Get in there

How To Become A Better Surfer Without Surfing

                                                                          Photo: Surfing Nosara, Surfer: Joe Szymanski

A few times over the the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of coaching Joe Szymanski.  Although Joe spends the majority of the year landlocked and usually only takes one surf trip per year, he’s always stoked on surfing.  In the following blog, Joe shares some of his advice on how to make the most of limited time in the surf if you don’t have access to the ocean. 

How To Become A Better Surfer Without Surfing

Written by Joe H Szymanski

Yes, it sounds kind of funny, but I think I became a better surfer this year without surfing.  I’m one of those late-comers who got exposed and hooked on the sport (and broader lifestyle); but unfortunately, like many of us, I don’t have access to any nearby surfable waves — we feel lucky just to get out there and surf once or twice a year.  On reflecting back on a recent trip, here are some thoughts from one aging surfer on how I improved while out of the ocean.

Get in shape!

It’s stating the obvious, but surfing is a physically demanding activity.  General fitness and aerobic capacity are important to paddling strength, comfort on the board, holding your breath during a long hold-down, endurance needed to get back out through those extended close-outs, etc.  This part of a program can be totally unrelated to surfing (e.g. cycling, running, team sports, etc.), but it’s a good idea to complement it with exercise & activities that will be good cross-training for paddling. Short of some new paddling-specific training machines, the best overall choice is probably swimming.  A healthy dose of balance training & core strengthening will really help too.  (I prefer to use a homemade Indo Board, but there are lots of options available these days.)  While you may not have access to the surf, almost all of us can get to some recreational waterway (lakes, rivers, estuaries, etc.) where you can get out on a Standup Paddleboard (SUP) – a great “nose-to-toes” workout that helps with balance, board handling, and core & paddling strength.  And don’t forget to stretch and improve your flexibility.  This can go a long way to avoiding those annoying minor strains & muscle pulls that might make you think about skipping a session when you otherwise would have surfed.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot one of the most important things – practice your pop-ups!   A fast, clean pop-up is critical to starting a good ride, so do lots of reps on the floor to get conditioned, and help to commit the proper maneuver to “muscle-memory” so that it’s automatic out there in the line-up.  Try to do this exercise throughout the entire year (not just a week before your surf trip!).  Coaches Tip.

Read and watch

(Books and videos, that is).  In addition to the glossy surf mags, there are volumes of books, on-line blogs & forums, etc. providing a wealth of information on surfing-related topics.  For example, try to learn something about surfboard construction, rail shapes, or fin design.  While reference books & firsthand accounts are most helpful, you can find some entertaining surf fiction out there too.  The next time you’re watching a video or competition, try to ignore the bikinis, and focus on paying attention to technique, wave shape, board selection, etc.  If you get to the ocean, but can’t surf, you can still watch the waves & conditions to learn (how fast are they? where are the peaks? what’s the wind doing? are there any rips?).  In or out of the water, it’s always a good exercise to “mentally surf” the waves around you.

Keep a log / take notes.

A surfing journal can be as informal or organized as you like, but it’s a great way to “debrief” after a session or trip to collect your thoughts. Think through how conditions changed, why you missed waves, why you caught waves, what better surfers in the line-up were doing, etc.  Come up with a few key points to focus on for your next session.  Your notes can become a valuable reference in the future, but it’s also a fun way to relive that near-perfect Dawn Patrol session (or maybe that epic hold-down) and stay stoked.

Get involved off the water.

Whether it’s your local surf club, an international organization like Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group, etc. getting involved can help you stay connected with surfing during the off-season or your time away from the ocean.  These groups can also be great resources for broadening your circle of friends and expanding your surfing options.

Prepare for your trip.

Check the surf forecast and start getting mentally prepared.  Review what you want to focus on in the water and set some goals for yourself.  If you are taking any of your own gear (vs. renting), give it a quick inspection and make sure it’s good-to-go (when they only get used a few times a year, things have a way of dry-rotting & falling apart!).  Make sure you take the right gear & clothing to be comfortable in the anticipated conditions (water & air temperatures, sun protection, magic salves for board rash, etc.).

When you do get a chance to surf, take lessons!  Near most established breaks, you can always line up a certified instructor or coach who is suitable for your abilities. In hindsight, I realize how much valuable time I spent “flailing” on my own out in the water before taking my first lesson.  A little expert coaching is a great way to help identify your weaknesses & bad habits, reinforce your strengths, and get you “to the next level.”

