SURF STORY PART II
“The important thing in the Olympic Games is not the winning but the taking part. The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”
– Pierre De Coubertin, Founder of the Olympic Games
EMBRACING THE CONDITIONS
1. MAP: WATCH AND LEARN
SLAMMED ON THE BEACH
After spending four weeks putting together a plan to surf in the ocean, I made my first attempt in Malibu and found out that the conditions were much more challenging than I had anticipated, my surf skills were severely lacking, and I had not thought about the risks until I was almost drowning in the Pacific Ocean. Once I was safe and back on the beach, I sat there for a while, thinking about what had just happened and where I went wrong in my planning process. On paper, my plan was solid. But in reality, the conditions were much more challenging than I had expected. I wanted to salvage my first surf attempt, learn something from the experience, and then build some momentum for the next time I paddled out into the water. I watched the other surfers who were having success and noticed a specific set of steps that the surfers would take to catch a wave. As I watched and learned, I broke down the process and mapped out what the good surfers were doing.
THE SURFER’S JOURNEY
The good surfers would all take a similar journey to catch a wave. It started with preparation on the beach. Surfers would stop on the beach just before entering the water, prep their gear and board, and also spend a few minutes navigating the conditions and developing their path to enter the water. In Malibu, I noticed surfers would enter the water at either the south end or the north end of the beach. They would paddle around the outside of the incoming waves and into the line- up. The indirect route to the line-up took much less effort and was much safer, and surfers had no need to duck under the incoming waves. Once in the line-up, surfers would sit or lay on their boards in a relaxed and comfortable position, scanning the horizon for breaking waves. Surfers were exerting very little effort and using this time to catch their breath from paddling and stay calm as they waited for waves.
EMBRACING THE CONDITIONS
Surfers were constantly navigating the waves and embracing the changing ocean conditions. Waves or no waves, surfers stayed in the water and were as close to the line-up as possible. When things got hairy and large sets of waves came through, the surfers dealt with the risks or the new challenge and then went right back to maintaining their position in the line-up. There were times when large sets rolled through and cleared the line-up, but within a few minutes, the surfers were back into position and ready for the next wave. As waves came in, surfers would either try to catch them or steer clear of the waves they couldn’t handle. They would repeat this process over and over throughout their time in the water and embrace whatever change in the conditions came their way. The good surfers made it look easy and showed the experience they had accumulated over the years of being in the water, embracing the conditions and learning where to look for opportunities to catch waves.
2. MEASURE: FIND OPPORTUNITIES
As I watched the surfers and mapped their journey, I started to gain confidence in my knowledge about the conditions and decided that I had enough information to try surfing again. I grabbed my board, walked down to the far end of the beach, and paddled around the outside of the impact zone toward the line-up. Working my way out to the line-up, I took small and calculated steps. I just tried to do one thing at a time and focused on staying calm, safe, and measured with my actions. As I paddled, I tried to be as efficient as possible and only exerted as much effort as was needed to keep me moving. I stopped to take breaks on my way to the line-up and either sat on my board or would lay down flat on my stomach. Just like the surfers I had watched from shore, I scanned the horizon for waves and also took non-verbal cues from my fellow surfers who were watching for the incoming waves as well. I was able to make my way into the line-up and stayed just on the edge of where the other surfers were and also where waves were breaking.
Watching the line-up from the beach, I remembered seeing an informal process for catching waves. It was a first-come, first-serve process, and “snaking” someone else’s wave who had been waiting in the line-up was a bad idea. Paddling into waves when it wasn’t your turn was an easy way to upset the other surfers. In the line-up, I was patient, respected the space of other surfers, and waited for waves that were at my skill level—not too big and not too small, but enough of a challenge where I could make an attempt at paddling in and try to catch a wave. During this part of the process, I sometimes stayed away from waves. If they were too big, or if a surfer had caught the wave further up in the line-up, I would paddle out of the way, trying to be as respectful as possible and also keep myself safe. Once other surfers in the line-up noticed my etiquette toward the group, there were some surfers who were helpful and threw out suggestions, warning me if a wave was “outside” and helping me to a safe area if I got trapped in the impact zone.
