Synaptic maps in our brains program the way we surf. But it’s up to us to make sure they’re running the right code.
There’s a slow-motion video of Dane Reynolds’ frontside cutback playing on my monitor. Partway through the turn—as he dismantles a glassy wall—his head, shoulders, and hips turn in synch, an imaginary line, from top to bottom, running through the center of his body. His left hand skims the wave face. Then as his board begins to track into the next stage of the turn, he brings his right arm forward, centers his shoulders to the lip, shifts his weight onto his back foot, and completes the reentry on the whitewater, focusing the torque from his upper body downward.
The turn represents a seamless, start-to-finish sequence of body movements, something neurologists call a discreet task, a skill containing a single unit of activity with a definite beginning and ending. It’s like a tennis serve, or a golf swing.
The thing is, Reynolds is riding a fairly long wave. So as he transitions out of the turn, projecting onto the face, his discrete task expands into another cluster of activities. He combines serial skills—several distinct elements strung together in a particular sequence—to produce an integrated movement, then stitches these movements together, the end of one cycle of the skill becoming the beginning of the next.
He pumps to generate speed. He bottom turns. He drives through another vicious cutback. At a macro level, his body mechanics become what we call surfing. And the best part is, human physiology has wired him to perform this symphony of motion without a thought.
There are roughly 100 billion synapses in the human brain. When we learn to walk, to tie our sneakers, to do a slob grab, a process called potentiation maps a course through this maze of electrical circuits. Because most studies suggest we’re born with roughly the same number of synapses that we can expect to have as adults, these pathways are seen as critical in explaining the development of motor skills.
During the learning process, our brains become trained to fire certain synapses in a particular order. As the synapses get comfortable communicating with each other, that result can feel instinctive. This is what’s commonly called muscle memory, and the advantage of this type of hardwiring is that it allows our minds to guide our bodies through motor skills while still focusing on external stimuli. We multitask. We process information and act almost simultaneously—a talent that comes in handy while throwing a spear at a prehistoric dinner item, or pulling in at Off The Wall.
Repetition strengthens these pathways, which is why beginners become experts with practice. It’s also why once you’ve done something a certain way several times, you’re more likely to do it that way again. Falling or bogging a rail can provide the feedback we need to alter these pathways (and our body mechanics). But sometimes we don’t know exactly how to correct those mistakes. Or worse, if the error is not obvious, we don’t even realize there are corrections to be made.
For example, even if you can complete a cutback regularly, it’s likely there are slight imperfections in the process, technical faults that you’d only become aware of if you saw the turn from a different point of view. Watching video to correct this can be painful—but it’s also crucial if you’re interested in improvement. We observe ourselves. We identify the problem. We correct it.
Some aspects of surfing are so complex, however, that the things we’re doing wrong aren’t apparent unless we’ve learned the basic, underlying mechanics behind the process of doing them right. Which is where technique comes in.
There’s a panoramic shot of Han’s island from Enter the Dragon on my television, thousands of his minions practicing punching, blocking, countering. It’s only a cinematic simulation of kung fu training, but aspects of the scene imitate life.
In the martial arts, forms and katas are used to pass along proven fighting techniques. Students learn and practice them, over and over and over again, until repetition allows for the performance of these sometimes-intricate body motions without the need for thought.
First, they master the fundamental mechanics. Then they move toward the more complex elements, until they can begin to blend certain techniques in real-world scenarios, applying discrete tasks and serial skills to create integrated movements.
It’s a chain of learning that can be applied to almost any motor skill that requires both the execution of a learned task and improvisation—from painting, to fencing, to playing music, to surfing. “Skillful technique is all about combining the component movements of maneuvers in the correct sequence to achieve successful surfing,” explains Martin Dunn. “Good technique is the foundation of quality surfing performances.”
Dunn should know. During the course of his 25-year career, he’s coached more than 1,500 surfers, including five Australian Pro Junior Champions, and roughly 15 WCT-level competitors. With a degree in sports science, Dunn has developed a series of instructional camps, clinics, and videos that (along with teaching tactics and mental preparation) break down the body mechanics behind good surfing, some of them highly complex. But he’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Technique coaching and awareness can be found at almost every skill level in the modern surf world, from instructors with soft-tops explaining the proper way to pop up on a board, to Kelly Slater, who has been known to sit and watch himself on video for hours in order to dissect and refine his approach.
