Water on the Brain

| posted on November 20, 2012

Like the soggy lobes implanted in Frankenstein's monster, pro surfers aren't always given the best shot at cognitive development.

Rob Gilley

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

I can’t remember the exact words, but he said something like, “Nice try” or “Good effort.”

Part of me wanted to slug him–just send a lightning-fast, North Shore haymaker to the side of his bearded mug. I had never thrown a punch in my life, but for a fleeting moment I fantasized about dispatching my fist on its maiden voyage.

The truth is that I knew Renneker wasn’t trying to be patronizing, but man did he make me feel like a little kid. He had just finished schooling me in the vocabulary game Boggle, and was actually just trying to add some encouraging words. But his comment came off like a master artist trying to boost the confidence of a kindergarten finger painter.

Up yours, Picasso.

The other part of me, the greater part, wanted to hug him. It had been a long, long time since I had hung out with someone as intelligent as Dr. Mark Renneker, and save the backhanded encouragement, treasured every moment in his presence. Not since college had I had the opportunity to converse with someone as bright as the good doctor.

This deep appreciation made me realize that I had developed a thirst for exposure to intelligent and scholarly ways, and a razor-sharp, perceptive wit. Later I blamed this parched longing on surf photography and years spent wandering the empty deserts of professional surfing.

As you might expect, pro surfers aren’t especially brainy or academic (with a few notable exceptions, of course). Some of the pros are hilarious, some are super nice, and some possess shocking courage, but being book smart, or having a high IQ, is not usually part of their resume.

There are a few stories that illustrate this point. They go something like this:

1) On planning an upcoming journey, one professional wave-rider asked, “So after France, we go to Europe?”

2) When informed that the World Tour had lost their umbrella sponsorship during an ASP meeting, one surfer retorted, “Screw those guys, I never even got my f—ing umbrella.”

3) Upon discovering a smashed window on his North Shore rental car, one pro surfer had trouble putting two and two together: “What’s this rock doing on my seat?”

Isolated anecdotes aside, the real question is whether critical thinking or academic knowledge really matters in professional surfing. Scholarly acumen is not tantamount to athletic success, and for those at the top of the game, it’s not necessary at all. Who needs brains when you’ve got that much talent?

On the other hand, for those that never quite reach the top—the better portion, in other words—lacking basic skills might not bode well when reality hits and a re-immersion into real life becomes necessary.

Why I’m even mentioning this obvious truth is because I’ve noticed over the years that basic aptitudes seem to be diminishing. From my experience, a greater percentage of sponsored professional surfers seem to be lacking basic reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. While this may be indicative of American society as a whole, it seems like an accelerated state of affairs for professional surfers—a sad fate that seems to be speeding toward a Spicoli cliché.

What’s weird to me is that this lack of academic interest has been addressed before. That’s why the NSSA was created in the first place—to put an emphasis on studying and staying in school. To create a proper balance between riding waves and cognitive reasoning.

Which is why I was so blown away by one of the teams at last year’s NSSA Middle School Interscholastic Championships: CAVA. CAVA, or California Virtual Academy, is an online education program for home-schoolers. Apparently some of the more promising juniors in the country “attend” these classes, and don’t go to a physical, real-life school at all.

From a personal standpoint, I understand home school for religious reasons. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. For surf training however, I think it’s pretty ridiculous—especially when it comes to juniors. I mean if you were 12 and you had a choice of devoting your attention toward getting shacked or conjugating a foreign verb, what would you choose?

I’m aware that we live in an era of specialization. An era where we need to concentrate our efforts on one thing and log those 10,000 hours into to our chosen path in order to achieve success. But at what cost?

The truth is that I really don’t know the answer. Fathoming all the subtleties of this subject requires way too much thinking. After decades immersed in water, my own brain has turned to mush.

In fact, this whole thing has got me pretty boggled.

  • dgb

    Rob should just try to understand homeschooling from an academic point of view…

    Homeschooled students achieved a higher graduation rate (66.7 percent) when compared to the overall population (57.5 percent).

    Homeschoolers scored higher on the ACT (26.5) compared with the overall student body (25).

    Homeschoolers earned more college credit (14.7) prior to their freshman year compared to the student body (6).

    Homeschooled students earned a higher fall semester GPA (3.37) when compared to other freshman students (3.08).

    Homeschooled students earned a higher first-year GPA (3.41) when compared to other freshman students (3.12).

    Homeschooled students earned a higher fourth-year GPA (3.46) when compared to other freshman students who completed their fourth year (3.16).