As I started to make progress with the small steps, I noticed that I was better understanding how the waves were breaking. I was better at managing the conditions. My paddling and pop-up onto my board started to improve. I could see how I was measuring up to the other surfers. I was actually participating in the process of catching waves, which was a huge improvement from my first attempt, where I spent most of my time trying to keep my head above water. It was helpful to watch others and to learn from what they were doing, but there were also things I just picked up or figured out intuitively on my own. As I tested myself and failed, I started to learn what would work and what would not. I focused on the areas where I was having success and repeated the process until I was catching waves. I was using the other surfers in the conditions as a guide or a way to measure where I was and where I was having success.
3. PROCESS: REPEATABLE PROCESS
TEST, FAIL, LEARN
The more time I spent in the water, the more I understood what was happening around me. I went through the same process each time I was ready to catch a wave and took the same steps to work my way back to the line-up and in position for the next wave. I was testing myself, learning a few new things each time, and figuring out the best approach to use. I tested myself with bigger waves and explored different positions in the line-up. The more new knowledge I accumulated, the easier it became to recognize patterns that were happening in the water. I was building new skills and leveraging what I learned each time I tried to surf another wave. Prior to this second attempt, I was thinking irrationally about things such as sharks, jellyfish, and monster waves sending me to the bottom of the ocean floor. After being in the water and becoming more comfortable with the conditions, I thought less and less about the dangers associated with what I was doing and more and more about my performance and what I was trying to accomplish.
My knowledge related to the conditions started to build, and I was reacting to the conditions without thinking about what I was doing. I would reach certain parts of the shallows and realize that I had been through this spot before, I could stand here, or a certain area had more rocks than others. Or I recognized that a good surfer had a chance of catching an approaching wave and that I should probably stay out of the way. By spending more and more time in the water, I started to build new knowledge or what surfers refer to as wave knowledge. The wave knowledge I was acquiring grew my confidence, and I could see that my skills were starting to progress as well. Even though I had spent so much time participating in boardsports over the years and was pretty good compared to most people, I was still building new surfing skills, and as the conditions became more challenging, the skills I needed to learn were more demanding.
As I repeated the process of paddling into the line-up and catching waves, I learned something new each time and continued to expand on these new skills I was building. My swimming and paddling needed the most improvement. To help with this skill, I watched other surfers and noticed they would lift their feet out of the water and not let them drag behind. This took some effort and a good amount of core strength since you could not use your legs to balance in the water behind you. It created less drag and faster paddling speeds, but was much harder. I had a fellow surfer give me some pointers on my paddling. He made a gesture to me and pointed to his arms for me to watch. With fully outstretched arms, he was thrusting into the water and pulling himself along the water instead of slapping at it. After trying to catch a few more waves using what I had learned and feeling much better about my second attempt, I decided that this would be enough for today and that I had some new knowledge and skills to build on.
ADOPTING A PROGRESSION-BASED MINDSET
1. SKILLS: CHANGED MY MINDSET
The new approach that I took was to use a repeatable process where I was embracing what was happening and trying to progress my skills each time I caught a wave. Getting back into the water and risking my life to surf again helped me change my mindset about how I could improve. After my first attempt, I learned what skills I had, where my skill gaps were, and which skills I needed to improve. I didn’t know I was deficient in these areas until I tested myself in the conditions. I embraced the conditions and did my best, even in the face of what, for me, was an extreme risk at the time. During my second attempt, it was easy to see that I was no Laird Hamilton, and I would most likely not pursue a professional career in surfing, but this challenging experience helped me to learn what I needed to improve. I took the new knowledge that I had gained and used it as a way to build up my identified new skills for my next attempt.
