Making distinctions in surfing

I’ve been surfing on and off for probably 20 years, but am still completely incompetent. In some ways it’s been a lesson in how easy it is to remain ‘unconscious’, ‘unaware’ and consciously incompetent even when experiencing something for a looong time. I’m immensely appreciative that in the last few years my awareness has been expanded through training, conversations and books such that I can experience surfing to a whole different way. It’s opened a world that was there all along, but required the slightest shift in attention, intention and conditions to see, experience and interact with it.

The learning from this change in surfing awareness and skill crosses over with other aspects of life. It’s about always being aware of the the simple mechanism of mind, of making distinctions, and know that increasing skill comes with increasing awareness and increasing awareness comes from paying attention in a certain way…like being committed and curious enough to stare at, sit with, play with, or experiment with something fuzzy for as long as it takes until it is clear.

Surfing can seem superficially quite simple and can be experienced by those doing it as quite simple — paddle into the ocean, catch a wave, zoom along, repeat. And, like many activities, there’s actually a huge amount going on that you can’t ‘see’ until you are able to make those distinctions and appreciate the complexity. Surfing, like fighting, facilitating or relating involves an ’other’ that has generally understandable and predictable characteristics and forms, but is also completely unique. Just like one may never have exactly the same conversation twice, every single wave and surf is completely different. There’s a lot to be aware of, but I’ve spent a large proportion of my surfing life being quite unaware. Or, as Peter Ralston would say, with very ‘chunky’ understanding of what’s going on, compared to a more subtle and nuanced understanding.

Over the years a few things have greatly increased my awareness of distinctions that illuminate where and how I was unconsciously incompetent. Doing Cheng Hsin, and Tai Chi (even just through a course online), helped my surfing. Nick Carroll’s book ‘Surfing your Best’ is wonderful. Nick starts from a presumption that ‘Awareness’ and the ability to make clearer and clearer distinctions within previously ‘fuzzy experiences’ as the most most important ‘skill’ that will enable one to learn how to surf better. Talking to friends, and especially those that shape their own boards, has also been really helpful in understanding what’s really going on when you are surfing.

Below is a list of distinctions that I can now make, that I think were probably all pretty fuzzy, even up until a year or two ago. I’m listing these because it’s useful for me to try and articulate the distinctions, and also as a conversation starter and helper for others who enjoy surfing. The main elements that interact in surfing are water, a body and a board. So here are some examples of distinctions that an increased awareness has helped my surfing:

What is happening with the weather and water?

While growing up in Perth, all I cared about was whether it was offshore and was there swell…and maybe was the tide high or low. They were the only things I needed to consider when deciding to cycle down to go for a surf at the same spot I always surfed, and I would AWLAYS surf as early as I could in the morning, before the groyne became a surfing free zone at 7am. To a large degree I carried this thinking with me until relatively recently. My thinking was really ‘chunky’, as I didn’t make any distinctions between the variety of factors that can affect how meteorology, oceanography and geomorphology interact to create waves. Now I pay a LOT more attention to tide, exact direction of wind, wave period, swell direction and try to time the location and timing that’s going to result in the best conditions. No point in surfing early at the closest beach if waiting ’til midday and driving 10 minutes down the road.

Is my consciousness in my ‘head’ or on in my body? 

It’s easy to sit in the surf, thinking, watching, and for all my consciousness to be in my ‘head’. Then, when I see a wave, it can stay there. When I hop to my feet, I’m still trying to surf with my eyes, head, not with my feet and core. It’s easy to be out of syc, off-balance and also just less relaxed when in your head all the time! Surfing is not a conceptual construct, or intellectual debate, it is a physical act requiring feeling-awarenss.

How am I paddling?

Getting more waves and getting on to them earlier can make surfing more fun, and enable you to be a better surfer. I used to paddle with my fingers cupped together, with no awareness of body position or reach or how I was pulling or grabbing the water. I’d also stop paddling one or two strokes too early. Now, with adjustments to my fingers, reach, how I grab the water and how long I paddle for…. I get more waves, and get on to them earlier!

Where is my ‘centre’ and my weight?

Because the interface between your body and the water is a board, all the wiggling, wobbling and head-turning won’t change the direction of the board. Even thinking “I’m going to do a cutback” won’t shift the board on the water in a way that resembles the concept of a ‘cutback’. A slight shift in your centre, and your weight can, and will, make the board turn on a dime. So the distinction between weight in heels, toes, shifting towards the rear left quarter of the board compared to the front quarter is really important.

How is my board designed to be surfed?

I’ve tended to surf on the same board for years at a time, and it was a pretty standard design. Now I’m far more aware of how of volume distribution,  bottom curves, fin design and length can dramatically affect how a board is supposed to be ridden and in what conditions. It’s been a joy to talk with people like Josh, Dean and Stoney and start to get the language to explain what I’m feeling when riding different boards.


I could go on, but these are just a few examples of the distinctions that need to be made conceptually, but also experientially in my feeling-awareness in order to be a better surfer.


I’m also pretty excited about adding another layer of complexity and more distinctions once I start doing some kitesurfing on waves, this summer!


  1. Nice read. I think that surfing probably has the right balance of challenge and reward to make it addictive. That improvement curve that just never appears to stop is probably a good thing. There’s lots of skills that we all learn in life (obviously) and I feel that my improvement curve starts to taper or flatten as time goes on. But surfing is different, in my short two year surfing career, so far I feel that my curve is perhaps getting steeper which is making it even more rewarding. If it was super easy I probably would have got boored by now.

    A great read is “The Surfer’s Mind” by Richard Bennett. He was my sport psych for skiing for a couple of years, but his specialty is Surf Psychology.

    Catchya out there soon.

    1. Hey Chris, thanks again for this sharing and book recommendation. Apologies for not seeing and approving the comment at the time! I’ll check out Richard’s book, for sure.

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