  • Chris Connolly

    I’m not exactly sure where you’re getting your statistics. I’m assuming that the gpa you’re describIng is from the home-school program itself. In that case, those gpa statistics you’re dishing out really have no meaning. I’ve been an educator at high end private schools for 14 years. I hold a master’s in literature from a notable and highly regarded university. ACT scores monitor student progress based on high school curricula. What are these students SAT scores like? That’s right, the test that colleges consider for admission. My experience with home-schooled students entering into a freshman college prep program is that they are woefully underprepared. Furthermore, they lack the normal socialization experienced by my other students, having been isolated to one peer group for the duration of their home schooling. I consider my self a well-traveled, proficient surfer, and definitely in love with the sport. However, if I just hung with my surf bros my whole life, I would have missed out on the opportunity to meet a lot of really special people.

    Parents, be responsible and send your kids to school. Usually, they’re not going to be the next Dane Reynolds.

    Thanks Rob for addressing this issue.

  • Whamo

    I met Mark on the North shore, and yes, he is smart. But he’s also too tall and awkward to ever surf that well. I respect him because he takes off steep and deep, and he does his own thing in a world that wants him to conform. Most of the hot surfers that I went to high school with got advanced degrees after their surfing days were over. Brad McCaul and John Mussachia (San Clemente legend from the early 60’s), come to mind. Of course, there were a lot of others that became shapers and carpenters. It takes all kinds. Sadly, many of them have already passed, young, from life in the fast lane.

  • mo

    wise words, wise words…

  • TonyG

    Dear Mr. Connolly,
    Your post is quite interesting. However, it is also almost word for word the rhetoric we hear from teachers’ unions and the anti-home school and charter school caucus. Home schoolers have been proven to excell in college prepatory sudies and performance. States also have certain requirements mandating social interaction for home schooled students so that they are socially adpated to their peers.

  • Ciaran

    Homeschooling a kid hoping they will have a career in surfing is, in my eyes, the antithesis of surfing. It saddens me that the pros of tommorrow are preordained from an early age, and it takes the romance out of competitive surfing (is that an oxymoron?). I also think it takes away from an individuals acheivements later on if they have had this massive advantage…

  • Dang3rtown

    This reminds me in some ways of a study done on the U.S. Olympic ski team back in the 80’s. All team members were given I.Q. tests. The skiers who specialized in the slalom and giant slalom were average but the guys and gals who specialized in the Downhill, a death defying race had below average IQs. The conclusion researchers came to was that in order to put your body at an appropriate level of risk to be successful in that race you needed to lack a certain level of intelligence.

  • Adammj

    A successful home schooling program is inseparably dependent on how invested the parent/teacher is in their children’s education. The priority should be growth and learning – if you want to home school your child because you perceive it will help nourish that priority, awesome. But I agree with Rob that if the parents motivating force is his/her juniors future surfing career (or any non-academic pursuit for that matter), it might rightfully raise eyebrows.

  • TM

    Well-written piece addressing a legit concern.

    Just as with brick and mortar schools, the quality of home-schooling varies tremendously when you take a close look. Let’s not forget, isn’t school about more than just books, tests, etc.? A certain level of social development, critical to an adolescent during their formative years, is also on offer to those that attend the more traditional ‘brick and mortar’ schools. I’m not denouncing home-schooling, as I can see the benefits in many respects; however, I have to agree with the comment in the article asking what happens once the ‘pro-surfer’ career ends and a re-immersion into ‘real-life’ occurs. In today’s competitive professional business world, Master’s degrees are a ‘dime a dozen’. It’s challenging enough to succeed, let alone excel, with an impressive resume, both professional as well as educational. If learning has been neglected from an early age to focus on wave-count alone, at some point, the child in question, once grown, is on the losing end.

  • chris connolly

    Hey TonyG,

    I appreciate your opinion. However, the majority of those studies are funded by the HSLDA, advocates for home schooling, and hardly impartial. Not to engage too much in a tit for tat , but there is a good article by professor Rob Reich of Stanford University (pretty solid organization I think) regarding academic performance of home schooled students where he cites the “….massively de-regulated environment for homeschoolers, AND, “A further concern is that an appalling amount of the research conducted on home schooling and given publicity in the media is undertaken by or sponsored by organizations whose explicit mission is to further the cause of home schooling.”

    Give it a read and take care.

