I’ve been asked, “What do you think about my kid’s surfing?” and “Do you think they can become a pro?” many times over the past three decades.
As Surfing Australia’s former head coach, parents have come to me from far and wide wanting to know where their child fits in the talent spectrum. Although difficult provide a definitive answer about the long-term potential of a grom, there are certainly indicators that suggest they could develop into successful professionals. What follows are my observations from coaching successful surfers over the past 30 years.
Is the surfer accomplished in other sports besides surfing? In other words, are they the star of their junior soccer team? An accomplished tennis player? Or a successful track athlete? If they are good at sports, no matter which sport, they have inherent athleticism. With that they have the potential to become a good surfer.
Secondly, is the surfer able to learn quickly? Surfers who have the ability to learn new skills quickly are surfers who can achieve at the highest levels. This trait, of course, isn’t just limited to surfing. During my tenure as Surfing Australia’s head coach, I participated in conferences with Australia’s Olympic sports. All coaches agreed, bar none, that the ability to learn quickly is one of the most relevant predictors to future high-level athletic success. Leading Women’s World Tour competitor Sally Fitzgibbons is the fastest learner I have coached, which has undoubtedly contributed significantly to her international success.
Does the child surf daily, irrespective of the quality of the surf? I remember coaching a WCT surfer one day. The surf was 1-2 feet, junky, and onshore. As the surfers were changing, he excitedly commented on the waves, eager to get out there. Here was this WCT surfer who surfs J-Bay, Pipeline, and Snapper (among many other world-class waves) and he was still getting excited about a crumbly, one-foot wave. The surfer replied, “Mate, I just love to surf. I don’t care what it’s like. I’m out there.”
Does he or she love what they do? Are they self-motivated? Can they get themselves out of bed to go surfing? If the surfer lacks motivation to surf, they aren’t showing the passion necessary to become an elite surfer.
Are they able to let go of their mistakes? Surfers who swear, slap the water, or kick out aggressively can be consumed by their mistakes, adversely affecting the way they perform. Surfers who react appropriately, on the other hand, are similarly disappointed with a mistake, but they quickly wash it off, paddle back out, and try again, knowing that with focus and determination they will get it the next time.
Surfers who can paddle out and position themselves confidently in the ocean catch more waves and aren’t easily intimidated by what the ocean throws at them. Those who challenge themselves in larger, more powerful surf display more confidence. Those who surf powerful waves provide a good indicator for future success. Similarly, those young surfers who catch good quality waves in the face of hierarchal pecking orders that are seen in most waves show a level of maturity that is a great indicator of success.
Arguably the most important indicator of a future professional is their true surfing ability. Does the surfer possess a naturally pleasing style? Surfers who surf with flow and show control are looked at favorably while surfing. The development of a pleasing style primarily comes from time spent in the water and a surfer’s natural athletic ability. Surfers who aren’t as naturally gifted can improve their style by working on creating good surfing technique through training while overcoming style deficiencies in the process.
When performing their maneuvers, does the surfer perform full and complete maneuvers? Surfers ahead of their peers in terms of performance can perform maneuvers that show depth off the bottom and height off the top as they surf down the line. When the wave goes flat, they perform full cutbacks, rebounding off the foam and surf rail-to-rail to maintain their speed and flow.
Does the surfer have a high success rate when finishing their waves? Surfers I’ve coached that have qualified for the World Tour have, from an early age, taken pride in finishing all their waves to the bitter end. For them, it was the whole performance that mattered, not three quarters of the performance with a poor ending. Many young surfers compromise their performance by not passionately caring about finishing successfully.
Is the surfer a natural-born competitor? If the surfer isn’t motivated to compete and doesn’t pursue the contests available, then this is a probable sign the parent is the main driving force, which isn’t always the best approach in the long-term. A good sign for future success is when you observe a surfer who loves to compete in all aspects of their life. Kelly Slater is famous for being the ultimate competitor, in and out of the water. To ultimately be successful on the international stage you have to love competing and testing yourself against the best opposition you can find.
Does the surfer make excuses after a loss? Sure, surfers can be disappointed after losing, but they should be realistic about their losses. What I know is that a big part of learning how to win, is learning how to lose. Having the ability to realistically assess why you lost is as important as when a surfer advances to open competition. Winning just gets harder to achieve, so dealing with loses needs to be done in a mature manner.
In conclusion, surfers who rank highly when assessed using the indicators above have what I call a superior “blank canvas.” Long-term success is not a given, of course, but the potential is certainly there for future high-level performance. If a surfer has missing components in their makeup, all areas of performance can be improved and trained once a surfer is aware of those deficiencies. In one sense, ranking low in a particular aspect of performance can be a good thing to know in a surfer’s early years, as the deficient skills or attitudes can be targeted and worked upon sooner rather than later in a career.
The former is an extract from my online course “Developing Talented Surfers: An Australian Perspective.” Check it out atwww.martindunn.com.au.