How Good Is My Kid Really Surfing?

12 Jul 2016 1 Share

COASTALWATCH | Tips & Tricks

Story by Martin Dunn

An extract from “Developing Talented Surfers – An Australian Perspective”. 

“What do you think about my kid’s surfing?” “Do you think he can become a Pro?”

With so much talent out there, many parents want to know just how good their child is. They seek this understanding mainly because they love the fact that their child can surf display good daily performances. But also for many, it’s also about whether their child is worth investing in long term, from a financial, logistical, and emotional way.

When a surfer is 10 – 12 years of age, its hard to provide a definitive answer about the long term potential of a surfer, but there are some assessable indicators which are essential to the long-term makeup of developing surfers. What follows are my observations when developing young surfers over the past 30 years. The more of these performance indicators a surfer has, the more likely he or she can develop into a surfer of international standard. 

General attributes of a surfer with potential

Is the surfer accomplished in other sports besides surfing?

In other words, are they the star of their junior soccer team, or an accomplished tennis player, or a successful runner? If they are good at sport, no matter what sport, this means they have inherent athleticism and with that, have the potential to become a very good surfer.

WSL women’s commissioner Jessi Miley-Dyer for example, at 12 years of age was a member of the New South Wales [Australia] ski team, water polo team, and was named New South Wales junior lifesaver of the year. She later went on to win everything in junior surfing in Australia, became a world junior champion, and qualified for the elite WCT world tour of surfing.

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What's your child's surfing potential, Photo by Martin Dunn

What's your child's surfing potential, Photo by Martin Dunn

Is the surfer able to learn quickly?

Over the past 30 years, I have trained many talented surfers with varying degrees of potential. The surfers who had the ability to learn new skills quickly, usually were the surfers who achieved the highest levels in their careers.

This trait isn’t just peculiar to surfing. During my tenure as Surfing Australia’s head coach I participated in conferences with Australia’s Olympic sports and their coaches, and all agreed bar none, that the ability to learn quickly is a significant predictor to athletic success.

In my own coaching, leading world tour competitor - Sally Fitzgibbons, is the fastest learner I have coached, and I have not been surprised with her success on the world stage because of this ability and the other positive performance skills she possesses.

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Does the surfer surf daily, irrespective of the quality of the surf?

Does the surfer just love to surf no matter what the surf conditions? This is fundamental to reaching the top level – you just have to have passion and love what you do.

I remember coaching an elite WCT surfer one day. The surf was 1-2 feet – onshore – and sloppy conditions. As the surfers were changing, he was commenting to the other training surfers –

WCT surfer: "How’s those lefts - That was a good one”

Surfcoach: "I don’t get it. Here you are, a WCT surfer. You surf J’Bay, Pipeline, Snapper – and you still get excited about a crumbly 1ft left”

WCT surfer:“Mate, I just love to surf. I don’t care what it’s like. I’m out there”

Passion – Love what you do – this successful surfer never lost it.

Is the surfer self-motivated?

Can the surfer get themselves out of bed to go surfing? Surfers who are self-motivated tend to do better long term. If the surfer has to be woken up to go surfing for example, they aren’t showing the passion necessary to become an elite surfer.

After making mistakes on waves, can the surfer wash-off the mistake and move forward?

Mistakes are a big part of the developmental process. Surfers need to be comfortable about making mistakes. Surfers who swear, slap the water, kick-out aggressively, can be consumed by the mistake and are not able to “let it go” – which sometimes can manifest itself into a downward spiral where more mistakes occur. This inability to “let go” of mistakes, is a frustration in free surfing sessions, but is a major problem for a surfer in competitive heats.

Surfers who react appropriately, on the other hand, are similarly disappointed with a mistake, but they quickly wash it off, paddle back out and try again – knowing that with focus and determination, they will “get it” next time.

Sally Fitz training as a 14-year-old with loads of potential, Photo provided

Sally Fitz training as a 14-year-old with loads of potential, Photo provided

Confidence In The Water

Does the surfer paddle around the line-up with confidence

From an early age, surfers who can paddle-out and position themselves confidently in the ocean, catch more waves and aren’t as easily intimidated by what the ocean can throw at them. They are able to cope with being “smashed” by a set or being caught inside after a ridden wave, knowing what to do and where to paddle to return back into the lineup.

They can confidently surf challenging surf?

From a young age, the talented surfer will test themselves against more challenging surf and paddle-out in larger or more powerful surf than they usually face. This is sometimes facilitated by the goading of their peers, or by paddling out with a parent or older surfer who looks out for their safety.