  • GBD

    But, really, who cares, if anyone – other than promising engineers and mathematicians – know how to calculate the negative exponent of a number (which is an eighth grade level task, btw.) or any other random math, chemistry or physics fact. Why are we even focusing on this $hit? (and before you randomly write this statement off, know that I am a middle school teacher and surfer; one who sees an ever increasing focus placed on “mastery” of these subjects that, basically, no one ever uses… Ask yourself, “Have I ever had to calculate the square root of a number in “real” life?”…) Maybe we are just filling these students’ heads with useless information… actually, not maybe. We definitely are.

  • http://surfer Kimbo

    great article and excellent photo of Jake Patterson.

  • mateo

    Once, as I arrived back in the lineup after a heavy pounding, Doc Renneker said to me, “You probably don’t mean to be a snot, but I think you might want to know, you have some hanging off your nose.” Later, I thought, what a geeky thing to say, and yet, so true. My blood had run cold for a second when he was midway through the sentence. I most definitely did not want Doc to think I was a snot. That would be almost as bad as having Jeff Clark look inside, stare directly at me, and, with obvious annoyance, wave for me to move off his ramp into the bowl. Oh wait, that happened…

    For the record, it took me a long time to learn how to recognize and use the Mavs ramp. Sometimes even after I learned to dig in under the lip, when I needed it most, the ramp would just disappear as the wave lurched. Maybe the ramp had never really been there at all. I tried to be smart, but there was a lot to process, a lot of emotion, and the situation would change really fast. Maybe if I had had someone else’s discernment and reflexes – or was just having more of an “on” day – I could have avoided that position – the bottom dropping away, the board no longer connected to the wave face – oblivion. I’m pretty sure I got concussions out there over the years, lost brain cells, perhaps.

    So, Doc was being a smart alec, and I’m trying to describe what it takes to surf smart, but what Gilley is pondering is how surfing can get in the way of formal education, the development of critical thinking skills, and academic knowledge. It’s an interesting question: what does it take to become smart and perceptive and, collectively, to be able to appreciate and nurture that potential?

    To me, William Finnegan’s profile of Ocean Beach and Doc Renneker from the New Yorker is one of the smartest pieces of surf writing. But when I asked what he thought about the article, it was clear that Doc felt Finnegan had betrayed their friendship; he said something like, “his heart turned as black as coal.” Too bad. I think the article offers an interesting portrait of a complex person – smart people are complex, fallible, and, sometimes, geeky. And some geeks charge it hard.

    Doc and some of the other mature chargers used to keep track of their total number of Mavericks sessions each season, earning a notch for every day that they paddled out and were able to catch a legit bowl wave (no, sleigh-rides didn’t count). I don’t know, maybe they still count notches out there… Anyway, the 1997/98 El Niño season was consistently big but accompanied by lots of south wind, and if I remember correctly, Doc notched more days the following year, during the 1998/99 La Niña season. He had accumulated more than 70 notches by late March. So, one day, some of the Notchers and I arrived back in the parking lot late in the afternoon to find the number seventy-two etched into the dirt caking the back window of Jonny-Three-Piece’s van. Doc had come in while we were paddling out, and I guess that he wrote the number there as a friendly reminder that he was in the lead in terms of getting notches – he was top-notcher.

    There was a well-known Santa Cruz pro, probably in his mid-twenties at the time, in the lot too. He had been checking conditions but didn’t surf that day – back then, most of the Santa Cruz pros only showed up on bigger, more photogenic days. So, Jonny-Three-Piece says, “Look, Doc is at 72.”

    And the Santa Cruz pro is, like, “Holy sh*t, Doc is seventy-two years old!!??”

    Now, I don’t want to read too much into this incident as far as this surfer’s smarts go. Doc probably was in his early 50s, which to a twenty-something can seem the same as 70s. Let’s write it off as a moment of cluelessness, rather than cast disapproving judgment.

    Who knows? Perhaps, someday soon Doc or somebody else will be out there dropping into the bowl at Mavs in his 70s. Early fifties did seem older to me back then in 1999 and probably did to the rest of the surf world, too. We were all amazed that Occy won the world title later that year at age 33. And now, although my skill and fitness have been in decline for some time, I feel like Kelly Slater, who is six months older than me, helps keep 40-years-old seeming like a pretty vigorous age. Curren and Occy, who are both getting on toward fifty, continue to bottom-turn and arc at a level of excellence that need not be recalibrated for their advancing age. No, they don’t do airs or surf like the What.Youth – but to flip the criteria on its head for a moment, how awesome would John-John and Medina surf if they could carve like Curren and Occy?