For certain, there’s no substitute for getting out there and surfing, so do it every chance you get!  If you haven’t surfed in a year, you’ll need a few “dust off” sessions, but some of these tips will help you quickly pick up where you left off, maximize your time in the water, and charge forward.  None of these ideas are new or revolutionary, but hopefully you may find that a few of them will help you “up your game” as they did for me.  Have fun, be safe, be kind to your fellow surfers, show a healthy respect for the ocean, and go surf (when you can, that is…)!!!

Written by Joe H Szymanski

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No Excuses

Surfing is hard. Wait, scratch that. Surfing is incredibly hard!

Being good at any sport takes a lot of time, practice and dedication. In an average session, you probably spend 95% of the time paddling around and getting hit by waves with only 5% of the time actually riding them. So, achieving quality time “on your feet” is a precious commodity that’s invaluable for improving your rate of progression.

This is why it blows my mind on how often people will write-off a potential surf because the waves are “too small”, the lineup’s “too crowded”, the waves are “a bit bumpy” or it’s “too windy”.

Granted, surfing is more fun when the waves are perfect. Everyone knows when you have glassy, peeling waves it’s easier to improve and surf well. That’s why we all crave great conditions and perfect waves. But if you wait around to surf only “perfect” conditions, you might spend weeks or months out of the water wasting precious practice time. So, although the surf might not be perfect, there’s always something you can learn from every session. What’s important is time spent in the water, practicing your sport.

So next time you think it’s “too small”, go grab a longboard or a big soft board and get out there and have some fun! Work on your wave count, experimenting with cross-stepping and foot movement, and staying in the pocket on slower waves. You’ll soon be laughing as you play around in the surf and getting precious “on your feet” time which will always serve you well in the future when the surf is better.

If the waves are “too crowded”, paddle out and get amongst it anyway! Make sure you’re confident with surf etiquette and see if you can position yourself for a good wave while you’re in the middle of the pack. Yes, a crowded line-up can be a bit frustrating, but it’s a necessary skill. Some of the best waves in the world are crowded (Uluwatu, Sunset, Pipeline etc) so if you want to surf a life-changing wave in one of these famous spots you need to be able to hustle.

When it’s a “bit bumpy”, get in there and practice picking the best waves from a confused line up and hone your wave reading skills. When the waves are really bad, it’s a great opportunnity to experiment with new moves because you won’t be wasting amazing waves if you fall off.

When it’s “too windy” and howling offshore you can practice your late take-offs, work on your rail surfing and keeping low to the board. And you never know, strong offshore conditions might throw out a little barrel or two! When the wind is onshore, the wave face is so varied that you will encounter many different sections where you can perform several manoeuvres on one wave. Most high performance aerial surfing is performed in onshore or cross shore surf and these waves, although not pretty, offer so much scope for improving your surfing. You’ll improve your wave reading skills, reflexes, and, if nothing else, the surf will build up your paddle muscles! However, occasionally (although it’s rare) it can be so windy that it’s dangerous to surf. So, then (and only then) it’s OK to pull the pin and come back later.

Think about how many amazing surfers are from areas with below par waves – the Hobgood Brothers, Cory Lopez, Kelly Slater, Layne Beachly. Even 2012 ASP world champions Joel Parkinson and Stephanie Gilmore grew up surfing in Queensland, which on occasion can be epic, but more often than not is home to small, weak and windy little beach-breaks. These surfers are as good as they are because they practiced often – even when it was small, crowded, bumpy and windy!

I can assure you, you’ll always feel better if you go for a quick surf than if you drive away from the beach with dry hair.

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Grass Roots


With the ASP world tour on a break, I thought it was a good time to cover how to get into the competitive surfing scene at a grassroots (local) level.

I entered my first surf contest at 17.  I was incredibly nervous and intimidated by the other surfers because I didn’t think I was good enough to compete yet.  It took a lot of encouragement from the great guys at Shore Surf (where I was working as a coach at the time) who forced me to have a day off to enter and told me to “get amongst it”.  I knew how surf contests worked and I had already fantasized about winning a few world titles (a dream that took a long time to shake off when the reality kicked in) so after a serious kick up the ass I entered the event, had a great time, and ended up winning the U18′s.

Grassroots surf comps can be many things; a chance to win a bit of local bragging rights, stepping stones to a possible surfing career, or just a really fun, social weekend.  They run some great contests here in Nosara and at most places with a coastline worldwide.