Although having the confidence to surf more powerful surf is a good indicator or future success, it isn’t necessarily a game-breaker in the long term.

The reality is that sometimes, the confidence of a surfer can lag behind the athletic skills as the surfer develops. With patience and more ocean experience, the motivated surfer can learn to love challenging waves if given unquestionable support.

I have known and coached many young surfers over the years who at 12-13 years of age where terrified of surfing waves over three feet. Some of these same surfers ended up becoming members of Australian Junior Teams and went on to compete on the world tour later in their careers.

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The surfer selects and rides quality waves?

Young surfers are usually faced with a “pecking-order” or hierarchy in who gets the best waves at a given beach. The local rippers and old hard-core locals usually catch the best waves, followed by the other adult surfers, leaving the scraps or poor waves to the grommets. This informal hierarchical system is even worse for young girl surfers wanting to catch quality waves.

For a young surfer to be confident enough to catch good waves consistently in the line-up, shows a maturity that many of their peers don’t possess. It demonstrates good ocean awareness, confidence to position themselves on the peak, and assertiveness around the more experienced surfers in the line-up.

Can your child take off deep with confidence? Photo provided

Can your child take off deep with confidence? Photo provided

Surfing Ability

Has the surfer a naturally pleasing style?

Surfers who surf with flow and control are looked at favourably when surfing the waves they ride. The development of a pleasing style primarily comes from time spent in the water and a surfer’s natural athletic ability in sport. The ability to play other sports well, transfers to surfing through the ability to learn new skills quickly and the timing necessary to create stylish surfing performances.

Surfers who aren’t as naturally gifted in athletic terms can improve their style by working on creating good surfing technique through training, overcoming style deficiencies in the process. Technique training focuses on the timing and movement sequences in a manoeuvre, and when learnt, the improved appearance of the targeted manoeuvres.

Does the surfer take-off on their waves with confidence and commitment?

Can the surfer jump to their feet quickly, generate horizontal speed when required, and make good manoeuvre choices at take-off? Entering a wave in a confident manner allows a surfer to position and take-off from a deep position on the peak, giving them an advantage in wave catching and competition situations against their peers.

Surfers who have slow pop-up actions or get caught in the lip on take-off, usually perform a lesser quality first manoeuvre of their rides, reducing the overall appearance and value in competitive terms of waves ridden.

SEE ALSO: Jock Serong's Short History Of Thongs

Does the surfer regularly take-off from a deep position on their waves?

Taking-off deep demonstrates confidence in a young surfer’s performance. It not only increases the difficulty of the ride but usually results in the surfer facing and performing a more critical opening manoeuvre on the wave.

When assessing this aspect of a surfer’s performance you need to ascertain whether the surfer is intelligently positioning themselves deep on the peak by the regular performance of a quality first manoeuvre or are they just positioning themselves deep to “charge” the wave. Surfers in the second group regularly take-off too deep and are caught behind the first section of the ride, missing the first manoeuvre in the process. Or their depth at take-off causes them to take-off on closeout waves. Both situations, if regularly occurring, creates poor habits in a surfer’s decision-making skills as it relates to catching waves.

When performing their manoeuvres, does the surfer perform full and complete manoeuvres?

The ability of a surfer is judged by the quality of the manoeuvres performed. Surfers ahead of their peers in performance terms can perform manoeuvres that show depth off the bottom and height off the top of waves as they surf down the line. When the wave goes flat, they perform full cutbacks rebounding off the foam and surf rail-to-rail to maintain their speed and flow. These full and on-rail manoeuvres display confidence and commitment towards surfing their best on the waves they ride.

Does the surfer have a high “Success Rate” when finishing their waves?

Surfers I have coached that have qualified for the world professional tour, right from their early years of surfing, have taken pride in finishing all their waves with a successful final manoeuvre. For them it was the whole performance that mattered, not three-quarters of the performance with a poor ending to their rides. Many surfers compromise their performance by not passionately caring about finishing successfully.

What these elite surfers also did was ride their waves for their full functional length. If they did choose a bad wave, they tended to ride it as well as possible and finished strongly. By doing this they were learning to ride a poor wave well, and with that when in a tight situation in their competitive heats, they were confident that they could catch an inferior wave and get the score needed to advance.

Surfers with a low “success rate” in their daily surfing are setting themselves up for loses in competitive heats because they are only surfing part of the wave instead of the whole. Remember, the judges write down their score immediately after a surfer completes their ride, whether finished successfully or not.

