Practicing Single-Mindedness

| posted on July 22, 2010

Regardless of how “in-tune” we are with the ocean, we all want to become better surfers. So why don’t we practice our floaters or cutbacks the same way tennis players practice their forehands, or golfers practice hitting their 7-iron? If you arrive at any answer other than “because we’re lazy,” I would venture to guess that you’re being dishonest with yourself. It all hit home one afternoon as I browsed through the Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology (1). In it, an article discussed how brain scans of elite athletes revealed that they used significantly less of their brain while playing their sport compared to weekend warriors, allowing the athletes to make high-level decisions rather than worrying about the fundamentals of their game (2). The reason for this, the article suggests, is that the movements required to perform their sport were hidden somewhere deeper than the cognitive part of their brain. Instead, the required movements were hard-wired into their unconscious through hours of practice and training. It struck me as strange that through all my years of surfing, I have never actually taken the time to practice a maneuver. I go to the driving range regularly, but I never approach the surf as I do the range. Specifically, I never gear myself to refine my game.

Cutback Fundamentalism

As with most of my Surf Tip experiments, there would be no half-measures. For the period of one week, I would perform frontside roundhouse cutbacks and nothing else. This meant no lefts, no floaters, no airs (3), and no excuses. The extremist approach relied heavily on findings on “muscle memory” or rather, motor memory; we develop chemical and physical links between our neurons that become hard-wired the more we perform a certain action. To understand motor memory, consider the following analogy: The longer a river runs along a certain path, the more entrenched its banks will be, and therefore the less likely it will be to deviate from its path. My goal was to go along a certain path (in my case, back to the white water) enough times to cement the movement as a motor function. Since the above-mentioned article found that “performance decreases whenever intention intervenes,” my goal would be to eradicate intention altogether, and make my cutback a hard-wired motor function, something I didn’t have to think about at all and just did, like walking, or drinking beer every Friday night.

The One-Track Mind

At first, my cutbacks regressed, and it was easy for me to see why. I worried about arm placement and body positioning throughout, and beyond, each turn. But after a few attempts, those factors became less of a concern and my brain became increasingly non-intrusive. Instead I was free to focus on style, and by the end of the session, my experiment had simply become an exercise in refinement. Performing a cutback crept toward the nonchalance of performing a bottom turn. This, after just one session.

Variety: The Spice

My approach to the experiment posed some immediate problems, especially when the waves didn’t cooperate. My strict regimen meant that I had to pass up a number of lefts, which would have easily been the best waves of my sessions. Furthermore, I soon found squeezing a roundhouse cutback under the falling lip of a knee-high shorebreak closeout, to be impossible. Sadly, it became a familiar scenario thanks to a painful flat-spell and my apartment being in close proximity to the world’s worst beachbreak. Later, one cutback was interrupted when a bather took an active interest in my pursuit and decided to park his lily-white frame on the shoulder of the only surfable wave of my session. Another cutback attempt was thwarted when I simply ran aground. It became obvious that good surfing was not about performing a single maneuver perfectly, but rather about riding, reading, and interpreting the wave well. Bottom line, my cutbacks got better, but my surfing didn’t.

Insert Cutback Here

The real benefits of my single-mindedness were only evident to me at the end of my week-long ordeal. Now free to do whatever I wanted, I reached a meaty shoulder on the wave and laid into a cutback before moving on to the inside section. I performed the maneuver without actually thinking about it, instead, I concerned myself with the curve of the wall, and how much time I had before the wave reached the inside bank. Unfortunately for me, it was a moot point. I fell on the very next turn. I wish I had spent the preceding week perfecting closeout bashes. At least then I would have finished the ride.


Repetition develops chemical and physical links between our neurons, which over time become more ingrained to the point that eventually it becomes difficult to form new pathways to do the same task. (Try brushing your teeth with the other hand, or re-routing the water running through the Grand Canyon.) This, of course, poses a problem. By repeating a movement, we reinforce any bad habits that we may already have. It is therefore advisable to watch footage of yourself or ask someone to help you with certain aspects of your surfing before you hardwire something hideous, or dysfunctional, into your repertoire.

*This article was typed quickly, using deep-rooted motor memory and very little intellect.

(1) As you do.

(2) On the Road to Automatic: Dynamic Aspects in the Development of Expertise. Journal of Clinical Neurophysiology. 21(3):134-143, May/June 2004. Milton, John G.; Small, Steven S.; Solodkin, Ana

(3) No problem.