Why Kelly Slater is So Good

| posted on March 14, 2011

Why is Kelly Slater so good? Because he can do turns like this. Photo: Ellis

Shea Lopez

The author of SURFER’s Top 32 Review, Shea Lopez spent 11 years competing on the World Tour and now reigns as our resident expert on the pro surfosphere.

My very close friend Donny Hirsch suggested all so kindly I put together a piece on “Why Kelly Slater is So Good.” It sounded pretty corny at first to me, kind of like doing something about “Why Steph Gilmore has Such Great Legs.” (Well, that actually would appeal highly to a certain crowd.) But when I thought a little more about “Why Kelly Slater is So Good,” I saw why it too would be informative to a certain crowd. Here’s my two cents on “The Ruler of the Surf World,” Mr. Robert Kelly Slater:

Kelly was destined to succeed from birth. Of Irish and Syrian nationality, somewhere in his past was a family member that carried the genetic makeup for the athletic body type perfect for surfing. When you see Kelly, the first thing that jumps out at you are his baseball-shaped calves. I can’t remember ever seeing a similar shape on any other athlete, except maybe the very best sprinters. The power and quickness with which these muscles direct force through his toes and onto his board is beyond comprehension to the average surfer.

If you watch his movements closely, you would then notice that he hinges in multiple places throughout his back. This much talked-about genetic anomaly has single handedly earned him numerous victories. This double joint in his back allows him to recover from the impossible far too easily. And by not falling on critical turns, while making average turns look more dramatic, wave scores in the average range will jump up to excellent in a heart beat, leaving his competitors dusted once again. Those two special features combined with a very well balanced and strong physique led Kelly—from a very young age even—to do things in the surf no one thought possible.

Surfing competitively is very unique in the combination of skill and mental capabilities required to dominate routinely. Surfing isn’t like track and field, as track is all about the physical and hardly any mental. It isn’t comparable to basketball either, even though there is plenty mental game involved. A basketball court is always the same in every city, and if you have a bad night, there are always your teammates to cover for you. What sets surfing apart, and what Kelly has been dominant with over the years, is the mental skills needed to play a 25-minute heat perfectly in different oceans, against different competitors, and in much different conditions every event.

Even if someone begins out-surfing Kelly, he has the ability to use a limitless number of tactics that will leave his competitors feeling dumbfounded and victimized. Kelly’s famous Huntington Beach heat against Shane Beschen—back when the event contributed to deciding the World Title—is a perfect example. At the time, they were rated first and second in the world and Shane was looking to be the form surfer of the event. But Kelly has a way of becoming very familiar with his competitors’ tendencies in heats. By knowing that Shane would be very in-the-moment, focused solely on destroying waves and destroying him in the process, Kelly slid behind Shane without him knowing as he took off on a nice right. The obvious interference was called on Shane. That technicality killed Shane in the event, while also putting a halt on any and all momentum he had. Kelly cruised on to win the World Title. When the world’s greatest surfer is willing to take it that far to win a heat, his opposition just gets demoralized time and time again.

So without going on for days about the many things that make Kelly so good, I’ll end with this: The writing was on the wall from Day One. His god-given ability to surf, matched with his mental capabilities and special character traits, are way beyond any of his fellow competitors. It isn’t a matter of how long he can stay at the top now or could in the past; it is always about how long Kelly can keep himself focused enough to compete at his best, because no one else has been able to compete anywhere close to Kelly’s best.

  • Marcelo

    So saying to say nothing, really… ke11y deserves more mate

  • Marcelo

    So much saying to say nothing, really… ke11y deserves more mate

  • mark

    well written and informative – kudos!

  • Ben

    Curious, Shea, what is your take on how AI was able to beat Kelly? IMO, Kelly’s greatest attribute is what I call “slow-motion vision.” Though we all see the world in a certain number of frames per second, I believe Kelly sees waves in far more frames per second than any of his fellow competitors. With this ability (combined of course with his athletic talent, flexibility, drive, and intellect) he is able to respond more appropriately to whatever the wave offers, hence his ability to squeak under lips, readjust in the barrel, find barrels where others cannot, boost off of sections invisible to other 39 year olds and so forth. He also takes ridiculously good care of his body and he appears to be in better shape now than he ever was.

