Surfing has a profound impact on the most important aspects of life. It is more than just a sport. Its many aspects will affect your character in ways you can’t imagine, until you paddle out and face the waves.
Sports has always been an important part of my life. You’d find me every other day in the gym or out for a run, no matter what. From my late teens on out, I practiced martial arts, which I’ve always found very exciting.
Being fit and strong feels good. It makes you feel happy and confident, and you mentally fire on all cylinders constantly. It’s the one thing that affects every single aspect of life. When you slack off, you notice it in everything I do.
All sports are great, but surfing is something entirely different.
Surfing is one of my favorite things in life, and I’ve only done it for the very first time when I was twenty-nine years old. I fell for it in a different way than any other sport. It’s on the same level as my love for playing the guitar.
My age definitely had to do with that. You simply pay attention to different things in your late twenties than when you’re a kid, or even when you’re twenty-two or twenty-five.
I understand why surfing is almost a cult, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
Surfing has always been something that I wanted to get into. I never ended up doing it because of my location: The Netherlands. It’s a nice enough country, but there’s not much surfing going on down there for a reason. We don’t have a lot of waves, and to put it bluntly, the weather sucks most of the time.
When I landed in Australia early 2016, one of the first things I did was signing up for a “surfing-bootcamp”.
The location of “Surf Camp Australia” was about a three hour bus-ride south of Sydney at Seven Mile Beach.
The camp had around 30 people divided into two groups. There were around five instructors present. Everyone slept in small, open cabins that had four bunk-beds. These cabins surrounded the area where we would receive instructions, eat, and hang out.
Every day looked like this for five days in a row (in hindsight, I wish I’d signed up for their 7-day package):
- Eat a fantastic breakfast filled with real energy (eggs, bacon, hash-browns, vegetables, fruit)
- Get tips and instructions accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, and Q & A afterwards
- Chill out & have coffee for an hour or two
- Do a good warm-up
- Surf for two hours
- Have a decent lunch, but not too heavy
- Hang out for half an hour
- Put the wetsuit back on and surf for another two hours
- Stretch & cool down
- Take a nice, hot shower
- Put some relaxing clothes on
- Have a huge, healthy, delicious dinner. They would have things like BBQ, pasta, or soup. Everyone ate like animals every night, and there was always plenty.
- Hang out, talk, or play cards or Jenga. Drink some beers, but not too much.
- Sleep like a baby
The first half of the first day, we all practiced the moves on the beach. How to paddle, to roll under a wave while paddling out, to wait for a wave, to catch a wave, to stand up after catching it, to steer after standing up, and to minimize the chances of getting hurt when wiping out.
The second half of the first day, we went out for the first time.
As the week progressed, I realized that some of the most important qualities of character can be found in surfing.
The ultimate filter for success in life.
Grit is a commonality among those practicing any sport at the best of their ability. You can only get better if you’re pushing your limits, which takes blood, sweat, and tears. But holy shit is that a reality when you’re taking on the ocean.
The first thing that catches everyone off-guard when it comes to surfing is the physical aspect of it. It is one of the most intense sports out there, for sure.
I was in decent enough shape when I signed up for this. Yet within fifteen to twenty minutes in the water my arms were on fire, and by the time I got out after two hours, I was sore from head to toe.
This was true for everybody in there. We had a couple of young dudes in the group who were super fit, and they were pretty much in the same condition as everyone else by the end of the first day: hurtin’ all over.
There were moments where getting into the water and staying in there for two hours took a mental hurdle. I felt this myself, and I could read it off other people’s faces. It’s impossible to imagine how physically and mentally draining it is to surf for four hours a day, five days in a row. It was literally a boot-camp.
As the week went on, everyone slowly toughened up. I’ve heard several people say that they surprised themselves with their own abilities. They only got to that point because they persevered in the face of fatigue.
And not everyone made it, either. A handful of people quit because they just couldn’t push through it.
Surfing is a master teacher of focus.
The ocean is not predictable. You need to pay constant attention to every wave around you. If your focus is not completely on what you’re doing, nothing’s going to work.
