Improve Your Surfing With Thought

By Andrew D L

“Energy and thought work speeds up goal attainment much more than physical work alone. Physical is the most visible, but it is only the final stage.”

Alright, so you’ve got a move your really struggling with so you look at the “how to” page in a surfing magazine and yep there it is…stoked! They break the technique down for you into steps; “crouch, touch water, extend out into the lip, grab, spot the landing” and boom you’ve done it. That’s all good, your amped to do it, you paddle out and try a few but no luck. You think some negative stuff about it and a belief gradually builds up in your mind. “I can’t do airs or cutbacks or turns etc” You’ll keep trying and trying the move but you’ve got that limiting belief there and every time you fail it gets stronger. “I can’t do them”. You might think I just need to work on my technique more, practice harder, or break it down again but if you really want to see some change you firstly need to overcome that negative belief that is holding you back from improving.

As Surfing is such a dynamic, in the moment activity its pretty hard to be thinking about a move as different stages of technique, it happens so quickly anyway and being preoccupied with technique often stiffens you up and can really take the fun out of a surf.

I’m not saying ‘how to’ advice is a waste of time, or that you don’t need to think about technique at all, rather I’m going to suggest a process or two that will work on those limiting beliefs and complement the technique work.

The key to improving your surfing is finding a balance between physical practice and energy work (visualization and belief work). If you just sit down and meditate or visualize yourself busting new moves without actually going out there and surfing I don’t think you will see much progress. Likewise, if you just practice the move every wave until your blue in the face without addressing what negativity is running through your thoughts. That kind of obsession is not going to produce quick results either. This is a holistic approach; you begin the energy work and achieve a state where you can surf with belief, passion, and confidence. You visualize yourself completing the move and build up a good feeling about it. You then act, the energy work paves the way but to complete the learning you must practice, this is where the transformation takes place, in the water. I really believe that this will speed up your learning curve and it will definitely let you have even more fun in the ocean!

“When I was a kid…I still do it all the time…looking at a wave and mind surfing it you know, I’ve always visualized how I want to ride waves. I’ve always thought since I was young that I want to be able to surf waves the way I see waves ridden in my mind.”

Kelly Slater – 9 x World Champion

I’ve split up these ideas into two different areas; overcoming bad surfs, and learning new moves.

Overcoming “Bad” Surfs- turning them around

Why do you surf? Whether for fun, to connect with nature, or to relax, I’m sure we all have pretty similar reasons revolving around a good feeling, positive energy. However is this always the case? I’m sure some people can say yes to this question but I’ve seen a lot of frustration out in the water and I know that many of us don’t always get the intended good feelings from our sessions. So what causes these bad surfs, what stands in the way of our fun? It could be because we don’t live up to our own performance expectations, it could be too crowded, or it might be because others are surfing better than us and we want to do what they are doing! We can just accept these bad surfs, or we can realize that our experience in the water, good or bad, is more to do with what’s going through our heads out there, rather than what is actually happening in the lineup or on the waves.

I think it’s pretty ridiculous when I look back at some of the bad surfs I’ve had. I have been out in tropical places with perfect waves, warm water, only friends around and somehow found myself not having fun, oblivious to the beauty around me. It wasn’t because of that situation at all; it was all in my head. That’s a good thing though, if it was the situation that caused bad surfs there would be nothing we could do about that, we would be powerless. But now we know it’s in our heads, and we can change what bounces around in that thick skull of ours! The power is in us, we can change all those bad surfs to good ones!

Now, you’ve probably turned a bad surf to a good one before, albeit unconsciously. You were out there having a horrible time, sitting there catching no waves, maybe you just fell off on a good wave and then you sat there with a negative chain of thought running rampant “I just blew my chance then…I won’t get another wave now…I always fall off when I try that move…”

Having those kinds of thoughts going on, obviously you’re not going to be having too much fun! You probably feel tense and restricted and that isn’t going to lead to you surfing your best or paddling energetically for waves. But then miraculously a wave appears in front of you and no one is around. You manage to surf it well and the buzz of that one good wave changes your attitude completely. Your thoughts become more positive. All of a sudden you’re paddling around confidently, catching heaps of waves, surfing to your full potential, having fun.

