Best Foot Forward

Switching your stance could make you a better surfer, and prevent injuries

| posted on March 18, 2012

Growing up in Santa Cruz, Nat Young may have lamented his goofy-ness as a kid, but he turned out fine in the end. Photo: Ellis

This article is from our April issue, themed “The Science of Surf.” Click here for more on our oceanic field studies, which include, but are not limited to, bathymetry, genealogy, hydrodynamics, wave pools, and stoke.

Unless you were born ambidextrous—like, say, Jeff Clark, who learned to surf switch-foot to avoid Maverick’s beasts at his back—you probably think more about new boards than adjusting your stance. But scientific studies suggest that the way you stand on a board is worth thinking about, and even switching up.

More than right-left dominance, stance is our foundation for balance and the core of our performance—and it can be tweaked. According to David Anderson, a professor at the SFSU Department of Kinesiology, the best ways to determine stance is to “March in place blindfolded. If you turn clockwise, your left leg tends to dominate during stance and locomotion; counter clockwise your right leg dominates.”

Most surfers adopt the stance that simply feels right. The first time you strap on a leash, you take a stance, which, like an arranged marriage, becomes a lifelong commitment.

Our bodies communicate what feels preferable, because fresh from the oven, one side of our body feels more comfortable doing certain tasks, and relegates the other side to an everlasting supporting role. From then on, physiological tracks get laid; each side feeling more comfortable over time, until maintaining balance is automatic. Like digesting a roach-coach taco, we don’t think about balance unless it’s off. That’s because our sense of balance operates in stealth, and is therefore overlooked, underappreciated, and excluded from The 5 Senses Club.

Stance is actually an uber-sophisticated, tri-sensory, feedback-looped, multi-leveled labyrinth of neuromuscular communication. In coordinated concert, three sensory systems got humans off all fours, and to this day inconsistent signals make us seasick.

The three systems that guide balance are vision, vestibular (our inner-ear gyroscope), and somatosensory (cells in muscles, joints, and on the bottoms of our feet that signal body position in space). These systems employ feedback mechanisms for micro counter adjustments in movement and smooth transitions between them. Smooth, non-robotic adjustments prevent wipeouts. Lacking this feedback mechanism, robots can’t surf.

The human body, however, coordinates this sophisticated stuff without thinking. Toddlers aren’t taught how to sit up, walk, or not toddle. The body figures it out by trial, error, adjusting, and falling, not by thinking, “Engage erector spinae!”

"The more one-sided we are, the more imbalanced we become, decreasing performance," says Dr. Tim Brown. Brett Simpson, putting his dominant side to work in San Francisco. Photo: Ellis

Unfortunately, acquiring the muscle memory necessary to meet the physical challenges at hand, and at foot, often includes the cementing of bad habits as well. Scientist/surfer Michaela Bruton, who researches balance at the University of Sydney, says that because stance facilitates balance and allows us to put pressure on the rails, it manipulates our position on the wave. A dysfunctional stance, even if it is correctly oriented, hinders your ability to surf well. “If your feet are too far apart,” Bruton explains, “you can’t rotate your trunk, open your shoulders to turn, or powerfully flex and extend your legs. If you’re not crouching low enough in bottom-turns, you limit efficient transfer of momentum from body to board to wave.”

Eventually, the multitudes of repeated bad habits over time push our asymmetry to the point where, if some of us lost a right hand, certain bodily functions would be virtually impossible. Dr. Tim Brown is Co-Medical Director of the Northern Hemisphere for the ASP and a 50-year surfer. He says, “The more one-sided we are over time, the more imbalanced our bodies become, decreasing performance. Imbalance is the leading cause of sports injury.”

Strangely enough, counteracting imbalance requires throwing our bodies off balance. In this way, surfing switch-foot can enhance performance in your native stance. Brown says, “Switch-stance stimulates under-toned muscles to better support joints, body alignment, and the function of overused, under-stretched dominant muscles. Training both sides improves coordination and body alignment/posture, balancing the muscles that control your core.”

Anderson adds, “Awareness begins destabilizing a pattern, interrupting what’s become automatic. As a pattern destabilizes, performance initially regresses, making you worse before you get better. Inhibiting old patterns, allows new patterns to emerge, but it takes hundreds if not thousands of hours.”

The truth is we rarely change what’s already working for us. It’s easier for us to accept our stance and focus on the technical aspects of our surfing, or simply upgrading to the newest surfboard. It’s a lot more palatable than a lengthy detour back to Kooksville.