Before I started to build my new surf skills, I really had to change my mindset about what I thought I was good at and the kind of skills I needed to develop. Going into the first attempt, I was overly confident in my boardsport abilities and thought my past experience would be a strength in surfing. However, I soon realized that what I thought I was good at was only partly transferrable to the sport of surfing and that the conditions were far more challenging than I had anticipated. After floundering around in the ocean and then slowly working to build some new skills with my second attempt, I needed to assess what next set of skills I would acquire if I was going to try surfing again. I identified the new skills to build and realized they were not a natural part of the boardsports I had done over the years—specifically, my arm strength for swimming and paddling, my breathing, and having the total body strength to pop up quickly and stand on a board.
COMMITMENT TO CHANGE
I knew I would have to change my mindset about these skills and commit to building them if I was going to be successful. The new skills were swimming and paddling, and I had spent little to no time ever developing these areas for surfing. Without access to an ocean or a pool, I realized I would need to be creative if I wanted to find opportunities to build these skills. I was committed to working on these aspects of my skill development and knew that if I could improve my swimming, my next attempt would be a much better experience. I developed ways to build my arm strength without a pool and also worked on my breathing to help my swimming. I would need to be able to stay underwater, holding my breath, for extended periods of time. After this assessment, I also needed to do more training that would build more total body strength. Again, without access to true surf conditions, I knew it would be challenging to do, but I was committed to figuring out how I could start to build these new skills.
2. INVEST: WORKED ON SKILLS GAPS
After my assessment, I realized immediately that my swimming skills and paddling were pretty poor. Well, actually, non-existent. Not having spent much time in the ocean, I learned to swim in pools, and most of the recreational swimming I did was in a lake at the family cabin. Even then, I was swimming only a few feet and not doing it for survival. Needless to say, swimming in a lake or pool is much different than the ocean. You have controlled conditions for both, and with pools you have lifeguards watching over the swimmers. In the ocean, for the most part, you are on your own. To build my arm strength, specifically my swimming and paddling capabilities, I tried to practice the motions first and then worked on trying to recreate the conditions. I practiced the skills on dry land first and would then try in either a lake or pool. I used a wakesurf board or a stand-up paddleboard in the water, and I would simulate the surf techniques of paddling and try popping up.
In addition to my arm strength, I knew I would have to improve my breathing as well, which included my swim cardio and my ability to hold my breath underwater. During my first attempt at Malibu, I got caught in the impact zone and took multiple waves on top of my head. After being held under by multiple waves and not being able to take a full breath, I really struggled to stay calm and relax in the water. Not only did I struggle cardio-wise when I was paddling and swimming, but I was not able to hold my breath for extended periods of time. In building my new skills, I started to work on my breathing and being more comfortable in the water. I was mindful of my breathing while working on my swimming and paddling, but I also worked on my breathing while building my arm strength on dry land, trying to coordinate my breathing with my arm strokes and being conservative with my air. Building my lung strength took time and effort, but I knew this was an investment I had to make if was going to improve my surfing.
TOTAL BODY STRENGTH
As my breathing got better, and I was able to hold it for longer periods of time, I started to work on my ability to pop up or stand up on a board. Completing a pop-up on a surfboard takes balance, but it also takes total body strength since the motion or action is a single maneuver using your upper body, core, and lower body to move from a prone position to a standing position. What makes this move even more challenging is having to do it on a moving wave that is pushing you a few miles per hour over rocks and reefs and past other surfers. It’s a physical maneuver, but it takes a lot of mental focus. I practiced the pop-up on flat ground first and then moved to a BOSU ball before trying an old surfboard in the water to get the action down. The paddling and breathing were challenging enough, but the pop-up proved to be much harder than I thought and even tougher when trying to do it on the water.
3. CHANGE: MANAGED THE PROCESS
Having identified three main areas that I wanted to focus on and starting to work on each of them in practice, I realized I would need to put together a more formal plan for my training. I developed a program that I could use to focus specifically on building my upper body strength, breathing, and ability to do a pop-up onto my board. Since these were skills that I would be building for the first time, I knew they would be a challenge and were not natural things for me to do. They were slightly alien to me because of my lack of real surf experience, and it would take some effort to learn. I would also not have the context needed to reinforce them—real surf conditions. But I knew that having my mindset in the right place and trying to create the right context with what I had available would be helpful. After putting my training program together, I came up with some easy ways that I could test what I was working on and use other boardsports to recreate the surf training.