Brad Gerlach—the 1991 World Tour runner-up, and 2006 XXL champion—has been a technique geek for most of his life, drawing on a variety of influences to study the mechanics of surfing.
“Most of my background comes from martial arts,” he says. “I studied kung fu for about 10 years. And it wasn’t that we were studying kung fu for fighting; we were just using a lot of kung fu stances, enhancing my flexibility, and applying physics for power principles. We’d train, and then I’d use my own variances to add exercises that mimic surfing. But my first influence was my dad. He was an Olympic diver who was very into the beauty of the body, and how the body moves and its aesthetics. Diving is scored in a way that requires power, effortless beauty, and efficient movement, and my dad just endlessly talked about that. So I have hours and hours of tutelage, my father just pointing it out in every sport, whatever sport we were watching on TV. So I would go and watch dance theater, I’d watch ice skating, I’d watch all types of movement to see how I could bring that beauty into my own surfing.”
Lately, Gerlach has been applying what he’s learned as a coach, working closely with young pros like Conner and Parker Coffin, not just to make them better competitors, but to give them the skills they need to be more complete surfers overall.
“When I’m coaching, I look for that beauty,” he says. “How [Parker and Conner] move from turn to turn. And then we go into smaller and smaller circles if needed, because when you start taking the turn apart technically, you find out where they might be losing drive, or where they’re losing control, or where they could be doing something bigger or smaller or different. It is a constantly evolving discovery.”
“He gets really technical,” says Parker. “We’ll talk about how to do certain maneuvers. We’ll talk about body placement. We’ll watch video and just sit there and he’ll dissect everything—the angle of your shoulders, whether you’re twisting them too far, where you’re putting your hands. Even where you’re looking—the way you turn your head plays a big role. We also do exercises that relate to surfing, which makes sense, because you look at NBA players and they just sit there and shoot free throws all day and their percentages go up. Surfing can be awkward. So I’m a definitely a believer in training your body to go into a certain position, or to do something specific, and to be comfortable with that.”
At its base, this type of approach—technique coaching, or “mindful practice” as Gerlach calls it—goes directly back to the neural pathways in the brain that create muscle memory. By focusing on the execution of the correct body motions during the practice phase (on land, in a dojo, or while watching a video), a surfer can then apply them in the water automatically.
“If you do this stuff on land, you don’t think in the water,” says Gerlach. “But if you don’t do this stuff on land, and then you try to work on these things in the water, it’s like trying to study for a test while you’re taking it.”
The drawback of hardwired surfing? You run the risk of becoming a robot. We’ve all seen this: the contest machine who grinds through a heat, who performs the correct maneuvers on appropriate parts of the wave but isn’t exciting to watch. Even freesurfers, recreational included, can fall victim to mechanical repetition.
“With martial arts you can be uncoordinated and not have rhythm necessarily, and still master a couple of different moves,” says former longboard world champion and multiple Jiu Jitsu Pan American Games titleholder Joel Tudor. “But with surfing, to technically gain mastery, it takes a fucking lifetime. It’s an art.”
According to Martin Dunn, however, technique may serve more as a bridge than a gap between the artistic and the mechanical aspects of good surfing: “It’s the base on which progressive and creative surfing can be built,” he says.
And he may have a point. Because muscle memory allows for the performance of tasks without thought, it frees the mind and body to react in ways unique to each individual and the demands of the constantly changing surf. Viewed through a creative lens, the result has the potential to reflect a surfer’s personality, an interpretive activity more akin to dance, for example, than martial arts.
Which brings us back to Dane Reynolds.
Technically the cutback playing on my monitor is perfect. But it’s also more than that. His personal style is there: the way he holds his hands, his arms, the way he transitions into the next turn, followed by the turn itself. It’s a discrete task loaded with unconscious expressions fused to mechanics—his neural pathways allowing for muscle memory, muscle memory allowing for technique, technique leading to improvisation, all allowing him to ride a wave in a way that’s distinctive and unique. Mastered, the mechanics become almost invisible, like the foundation of an artfully designed building.
“[A surfer is] only being mechanical when they’re thinking,” says Gerlach of this type of surfing. “As soon as they stop thinking, quiet their mind, and let their heart and personality take over, then they’re fun to watch. And the reason they’re fun to watch is because you’re witnessing a human being in pure joy, doing what they do best, in pure expression. And the repetition, the technical stuff, is there just so they don’t get caught or slowed down. They have that stuff in the bag so they can call on it out of instinct.”