Surf School

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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Foam Is Your Friend

Extra Volume In Your Board Can Mean More Waves For YouShortboards are sexy, sleek looking things that are the definition of surfboard performance.

They easily fit under your arm, they slide into any-size car, and they’re what all the guys on the world tour are riding.  This makes short boards seem very desirable.

Because of this, a large percentage of surfers either prematurely move down in board size (before they have the ability) or are currently riding boards that are too small for them.   You often see surfers strutting down to the waters edge with a small, shiny new board under there arm. They paddle out, still looking great…  and then don’t catch a single wave in 2 hours.

If you are using a board that is too small, you’ll be spending entire sessions watching people around you catch loads of waves while you are missing every wave you paddle for. Frustrating! This could partly be down to your wave reading skills, but there is a good chance poor board selection is creating the low wave count.

Small (low volume) boards are amazing to use if you are at peak surf fitness, can generate your own speed on a wave, and are comfortable with super late takeoffs.  If you can’t do those things and are riding a small board, you are probably using unsuitable equipment and could be massively slowing down your rate of progression.  Some time spent on a larger board could really pay off.  Note: a larger board is a board with more volume (float), not necessarily longer.

So what does extra volume do for you?

1) Gives you a higher paddle speed. 2) Helps you glide over fat sections. 3) Gets you into waves earlier. 4) Increases your wave count. 5) Makes the board more forgiving to use (foot placement etc. is not so critical). 6) Makes paddling easier if you are not “paddle fit”. 7) Enables the board to carry more speed down the line.

Overall more volume in a board makes surfing easier.

“You can’t ride what you can’t catch”

 -Lulu Wiegers

Things to consider…

Wave Count

If you are catching less than 60% of the waves that you paddle for it may be worth considering using a bigger (higher volume) board.  Once you make the switch you should soon be catching more waves.  The more time spent on a bigger board > the more waves you’ll catch > the better you get.   As you get better (catching 60% + of waves paddled for) you can then get back onto a smaller board.

You May Have To Step Back to Step Forwards

If you are sinking on some waves or just getting sometimes getting left behind, try going back onto a bigger board just for a session or two and see how it feels. During the first surf on a larger board you will probably be catching more waves than you have done in ages, able to make more sections/waves and have the speed to do some turns.

Remember,  If you can turn a big old longboard you can turn anything!!  Spending time on a bigger board will always help your surfing in the long run. When you have mastered the “big ‘un” and you want to move back down in board size you will actually be able to make the most of the extra maneuverability a smaller board has (maneuverability, duck dives etc.), rather than just languishing in its disadvantages (low paddle speed etc.).

The right time to go onto a different/smaller board is when the board you’re riding is holding you back.

Wave Type

If you are surfing small, fat, slow, mushy waves you need to be riding a board with large volume to allow you to catch waves and cruise over fat sections (not steep).  If it is big and hollow you may also need a high volume board to get enough paddle speed to get you over the ledge (catching a late steep wave).

Feel The Glide

Longboards or Mini-Mals are a great option for those that don’t get the chance to surf often or who are not surf fit because they allow you to maximize the number of waves you can catch per session.  The other bonus is they go well in smaller surf which is what most of us deal with day to day at our local spot (OK, I am a bit lucky on this one).  Mini-Mal’s or Longboards are a perfect board choice to help you get the feel of gliding across a wave and maybe starting to experiment with turning.

Get Your Calculators Out

It’s now possible to calculate how much volume you need in a board for your personal weight and ability.   Have a go on the volume calculators provided by Channel Island Surfboards (Al Merrick) and Firewire , see if you are currently surfing something close to their recommended volumes.  Note: Use these calculators as a guideline and maybe take an average for best results (they vary).

Enjoy it!

At the end of the day, surfing is about having fun.  If you can make it easier for yourself and catch more waves, why not?  Get out there on a bigger board!  They may not look as sleek and they wont fit in the car,  but your surfing will improve more quickly and you’ll probably have a far bigger smile on your face at the end of the day!

“Foam Is Your Friend”

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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.



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.


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.


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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