Even though I couldn’t train in the ocean every day, I could simulate the actions of paddling, swimming, and breathing by doing some complementary fitness activities. I would also need to do other boardsports if I was going to make the most of my training. I mapped out a full year with a training calendar and broke down each of the seasons by boardsport discipline. In the fall, I could skateboard. In the winter, I could snowboard. During the spring and summer, I could wakesurf, wakeboard, and wakeskate. I had enough boardsport options to recreate a surf context and use the sports to bridge the gap between my training and my next attempt at surfing. I focused on getting my mindset to a place where I was learning new skills and capabilities, including better balance and agility on a board.
Having identified the boardsports that I had access to and adding them to my training plan, I now had a full-year plan to build new skills. I worked on these skills by creating opportunities for daily practice. I would have to make an intentional effort toward the new skills every day, even if just for a few minutes or an hour. This approach would help me to progress my training and also make a big improvement in my surfing the next time I went out. My weekly calendar was organized so that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I worked on my upper body, lower body, and total body workouts. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday I did whatever boardsport was in season at the time. The goal was to focus on the areas I had identified as opportunities for improvement, using the training program to keep me focused and to manage the change process.
USING RISK AS A COMPASS
1. RISK PLAN: PLANNED FOR RISK
LOWER THE BAR
By training and participating in boardsports on a regular basis, I was able to build my new skills. I kept trying to improve my skills and abilities each time I trained, but I focused on progression and doing more reps from session to session. If I did 50 arm paddles on the ground, I would then try to do 50 on a BOSU ball. If I did 75, then I would try for 100. This was a great way to lower the bar for risk since I was progressively increasing how challenging I made the training. I also found that the more strength training I did, the more risk I could explore with the boardsports. These two areas fed into each other. When I was training in the gym, I was able to work on skills that I could use in my next wakeboarding session. I could plan for what I would do the next time I was out on my board, using what I did in the last training session to lower the bar and take on more risk when I was on my board.
PLANNED FOR RISK
Instead of doing the same wakeboard routine or the same set of tricks, I would plan in advance what my next set of tricks would be. I planned for the possible risks with each new trick and worked within the new parameters I set in order to build the next new skill. The biggest challenge was not the physical aspects of the training, but when my training would plateau or I would hit a stretch where I was not moving forward. It was frustrating, and my progression seemed to stall. In those situations, I would plan for how I could progress, even if by just a few small steps. It was hard to bridge the gap from where I was to where I wanted to go. In order to get there, I really had to think about the smallest next step I could take. Some new skills seemed out of reach at first, but as I mapped out how I would build each new skill, I started to close the gap and move closer each time I tried something new.
RISK VS. PROGRESSION
The risk began to increase when I stretched myself or when my training did not support what I was trying to do on the board. I had to balance the risk with the progression and figure out for myself, “How can I try this and not hurt myself? What’s an easy way for me to move forward while minimizing the risk I’m exposing myself to, but still trying something new?” This took planning, some forethought, and a few extra steps at times to move forward. But as long as I was progressing and learning from what I was doing, the whole process informed future training and the skills I was building at the time. The training program helped me to manage the process, but there were also times when I had to set it aside if something I was trying was not working. Again, my mindset was focused on progression and moving forward, and if that was not happening, then I had to become creative and test new ideas before putting them into practice.
2. PROTOTYPE: TRIED NEW THINGS
The more I trained and made progress, the stronger and more confident I became with what I was doing. At some point, I would need to put my training and planning into action, so I looked for ways that I could prototype the paddling, the pop-up on water, and everything that I had been working on while training. I wanted to test myself in action, but in a safe environment where the risk was low. So I prototyped my paddling by renting a stand-up paddleboard at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. The rental shop was a short walk from my place, it was inexpensive to rent a board, and I could work on my balance on a larger board as well as drop down to my stomach and simulate paddling on the water. The lake was calm, and I had the shoreline to shelter me from the wind and large sailboats. It was an easy, low-risk way I could prototype the training—specifically the paddling.