However, for every bad surf that you have turned around, you’ve probably had a few where that magic wave hasn’t come and you’ve paddled in feeling a bit down with the whole thing, you didn’t get the positive experience you paddled out for in the first place. This is where you have to take responsibility for your own thoughts and turn the negative into a positive, realize the situation isn’t the problem.

So how do you do this? First of all, you need to stop the thoughts that are currently creating your bad experience. In most cases you’ll find these thoughts are based on weaknesses and fears e.g. I can’t surf on my backhand or I’m not going to catch any waves with this crowd. The thing is weaknesses are in the past and all fears are about an imagined future, so come back to the present moment and their grip on you weakens. A good way to do this is to look around, really look at the waves, how amazing they are, they’ve traveled thousands of kilometers to be here, look at the scenery, the trees, the headland, really feel the elements, the water on your skin, and be grateful that you are playing in the ocean.

Now that you have those negative thoughts and images out of your head, you need to put some good thoughts in place of them. So let’s have a think, what would be some good thoughts to have?

Imagine you just rode an awesome wave and your surfing felt better than it ever has before. What would you be thinking about? Your attention would most likely be on your strengths and desires e.g. “I’m surfing real well, I’m going to land that move next time”. What we focus our attention on expands so thinking about what we want to happen is the key. You are also likely to be very focused on the present moment after an exhilarating ride, enjoying the scenery, the water, at one with the whole experience. Really recall in detail how you felt in a past good surfing experience. How did your body feel? Strong? Flexible? Energized? How did you paddle? Confidently? Aggressively? What was in your mind? Positive thoughts? No thoughts? Really try and recreate that same positive feeling.

As an example, you might feel like a paddling machine, your body light and energized, already anticipating how good your next ride will feel, your board slicing through the water with speed, excited to try a move you haven’t done before.

Connecting with nature by spending the wait between sets swimming underwater, or looking at the headland is another good way to generate some positive thoughts. It doesn’t matter how you do it, all that matters is that you generate thoughts that feel good to you.

This process may take a little time to develop so practice it and really get the good feelings flowing through you. Sometimes the negative thoughts can feel too powerful to overcome but don’t give up, really focus on the nature around you and be grateful, you’ll find the power! Sometimes the negative thoughts may be more subtle and hard to detect. If this is the case for you, observe yourself. Next time you surf just quietly listen to what is going through your mind. Is it positive or negative? Is your attention on your weaknesses and fears, or your strengths and desires? The more aware you become of your thoughts, the more you will be able to choose the ones that serve you.

You can also use affirmations or positive statements to help focus your mind, e.g.

  • Good waves always come to me
  • My surfing improves with every wave
  • I am grateful to be in the ocean

Just find out what works for you, what keeps your mind on the positive side. Watch what happens, surfing will become even more rewarding for you!

Learning New Moves

It’s always good to feel your surfing is improving. One of the greatest feelings is pulling off a move you’ve never done before! However sometimes you might find yourself trying so hard to do something new but it just won’t happen. This is another time when it’s good to use the power of the mind in addition to the physical energy you’ve been throwing into it. If you have been trying the move for a while with no success it’s a good idea to break it down into two stages; clearing the blockage, and then visualizing completion.

Step1 – clearing hindering believes

This stage clears the backlog of thoughts you have about the move and your ability to do it. If, for example you are trying to do a backhand air and you’ve already attempted it 50 times without landing it, your probably not going for it with the same enthusiasm as you did the first few times. The thoughts you have from these failed attempts can hang over you like a cloud and cause more frustration. We need to get rid of this cloud and to do this we need to identify the thoughts that are blocking the sun. Ask yourself these questions, what do I think and feel right before I attempt the move? What about after a failed attempt? Do I think about what I did wrong or what I did right? If I think about or try to picture myself doing the move right now, what feelings arise then?

With these answers you can start to see what is holding you back.

Let’s look at the backhand air example again in terms of the above questions. So before the move I think “I can’t do these but I’ll just try it”, and “My feet will slip off the board”. After it I think “I can’t do them, my technique is wrong”, I paddle back out feeling bad about my surfing. When I think about the move I feel frustrated and unconfident, I think my technique is way off, I doubt I can improve it.