  • http://blackwoodbaristi.wordpress.com Glenn Harpur

    Really enjoying your perspectives, Shea, keep it up.

  • HUHH???

    If they are paying to go to snapper you could at least do a wrap up POST on the contest or maybe not…

    This post is beating a dead horse, I mean a dead horse’s bones…

  • http://www.olas.tv RAUL CALLE

    A M E N ! …

  • Dax

    I think the real difference between Kelly, or any insane athlete, is that they all have the ability to slow down reality when it matters most. The wave that Kelly sees is not the same wave one of us would see….I would see a death coming towards me, Kelly sees a smooth transition with multiple layers and plenty of room to slash. It’s just like The Matrix!

  • Ken

    Except Andy Irons… but even he burned out from the intensive of the rivalry. Miss that guy.

  • sean

    Great article Shea. I’ve been a Kelly basher in the past, figuring the judges were giving him a pass whenever it was a close call, but I’d love to see him win a few more titles. This is an amazing story. We all know there’s a lot more to his dominance than being a rubberman and psyching out his opponents. I was on HB pier for most of his heats in the huge swell US Open of 2009 and he was showing a lot more of not only skill and creativity but GUTS than the other competitors. I particularly remember a heat where Kelly electrified a bored crowd. The previous heats were looking for clean peaky waves and avoiding the scary bombs which the crowd wanted to see ridden. Kelly paddled out immediately began pulling into huge closeout left barrels and then paying the price right at the pilings. What a show that man can put on! In an event won by Brett, Kelly was head and shoulders above the others and was knocked out because he was sitting in a different position than his opponent and got skunked during a lull.

  • http://presspresser.com DrewC

    shea…good article. i also heard that kelly’s got big feet. this true? cuz if he’s only 5’9, 5’10…with like 12 or 13 size feet…where they you go. balance unlike the norm. i’m 5’9 and wear a 10. size 13 just seems uncanny for someone that tall. it’s all about balance. nice article bro – drew

  • venicesurfer

    Seriously, Surfer? Is this the best you could do on one of the best competitors in the history of surfing?

    Sure, this piece felt like a total cop-out, with a couple of interesting tidbits (Kelly’s special joint agility, the Beschen incident), and I might have been able to click to another piece, if it weren’t for the mind-blowingly dismissive opener, in which Mr. Lopez rates four-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore’s legs as more worthy of praise than, say, her surfing, in the intro about her 2010 male counterpart, Kelly Slater.

    Sure, her legs are awesome. But between overlooking Gilmore’s professional identity as a surfer, and blowing off an opportunity to write a really insightful piece about Slater, this story was disappointing. It’s 2011, Mr. Lopez. Don’t Surfer’s readers deserve more?

  • vcordova

    I agree with @venicesurfer. Shea, I was interested in the article after going through your first paragraph, and then you lost me in zzzzzzz’s with more of the same regurgitated boredom that’s already been said over the years. Yeah, he’s the best surfer ever. But base it on his being doublejointed, the size of his calfs? Give me a break. If we’re going to reduce an athlete’s supremacy over a sport based on physical attributes, then we should talk about how Bede Durbidge and his long arms have the best paddling power in the universe, or how Dane’s freakish ability to defy gravity will push the sport into the 21st century, or how White Lightning and Parko’s military diet regiment will have them in tip-top shape for the next 20-some years.

    I think what was missing from the article and what is unique about Kelly is his absolute mind control over the game. His ability to focus and intellectualize the contest format of surfing is far beyond what any other competitive surfer has been able to achieve, and today no one on tour is even close to harnessing. Mick is probably the closest one right now, but he’s got a long way to show longevity and the ability to keep intensity of focus for so many years.

    Much has been said about Kelly’s obsession (even by his own admission) over heat numbers years ago, about how he’s overthought wave forms, swell shapes, and breaking up a wave into small planing surfaces. But that’s the kind of single-focus that sets you apart from everyone else in your league. It would’ve been good to read more about this, especially from someone who knows him personally and has seen him in action over the last two decades. Come back with a better Part 2, Shea!

