surf tips

Tips for Learning to Surf & Getting Better

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No matter your level of experience, surfing is a continuous learning process. Each wave you surf is different and the variables are endless – from equipment choices, to environments, to wave types, to conditions, your mental state, etc. – if you don’t feel like you’re learning, you’re probably doing something wrong.

For the beginner surfer, and even the surfer that has a few years of experience, it can be easy to make some common mistakes or fall into learning and progression ruts.

This page aims to provide some tips on avoiding common mistakes and tools to improve your surfing.

We’ve already covered how to stay fit out of the water and how important fitness is to your surfing performance, so this page will focus specifically on surfing itself.

The first tip that you should keep in mind at all times and apply to everything is this: stay curious and experiment. If something’s not working or you continue to fall, tweak something (be it your body, your approach, or your equipment) and try again.

Is Surfing Hard to Learn?

Surfing could probably be considered one of the more difficult sports to learn. There are a lot of factors and a lot of new things you’ll have to deal with.

Surfing will be easier to learn if you have experience swimming and have relatively strong balance.

How difficult surfing is for you will come down to your mindset, your fitness level, and how you approach learning. You might pick it up within a few waves, or it might take you a number of sessions.

That said, surfing has a gradual (and really never ending) learning curve.

No matter how long you’ve been surfing, there are always going to be opportunities for you to improve. Couple that with the fact that every wave is different and your equipment choices are endless, and you’ve got the chance to learn something new every time you’re on a wave.

As you progress, you’ll become more comfortable on your board. Many of the things that felt foreign and difficult at first will become second nature (paddling, getting under waves, popping up, and balance).

You’ll always make mistakes here and there. You’ll miss a wave, you’ll screw up your drop, you’ll bog a rail, but you’ll make simple mistakes less often as you gain more experience. This experience and comfort will free you up to start try new maneuvers and techniques and refining your own personal style.

Best Surfboards for Beginners

Choosing the right surfboard as a beginner is one of the most important factors to how quickly you’ll pick it up.

A good beginner surfboard is going to be the difference between standing up within a few waves and being frustrated for your first few sessions.

The most important thing you’ll want to look for in a beginner surfboard is volume. Volume describes the total liters contained within the shape of a surfboard, and is a result of the board’s length, thickness, width, and foil.

As a general rule of thumb, here’s some characteristics to look for in a beginner surfboard:

  • High volume.
  • Flat rocker.
  • Wide, parallel outline.
  • Thick rails.
  • Mid-length (7′ to 8′).

You’ll want a board that’s big enough for you to paddle, catch waves, and balance easily, but not too big that you have trouble controlling it or find yourself constantly nose diving (pearling).

So what is a good beginner surfboard? Is a 6’6″ surfboard good for a beginner? Probably not.

As a beginner, you should avoid anything too short and definitely anything that resembles a high performance shortboard.

Surfboard types that are great for beginners include:

In general, a soft-top or a used mid-length is going to be a good choice for most people learning to surf. You’ll want something that will help make learning easier, but will also be able to stand up to some abuse. Foamies are certainly the safest choice for new surfers.

The exact board that will work best for you will come down to your height and weight. If you’re bigger, you’re going to benefit from more foam (thicker, wider, longer surfboards).

Choosing the Right Equipment for Surfing

In addition to picking a good beginner board, you’ll also want to make sure you have the proper surf equipment. This includes:

You’ll want to make sure you’ve got what you need to be as comfortable as possible in the water. If you’re too hot or too cold in the wrong wetsuit or swimsuit, you’re going to have a difficult time focusing on your surfing.

Same goes for a lack of sunscreen or some sort of rash guard to protect your skin.

Grab the right gear and minimize the different challenges that would otherwise be working against you (sun burn, losing your board, board rash, hypothermia, etc.)

Learning to Surf as a Kid

If you’re introducing your kid to surfing, the options for their first surfboards are a little more flexible.

Considering most kids are relatively short and light, almost any adult surfboard is going to have an adequate volume to weight ratio that will allow them to catch waves.

That said, here are some tips to follow when teaching your kid how to surf:

  • Start them on something that’s big and easy for them to stand on. Even if you’re just pushing them into whitewater at first, getting them comfortable on their feet is an important first step.
  • Select a board that’s narrow enough for them to paddle comfortably and properly. Too wide a board and they won’t be able to develop proper paddling technique.
  • Choose a board that’s short enough for them to control and maneuver.

A variety of foamies can be a great choice for kids.

Learning to Surf as an Adult

Is there a point where you become too old to learn how to surf? Can you learn to surf in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and up? Are you doomed to a land-locked life if you missed the grom stage of your formative years?

The short answer is, no, of course not! It’s never to late to learn how to surf.

However, just like almost anything it life, it’s definitely easier to learn as a kid.

If you’re finding yourself out-of-shape or over-stressed, surfing and simply being around the ocean can be a powerful thing.

Kids have it easy when they’re learning – no fear, no worries, no overthinking things, and the ability to take a licking and get back up or back out the next day.

If you’re older, you may need to make some adjustments (mentally and physically) before you get in the water for the first time.

