take time. We can build muscle in a matter of weeks, but developing new capillaries to feed those muscles can take seasons of training. All of us, if we are in healthy mind, can bring about an adaptation that will move us along the spectrum.
So back to the original question, how long will it take me to learn to surf? Answer: as long as it takes for you to make the first move 🙂