rob gilley

Daddy Dearest

| posted on April 17, 2012

"You just need two good waves to win the heat. Two."

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

For me, the silver lining of an otherwise drab digital cloud is that many cameras these days shoot two different formats: both stills and high-quality video. Essentially two types of camera in one.

This dual functionality exists with the Canon 5D Mark II, a camera which I happen to use. When I’m feeling less than inspired about shooting stills, I’ll break out the video feature on my camera and experiment with it.

Lately I’ve been using the video function for surf training with my daughter, and shooting footage of her contests. I’ve even recruited my eldest daughter, who is a talented videographer/editor, to shoot with us.

While reviewing some of her recent contest footage, I came across something disturbing. Unbeknownst to me, my eldest daughter had filmed me while I was coaching her sister in a heat.

This footage pictured me waving directions and reacting to her waves from the beach—something that might sound innocuous enough, but when seen on screen, amounted to something else. It amounted to fairly wild, emotion-fueled gesticulation. It amounted to overly-emoted, Shakespeare-in-the-Park disappointment.

In short, this footage amounted to the actions of a melodramatic dork.

This discovery hit me especially hard because inappropriate surf parenting has become a pet peeve of mine. Over the last year or so, I have been exposed to top-level junior competition and a few disturbing moments, which includes a few select fathers going absolutely ballistic on their kids during surf contests.

When talking about this Little League Dad Syndrome with other parents, I began to realize that these were not isolated events. Several of them relayed highly disturbing stories. For example, one dad called his son a “f–king pussy” for pulling back on a big close-out, and another about a dad who routinely browbeat, pushed, flicked, and on one occasion, even head-butted his young daughter…in public.

What the hell is going on?

In addition to eliciting a mixture of anger, embarrassment, and disgust, these stories raised a lot of questions for me, not the least of which is: How did we get here? How did the pastime of riding waves—the drop-everything, happy-go-lucky, rapturous life of surfing—come to a point where parents would psychologically brutalize their own children?

The reprehensible nature of this abuse aside, there are other questions too: Is this just misplaced, vicarious desire gone wrong? What kind of humans are these fathers raising? Can this fear-based performance enhancement sustain itself without causing these juniors to crack apart psychologically later on?

While mulling over these questions, I have to confess to some impure daydreaming about these dads on my part, including one dark, revenge-exacted fantasy: a Bad News Bears/Throw the Ball, Joey! mutiny, whereby these browbeaten juniors get to the NSSA Nationals and instead of cementing a finals victory and a big contract, they take off on a big set wave at Lowers, pull their boardshorts down, and shine a full moon at their dads all the way to Church.

Unfortunately, life isn’t that poetic. Some of these kids have already slayed the amateur ranks to such a degree that they now sit with major sponsorship and large annual salaries.

And that’s perhaps the saddest news of all about this type of Little League Dad behavior: It seems to be working. At least three of the country’s top young surf stars have fathers who seem to possess a Captain Bligh streak, and their associated tongue-lashings and intimidation seems to be eliciting victories.

At least in the short-term anyway.

I should note at this point that I understand and acknowledge that tough love and strict coaching can sometimes be the price of success. Discipline in sports is often tantamount to a well-oiled performance. However, I also understand the difference between constructive, non-malicious strictness and calling your young kid “a pussy,” or even hitting them. In my book, that’s just wrong.

Way wrong.

My guess is that these bad apple dads have no idea how reprehensible their behavior is. For one reason or another—a self-fulfilling upbringing, a lack of conscience, bizarre insecurity—they do not see their actions as particularly evil. They think only of the desired result. That if they yell long and hard enough at their child, that it will produce a positive outcome.

Another reason that these surf dads continue to browbeat their kids, and can get away with it, is because we let them. I have seen this firsthand, especially with well-known surfers. Despite public abuse, witnesses somehow excuse this appalling behavior because of fame, which is kind of bizarre…and just plain stupid.

I am also confronted by one huge, over-riding question about this behavior: How much of it is my business? Should I just ignore it? Leave it alone?

The existence of this blog validates my conclusion that yes, this is definitely some of my business. As a photojournalist, a father, and a member of society, I think we need to expose this conduct and, at the very least, talk about it.

The bigger picture is that the vast majority of surf parents out there are loving and incredibly supportive of their kids. They use their well-earned paychecks to pay for contests. They drive up and down the coasts toting their juniors around ad infinitum. They encourage and console their competitive offspring when appropriate and needed. It’s actually just a few select toxic dads out there that go off the deep end, and unfortunately when they do, they contaminate the entire pool for the rest of us.

As mentioned, I have seen this malevolent seed begin to take root in myself, and would encourage other surf parents to take a long, hard look at their own behavior. Emotion and the desire for my daughter to do well had begun to blind my better sensibilities, and not until I got an accidental view of myself from the outside did I realize what was going on.

As surf culture evolves, I think we should take a good look at things, confront the flaws, talk about them, and stop sweeping things under the carpet. History is rife with examples of the danger of hiding things.

Hidden things have a tendency to haunt.

Most importantly, I think we owe this introspection to surfing itself. We have received this incredible gift of being able to ride waves, and we shouldn’t lose our souls in the pursuit of trying to impose vicarious ambition.

In the meantime I will do my part by concentrating on keeping my wild gesticulations to a minimum.

  • john

    Remember Jamie George ? During the late 80’s, people would watch in awe at his raw gift. But it was his screaming father that truly stole the show. As a judge, it was shocking to witness. Here was this goofyfooted treat, just being ripped a new one in front of everybody by his own dad. Jamie quit not long after. It would have been really special to see him blossom without the abuse. I’m sure Jamie still surfs, but the screams will always be there.

