LEARNING TO SURF: Why Riding Waves Makes Life Better

Written by Surf Coach Tommy Potterton. Contact him on Instagram or Facebook

WHAT: Learning To Surf

Learning to surf will improve your mind, body, and soul in ways you never thought possible. Likewise, surfing boosts confidence, happiness, health, strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and endurance. However, as someone who has taught surfing to everyone from toddlers to retirees, I can tell you it’s not just the physical benefits that keep surfers paddling out well into their golden years.

Most surfers consider it a spiritual discipline as much a sport. Good waves offer surfers a fleeting, time-transcending moment of total presence.  The ocean is their church, offshore winds their prayer, deep ocean low-pressure systems their calling, and a solemn pledge to drop everything for good waves their creed. The waves themselves are communion. However, before any of that, you’ll have to learn how to surf.

Learning to surf in Costa Rica
Surf Coach Tommy Potterrton having fun at his local break in Costa Rica.

The easiest thing about surfing is surfing. It’s the learning curve to get there; paddling, duck diving, and wiping out that will break you. However, it will also build you up stronger. The more you surf, the quicker your body will adjust. Eventually, fatigue and fear will shrink. Strength, skill, confidence, and most importantly – enjoyment will grow. Meanwhile, anyone who tells you that learning to surf is easy has never surfed. On the other hand, those who do surf will tell you that with persistence, you’ll learn to love it, beatings n’ all.

A surfer wiping out
Learning to Surf Requires a Love of Occasionally Getting Thumped.  Photo Credit: Matt Brown Creative Commons

Surf coaching ranges from practicing pop-ups in the sand to dedicated surf vacations that focus on core skills like stance, wave comprehension, board design, breath control, and detail-rich video analysis. Essentially, learning to surf is about learning how to get into and then ride waves. To catch the wave, you’ll need to learn how to:

  1. Calculate the speed and angle of an incoming wave, and adjust your position, paddle speed, and location accordingly.
  2. Paddle strong, wait for the wave energy to begin pulling you forward, and try not to nose dive.
  3. Pop up, and away you go.
  4. Once you’re up and riding, you’ll need to learn how to stay in the section of the wave where the power is. AKA – the “pocket”. Too much speed and you’ll outrun it and lose power. Too little speed and you’ll get chewed up.

Simple right? Not really. All of this is easier said than done, which is why many benefit from the instruction and feedback only a surf coach can provide.


Learning to surf with Tommy Potts
Beach Drills

Beyond technical advice, a good surf coach will encourage you to keep pushing when your arms are dropping off and your lungs are exploding.  When a monster set wave approaches, it’s my job to help encourage a student to turn and paddle into it. Some students, usually kids, take to surfing like “naturals,” with zero understanding of what they’re doing or why it works. However, others require specific, measurable goals and a step-by-step program designed to achieve them. It’s about what works best for the student. Either way, learning to surf will give you the workout of your life followed by the appearance of muscles you never knew existed.

Calling student into wave
Deciding to go left or right can be confusing. A good surf coach will let you know beforehand.

There’s a good chance you’ll ride the white water on day one. Soon thereafter, you may ride a green (unbroken) wave. Congratulations. You’re a surfer. From herein, it’s about practice and learning to safely navigate the politics,  protocols, and tribal hierarchies of the ‘line-up.‘  Essentially, it’s about not making a nuisance of yourself, not posing a danger to others, and not ruining someone else’s ride. You’ll learn who has the right of way (the surfer closest to the peak) and to never ditch your board. Above all, you’ll know never to drop in – the cardinal sin of surfing which will earn you anything from a semi-polite chiding to a physical beatdown.

To a beginner, this can seem complicated. However, with good guidance, the protocols, paddling, taking off, and all else become second nature. In the meantime:

  • Keep your eyes peeled.
  • Observe others.
  • Take your time.
  • Try to anticipate sticky situations before they arise.
  • Most importantly, have fun!

Luckily, the environment in which you watch, learn, and rest between waves is the planet’s most spectacular waiting room.

Learning to surf with Tommy Potts
Real-time instructions and encouragement.

Learning to surf doesn’t require high-quality waves. In fact, the best places to learn to surf are where the waves are slow and small. After that, once you’ve got the fundamentals down, consider stepping up to bigger, better waves. With time and practice, you may develop the strength for the outer reefs of California, the speed for the lightning-quick waves of west Africa, and the skill set required to navigate the powerful tubes of Indonesia, Africa, and Hawaii.

  • Stingrays, jellyfish, urchins, sharks, riptides, flying surfboards, heavy wipeouts, aggressive locals, hold-downs, getting pinned on the reef or sea bed, being separated from your board and not being able to swim in, leash tangles, crowds, beginners, and worst of all; crowds of beginners.
  • Addiction!

Whether young or old, surfing is the gift that never stops giving. Learning to surf is about the process. Not the result. There will always be a bigger, faster, heavier, more challenging wave out there somewhere. Consequently, this is why the best in the world (even those with a string of trophies and millions in the bank) humbly admit that surfing is something you can never master.  And therein lies surfings greatest reward – the possibility that the greatest wave of a surfer’s life is still on its way.


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