Constant Improvement 3 Lessons We Can All Learn From Surfing

Updated: January 4, 2012

Graham Sutherland

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“I'm always working constantly on everything. I never take the approach that I'm doing as well as I possibly can... I always think there's more and I think if you don't have that, you are not driven to be better.” - Kelly Slater
My first ever surfing lesson brings back a whiplash of a memory: tossed into the wild like my head went through a tumble dryer. I was awful, but still it was exhilarating. Riding the thrill of having started, I knew this was something I wanted a further taste of.

Salt on dry lips, eyes blown shut, sand forcing its way in, warm in the coldest sea I know - this is the intoxication of surfing. Surfing experts are those who get off on it, who embrace it, and who enjoy the hard reward the sport brings. The sea can be a harsh place and infinitely deceiving in a pretty picture. Yet, surfing is an art, a way of life, a thrill, a rush, and addictive as hell when you start getting better.

One instructor in particular taught me that surfing becomes more than simply looking for a better score next time. It becomes a continual flow and a gradual progression.

Here are three extremely simple, but no less fundamental lessons that he shared with me, and how they fit into the context of other skills you may be trying.

1. Learn the Details from the Best

Stretching is that little thing that seems so inane, so minuscule, yet is so essential. To find yourself on the water with your limbs clammed up or to wake up the following morning with another day's surfing planned and to be too stiff to venture out kills motivation.

This is why learning and advice from the right people is essential in order to speed up the learning process. They'll let you in on the little rituals that are critical, yet so many beginners leave out in the hopes of speedier progression.

Continuous routine and habit forces constriction and an explosion of creativity.

Expertise requires routine consistency, if only to elevate the level of growth in a short period of time. Schedule practice consistently, so all you have to learn is what goes on during the time on the waves - freeing up worrying over other things.

Beginner techniques are essential to get right. Get them wrong and you might not get feel like getting back out tomorrow. Becoming an expert demands persistence, and persistence means trying again tomorrow.

2. Always Look Where You’re Going

When you first learn to pop-up on a surf board you're taught to keep looking up at the horizon. This is because slight imbalances in weight can mean the difference between gliding to the sand and falling on your end.

This means looking where you want to be, not where you are now.

Positive thinking, neurological pathways. Different names, similar ideas. The moment we lose sight of our vision, we’re bound by the box we’ve been in up till now and the future doesn’t exist in this box.

Keep looking up and keep focused. This is a learned art - not a natural talent.

3. Get Back on the Board

We all know the challenge of rejection. To enjoy being thrown off the board into the sea will make you a better surfer. Not to aim to fall, but to know that it has to happen and that only through falling ourselves can we learn how not to fall next time.

Expecting the fall, wanting the fall. Wanting failure, wanting rejection by the sea.

Only through the little important experiments do we progress and get better - small steps into the unknown are the making of a better future.

Most days we bog ourselves down with the failures of our past. We get started on something, then experience a bad day. Disappointment from that bad day overpowers all the little things we have achieved so far. Putting more work in is hard. Looking towards the beach is hard. You have to resist the natural impulse to do what is easy.

That impulse can be conquered only through sheer drive, veracity and will -  three qualities that define an expert.

There's no end to becoming an expert. Sure, we develop plateaus in our mind, but when the basic skills have been mastered, a whole new world opens up. A world of constant learning, re-invention and thrills.


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