The Rule of Threes: My Surf Progression Theory

The Rule of Threes: My Surf Progression Theory

My philosophy of how we learn to surf, kite and sup.

Progression is fundamental when it comes to surf sports. Yes, reconnecting with nature, getting your dose of vitamin D, meeting great people and travel are all wonderful facets of playing in the ocean but no one picks up a surfboard with the intention of remaining a beginner forever.
I think there are three main factors that determine our development in surfing, SUPing, kiting etc…And these are:

1. Knowledge (cognitive) = Very fast changes

2. Technique (neuroplasticity) =  Fast changes

3. Fitness (physiological) = Slow changes

Each of these elements is tested, and benefited on some level each time we go for a session. Recognising the demands and benefits of a surf session before you go in and evaluating how it went when you got out is very useful for seeing where you energies are best spent, and finding the way forward.

Knowledge Session

Knowledge can be acquired instantaneously. Think about how you learn facts at school, or watching a documentary, or reading a book. As soon as the event has finished, you know more than when it started. It doesn’t take weeks for basic info to settle in, synaptic plasticity occurs in milliseconds – we receive information at the speed of sound, or light. Immediately, knowledge can improve your chances of success.

A bit of ‘classroom’ time – reading, watching, listening – can really fast track the progression process. The classroom can be your sofa and Youtube, it could be talking to someone more experienced, or it could be paddling out to ‘have a look’ at a place you haven’t surfed before to get an idea of water movement and channels.

A practical example of a knowledge session would be paddling a kayak out to the Cribbar take off spot on a day when it’s not breaking to get a feel for the distances involved, line up spots, and to see how the tide pulls you when it ebbs and flows. All useful info, gained in real time, for when the big day arrives. So even though you won’t have caught any waves or particularly taxed your muscles and energy systems you’re definitely a bit more prepared for the Cribbar.

Another example would be familiarising yourself with new equipment. Taking a new board out in marginal conditions; discovering how it paddles, how it glides, what the turning radius is like. Stuff that you wouldn’t want to be finding out for the first time when the wave of your life swings through.

Technique Session

Neuroloplasticity changes happen fast, but it takes a steady approach to get the right technique, and enough repetition so that the action can be repeated instinctively.
Things like balance, coordination, reaction time and agility cannot be learned by reading a book or watching a video or listening to a coach. They aren’t cognitive processes run by the forebrain, rather they are administered by the cerebellum, tucked somewhere around the back.

With technique, we’re aiming to learn something so that we can repeat it without thinking about it – In the heat of the moment, knowledge is slow but instinct is instant.
A very obvious example of this is when you see surf coaches drilling their students on the pop up before getting them in the water. Often times, the student is thinking, ‘yeah, I get it – can we go surfing now?’ but a good coach knows that the student needs to repeat the pop up on land enough times that they can forget about it, or do it without thinking.

A more intermediate situation could be using a skateboard to get used to the body mechanics of turning. In either case, the surfer is not expending so much energy that technique degrades, and they’re not distracted or overwhelmed with new information coming at them. They can just concentrate on steadily repeating the movement while the nervous system  wraps itself around the task and discovers what muscles and motor units need to fire for the most efficient movement.

This is why some activities are so exhausting at first; your mind (knowledge) might know what needs to be done but your body (instinct) does not, and so muscles which don’t need to be fired are fired, and other muscles have to fire back against them, which takes fuel…

Technique sessions are what most of us are going for, most of the time, trying to get better at our sport while we are doing it, after all that’s what makes it feel good. Of course, this requires knowledge – wave selection, spot familiarity, equipment selection – and fitness, we can’t develop a killer cutback if we’re too tired to paddle back out after one wave!
With adequate knowledge and fitness, how quickly does technique develop? I think of it like learning an instrument: in the morning you can barely make a tune but by the evening a nearby sufferer will just about tell what you were trying to play – it’s not instant, but it happens before your eyes.

Fitness Session

You could have encyclopaedic knowledge of sport and superb technical ability but if you’re not physically fit enough for the session ahead, you’re going nowhere. Physiological adaptations – building muscular endurance, cardio vascular fitness – take time.

As I’ve written before, I think that fitness is the biggest impediment to learning to surf; it’s why it’ll take a new surfer at the very least all summer to link turns and set a rail whilst the same person would attain equivalent performance on a snowboard in about two weeks. Thanks to ski lifts a whole day on the slopes, day after day is possible. Without a jet ski assist, most of us won’t be able to commit that sort of time in the surf.

I’m not sure it’s a good idea to reduce practicing a sport you love to a fitness session, the fitness should really be a by-product of doing something you enjoy. But, there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a foamy and catching as many 1ft waves as you can in forty minutes rather than sacking the whole thing off. Will you learn anything? Unlikely. Will you develop technique? You’re more likely to pick up a bad habit but two or three sessions like this each week through summer would surely keep you in best fettle for when the Autumn swells arrive.


There is a circular relationship between knowledge, technique and fitness that, like the M25, doesn’t really have a start or end point. Jump in at fitness. Higher levels of fitness allow you to practise longer, thereby improving technique. Improving technique gives you context for new knowledge I.e. what are the forces I’m trying to exert on my surfboard? A deeper understanding of ocean forces and how to deal with them will allow you to go surfing in a broader range of conditions, a by product of which is increased surf fitness which allows you to surf for longer and develop technique and so on. Each element is worth developing in its own right and it also helps you reach ‘next level’ in the other two elements.


Here’s how I see my own challenges of learning to surf, sup and kite

Cognitive  Neurological  Physiological
Surf                Low.             Med.            High.
SUP                Med.            Med.            High.
Kite                High.            High.             Low.

Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses against the sports you enjoy can help you work out why you’ve hit a plateau. In kiting for example with its high cognitive and neuro demands, I can recognise that if I’m doing the ‘same old things’ it’s not because of a lack of fitness, but it’s because I don’t know how to do anything else – and there are hundreds of tricks among different disciplines that I could be cracking on with, I just have to learn them. First course of action then would be a Youtube tutorial to discover a new trick, and then some land based simulation before having a crack at it for real.
Well, that concludes the bones of my philosophy on how we learn to surf. Feel free to get in touch or comment if you want anything fleshed out or wish to counter anything. Hopefully this might be of some use to you as a self-coaching tool or as a framework for coaching a student over many sessions.