Surfers who can perform full rail turns from an early age display a significant indicator for future success, Photo provided

Surfers who can perform full rail turns from an early age display a significant indicator for future success, Photo provided

The Competitor

Is the surfer excited to compete whenever possible?

Is it the surfer themselves who wants to go in contests? Or is it the parent who is the keen one? A good way to test this is to ask the surfer from an early age to bring the contest entry forms or links to entry forms online to the parent of the contests they want to enter. This displays the true motivation of a surfer as it relates to them wanting to compete.

If the surfer isn’t motivated to compete and doesn’t pursue the contests available, then this is a sign the parent is the main driving force, which isn’t always the best approach long term

Is the surfer a competitor in all aspects of their life?

A good sign for future success is when you observe a surfer who loves to compete in all aspects of their life. Kelly Slater is famous for being the ultimate competitor, whether in or out of the water.

But the point is – to be ultimately successful on the international stage, you have to love competing and testing yourself against the best opposition you can find.

Does the surfer regularly do well in competitions?

Is the surfer a regular winner in competition? From my experience, surfers who win early in their careers, win often as they progress through the different age divisions. And when they go out onto the world stage to try to qualify, there winning ways come to the fore.

Compare this to the surfer who doesn’t win in the junior ranks. Once they begin travelling and competing internationally, they compete against all the winners from the other countries, and although they are experienced competitors, to qualify for the elite WSL world tour, they have to learn to win in this field of winners.

Winning is a learned skill, and once a surfer learns to win, they can reproduce those winning routines at whatever level of competition. That’s why, when the consistent winners in their youth like Mick Fanning, Owen Wright, or Stephanie Gilmore tried to qualify for the elite tour, it only took them a year or two. The non-winners on the other hand, who eventually do make the elite tour, have usually a journey of 4 – 6 years to make the grade. Win early and win often – and everything just flows from there.

Can the surfer compete up a division with confidence?

Surfers who can compete up a division or two and still be competitive are displaying a good sign for future success. For example – a twelve-year-old grommet might contest an under 16 event. If that surfer gets to the quarter finals, that surfer is showing not only good surfing performances for a young surfer but also confidence and awareness to get through a couple of heats.

I started going to the Pro Junior events [20 years and under] the first year they started in the mid 90’s. All through those years, if a 15-year-old surfer, first year competing on the pro junior circuit, made it to round 3 in an event, then that was a great result.

The ultimate example of this is female surfer Tyler Wright, who at 14 years of age won a women’s WCT tour event in Manly, Australia – beating the then world champion Stephanie Gilmore in the final. Very impressive stuff from a young competitor who went on to a quick qualification and consistent success in world surfing

Does the surfer make excuses after a loss?

Sure surfers can be disappointed after losing, but they should be realistic about their losses. What I know is - “A big part of learning how to win, is learning how to lose”. This is important as when a surfer advances to open competition, winning just gets harder to achieve, hence they have to deal with loss in a mature manner. The earlier they learn this fact, the easier it will be to deal with losses throughout their careers.

Finally, Is the surfer clearly ahead of their peers overall?

Can the surfer surf progressively? Are they keen to paddle out in large and challenging surf? Can they catch good waves at crowded breaks? Overall, they just stand-out.

I remember when my own son [ Ben Dunn – former WCT competitor ] was 11 years of age and he was surfing with a group of surfers aged 15-16 who were all good surfers in New South Wales. I remember thinking, “Ben is surfing better than all these guys”, and that was probably the time when I thought he really had something that would allow him to be successful in surfing.  [During his career, Ben was 2x Australian under 18 champion, world under 16 and under 18 champion, Australian pro-Junior champion, and ultimately qualified for the WCT top 44, where he competed over a four year period]

Surfers who love to compete, usually do well long term, Photo provided

Surfers who love to compete, usually do well long term, Photo provided


Surfers who score a high ranking when assessed using the indicators above have what I would call a superior “blank canvas” in place of which to develop elite performances. It’s not a given, it doesn’t guarantee long-term success, but the potential is certainly there for future high-level performances.

For surfers who have missing components in the makeup or low ranking needn’t worry, as all areas of performance can be improved and trained once the surfer is aware of their deficiencies. In one sense, ranking low in a particular aspect of performance can be a good thing to know in a surfer’s early years, as the deficient skills can be targeted and worked upon sooner rather than later in a career.

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