Coach

Don’t Be Afraid Of Your Backhand

Working as a surf guide can be funny sometimes. You find perfect surf and half the people are happy and the other half…not so much. It seems most people are so much happier surfing on their forehand (facing the wave) and not on their backhand (back to the wave). You take a goofy footer to a perfect right and they have fun, but are begging to go to a left the next time they surf and vice versa.

Granted, surfing on your backhand and forehand are almost like two different sports due to the shape of your body and the direction your knees bend. However I think this difference is one of the real joys of surfing and not something to have a preference on. I love the feeling of doing big gouges on my forehand as much as I enjoy a solid BH bottom turn to reo combo; both offer different sensations and challenges, but are equally enjoyable. You’re limiting yourself as a surfer if you insist on surfing in only one direction. So, what is holding you back from surfing your backhand?

Taj Burrow at Chopes, Notice the shoulders are parallel with the rails rather than pointing nose to tail. Photo by Kristen Prisk

The most common reason people find surfing on their backhand difficult is due to how they hold their leading arm/shoulder. You’ll see this quite often in the surf, someone straining to look over their shoulder at the wave, sticking their butt out to counterbalance their arms which are both pointing towards the beach…this could be you. Luckily this is a very easy fix as it just takes a small adjustment to your stance. Think about the stance surfers use for backhand barrels, very low to the board with the shoulders parallel with the rails of the board, left arm to the left and right arm to the right.

Having open shoulders makes it far easier to view the wave and put weight either on the inside or outside rail. Next time you surf try to catch a few waves on your backhand and think about opening up your shoulder and position your leading arm on the same side as the wave face rather than the opposite side with your trailing arm…surfing on your backhand should have just got a whole lot easier! If you are serious about utilizing your backhand some professional coaching can speed up the learning curve.

I’m natural footed, I love right-handers and I have been lucky enough to have surfed amazing waves on my forehand like Anchor Point, Kirra, Coxos, Lobos, Sultans, Shipwrecks and so on. But for all the world-class rights there is a whole plethora of amazing lefts that you could miss out on like Pipe, Uluwatu, Honkys, Frigates, Desert Point etc. and there’s no way I’d be standing on the beach just because I’d have to surf my backhand!

Don’t limit yourself to going in one direction (think Zoolander), get out there and challenge yourself, go surf on your backhand, open the leading shoulder, get good at it and the next time a perfect wave comes through and it’s on your backhand you will be excited rather than disappointed.

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Dealing With Hold-Downs

No one enjoys having their ass handed to them by the surf, but it happens. Unexpected waves, continuous sets on the head, and gnarly wipeouts can all lead to a longer than usual hold-down. We’ve all had moments where it’s felt like we’ve been underwater a little bit too long. This can happen whether you’ve been surfing all of your life or if you just embarked on your maiden paddle ‘out the back’ session.

Several pro surfers are making a career out of charging “death pits”, as I like to call them, and tales of double wave hold-downs are all a part of the death-defying acts of bravery that pay the bills.  But for most of us, that are not throwing ourselves down 90-foot waves, hold-downs are not something to panic about.

As surfers, we quickly learn to get used to the regular “spin cycle” from a wipe out. The manic churning of a wave pushing you around is usually followed by a gentle float back up to the surface after a couple of seconds.  We just shrug it off, grab the board, and paddle out for another wave. We know that when we wipeout, the time we spend underwater getting “rag-dolled” is just part of the sport. What catches us off guard is when we’re held underwater for longer than we’re used to and the instinct to panic sets in. Some surfers are naturally born without fear of drowning and never get fazed in big surf, but for us mere mortals there are a few ways to conquer our fears and avoid panic when the surf gets heavier than normal.

Control Your Fear

When being held down, the reality is that usually you’ve probably only been underwater for a just a couple of seconds longer than usual and you will still pop up to the surface at some point (you always have before, right?). The human body is buoyant and naturally floats up to the surface so there’s no reason to be afraid.
For humans, the fear of drowning is a natural instinct that has contributed to the survival of our species. If you panic, it’s just your instinctual fear setting in and, unfortunately, it will do more harm than good. Panicking underwater triggers an alarming thrashing of your arms and legs as you frantically claw at the water in a desperate attempt to scratch your way to the surface. Although, it’s completely natural/instinctual to panic like this, flailing your limbs around in turbulent water is not actually helping you find the surface any more quickly; it’s just burning more oxygen.
Really, there is no reason to panic. Being underwater without air isn’t a problem – you’ve held your breath before, right? Fear of drowning is scary, but it’s not lack of oxygen that leads to someone attempting to breath water, it’s panic!  And the only way to stop panicking and conserve your oxygen supply is to relax.

Test Time

More than likely you are perfectly capable of holding your breath underwater for an extended period of time. Most wipeouts only last a few seconds so if you’re able to hold your breath for at least 10 seconds then you have the physical ability to survive long hold-downs.

So, just to make sure, while you’re at your computer hold your breath for 10 seconds with no preparation. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10!

It wasn’t that bad was it? In fact, I’m sure you feel like you could probably hold it longer if you needed to.

Hold your breath for another 10 seconds, but this time exhale all of the air out of your lungs first. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10!

That should have been a bit more of a challenge without the air in your lungs, but you probably still could have held your breath for longer.

The Good News!

If you’ve managed not to pass out in front of your computer (apologies if you did, note: we are not liable!), you already have the lung capacity to survive long hold-downs.