    I can’t imagine what it feels like for Florence, Medina, and their peers to see Slater continue to vie for world titles. (Like, enough already!?) I assume that he’ll stop if he gets number twelve, that he won’t be a title threat a decade from now. But he is just so darn talented, fit, and smart – I think that I can imagine Slater still making finals appearances in select events at 50, if he’s still interested. At 55 or 60? I assume there have to be limits…

    Is this too circuitous a path to saying that circumstances, inherited talent, and education (broadly defined) all combine to make somebody a smart/great surfer and person? Yes, I suppose it is, but let’s see if I can still extract a lesson from all the digression. It’s a shame when young people abandon their broader education in the hope of becoming a professional surfer. Single-minded pursuit is not always the smartest path and, by definition, only a few will make it to the top.

    True, formal schooling is not the only way to get a good education. But Gilley highlights the problems that can arise when a child’s life becomes unstructured by schooling and overly surf-centric when he asks, “I mean if you were 12 and you had a choice of devoting your attention toward getting shacked or conjugating a foreign verb, what would you choose?” Time spent away from surfing – including reading and in the classroom – can provide useful skills, help you think about other things that are worth thinking about, and give you the opportunity to practice thinking well.

  • home schooler

    I myself did home school for 4 years grades 5-8. Fortunately for me the reasoning was because I knew some other great kids and families at the time who were doing it. There was a great social network and support of local families. We got together regularly and did group field trips as well as some subjects we had teachers.
    The reason home school worked well for me was that my mother was very strict with my accountability. I got a better education than other friends of mine who remained in public and private schools. Once High School rolled around I went back and was very well prepared. Socially I was also fine because of all the interaction I had as well as previous relationships.

    I look at all of these young kids being pushed to be the next Kelly Slater very early on and I cannot fathom doing that to my son one day. The parents of these kids need a reality check. I can almost guarantee they are getting very subpar educations from an online academy. There is just no way a young kid can surf all day and travel the world while working online. Most of these kids are going to burn out before they are 18 years old. I can’t believe parents even push their kids towards professional surfing as if the payoff were similar to baseball or basketball. It never will be in the same echelon and with the current economy it will take years to be how it was just 5 – 7 years ago.

    Parents need to get real and understand a good surfer will be a good surfer no matter if they go to traditional school or not. Let kids be kids.

  • dgb

    Chris Connolly:

    On SATs/ACTs:

    The SAT and the ACT, the nation’s other major college-entrance test, have begun asking exam takers whether they were home-schooled. The 3,257 ACT takers and 2,219 SAT takers who last year identified themselves as home-schoolers are fewer than might be expected if a million or more students are being educated at home. But researchers say such students often are reluctant to declare themselves for privacy reasons or for fear of discrimination. Moreover, many taught at home in lower grades later attend high school.
    Nonetheless, self-identified home-schoolers have bettered the national averages on the ACT for the past three years running, scoring an average 22.7 last year, compared with 21 for their more traditional peers, on a scale of one to 36. Home-schoolers scored 23.4 in English, well above the 20.5 national average; and 24.4 in reading, compared with a mean of 21.4. The gap was closer in science (21.9 vs. 21.0), and home-schoolers scored below the national average in math, 20.4 to 20.7.
    On the SAT, which began its tracking last year, home-schoolers scored an average 1,083 (verbal 548, math 535), 67 points above the national average of 1,016. Similarly, on the 10 SAT2 achievement tests most frequently taken by home-schoolers, they surpassed the national average on nine, including writing, physics and French.
    Once in college, home-schoolers appear to be living up to their test scores. Those enrolled at Boston University in the past four years have a 3.3 grade-point average, out of a perfect four. – Wall Street Journal
    On socialization:
    “Schools have diluted their academic mission, by emphasizing the social experience: sports, proms and clubs,” said Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.
    Loveless doesn’t dispute that those activities teach qualities such as creativity and teamwork. “But it doesn’t boost your knowledge of mathematics or literature so there’s a price to pay,” he said. “When you do the statistical analysis of what countries are growing rapidly now, they tend to be the countries that have an education system that’s focused on academic skills.”
    Taking a broader look, the whole argument would seem pointless considering the bottom line is that US education is a world wide laughing stock. Despite spending more per student on K-12 education than all but three other countries — Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway — it somehow manages to rate 23rd and 33rd in the world for science and math respectively.

  • daniel

    Scholarly acumen is not tantamount to athletic success………….fortune cookie anyone? i mean I appreciate the variety in the vocabulary, but a bit english lit lecture. Maybe i wine too much? red red wine