  • Brad Western

    WTF was the comment about Steph Gilmores legs about? If you want to masquarade as a writer at least be semi proffessional.

  • Wills

    Shea, crushing your next piece is crucial. Given your history and access to KS I’m sure you can pull out a 8.5 on the next one.

  • Barça

    Venice surfer and vcordova, perfect words.

  • http://n/a KELPERS

    Enjoyed the brief breakdown Shea.

    It can’t be under estimated that K11 has put the right nutrition, while avoiding drugs and alcohol abuse, into his mind and body. K11 said during an interview last year during the triple crown that avoiding drugs and alcohol abuse as a professional surfer was his greatest accomplishment. The ASP, his competitors AND THE KIDS should all take note!


  • Mike Stice

    I agree with KELPERS’ comments above, with Dax’s comments, and with a few of the points Shea glossed over in this brief article. Truth is, it’s much more complicated.

    It’s a perfect storm of Slater’s nature, the environment in which he was nurtured*, and the subsequent physical and psychological outcome, result, outcome, result, ad finitum . . .

    1) Genetic physical characteristics. (Double jointedness, disproportionately large feet, lowish center of gravity, etc.)

    2) An emotional sensitivity to his immediate surroundings. (The kind of sensitivity that–in an effort to compensate for the instability and unpredictability of his family life–resulted in a monomaniacal obsession with becoming the best surfer at a very early age, and that ultimately allows him to seem so preternaturally “tuned in” to whatever ocean in which he finds himself.)

    3) His mother, Judy’s, unique ability to both throw Kelly to the wolves (the ocean and a group of older more savvy surfers) and yet still tirelessly support him. (Circumstances provided Kelly with an incredibly long leash for a young boy, but Judy was also there to drive Kelly and Sean to contests. This set up an early dichotomy between fredom and guidance, and this supported a pattern of calculated risk, reward, calculated risk, reward, etc . . . that continues to this day. It was likely this quality that kept Kelly’s risks calculated and prevented them from becoming the uncalculated abandon of someone like Matt Archbold, who, unlike Kelly, did not have the same kind of guidance.)

    4) Self-discipline. (Again, likely stemming from a deep-seated desire to be in control of something. So, in this case his surfboard, his competitors, his body, his mind, and ultimately the perception that he has control of all of these things in the vast, mercurial realm of the Ocean. Going full circle here, you’ll see this psychologically compensates for the lack of control he felt earlier in life, or, perhaps that he still feels on a subconscious level.)

    What amazes me most, is Slater’s ability to remain level headed and injury free despite being idolized and repeatedly at great bodily risk for the past several decades. If you think about it, these may be his greatest feats to date, and may act as the greatest hallmarks of his uncanny ability to remain physically and mentally intact in the face and wake of undeniable tempestuousness.

    *Disclaimer: I do not pretend to know Kelly or the Slater family. Much of what I have written regarding his upbringing is based on previously published information, and, as such, may be flawed.

  • Charlie Sheen

    Surfing is 75 percent mental. 25 percent physical. Slater has accomplished what he has because he has the mental ability/capacity to envision his surfing. It has been said that whatever Kelly decides to do on a wave he will do. Slater has deconstructed his own and everyone else’s surfing to the point beyond comprehension. Make no mistake, Slater knows more than anyone else about technical approach. He talks about it in his heats, his understanding of body mechanics, hydrodynamics, oceanography and philosophy would amaze you. Slater is a seeker of knowledge, he is constantly seeking to understand and by applying this to his surfing, he has perhaps found what no one else has. In the physical realm, his capability is extraordinary and has thus reinforced his mental ability. In addition, his unique and extremely complex psychological drive to become the best surfer in the world has only added to his accomplishments. Any other surfer could win a title with one of these characteristics, however, Slater has them all. AI won three off anger alone. Slater has the same drive, except he has controlled it’s fury. The fact that Slater helped to define the modern day template of contest surfing is another. Slater is not the most progressive or the best surfer ever. Jordy, Dane, Julian and others are more progressive and arguably have more natural physical ability. However, they do not have the mental focus, drive, understanding and control that Slater does. That is why they will never win ten world titles. Slater’s ability to predict ocean conditions and predict wave conditions while constantly analyzing and strengthening his weaknesses in relation to his opponents is light years beyond the regular contest surfer. Slater is a freak because of these unique combinations that happened to genesis. Most likely we will never see anyone even close to this phenonmenon again.