I know what you’re thinking…that 10 seconds holding your breath in front of your computer isn’t the same as holding your breath for 10 seconds when you’re being thrashed around underwater and panicking! Yes, that’s true. While at your computer you are in a relaxed state (sitting calmly and not exerting much energy) so you’re not wasting any oxygen. The key to conserving your oxygen while taking a beating in the surf is to be just as relaxed underwater as you are right now, sitting in front of your computer. So, in addition to being able to hold your breath for 10 seconds, you also need to learn to relax when you take a set on the head!

Techniques To Help You Relax During A Hold Down

Counting

It sounds very simple doesn’t it? But it’s a great way to relax and give you that extra bit of survival time underwater.

The next time you’re underwater after a big wipeout, relax, let your body go limp, and start counting from 1 to 10.  Focus your mind solely on counting and don’t give in to panicking. Most of the time you’ll only make it to 4 seconds before you pop up to the surface and you’ll end up feeling a bit silly for ever being afraid in the first place!

Mental Triggers

When you feel yourself starting to panic during a stressful underwater situation, it is great to have a mental trigger to cue you to relax.  A common technique that I have personally always found very useful is singing to myself.  Pick any song that relaxes you (I like the “Happy Day’s” theme song) and whenever you find yourself in a bad spot, hum or sing to yourself in your head.

This can also work with mental images.  Find something that works for you, something (a peaceful sunset, an empty meadow) that triggers your body to relax.  This technique works because of mental association; the song or image will trigger your body going into a relaxed state.  Once you find the right song/image, practice employing it all the time with smaller wipeouts or even when holding your breath in the pool.  The more times you do it, the more automatic the trigger will be when you need it and the more mental control you can create, the easier it will be to deal with your next long hold-down.

Relaxing will give you extra seconds underwater, burn less oxygen, and also give you mental clarity instead of blind panic. So hopefully the next time you are underwater longer than expected, you will be relaxed and in control (possibly singing “Sunday, Monday, Happy Days”) and pop back to the surface composed and ready to paddle out for another wave.

Relaxed State = More Survival Time

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Finding The Reset Button

Regardless of your surfing ability you will have, no doubt, had a session where nothing seems to be going your way.  The good waves are not coming to you, every attempt at a turn ends in a bogged rail and simple skills, like the timing of your take-offs, end in a head-first trip over the falls. We’ve all been there. And when you’re having an absolutely terrible surf it’s hard to escape the anger, frustration, and negative attitude that inevitably sets in.

This is when you need to be able to find your reset button and salvage the session.  The goal is to try to wash away the frustration you’re feeling so you are in a better mental state for the rest of your surf.

THE RESET TECHNIQUE

Rest

When you realize your surf is going downhill try to take a couple of minutes to yourself.  Sit on your board a long way out the back, take some deep breaths and let your muscles relax.  Often, a session can start to go badly due to fatigue.  If you’re already having a bad surf, you tend to paddle for everything that moves and this will tire you out.  So, sit out there for as long as it takes for your body to feel relaxed and rested and once you’ve achieved this, it’s time to regroup.

Regroup

Try to take your thoughts away from the nightmare session it’s been so far.  Be aware of how this negativity is affecting your session and if you can, let go of it.  In the regroup phase your task is to take your mind off of what has just happened, if you can do this you will have achieved the biggest step in the reset process.  You can train your brain to get faster at this over time once you find the right trigger.

Here are a couple of examples on how you can do this….

Drift Away
Look out to sea and focus on something else. Focusing on passing boats or sea birds will let your mind drift away from surfing for a while. Don’t worry about the sets if you’re still out the back, just let them slip by. Think about something completely different, something that makes you happy.

Chat To A Mate
Take your mind off the surf by having a bit of a chat with someone, try to talk about a non-surfing related subject like the football game yesterday (note this could lead to extra stress if your team lost), what went on last night at the bar (usually good for a few laughs), or even just the weather.

Find The Source
If you are struggling to reset, perhaps there is another issue that has been bothering you? Maybe there is a personal problem or stress from work that is clouding your mind? Find the source of your frustration and make a mental note to deal with it after your surf. The problem isn’t going anywhere, but the swell and tides are…so surf now and sort out your life later! When your mind is well-rested after a fun surf, you’ll  be ready to take on the bigger problems in life.

Laugh At Yourself
Think about how ridiculous you are for getting angry at a sport that should be a fun escape from the stresses of real life and smile to yourself.  Don’t take it so seriously, everyone can have an “off” session and falling head-first over the falls can be quite hilarious to others, think of it as a crowd pleaser.

You should find when using these techniques that a few minutes will have passed where you haven’t thought about surfing. Now your body is rested and your mind is regrouped, but you’re just bobbing around like a buoy in the lineup getting no waves…it’s time to refocus.

Refocus

Think of the rest of your surf as a completely new event that you have the power to make into a positive experience.    There are many factors in surfing that we do not have any control over – conditions, crowds etc.  So for the rest of your session try to focus only on what you can control, like your wave selection and the choice of maneuvers to suit the conditions.  Think about what you are going to do well for the rest of the session and how good it will feel when it all comes together. Hopefully by this point you will be prepared to paddle into the next good wave with a cool head and absolutely smash it!!

But If All Else Fails, Get Out!!

If you continue to have a bad session and you cant let go of the stress and frustration, it might be time to get out of the water.
Paddle in and take a break by enjoying some time on the beach. Rest. Grab a snack, chat with some friends, or simply lay back on the sand and relax. Regroup. Turn your back to the sea and forget about surfing for a while. Refocus. Gather up some positive thoughts and start thinking about your next surf session. When your mind is relaxed and positive, it’s time to get back out there!

A Positive, Relaxed Mind State = Positive Results In The Water

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