I’m Robin Zander, and you’re listening to Zander Strong, a podcast about movement in the modern world.
Today: the story of how I learned to surf, and the simple tactical steps that you can use to begin surfing right away.
It has been an eventful last couple of years! In February 2016 I came up with the idea to run a big event. In September 2016, having sold 250 tickets and raised sponsorship from the likes of Microsoft and Accenture, I put on the 1st Annual Responsive Conference. Somewhere in the middle, I also opened up a café.
Meanwhile, throughout this, I’ve maintained a physical practice. Over the years this has meant a variety of things: ballet, martial arts, gymnastics, other forms. At the end of August, I re-discovered surfing.
I grew up around the ocean, and first tried out a surfboard on a beach in Costa Rica in 2003. The board was terrible — waterlogged, the surf rough — but I’ve always planned on going back. I visited the San Francisco Bay Area’s Linda Mar beach this August, and have been out surfing almost every day for the last few months. Here are a few things I’ve learned.
Form Follows Function
I’ve long believed that “form follows function” meaning that good form — including posture, positioning, or physique — follows from the movements we do. What I haven’t explored before is how significantly my mental state follows from my physical practice.
Surfing can be scary, don’t get me wrong. But there are also long stretches of peace, sitting on a board out on the waves. Surfers don’t generally talk much — at least not to a newbie like me. And there is something inherently pacific about sitting on the ocean, looking for the next big wave.
September 21, 2016 was a big day for me. It was the day after my 250-person Responsive Conference. For more than 3 months I had worked 7 days a week to make sure that the event was a success, and throughout that time had practiced Thai Kickboxing — an aggressive martial form that I tackled in intense 50-minute bursts.
Walking into my fight gym the day after the conference, I was hit by the familiar smells of old sweat and testosterone. Leading up to my conference, the aggression of Thai Kickboxing was exactly what I needed to combat the intensity of my work. That afternoon, I was surprised how unappetizing they were. I realized I no longer needed such physical intensity, closed my account, and went surfing.
As I do when I become obsessed with a new physical form, I’ve read a lot. By far the most engaging book I’ve read is the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. This autobiography is a coming of age story about the author’s relationship with surfing, of waves from around the world, and about an addiction that I’ve just begun to explore.
Another little tool that has been incredible in learning the ins and outs of the surf scene is Surfline. This free app shares buoy data and live video feeds of prime surf spots. It has gotten so that when I ask a local about the surf at our favorite spot, he’s likely to say “Fair to Good,” quoting the app.
Even as a young surfer, just beginning to transfer to an intermediate board, I’m struck by how much catching waves and not falling off comes down to mindset. As I’ve grown more confident, I’ve attempted larger waves — 6ft, 8ft, even 12ft. In the moment that I’m looking down from the top a sheer face of water, if I can control my fear I’ll be alright. When I remain calm, I stay on top of my board and don’t get pummeled. But even on 3–4ft days, if I get frightened and let that emotion run unchecked, the wave lands on top of me. My mental and emotional state, in that fraction of a second, shape the entirety of the experience.
Even amidst some professional success, entering in an entirely new industry, and managing two teams totaling more than 15 employees, some of the most memorable moments in 2016 and 2017 have occurred on the waves.
In mid-September 2016, amidst 16-hour days of event planning and logistics, I stole a few hours on the surf. Pacifica was fogged in, and I could hear fog horns in the distance. The waves were breaking 50 meters offshore, and birds were circling further out.
After 30 minutes on the water, it became clear that the birds were circling with purpose, and looking closer I thought I could see something in the waves. Then, a whale breached. For the next hour, I let promising waves go by to catch glimpses of the mammoth of the sea, slowly making its way north.
As usual, when I find a new physical form, I’m enamored. Whether this new love affair lasts weeks or years, it is special and new.
How-To and Mental Resilience
There’s a moment of thrill when you catch a wave, whether that is a two foot wave or a ten. The moment when you go from moving at the speed of your own arm strokes to be carried along as fast as the wave can carry you. Sometimes I experience a moment of panic, other times I am so much in the zone – in flow – that there’s just bliss. Of all of the parts of surfing, I believe that catching waves is probably the most important for a novice surfer. Getting familiar with the moment of riding a wave and that transition from powering yourself to be carrying by the wave is the hardest to describe and the most essential to understand. That said, don’t try to put all of the pieces of surfing together your first day out. It is not important to catch a wave in the moment that it breaks and try to stand up and try to steer all in one go. Go out on a slow day and rather than try to swim out past the point where the waves are breaking, ride some of the chop after the wave has crashed and as the waves are coming in towards shore. I am no expert, but I recommend a beach break where surfers gather in an area where the ocean breaks onto a stretch of beach, so that you don’t also have to contend with rocky terrain, shallow rocks, or coral. It’ll become a common mantra, but don’t try to tackle all of the aspects of surfing, or any physical form, in one go. Instead, find that small step – in this case the feel of catching a wave – and work to understand that experience and hone that skill.
Close your eyes. Notice how you are sitting, standing, or lying at this moment. Notice how you feel. Imagine that you’re lying on your belly on a surfboard. There are seagulls above you, the sounds of the ocean around you. You are in the lineup which is the area where waves begin to break. You see a wave growing behind you, and you begin to paddle towards the shore. It’s big but not so big that you are scared. You look over your shoulder and see the wave behind you and paddle even more furiously until suddenly you are no longer moving yourself but you’re being carried on the wave downhill and very fast. It’s almost like the wave has slingshotted you down the face of the wave.
Here are a couple of pointers that will make your entry into surfing much easier.
- Start small. If you try to do every aspect at once, you’ll have no fun and won’t keep coming back for more. However, if you tackle small steps at a time, you’ll see much easier successes and begin to find the joy and the small victories that will keep you coming back.
- Don’t go out on a big day. As much fun as it is to surf big waves, even as a novice, start smaller. You don’t have to go out in your first couple of surf sessions on the biggest days in order to catch waves or even practice standing up. Instead, go out when the waves don’t look intimidating, and even try to surf waves that have already broken so you are really just riding the white water into shore. Even those experiences can give you a taste of the thrill of catching a big wave and learning to steer.
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