SURF COACHING FOR THE AVERAGE SURFER – IS IT WORTH IT?
Prior to the last decade, the idea of professional style surf coaching for intermediates (average surfers) would have seemed ridiculous. Even at the World Tour level, you only have to go back around 15 years to find a time without coaches and trainers. Hardly ancient history. And whilst guys like Mick Fanning popularised treating surfing like a professional sport, it still hasn’t trickled down to the average Joe’s like you and I. The average punter looking to improve their golf swing wouldn’t think twice about taking a few lessons from the local pro, yet in surfing this is still an alien concept. Some people feel that getting surf coaching counts as taking yourself too seriously. I disagree. Getting surf coaching doesn’t mean you’re too serious, it means you’re committed to your passion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
The tricky thing with surfing is that more often than not, the correct thing to do is the exact opposite of what instinct tells you. A simple example… Nose diving on steep takeoffs? Common sense tells you to keep your weight back when paddling and weight on your back foot on the drop. Unfortunately, that’s a sure way to end up as-one with the lip. Instead, you want to do the opposite. Head down, chest pushing into the board and driving down the wave like you’re dropping into a quarter-pipe on a skateboard. This is just one example, but good surfing is littered with counter-intuitive aspects like this.
Whilst I could go on about the benefits of surf coaching for intermediates, Bill says it better. Bill has been a returning guest on our trips for the last couple of seasons and I’ve been impressed by his progression. Read on for his take on what it is to be an ‘average’ surfer and his takeaways from his time in the Maldives with us:
Putting theory into practice in the Maldives. Pic – Laurie Hedges
My Battle with Mediocrity
by Bill Allen
08:30. North Fistral car park, Newquay. It’s Friday morning in early December. A clean groundswell is in the water. Head high on the sets and the wind is currently puffing offshore. The charts are telling me that the wind is going to swing onshore by mid-morning so time is of the essence. Get me out there!
Finally I manage to wrestle my booties on and run down to the beach. Shit my hood. Back to the car.
08:45. I now have the best part of an hour to make the most of it. Why is it so crowded on a Friday morning? Doesn’t anybody work?
My toes are in the sand and I am doing a few stretches, eyes fixed on the horizon. Looking the part at least. Right, what am I focusing on today? Arms up, ride in the top third of the wave, compress, rotate and look where you’re bloody going. Who am I kidding? I’ll never remember all that. Sod it, just have fun.
Ice cream headaches, numb appendages and eyeball blasting winds so characterise surfing on these latitudes. It doesn’t take long for the inevitable irritating song to come on in my head, telling me I’m cold and it’s time to go in. A few more nugs would be great though.
Cause you’re hot then you’re cold
You’re yes then you’re no…
Time to call it… Katie Perry is playing. I wish hypothermia would kill me quicker some days. Okay, one more wave. Remember… hands up!
One stroke, two stroke and I’m in. Jump to my feet and down the wave face, nose of the board to the beach. The wave fattens out and I’m losing speed. I desperately stomp on the nose of my board to stay on the wave. Once, twice, three times and phew, I’m still on. Okay breathe, stay high, arms up. As I reach the shoulder I begin to start the arc of my cutback. Here we go… and rotate. I bog the rail and unceremoniously slap the icy water arse first. Forget vert ‘n’ squirt, more bog ‘n’ flog. School boy error… I didn’t look where I was going. Oh well, its hot chocolate and poke bowl time anyway.
Nutritious and plentiful food is a welcome sight after 6 hours in the water. Pic – Laurie Hedges
I have no desire to compete. I’m not particularly competitive, hence my leaning towards surfing in the first place. My friends are mostly non-surfers and they presume I do impressions of John John at the beach anyway. It looks ‘kind of easy’ after all. I don’t have anything to prove, no edits to shoot, no girls to impress and certainly no judges to keep on the right side of. But I’m human and progress feels great. Sure, my ego could do with the odd massage too. ‘Nice turn mate’ or ‘sick little runner’ would be music to my ears from my water based brethren.
