The Learning Curve In Surfing - The Truth In How To Actually Improve Your Surfing Consistently

(Please note - in this article I am talking about developing your technique - not becoming more comfortable surfing in bigger waves, as that is a different strategy.)

This is my favourite type of article to write about because the ideas I cover in here can basically be applied to everything in life. Become aware, help and educate yourself, fail, try again, learn to love the process, and keep on going.

When you first start surfing, although it can be challenging, it feels as though progress can be made in leaps and bounds.

In almost every session there is something valuable that you are able to pick up, and stringing all of your new found wisdom together can be addictive, and really rewarding!

Upon your first lesson or session, just getting to your feet is a massive achievement. A few sessions later, you are starting to get the hang of paddling into waves and catching them by yourself. There is so much to learn, and you pick it up fast.

This rapid improvement in your surfing feels amazing. Its really satisfying, learning the ropes of a sport so challenging, and when you feel like you are progressing, surfing is that much more fun.

But what happens when you have been surfing for a few years and that rapid learning curve has seemed to slow?

Although surfing is still fun, it can be frustrating when you feel like you aren’t getting any better, despite spending some serious time in the ocean, and having the best intentions.

The learning curve of surfing is very steep - until it isn't. This is where we need to put in the hard work to improve our surfing, once we plateau.

Surfing Consciously Verse Unconsciously

You know when you are bad at something but you don’t know that you are bad so you continue on in this state of bliss? Yeah, its kind of nice in a false, innocent way, but that is not how you are going to improve your surfing.

To improve at anything in life you need to have a realistic view of where you are, and where you want to go.

If you don't know what you are working with, how can you expect yourself to make improvements?

Improving your surfing is going to be an incremental process. Improvement is almost never linear, and sometimes it feels like you may go backwards before you go forwards, but that is normal and to be expected.

Unconscious Surfing

This is surfing with no real goal in mind. Its not really knowing how you surf. Its not really understanding how your movements, big or small, affect your performance in the surf.

They do.

Just the smallest change in how you move your arms, or where your gaze is headed can make a huge difference in the amount of speed you can create, or the amount of rotation you can get from a turn.

Unconscious surfing is just surfing as you always have, without questioning yourself, or your movements. Why do you always stuff up your cutbacks? Why do you seem to always nose dive on steeper waves? An unconscious surfer just shrugs their shoulders and carries on, hoping things will magically improve.

Whilst this is fine, and its great to not over analyse, a certain level of awareness and inquiry will go a long way.

Think - an unconscious surfer reacts to the wave, a conscious surfer is pro active on the wave.

Conscious Surfing.

This is basically having awareness of how you surf and move, and being consistent with making a game plan on how to improve upon it.

This is why coaching is so helpful.

Having somebody help you to identify where your movements could be maximised is incredibly beneficial. To see how you are surfing, and then to have a coach give you direct instructions on how to better your technique is the most powerful and efficient way of improving.

However, you don't always have to work with a coach.

If you have the capacity to notice yourself which movements were not effective, and then have the energy and confidence to explore new movements on your own, then this is fantastic.

This type of trial and error surfing is going to hold you in great stead. It requires however, a level of self awareness, and discipline.

The Golden Recipe

Either with a coach, or through the trial and error strategy (ideally both) there are 3 things you need to start improving your technique.

1. Consistency and practice (with awareness)

2. To be working at a moderate rate of challenge

3. Self Belief


There is no way around it, over it, or under it - you need to be surfing consistently. Surfing consistently allows you to become comfortable in the water, in your body and on your board. If you are surfing a lot, things become smoother and easier - your muscle memory is in full swing and you can now focus on other, more challenging aspects of your surfing.

Having a realistic picture of how you surf and how your body interacts with the wave and the board - in combination with slowly building upon and trailing out new movements and techniques is how you start to make progress towards better surfing.

Note I said slowly, which is another reason consistency is so important if you want to get traction. Its basic math - try something new and succeed 2/10 times? You need to spend a bit of time before this new pattern becomes 10/10.

When trying to build new habits it is obvious that doing something once won't make it stick. Repetition, repetition, repetition is what is going to build new ways of surfing ( another note - make sure you are solid in your technique otherwise you will get really good at doing the wrong thing - I talk about this later.)

