surf simply

Surf Simply, part 2: What the World’s Best Surf School Can Teach You About Exercise

In Part 1 of this series (read that first if you haven’t yet) we discussed the core pieces of effective training programs. Today, we’re going to look at how the world’s best surf school applies them, and show you how you can use the same principles to build great workouts and fitness programs.

You’ll remember from the last article:

  • In the beginning, learning feels slow and clunky. We can only do small pieces at once.
  • Over time, we integrate these pieces and “get a feel” for our new skills.
  • Past a certain point, doing something over and over will only get us to “good enough”.
  • To get truly good at something, you have to practice deliberately.
  • When we’re doing things deliberately, we have to regress — to break things back down into slow, conscious learning and smaller parts again.

But which parts should we do first? How? And why?

The answers to these questions are at the heart of good coaching and effective learning.

Surf Simply’s Tree of Knowledge


This is Surf Simply’s breakdown of each component skill of surfing.

Notice how things are both linked together, and divided into groups.

Big, complex skills are built of smaller, carefully arranged and coordinated pieces.

We don’t usually notice these smaller pieces, because as adults, many of us have already done much of the learning we’re doing to do.

For instance, we don’t think about all the pieces of walking; we can already walk well enough.

But what if we were to be assessed by a walking expert on how well we walk?

Our walking coach might look at our posture, our head position, how we swing our arms, the timing of our steps, and so forth. They might look at fifty things — fifty small, essential components of what we think is already “good enough”.

Then, they can offer us clear direction and feedback on what components to improve if we wish to become walking experts as well.

Same thing happens at surf school: Each student’s surf abilities are broken down into their tiniest constituent parts — how people move, stand, paddle, take off into a wave, even their general comfort holding a board.

Then, coaches make sure each one of these crucial, fundamental skills are solid before progressing. If you can’t stand up on a board, or if you’re scared of getting your hair wet, you can’t get better.

Let yourself be a beginner

You might also remember from the last article that in order to get better, you have to spend some time getting worse. In other words, you have to regress your game down to the component parts, and focus on them consciously.

In surfing, longer boards are often seen as “beginner boards”. The better the surfer, the shorter the board. Shorter boards are less stable, less forgiving, but more maneuverable.

Before Surf Simply, I was used to riding boards around seven feet long. After assessing me on the first day, Ru put me on a nine foot board.

Ugh. Shame. Nine foot boards are for babies.

In fact, my shorter board — although gratifying to my ego — was keeping me from actually being good.

Shorter boards are trickier to use. Which means my foundational skills couldn’t get better, because I was spending all my energy just trying not to fall off a tougher board. Which means I was just a crappy surfer on a pro board.

Conversely, because the nine-foot board made the ride easier, I could focus on nailing down the essential basics I needed in order to move to the next level.

Thus, I found myself at the beginning of the surf instruction week in shallow water near the beach. (Like, basically where little kids splash around with sand pails.)

On my giant for-dummies surfboard.

Laying on my belly and paddling into fluffy little waves without even trying to stand up.

This was not great for my ego.

But it was great for my surfing.

By staying in the shallows and using a manageable board, I was able to do a drill, walk the board back out to waist or chest-high water, then hop right back on and catch the next wave. In this way, I could sometimes get several repetitions of a drill per minute, with constant feedback from Coach Ru.

The faster I could try something, readjust and try again, the faster I could learn.

Within the first session I was consistently getting each drill from my stomach — various turns, stalls and acceleration drills — perfectly. So I graduated to standing up, and added the extra complexity of doing the drills from my feet.

Again, these started to “click” almost immediately. Little details that I’d never been able to get right were now making sense.

By putting in deliberate practice time with fundamental skills in low-complexity, low-stress, rapid feedback cycles, I was able learn them quickly, and retain them at a high level of quality.

These skills are the patterns that form the basis of everything else that happens on a surfboard, and as Ru explained, “The best surfers are so good because they’re the best at those basic things.”

From here, it was out to the bigger waves, to practice the same skills under a new level of complexity and challenge, and add a few more to the mix.

As I worked through these progressions, I was also doing something else that Ru was encouraging: falling.

surf simply

Ru, bailing out of a close-out wave, July 2014.

Making friends with falling

Most of us don’t like to fall. Or feel like we’ve “failed”. We’ll do all kinds of things to avoid that.

In the beginning, I stuck to a safe middle ground. Riding my nine-foot board in the shallows was bad enough. I didn’t want to look like a total schmuck by falling a lot as well.

Ru cured me of that quickly too.

He told me to forget about looking smooth with each try and really commit to each new movement in order to get a true sense for where the limits were. Until I started testing out what it felt like to go too far (and risk wiping out), I didn’t really have a solid sense of where “just right” was at.    

And until I got over my concern about “falling”, “failing” or simply looking like a beginner again, I couldn’t improve. Instead of deliberately practicing, I’d be going through the motions, catching easy waves and trying to look like I knew what I was doing.