Despite my ever plateauing progress I still love it; the early starts, the hunt for waves, the suspense, the sick days and the travel. But I am frustrated and at a dead end. I ride waves easily, trim down the line with occasional foam climbs and the odd cutback. I don’t care for airs or fin blows, I just want to surf in the pocket, do some proper turns and throw a bit of spray. The odd barrel once in a while wouldn’t hurt either.
I have done some skating and watched endless edits – Julian, Jordy, Kelly… the usual suspects. At times even resorting to some LARPing (Live Action Role Play) in front of the mirror. I think I know what to do but it seems my mind is writing cheques that my body can’t cash. I have thought about coaching, but that’s serious… for the Griffins, Kolohes and Sallys of this world. Not the Bills. Bills don’t get set waves, they make up the numbers, keep the plant-based cafes afloat and throw cash at the film festivals.
I’m not even some self-obsessed Instagram ‘influencer’ looking to show off. I just want that warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction after a surf as I’m thumbing my key into the car door, hands still too cold to do as I say. I want to surf well and be on my game. It’s natural.
Some last minute LARPing with coach Boydie before we hit the water. Pic- Laurie Hedges
I get home and flick on the TV. Two tennis players are warming up. I then look down at at my phone and watch a skater doing a backside tail-slide at their local ledge. I’m green with envy. These guys are practising their sport… by doing it… repeatedly!
All surfers can empathise here, I am sure. Are wave pools the answer? Repetitive, perfect but occasionally parasite infested blank canvases. Maybe it is. I’d sure like to try one but at fifty quid an hour, each bogged wave will cost me serious wonga. Not exactly an incentive to try new things. I’d rather go straight on a mal and get my money’s worth! This is much more a literal example of a far deeper concept within the ‘surfer’s mind’; the value we place on waves. Each set wave is a piece of treasure and must be treated as such. Ridden with respect and to it’s conclusion.
Surfing isn’t golf and there’s no practice range. I can’t afford to tweak things here and there. What happens if the waves go flat for weeks on end? If Tiger Woods can put his career on hold on multiple occasions to ‘rebuild his swing’, then surely Bill can put one session on hold to rebuild his cutback? It seems not.
I just need Trestles with no one out…for a week straight. Ideally with someone barking instructions at me. Oh, and maybe some video feedback.
The problem is that knee jerk reaction towards what you know and have always done. Reverting to type in the name of not wasting a wave and looking like a total pillock. But to learn is to be humbled. Despite what surfers like to think, surfing is a ‘jocky’ sport with lashings of bravado and testosterone filling the line-up. A safe space is needed.
Bill and his girlfriend Michaela enjoying the taxi service straight to the lineup. Pic – Laurie Hedges
A good surf coach must appreciate that surfing is unique and full of an infinite number of variables. It’s about instinct and intuition which are two things notoriously difficult to capture and teach. If tennis is physics then surfing is Braille. The feeling must first be recognised and then translated into movement. I am not entirely sure what compressing into a bottom turn feels like but a ‘sprinter in the blocks’ is a mental image I can draw on. Leading with my hands back into the white water on a cutback is good advice, but ‘throwing a rugby ball back into the foam’ is something I know the feeling of. Nuance like this can often be the difference between execution and frustration. Thinking ‘pass the ball’ is far easier than ‘legs bent, back straight, hands up, look and rotate.’ Surfing is the easy part, controlling your mind is the challenge.
Lower Trestles with no one out is a reasonable aspiration if you are a CT surfer, but for the Bills of this world it seems southern California probably doesn’t hold the answers. The Maldives, however, had been on my radar for a while. Gin clear tropical waters, proper reef breaks without being bum-clenchingly terrifying and hundreds of atolls of potentially untapped waves.
Any number of companies can put you on a boat and head between Stormrider Guide spots following the ‘bold stars’. You’ll be surfing good waves, yes, but along with everybody else. A surf travel company worth their stripes will put you in the right place at the right time without following the herd. I opted for a week long surf coaching trip in the Maldives.
Against all my natural instincts, my keys to progression were three-fold:
1. Lose thy ego
2. No wave is precious
3. Try things
A safe space on board our boat was established so that the opportunity to make a fool out of oneself was to be savoured and not feared. After your first video feedback session you quickly realise that any dreams of making a ‘sponsor me’ edit quickly fall to the wayside. Life then becomes a lot simpler. The feedback is multi-sensory; do this, feel that, see this, make it look like that. Video doesn’t lie, it allows you to appreciate beyond all reasonable doubt that your hands are indeed not up. The morning tips, constant in-water feedback and evening video sessions bring your learning and aptitude to levels previously unknown to the Bills of this world.