—MG Raven

  • TOM

    I began standing regular instead of goofy, dunno why. while trying to get back to my goofy stance i found out that this was according to the direction of the wave.

  • Mike

    I’ve been debating whether or not I should try/teach myself how to surf the opposite stance. I think this confirmed my decision to try it.

  • Rich

    So then if you’re right foot dominant, post march test, is regular stance more appropriate than goofy?

  • stu

    If by “Dr” you mean “Chiropractor” then yes, Tim Brown is a Dr. LOL.

  • Peter

    I´ve been thinking about it too, i´m regular and my local spot is a very good left…but i like it backhand… thanks for the advise of keep the body balanced,
    I have a friend who skates very well (ollies, flips &stuff) on gooffy stands ands surfs very well (flow&style) ,on regular stands, i think it´s just a matter of how do you learn it the first time you take off

  • charliep

    after 35 years of surfing regularfoot, after reading this article i am switching to goofy…..

    i do feel the future of performance surfing and the end of dane reynold’s reign will end when someone can switch

    just look at skating and snowboarding

  • Paul

    No reason not to go switch. Surf free.

  • FP

    I surfed frontside all my life. Left or right… Don’t even bother to
    Surf backside. People say I am sick in the head, but whatever. Maybe I am….

  • Alan

    I surf on goofy stand, however I skate on regular stand…. never met someone like me….

  • Shaun Reen

    For years my middle son snowboarded and surfed goofy foot. Not because he was naturally left handed but because he liked to say that he was “goofy”.

  • Mari

    Alan, i’m just like u. I surf and snowboard goofy stance, but skate w/ regular stance. My boyfriend the same way…are we freaks? I think i could surf as regular, but i cannot pop up as a regular. My boyfriend surfs sometimes as a regular, but he surfs WAaaaaaaaY better as a goofy.

  • abe

    tomorrow at least on half the waves i’m gonna try switching my stance…never tried it b4

  • huge nutsack bulge

    regularly, one can be goofy. if one is goofy, this can be regular… catch my drift

  • Bernie

    I surfed goofy and skate regular as far I can remember. It’s a good challenge to try switching on both things. Thanks for sharing guys.

  • pat

    you guys are idiots.

  • tom

    um, since when is a chiropractor a doctor?

  • ben

    why is a chiropractor calling himself a doctor? seems a bit deceptive, huh?

  • Ben

    Spend your money on a good massage… chiropractors (Dr.?) can and do cause more damage than they would ever let you believe. Never let them “manipulate” your neck. Chiropractor=expensive massage (without the happy ending!)

  • Tabs

    The chiropractor is probably titled as a Dr because he’s done a PHD. Probably in the biomechanics of riding switch. There’s your answer fishbulb…

  • switchfoot bob

    Hi I surf switch all the time, I relate a lot of it to what the doctor says. I think it all started form being right into basketball when i was 8, And continue to play today, im 32 now, Basketball forced me to be able to use both sides of my body at all times being point guard. This is just a third of the the roots to switch foot enlightenment, The next third is bodyboarding i started bodyboarding when i was 14 which also requires you to switch your hand and body position and i did this as well as play ball for ten years until i grabbed a standup late i know at 24, I was just so used to switching it up it just felt natural when i proceeded to grow legs and standup i just surfed forehand both ways, i already had a sense for hollow pits on the lid and the transition was seamless, now eight years on im getting better and better at switching going backhand as well, Me friends are always wanting to surf a right or a left i just laugh. Sometimes when im sitting on a peak by myself they think there is two people surfing it! ha ha Im not trying to blow wind up my own ars but a lot of other sports do it so why dont we?????? .

    So teach your youngins to switch trust me it s sick!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Michel

    I taught myself to switch stance while riding in the ’80s. Did not practice enough, but plan to return to it.

  • ton harris

    Glad to see im not the only one to have surfed goofy for 15 years and skate natural..
    Have always thought about mixing it up in the surf

  • real doctor

    Fairly interesting article until the mumbo jumbo from the chiropractor.

    “The more one-sided we are over time, the more imbalanced our bodies become, decreasing performance. Imbalance is the leading cause of sports injury.”

    WTF. Trauma is the leading cause of sports injury.

    Pretty sketchy that this dude is the ASP Medical Director.

  • Rick Drayton

    Jeff Crawford won the Pipe Masters in 1974 by switching stance. Nuff Said.

  • HungLo

    Lots of ginormous words, from the left side of the brain, to make most of us, right foot dominate.