Do not fear if you are a little past your teenage years or do not ride a high performance short board, there are now a thriving Senior 35-44yrs, Grandmasters 45-54yrs, and Legends 55+yrs divisions worldwide and there’s always a Longboard division.  And if you are thinking it might be fun for your child to try competing, they can start at under 12yrs with age divisions right through until they are 21.

I truly believe that entering a surf contest will help you push your own surfing level.  Knowing you have an upcoming comp will give you a little objective in the back of your mind when you surf.  It helps to fuel the fire inside and makes you try to get a little more out of each turn or each wave, pushing you to improve.  This effort will give back to you in spades!  Even if you only do one comp, you might be able to push your surfing level up a couple of notches while preparing for the event and this improvement will be with you for the rest of your surfing life.

Time for a crash course in competitive surfing.  Before you enter your first comp there are some things you must know…

The Contest Rules

There is no point entering any type of sporting competition if you do not know the rules.  This will vary from contest to contest but will usually be based around these factors…

Paddle Out Time

The time allowed before your heat to paddle out into the lineup.  Usually 5 mins, but it can be increased to allow for big surf.  Although it’s now uncommon, some comps will have beach starts and no extra paddle out time.

Heat Length

The standard “grassroots” heat length will be 20 mins but can also be 15 or 30 depending on schedule or conditions.  Make sure you know this before paddling out and wear a watch!!!


It can get a little hectic in heats, everyone wants the best waves and will hussle for them (a lot like a busy free surf really).  The simple “rules of surfing” still apply, do not drop in and do not be seen to interfere with another surfers ride.  Having a priority system is very rare in a local contest.   If you are seen to “interfere” with another competitors wave, the score of your top scoring wave will be halved.

 Number Of Waves Allowed

There will be a limit to how many waves you can surf in a heat and extra waves will not be scored if you catch more than the allowance (usually 10).  Note: any time you take both hands off the rails of the board when you stand up counts as a wave.

Number Of Waves Scored

Nowadays it is common place for your top 2 wave scores to be counted and added together.  Make sure you know how many are counted to avoid disappointment.


Usually somewhat similar to the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) criteria. Note: Longboarding will be scored differently

Judges analyze the following major elements when scoring waves:

  • Commitment and Degree of Difficulty
  • Combination of Traditional and Modern Manoeuvres  (Longboard)
  • Innovative and Progressive Manoeuvres
  • Combination of Major Manoeuvres
  • Variety of Manoeuvres
  • Speed, Power and Flow

Essentially, judges will score the highest points for the biggest, most committed maneuvers performed with a bit of style.  The more risks you take on a wave by going for it, the higher you will score (if you do not fall off).


[ 0.0 – 1.9: Poor ]  [ 2.0 – 3.9: Fair ]  [ 4.0 – 5.9: Average

[ 6.0 – 7.9: Good ]   [ 8.0 – 10.0: Excellent ]

Getting 10′s is hard!!   If you are scoring in the average range for your first comp you are doing well!!

Pureline Surf Coaching

"Kiko" Goncalves (far left) son of a good friend of mine Eurico Goncalves (Portuguese longboarding legend) taking his first steps into the competitive surfing arena - 2009

 A couple of little tips to help you out prior to a comp…

Time Limit

Get used to trying to catch a few good waves in a 20 minute period.  When you free surf on the lead up to the comp, try to use your watch to do fake heats with yourself.  Getting comfortable with catching a lot of waves within a time limit is very beneficial,  20 mins is not long!!

Mock Heats

Get your friends involved!  There’s no need to have fake judges on the beach, just surf a 20-minute heat and judge yourselves as you go.  This is a great way of getting used to the system and you may inspire a friend to enter a comp aswell.  It is far more fun do contests with friends – not only to practice with, but also to enjoy the contest day/weekend with.

Watch Surf Contests Online

It has never been easier to get a real feel for surf contest than now.  Most high level surf contests are available to watch online for free.  You can gain a real insight to the whole system by watching how the judges score the waves and via informative commentary.  Not only is this a great education, but it is also incredibly entertaining watching the worlds best surfers compete in the worlds best waves!  For the latest CT comp information go to

Get Out There!

I would encourage every surfer of every level to go and get a feel for a surfing competition. Even if you do not make it through your first heat (and good on you if you do!), you will have gained valuable experience.  And, if nothing else, the competitors gift pack usually comes with some cool things that outweigh the cost of entry. Just try it. There is no pressure to win when it’s your first surf competition, just go out there and give it your absolute best.  You never know, you might just surprise yourself…I did!



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