- When paddling out, it’s important for navigating a way past the break, and for avoiding other surfers.
- When waiting for a wave, you must constantly analyze the patterns to spot a good one that you might catch.
- When attempting to catch a wave, the timing of going after it is crucial (I find this to be the most challenging part of surfing).
- When riding a wave, there is very little room for error when it comes to balance.
- When wiping out, the most important thing to do is staying cool (which is not easy when you’re in a giant washing machine).
This constant focus on the ocean creates a calm, enjoyable clearheadedness. It puts you very much “in the moment”. This is the “mindfulness”-thing everyone’s talking about.
Like anything else, by practicing it for hours, you get better at it. It helps you when you’re doing work, driving your car, having a discussion, or even cooking a meal.
This was something I had no idea about. Patience is a huge part of surfing.
It is also a very satisfying part of it.
After you’ve paddled out, it’s time to scope out a good wave. This downtime also allows you to take a little breather before paddling like a madman into the wave you’re trying to catch.
You sit on your surfboard, and you look at what the ocean does in the distance. You learn to read it, and every time you get out there, it tells a different story.
Eventually, you learn to pick up on patterns that indicate a good wave. It can take several minutes before a good one comes along. If you’ve been in the water for some time, it can take a while to gather the energy necessary to after a wave. Both these things require patience.
In the beginning, your hunger and greediness make you after waves while not having enough energy, which leads to failure. You also go after waves that aren’t too great because all you care about is just catching one. This is fun, but not nearly as satisfying as catching a truly great wave.
Making these mistakes sends you in front of the break, which means you must paddle back out again. This will teach you that it’s better to be patient.
This patience gets instilled in you, and it carries over into day-to-day life. It’s a good trait to have for overall happiness, opportunity, and stability.
Believe me when I say that getting your ass kicked by a wave crashing on top of you is a very humbling experience. It seems obvious, and yet it surprised me how overwhelming and brutal it is when it happened for the first time. I’m talking about 6-10ft (2-3m) waves now. Not small, but definitely not huge or uncommon.
Wiping out badly has the same psychological effect as taking a beating.
When you’re above surface again, you’re gasping for air and you’ve used up all your energy to get there. You’re usually disoriented, and ultimately you’ve just been completely defeated in a big way. You can’t help to feel totally vulnerable for a few seconds, because another wave might crash on top of you right away, which makes you go through the whole thing again. And that sometimes happens even a couple of times in a row. It’s intense.
You do get used to it, but it’s never fun. A handful of people in the group walked away because they couldn’t deal with it (which goes back to grit again).
Wiping out teaches an important lesson: the ocean is incredibly powerful. Everyone already knows this, but you know it on a different level when you are forced to feel it physically. It makes you internalize the sheer amount of power, and the fact that it’s everywhere around you all the time.
The only way to make surfing work is by utterly and completely respecting that power, because there’s no road to winning a battle with it in any situation.
I personally look at it this way: I’m respectfully taking permission to play with the ocean’s power, yet I’m obeying all the rules that it dictates to me.
When I adopted that mind-set, I instantly became a much better surfer. It was a quantum leap in my progress.
And when you finally catch that perfect wave, what a feeling.
The wave launches you forward so hard that it takes almost all the power in your legs to stand up. You feel the wind resistance from your velocity, and you hear the ocean roar like a ferocious predator all around you. All that unfathomable power that mercilessly crashed down on you when you wiped out, is now driving you forward.
The achievement of catching it, the noise, the speed, the wind, and the cohesion of you and the ocean invoke indescribable feelings. A bombardment of the senses. An amazing adrenaline high. Sex with the gods.
Riding a big wave also invokes a primal feeling of triumph. You’re not riding a horse or an elephant, you’re riding the OCEAN; the biggest, most powerful thing on the planet. Stop and think for a second how crazy that is.
The experience is ultimately impossible to describe, and I will never get enough of it.