Moderate challenge level

There are so many different factors in surfing. This can make it really hard to start to progress because things are always changing! It is so hard to have the capacity to start to work on your goals and push yourself, when you are already being challenged by a difficult element (think huge swell, new spot with rocks, heavy crowd.)

If you are wanting to have a "surf improvement session" then try and do it in conditions where you already feel comfortable - so you can channel your energy most efficiently.

This is why I encourage people to go out and surf shitty, small waves - no crowd, and lots of opportunity to practice one thing consistently.

When surfing, it is best to focus on one thing at a time, otherwise the task can become overwhelming. For example - "this session is all about working on my pop up - anything else is a bonus." Be disciplined and don't get carried away with the idea of doing everything at once - it simply won't work.

Self Belief.

This is pretty explanatory. If you genuinely don't think you can do something - good luck! If you are thinking - how do I just develop self belief? This brings me to my next point. Developing self belief can be a little bit of a 'fake it till ya make it' type thing, and a little bit of a change in thinking towards failure.

Becoming Friends With Failure

Failure is feedback - nothing more. Failing guides us to believe that what we did, didn't work - and thats ok. We are now one step closer to doing it right!

In surfing, failure, eg going over the falls, nose diving, falling on a turn, is telling us that something in the equation wasn't quite right. Wether that was positioning, timing, weight distribution, or something else.

This is one reason why surfing is so hard, because there are so many possible variables to muck up on, but that is why it feels so amazing when we get that good wave - we, for one moment, mastered them all.

Expecting to fail on your surfing journey is realistic. The more you embrace this fact, the more fun the learning process will become.

Try and see failure as a redirection, rather than being really hard on yourself for stuffing it up "again."

This sequence below is a redirection, a reminder, that on windy days, one extra paddle is needed!

The Importance Of Working Off Strong Foundations.

Another thing that I think is really important to mention in this article is the importance of working off strong foundations.

By strong foundations, I mean having correct, unshakable technique in the foundational movements of surfing such as...

- Paddle technique

- The pop up

- Bottom turns

- Speed generation

- Stance

If you try and get all fancy without having strong foundations in place I genuinely believe they will come back to bite you. Well, maybe not bite you, but I do believe the cracks will begin to show at some point in your surfing, wether that is starting to falter in steeper waves, not being able to keep up when the waves get faster, or even developing injuries.

Having strong foundations means that you can build confidently in your technique to produce fluid and powerful surfing later on down the track.

Maybe you have overlooked one of these fundamentals? It is never too late to go back and work on them. It will be helpful in the long run, even if you feel a little silly doing it.

In Conclusion

Surfing is really hard.

But that is why we love it and why it is so damn addictive. If it were easy, you wouldn't be reading this article.

Here is a breakdown of the sequencing to improving your surfing

Step 1.

Gain some self awareness. See what you are doing well, and what can be improved - with honesty.

Step 2.

Work with a coach to direct you to do more effective movement patterns or self inquire into your surfing and figure out what you may need to change. Write it down even - make it clear.

Step 3.

Find some conditions in which you feel you have the capacity to focus on this new movement(s) Conditions where you are not overwhelmed.

Step 4.

Try and do the new movement, at the appropriate time, consistently. You may need to play around with this for a while. Note - this is the part that requires some failure, lots of patience, perseverance, self compassion and belief. (Yeah I know, it's hard.) It helps if you can get filmed along the way to show yourself progress. Again, in this stage, try and work on one thing at once.

Step 5.

Once you feel like you have the desired movement - keep doing it. Do the new movement so much until you barely have to think about it anymore. This may take a few sessions to a few months.

Step 6.

Repeat the process with something else you want to work on. Welcome to surf progression - we always want to get better and the drive never stops.

By now you have probably realised that this cycle never ends, unless you no longer want to improve. Rather than getting upset by this ,it is best to embrace it. This desire is what keeps us coming back, keeps us looking for the next best wave to surf even better than before.

I hope you found this article helpful. I like to keep my coaching honest and realistic, but most importantly, fun. Fun is key in this process. Learning to love the process is really important, even though at times it will be frustrating and you may question what this whole surfing thing is about.

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