  • Jim C

    Rob, Great article to point out a problem that shows up in every sport. As a photographer with a duel function Canon 5D Mark II with all the bells and whistles, start posting some of these parents caught beating on there kids. Maybe they don’t know it until they see it for themselves, just as your daughter caught you in the act.

  • Tealergang

    Excellent article! I believe most fathers seek the attention they wish upon their son. “Unbeknownst” was my favorite word in this reading.

  • John_RI

    Wow… Really good essay. If anyone is paying attention at the magazines, perhaps Rob Gilley should be writing articles. It’s a breath of fresh air to have someone with some actual insight amidst the crap being published.

  • Hogie

    G- Well Stated! We as parents have been given a the gift of raising our kids
    for just a short period of time. My most cherished moments as a father has been
    High-fiving each of my kids after seeing their smiling “a got a good one” face paddling back out.

  • kent

    Thats why Miki Dora would make the best surf dad….he would make the kid throw the trophey at the judges….after stealing all the private info from the contest foms while his kid was in his heat and everyones eyes were on the Water…

  • pete

    I thought i would never see another father yelling on the beach as bad as Jamie George’s dad, but now 20 years later there is another.

    Richie Collins! He’s out of control and completely embarrassing. I hope he learns to shut up and just have fun watching his daughter grow up somehow. She is such a great surfer and sweet kid.

  • Aron f

    What happened to us ‘soul surfers’ from the 70s. Not only am I a surf stage mom, but I follow the ASP like a rabid football fan. Your daughter exposed us all!

  • EY

    Leave it alone? Hell no. You and the other parents should have stepped in and stuck up for the kid, especially if physical abuse is happening before your eyes (and yes, turns out headbutting would qualify). Someone should have called CPS. How fvcked up is that kid going to be? Wanna bet if she picks an abusive husband who will do the same to their kids?

  • Michael

    Seen Mr. Collins going off on his daughter numerous times in and around Newport. There’s usually about 20 people just watching his tirades, probably all thinking the same thing, but nobody saying or doing anything…myself included.

  • dgb

    How did we get here? How did the pastime of riding waves—the drop-everything, happy-go-lucky, rapturous life of surfing—come to a point where parents would psychologically brutalize their own children? asks the man who just finished telling us he video trains his daughter.

  • jbinsb

    Nothing wrong with video coaching the kid. It’s what you do with the video. If you’re surfing in contests, it’s because you want to compete and see how good you are. There is positive coaching, with and without video. The parents who head-butt, scream at — in a word, intimidate — their kids, boys or girls, are probably hoping for that pipe dream of having their son or daughter make the dream tour. Down that path lies burnout as the enjoyment of the sport, whether surfing, soccer, baseball, whatever, is sacrificed to these parents-wearing-blinders. Kill the joy by making a kid suffer through your harsh coaching, and success will never happen. The rare humans who have both the talent and the drive to succeed at the highest levels will show themselves, without a head-butt to get them there. The family needs to be a safe place for the kid.

  • pete

    i have to make it clear i have seen richie collins yelling at his daughter but never physically abusing her. i have never seen him lay a finger on her. i don’t think its right the way he talks to her about something as fun as surfing, but its not my place to tell someone how to parent their child.

    still i hope one day he can just learn to enjoy the short time he has with her as a child and in the water together.

    i still think about how much i liked jamie george’s surfing all the time. i hope he is doing ok and still surfing.

  • DM

    another one of surfings dirty little secrets revealed.
    i’ve witnessed too many surfing soccer mom’s and dad’s berating their children on the beach over the past several decades but always felt paralyzed by not wanting to “butt in” but wished i had more than a few times.
    thats simply a tough call for a bystander but i think contest officials would be 100 % within their rights, if not their responsibilities, to rip those offending, abusive parents a new one if only to uphold basic good sportsmanship.
    and what about the responsibilities of sponsors to help hold the offenders accountable?
    people who accost and abuse their children on any level at anytime are just plain bad parents with head problems.
    great read rob, on ya’ for outting this sickening problem in such a high profile forum.


    I just continue to be a follower of his work and a fan of Mr. Gilley. I really respect and enjoy the candor of his commentary. He’s the primary reason I visit this website.

  • yodelay

    Dino Andino is the ultimate loser surf parent.

  • Buckaroo

    Richie Collins has never been a paragon of mental stability.

  • T.C. Canterbury

    In Little Leauge umpires control the conduct of parents on and off the field.
    I have surfed since 1966 and coached and announcced kids baseball games since 1993 and have never tolerated some toughguy dad calling his athlete son a “fuc&^%$ Pussy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Cheer your kid and enjoy the “game.”
    T. C. Canterbury / Sierra Madre Ca.

  • Black

    No-one cares how good your kid is surfing, but they care how he presents himself.

  • Sean

    Rob, Why hasn’t Tom Curren’s mother gotten her due? His dad was non-existent while his mother drove him to Ventura every morning to surf decent waves before school. He would arrive at Junior High first period english with wet hair, red eyes and talk of head high waves unavailable to SB surfers. She encouraged him in surfing, school, religion and staying away from drugs. I believe she helped promote contests that were rare in the mid 70’s for teens.
    She gave him the love and support he required as a human and surfer. The rest is history but I know there is a story to be told here. A story opposite to the one you tell and might show those abusive parents another way to encourage their children.
    Love your writing and photography!