Now that we have identified those hindering thoughts we can move forward. It takes discipline and practice but we stop giving our energy to those unhelpful thoughts and put the energy into something more useful and positive.

Before you go to the next step, consider a baby that is learning to walk. When it falls down it doesn’t worry about what it did wrong, or whether its technique was correct, and it doesn’t dwell on the mistake. It knows that the learning was in the process, the mistakes don’t need to be analyzed, it focuses all energy on the next attempt and charges back into it! Always try and remember that you learn something from any failed attempts instinctively. Let go of any hindering thoughts and know you can achieve whatever you focus on.

Step 2 -visualizing the specific move

Now we have all this energy which we have claimed back from negative thoughts, feelings and over analyzing our mistakes and technique. That alone will improve your surfing, but if you channel this energy into supporting yourself, you will really be on your way to pulling that new move. We can do this with visualization.

Firstly we need to get a strong visual image of what the move looks like. Watch a DVD or look at a magazine, find the move and take it in. Hit slow-mo if you want, soak up the technique but don’t stress about it, just absorb it with full awareness.

Now, go somewhere quiet and relax, close your eyes and imagine you are going surfing at your local break. Try to be as realistic as possible, think of the sound of the waves, smell of the ocean, how the water feels. Imagine yourself catching a wave and feel the sensation of riding it, then when you are ready visualize the move. Imagine how it would feel, your body flowing through the movements, your board firmly under your feet, your excitement as you complete it perfectly. If you feel any negativity coming up that’s ok, let it pass and try again, all you are doing is getting the feeling of completion. There might be a certain part of the move you usually mess up, stay with it until you see yourself flowing through that movement with perfect technique. Visualize every last detail so it becomes alive. Once you have a good feel for the move, try visualizing it from another person’s perspective, as if you are watching yourself surf. Make the scene as realistic as possible again, see yourself catch a wave, surfing confidently and completing the desired move with ease.

Do these visualizations regularly, they will build confidence and a sense of possibility in your surfing. You’ll soon be approaching the move with full commitment and believing that you will make it. Previously you may have been giving it your best but the negative thoughts were sabotaging your efforts, meaning your best was less than 100%. Now you will be running at 100%, you will completely expect success, and I bet you will see some drastic improvement, both in your surfing and the amount of fun you will have.

Visualization alone is not enough though, so its time to hit the water again and have some fun. Practice enthusiastically, transformation happens through action. As mentioned earlier, affirmations are another technique that can be used to complement the visualizing. These are particularly useful while you are out in the water, they remind you to focus on the positive side. Revisit the questions from step 1. What negative thoughts did you identify? Take those negative thoughts and turn them around to form your own positive affirmations.

“My feet will slip off the board” could be changed to “my feet are glued to my board”

“I can’t do them” to “I have landed lots of backhand airs”

Affirmations are great if you use them to retrain any old negative thoughts, whether it’s before you try the move or after a failed attempt. If the negative thought comes up, say the affirmation to yourself then remember the feeling you get during your visualization sessions.

Using these new tools it is inevitable that you will still have failed attempts, even pros kook moves now and then. The important thing is to not give in to the temptation of negativity and analysis of what you did wrong. If you practice visualizing regularly and stay aware of your thoughts in the water, your ability to stop the negativity will improve over time. Trust that your body learns from mistakes automatically and that each failure brings you closer to completion. Keep focusing on the feelings from your visualizations, tell yourself you can, and you will transfer those moves from your mind into the ocean.

“There has to be something in your mind that really makes you focus so completely on one thing and put so much time on the mat into what your doing, and when that all comes together, and with surfing its like all these things coming together plus your equipment and the waves and I don’t know, just your spirit and your frame of mind, like when all that comes together its really an amazing feeling.” – Kelly Slater

Andrew D L is an experienced Surfing Instructor who takes a holistic approach to help others to surf their best. His passion is helping the intermediate surfer to fulfil their potential, by focussing not only on technique, but on mental, emotional, and physical talent as well. Visit his website to read about his course on intermediate surfing. These are held in Japan, more locations coming soon.

Leave a Reply