Surf coaching and video analysis go hand in hand. Pic – Laurie Hedges
Shoulder to head high peelers with cute fluffy little lip lines absolutely begging a spanking. Oh, and a tubular inside section… a surfers wet dream. Fortunately one glorious dawn in August this was the sight that greeted us from the top deck as I was rubbing my blurry eyes into focus. I only just managed to rescue the ball of saliva rolling over my chin soon to hit the deck, I was literally frothing. One of the perks of being a surfer is that every once in a while you get to pinch yourself. You’re not dreaming and you’re not thumbing through a magazine, you’re actually there. Those cliché school-book doodles, eternal mind-surfs and hours of procrastinating on Google Maps have led you to this point, now go and enjoy it. And just like the doodles, there was no one out. Let the rail work begin!
Later that day as the sun set, the light offshore ceased. The glass off went so oily I was scouring the horizon looking Shell Tankers that had run aground. Thankfully the day’s only casualties were courtesy of us Brits and our roasted backs. It gave new meaning to The Great British Bake Off.
Head high, glassy and just our group in the lineup. The perfect canvas for a surf coaching session. Pic – Laurie Hedges
After years of flogging away I’ve now come back with ‘new feelings’ and a bullet point list of things to work on. My head is clear and my froth levels high. Time for my first surf back in the real world.
Long Beach, Cape Town. My temporary home as I am working here in a local hospital. 2-3 foot slop and the Cape Doctor is blowing – the south easterly wind named locally as it is believed that it clears Cape Town of pollution and ‘pestilence’. The water is icy cold and there is a serious crew on the gutless surf. Despite this I am excited to surf and put what I have learnt into practice.
A wave comes my way, I paddle hard past a local seadog. I’m in… I hop to my feet and engage my inside rail straight into a highline. My speed is increasing, no slapping the nose of my board this time! The wave is only waist high, but zipping nicely towards the inside boulders. I compress and then extend, my arms are up and forward like a triple jumper’s. I have speed, plenty of it in fact. The section in front of me crumbles, I skip around it and lean into my turn, nose of the board to the beach and then crack it straight up… 12 o’clock, okay 11, alright 10, into the oncoming lip. Looks like it’s going to rain in Cape Town after all! Spray fills the air and I ride out of the close-out.
The tuning fork deep inside me is ringing loudly. I’m alive. Finally there it is, I can feel it, that warm fuzzy feeling… satisfaction. I quickly spin my head 360. Did anyone see it? Salty seadogs nodding in approval, groms throwing double shaka’s, maybe a few girls blushing on the beach. Nope. Just an old couple at the shoreline standing next to their golden retriever, mid-dump, clearly debating whose turn it is to pick up the mess.
So the question is, have I improved? In short, yes. Not only does it feel like I have, I can see I have. To concentrate on achieving a feeling rather than a bio-mechanical position is not only easier but is achieved with less thought and more flow. Understanding the why and not just the how has also proved vital in my process of attempted mastery. After years of trying I have began surfing more ‘top to bottom’. My only regret, why did I leave getting surf coaching for so long? So many wasted hours…
Coming back from a surf coaching trip actually doesn’t feel as dirty as I thought it might. I haven’t spent the week crawling Bangkok’s back alleys, I’ve been fine tuning my craft in the sun, with a little help. It feels great, empowering and most importantly, I am stoked to surf. I don’t have to go back to my local and wear an ‘I’m coached’ rash vest over my wetsuit. I am just a slightly more able Bill in the line up. It is no more or less a sport to me than it is to the next hairy chested, single-finned hipster. My experience in nature is unchanged. The only difference is I am now on a journey to ride each wave better than my last and that feels bloody good.
And for all the haters… nerd is the new jock. It’s cool to be a student once again and there’s no shame in that!
Home and transport during a week long surf coaching trip in paradise. Pic- Laurie Hedges
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