After prototyping my paddling on the water, I needed to pilot my pop-up. The pop-up was a tricky maneuver on dry land and even harder on the water. It’s a combination of using upper body strength, balance, and good timing to pop yourself up at the right moment, landing squarely on your board and in the right position. I needed to pilot this move in a risk-free environment, but also needed to progress beyond a static gym floor. I did this behind my boat when I was wakesurfing, on a bigger lake this time—Lake Minnetonka. The next time I went out, instead of starting from a sitting position, as I would for wakeboarding, I lay down on the board as I would for ocean surfing. When I got pulled into the wave, I threw the rope and popped myself up like I would on a surfboard. After a few attempts, I started to learn the maneuver and was successful in getting myself up and into the wave.
After prototyping my paddling and using a wakeboard boat to pilot my pop-up, I needed a way to test what I had learned, but in real surf conditions. I wanted to test my new skills but avoid exposing myself to a large amount of risk. I decided to take a trip to Orlando, Florida, and visit Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water theme park. This man-made wave would be as close as I could get to real surfing without having to get back into the ocean. I would not need to worry about the dangers of the ocean and could focus on my surfing by putting what I had learned into action. I could repeatedly test my paddling, breathing, and pop-up in real surf-like conditions. At Typhoon Lagoon, I tested what I had been working on and got a feel for what it was like to paddle into a breaking wave, gain momentum from the wave itself, and then pop up to ride down the face of it. Testing what I learned was helpful and gave me new knowledge that would help me to close the gap on my new skills before I made my second attempt in the ocean at Malibu.
3. REWARD: TOOK ON RISK
After spending a full year working on my new surf skills and prototyping as well as testing those skills in practice, I needed to reward myself for the progress I made and go back to Malibu for another attempt. After my first experience a year prior, I knew the logistics and basics of traveling to the beach and how to put myself in a position to catch waves. I had spent some time building up the new skills that I lacked my first time out, but putting this trip together was easier the second time around, and I felt more confident about going out into the water. Kate even decided to join me again, and we planned to spend two full days at Malibu, giving ourselves plenty of time to catch a wave or two. This time around, having learned from the first experience, we also brought our own gear, including full-body wetsuits and boots, and rented the bigger, easier-to- ride soft-top boards.
Kate was very adventurous and had no problem getting right into the ocean. We were already at an advantage, based on what I had learned from my previous attempt, and having a second person there added to my confidence and also just made it a lot more fun. I was able to test what I had prototyped and piloted back on the ground (and in the water) in Minnesota. But this time, I was in the ocean. Right away, I noticed a major difference in my abilities. Not only did I have the knowledge about what was happening in the conditions and with the waves, but I also had the skills to back it up. My paddling was more measured and intentional. I was able to conserve energy between waves and stay relaxed on my board. Being calm allowed me to focus on being in the best position to catch waves. Because I was more confident in my skills, I was able to spend less time and energy managing the conditions and more time using my new skills to surf. I knew that whatever kind of wave came rolling in, there was a good chance I was going to ride it.
After spending two full days in the water, chasing wave after wave, both Kate and I were satisfied with our efforts and our time spent back in Malibu. We were both able to paddle in and stand up on some waves. Overall, this was a much better outing than my previous first attempt. I still had a lot of room for improvement, but at the end of the last day, I walked out of the water and looked back at the ocean from the beach. I took a few moments to reflect on what I had experienced this second time, and that feeling from my first attempt of being slammed on the beach was gone. The return to Malibu and the formal testing of my new mindset and skills felt as if all the hard work had paid off. I felt forward movement and a sense of progression. Even Malibu didn’t seem as big or as dangerous as before. The goal was not to be the best in the water that day, but not to be broken by the conditions—to change how I viewed my skills and how I explored new challenges in the face of risk. This second attempt would serve as the genesis for the changes I would make in my professional life as well.
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