I love all the surfer girls out there, first of all. I haven’t seen a single one out there who wasn’t in incredible physical shape. I’m sure it’s exactly the same the other way around.
It also goes deeper than that.
When you’re sitting out there past the break on your board, waiting for your wave with nothing else to do, you can’t help but appreciate the beauty of your current situation. The colorful sunrise clouds, the gentle yet enormous movement of the ocean, the clean air you’re breathing, the warmth of the sun on your face… All of it is very lovely, and it makes you feel happy. I don’t care how cynical or distracted by life you are, you will pick up on it at one point or another.
When surfing, you experience this appreciation for prolonged periods of time. Appreciation is one of the main markers for happiness, which is why we as a species feel happier when we appreciate the beauty of nature. That’s not some hippie bullshit, this is scientifically proven, and everyone deep-down knows this intuitively. Being in the ocean is as close as you can get to nature; you’re completely exposed to some of the most powerful parts of it.
Through experiencing the happiness that this appreciation brings you, you start to look for beauty around you everywhere in life, which has a tremendous effect on your overall happiness.
I personally find it mostly in the littlest things and moments. Every time I see a sunset or another way nature shows off, I look at it and actively enjoy it. This doesn’t change when I’m standing in traffic or when I have a bad day. I also find there is a lot of human-level stuff to appreciate. Getting joy out of watching people achieve or be kind to one another feels good, man. But that’s just me. If these things mean nothing to you, that’s okay, because everyone appreciates different things.
I do believe the universal key to happiness is the ability to enjoy whatever you appreciate despite anything.
Surfing has taught me to see it all around me almost all the time. And I’ve been a notably happier person since.
I strongly believe that surfing makes you a better human being, as it teaches many important life lessons.
When I was surfing on a regular basis, all aspects of my day-to-day life were affected positively by it. I felt and looked great, I enjoyed everything there was to enjoy, others liked having me around more, and I worked hard and had my shit together.
It makes sense if you think about it.
Surfing gets you in all-around super shape. It makes you strong, and it is fantastic for your cardio. Like I said in the beginning, being in great physical condition has a tremendously positive effect on your mood and everything you do.
Then there’s the mental aspects of it. Grit, focus, humility, and patience are great qualities to have in any situation. When combining all that with appreciation, kindness comes along for the ride as a result.
Good traits of character to have, I’d say.
One of the things that makes surfing so addictive, is the fact that it is different every single time you go out there. No matter how good you get, it’s impossible to completely master.
The potential situations are endless, and there will always be a bigger wave somewhere.
The more you learn, the more fun it becomes. The amount of lessons out there is infinite. The best surfer in the world knows a lot more than the rest of us, but he’s still learning every time he goes out there.
Now, you might say I’m not a pro surfer, or even a very good surfer, so who am I to talk? The thing is, surfing is not about that. We’re all out there doing the same exact thing, but we all have our own personal relationship with it. One of the things that makes surfing unique as a sport, is that skill level isn’t the most important part of the experience at all (contests aside).
I’ve experienced the surfing community to be very helpful, inclusive, and laid-back in the best possible ways. It has a real “we’re all in this together”-feel to it. This is not strange if you think about it, as it’s us versus the ocean. Everyone is welcome to tag along and join the fun, and there is just no point have badness in there.
Rare moments of petty bullshit aside, I’ve never heard surfers talk trash about one another. Everyone is just kinda enjoying what everyone else is doing. A highly-skilled surfer is fantastic to look at, because that’s something to aspire to. It’s also cool to watch someone below your personal level of skill getting his victories and failures, because you’ve already had them. You learn from watching both.
And yes, there are sharks out there.
The chance of getting grabbed by one is statistically much smaller than a car hitting you when crossing the street.
But they are out there.
I’ve seen one with my own eyes about 20ft away from me.
But I don’t care.
No-one out there does. And you will only understand why, when you’re one of us.
Buy a board and go surf.
Just trust me on this.
Photos by Julie Macey, Frank McKenna, Mark Harpur, Conner Murphy, Vladimir Kudinov, Asaf R, and Noam Almosnino.