It would be like going to the gym and sticking to the “advanced” lifts like barbell squats and Olympic lifts, even though you hadn’t improved on them in a long time, because dropping the weight or switching to a more “basic” exercise would make you look like a weak newbie for a while.

How an art professor inspired a surf school

Ru’s fall-first, fall-often philosophy stems from his unconventional background. Before moving to Costa Rica and creating a successful business called Surf Simply, he went to art school.

At this school, Ru’s professor had an interesting rule. At the end of each day, Ru had to destroy whatever he’d painted.

This might seem cruel, but it was liberating.

Each day Ru deliberately practiced a particular technique, and the professor didn’t want him to be afraid of making a mistake or producing an ugly painting. Too much focus on the outcome ruins the process of growth and development.

Knowing that each painting — good or bad — would end up in the garbage, Ru was free to focus only on challenging himself with difficult techniques and learning from his mistakes.

By tackling small skills one at a time and optimizing each piece of the puzzle, I was able to go from cruising around on my belly in the whitewater to paddling out through double-overhead waves on a longboard and consistently riding them within a week. It was an amazing process.

What this means for you

The way I struggled through surfing for ten years isn’t much different than how many people struggle with exercise and nutrition.

Following the principles that changed that can work just as well in the gym as they do in the ocean.

Here’s how:

Identify the pieces

Any movement in a gym, no matter how complex or heavy, is based on a fundamental set of components — your Lego blocks, so to speak. (For more on this, see How To Do Anything.)

These components can be posture, hip motion, grip position, where your ribs are, how you’re breathing, where you put your feet… literally hundreds of details.

Same is true of good nutrition. Although the principles are simple, there are more skills involved than you might think.

Until you know the details of what each of these parts should look like how to improve them, you won’t be able to deliberately practice them in training or daily life.

You don’t have to figure that out on your own, either. That’s what a good coach is for.

Build from the ground up

Unless you’ve had lots of expert coaching, you’re probably not as good at the basic stuff as you could be.

Swallow your pride, look at your basics, and make sure each one is absolutely solid, dependable, and consistent — even when stressed or challenged.

If you’re falling over when you squat heavy, you need to regress that movement and work on your balance.

If your eating goes to heck when you travel, or when work gets busy, you need to break down your eating patterns to the absolute basics and figure out where you could improve. (Luckily, we can help you with that.)

Look for growth, not just performance

Take a break from getting the dog biscuit, pleasing your fitness gadget, hitting that new PR or low bodyfat percentage, or posting your latest success to Instagram.

Instead, look to master the process. The stuff that happens when nobody sees. Look for true, deep, lasting growth and — eventually — consistent execution.

Think of each workout, or each meal, as a painting that’s getting destroyed at the end of the day. It’s not about how cool you look at the time. Or impressing anyone else. It’s about feedback, practice and how much better it’s making you in the long run.

That’s why we ask our PN Coaching clients and Level 2 Certification students to invest a year in their own progress.

Mastery takes time.

Skill first, then stress

Remember stress inoculation training. You’ll only strengthen your ability to perform under stress if you can first perform in a non-stressed environment.

Master each movement, task, or skill component in its simplest form before adding stress or complexity.

Learn to eat well at home on a quiet, relaxed Sunday before you try to eat well in an airport on an extended layover.

Learn to squat well with your own body before adding weight. Or before trying it in a competition. Or before trying to do it quickly.

Learn to run well before you run fast, or run long.

You’re looking for the “zone of optimal challenge” — enough thrill, intrigue and stimulus to get and keep your attention, but not so much that you’re overwhelmed and freaked out. Look for the point at which performance breaks down, and work just beneath that.

Make your practice deliberate

Be mindful. Pay attention. Focus. Engage.

Show up as an interested observer to your own experience. Have reasons. Be intentional with everything.

Deliberate practice means you set specific objectives for what to work on in a given session — like doing a workout, or making a meal. It means you stay “checked in” to every piece noticing what is happening, rather than “going through the motions”.

Get feedback & coaching

Feedback is just information. You need it to improve.

Whether it’s getting coaching, paying attention to your own physical sensations, taking photos or video, or monitoring how consistently you’re doing the task you want to do, get feedback.

Otherwise, you’re just driving through fog on an unmarked road. Get some guardrails and clear lines for guidance.

Build on success

Surf Simply-437-small

Try to resolve every training session, or every learning situation, with a successful outcome.

This might mean setting different expectations. Maybe, for instance, you won’t make the “perfect” meal. But maybe you can make a meal that meets three very specific criteria (lean protein + colorful vegetables + tastes good), and that’s good enough. Consider it a success.

If you find you’re consistently falling short of your expectations… change your expectations. Scale back the task.

Keep at it

Of course, even with these tips, not every day is going to feel awesome. Some days you’ll show up with “beginner’s mind”, feel great and make excellent progress.

Other days, even the best of intentions and an expert coach isn’t enough. You’ll feel like an uncoordinated idiot.

No problem.

Enjoy the water and sunshine. Go grab a frosty drink at the beachside bar and put your feet up.

Then come back tomorrow.


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