  • Nick

    Love, opportunity, and talent are what has gotten Slater this far. Times these three things by a thousand and add a little bit of destiny in there and wa-la you have Slater. More importantly than picking Slater apart, I would like to personally thank him for being such a great ambassador of the sport of surfing.

  • Jeff

    There are a handful of guys that at some point in time have had Kelly’s talent yet they lack that mental focus that Kelly has. Tom Curren may have been able to win 10 titles prior to the emergence of Slater but nobody else has been in his league. I would argue that Kelly was a “better” surfer than Andy Irons but Andy had blossomed at a time when Kelly wasn’t competing, was able to excel mentally and get a bit in Kelly’s head, and took advantage of the only chink in Kelly’s armor. Kelly was able to overcome this and take back the title and ultimately drive Andy to take a hiatus from the tour.

    I think what makes Kelly tick is that he “REALIZES” the opportunity he has. He has been able to make a living doing what we all dream about. He understands this and probably keeps pinching himself daily. Surfing those crummy waves on the East Coast may have given him the opportunity to see what he DOESN’T WANT…which is to be someone who showed up, hung around, and vanished. He has been able to avoid a real job by maintaining FOCUS, GIVING IT 100%, recreating different reasons “WHY” to surf, and to keep MOTIVATION ALIVE.

    He just keeps reinventing himself. He’s a different surfer every year. He has something unique to bring to the table. He keeps the surf community guessing but we all know – but it makes for good excitement.

    It took me many years to get past Tom Curren and really appreciate what Kelly has done. I think his greatest advantage now is his experience calming his nerves, understanding what his competition is going to do, knowing when he needs to go into his bag of tricks, playing some mind games (something only a 10 time champ can do) like he did to Taj when he knocked his wheels off in the first contest, and just pure desire.

    Keep it going Kelly. You’ve destroyed 4 or 5 generations of surfing? Keep it going and enjoy the ride. Once you’re done you wont’ have wondered “what if?” You will know the answer. You will have another surfing life once you’re done competing.

  • http://www.vaguestudio.com/ Alex

    Wow. I think Mike Stice’s response is, perhaps, the most astute, analytical, and in depth bit I’ve ever read regarding Kelly. Thanks, Mike.

  • Nick

    Shea, the article was sub par for such a high profile topic. I’ll have to side with Marcelo on this one. Ke11y deserves more than baseball calves, while also hinting to special character traits. Which I got the impression you were trying to imply a negative condemnation about Slater. Like taking competition to a level in which would be compared to an evil player on a competitive reality show like survivor. And that is also where I feel the energy of this article is apparent most.

    I’m not sure if you were really tired or just lazy, but I learned more about Kelly through the comments of this article, rather than the article it self.

  • charliep

    maybe mike stice should have a job writing for surfer. they would be lucky to have him.

  • Sabine

    Thanks this was a fun article to read.

    But seriously, I must bring this up: “Surfing isn’t like track and field, as track is all about the physical and hardly any mental.”–Just about any track athlete or runner would tell you that this is patently untrue. Running is one of the most mental sports out there.

  • Sabine

    Thanks this was a fun article to read.

    But seriously, I must bring this up: “Surfing isn’t like track and field, as track is all about the physical and hardly any mental.”–Just about any track athlete or runner would tell you that this is patently untrue. Running is one of the most mental sports out there.

    • Cyal

      100% agreed. I was mildly offended but I doubt Mr.Lopez has ever run track&field so it’s fine. For me its the most comparable thing to surfing in terms of training and learning, it takes a truly tremendous amount of effort and commitment to become a good runner.

  • Gregg

    He’s 40 years old compeating against 20 year olds, odds are he’s on steriods, like Lance, it’s just natural to age. We should be calling him Kelly Armstrong.