  • Stay calm and don’t be so hard on yourself.
  • Take care of your body by stretching before and after your surf.
  • Choose the right board that’s going to best facilitate learning. Pick something that’s easy to paddle, easy to get into waves, and easy for you to stand on.

If you don’t have much experience swimming or being in the ocean, you’ll need to realize that it can be a pretty tiring activity at first. Give yourself time to enjoy the process and have fun.

Learning to Surf as a “Big Guy” or Gal

If you’re on the taller or heavier side, there’s nothing stopping you from learning to surf.

For bigger folks, equipment choice is key.

You need a board that’s going to match your weight and size. Pick something with lots of volume. Thicker, wider, and longer surfboards are going to help you here.

As an added bonus, surfing can be a great way to lose weight and build muscle too.

Best Places to Learn to Surf

Another import decision you’ll need to make as a beginner surfer is where you’re going to learn to surf. Not all surf spots are created equal, and many are really terrible places to learn.

Obviously, the more critical the wave (steeper, faster, hollower), the more difficult it will be to learn.

You’ll want to find a more mellow wave that rolls and crumbles rather than pitches.

Waves like this can be found at a variety of different types of break – beach break, reef break, point breaks.

If you’re looking to avoid crowds, beach breaks can be a good option. You’ll often be able to find your own area where you can fall and learn without risking getting in the way or endangering others. However, depending on the swell, tide, and sand, beach breaks can create some pretty punishing waves that beginners should avoid.

Certain surf spots are known for being beginner spots. This can be a good and a bad thing. On one hand, the wave is probably going to be easily accessible and conducive for learning. On the other, there’s probably going to be a lot of people in the water who have not yet mastered controlling their board. You’ll need to assess the situation and figure out where you’re most comfortable with.

It’s always a good idea to get started in some mellow whitewater to get familiar with some of the basic mechanics of surfing. Once you progress to catching unbroken waves, you’ll probably find it easier than when you were practicing in the whitewater. Practicing in turbulent whitewash early on is a great way to develop your balance without having to worry about exactly where you should be positioning yourself on the wave.

Learn the Basics of Surfing

As you’re learning it can definitely help to take a lesson, visit a surf camp, or head out with a more experienced friend. Taking advice and getting feedback can help you overcome some of the common mistakes and challenges for beginners.

Before you worry about turns, cutbacks, and tube riding, you’re going to have to master the basics.

When you’re first starting out, keep it simple and try to focus on:

  • Board control: this includes positioning on your board when you paddle, getting under or over breaking waves when you paddle out, positioning yourself around other people in the water, and controlling yourself and your board when you wipe out.
  • Paddling and paddle strength: the quicker you’re able to build your paddle strength and “paddle knowledge,” the quicker you’re going to be able to progress in all other aspects of surfing. Being a strong paddler will help you get less fatigued, get past breaking waves more easily, and catch waves more easily.
  • Catching a wave (or whitewater) and popping up: knowing when and how to catch a wave is your first big hurdle to overcome, and along with it comes popping up. You need to learn how to recognize when and where to catch a wave to avoid getting pitched or having it pass you by. You’ll also need to learn how to pop up at the correct time to avoid wasting speed and so that you can set up a turn.
  • Balance and stance: surfing requires and incredible amount of balance. You’ll need to get used to constantly shifting your weight as you encounter different parts of the wave. Where you place and position your feet will have a big effect on your balance and ability to maneuver.

Before you head out, you’ll want to spend some time on the beach watching how the waves are breaking. Try to identify the best places to paddle out and the best positions to catch waves.

You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with some of the basic rules of surfing, including:

  • Don’t paddle in front of someone when they’re surfing on a wave.
  • Don’t drop in on other surfers who are deeper than you.
  • Keep control of your board and don’t ditch it on purpose.

If you use your common sense and be respectful to the ocean and those around you, you’ll probably be alright.

Figure out whether you are goofy (right foot forward) or regular (left foot forward). If you skateboard or snowboard, you probably already know. If not, you can have someone gently push you to find out. If they push you from behind, the foot the goes forward to catch yourself if likely your front foot. If they push you front the front, the foot that goes back is likely your back foot. Go with whatever feels most natural.

Once you figure this out, it can help you narrow down the best types of waves to learn on. While it’s important to develop both your frontside and backside technique, many surfers find it easier to ride on their frontside. For goofy-footers, this means lefts, and for regulars, this means rights.

Once you’re ready to start popping up, you’ll want to keep your stance centered over the over and about shoulder width apart.

Your knees should be bent in an athletic position, and both knees and feet should be angled forward. Tucking your back knee helps. Avoid bending at the waist too much and sticking your butt out – this will throw your center of gravity off, make it difficult to shift your weight, and create what’s known as the “poop stance.”

Beginner Mistakes to Avoid

Knowing how to avoid some common mistakes can also help you learn to surf faster.

The basic rules of learning how to do anything apply to surfing too.

Realize that you’re going to make mistakes, but stay calm and don’t get frustrated. If something’s not working or you keep falling, make an adjustment and try again.

Here are some other beginner surfer mistakes to avoid:

  • Using the wrong board – don’t try to surf on a high performance, foiled-out shortboard.
  • Surfing in the wrong spot and surfing beyond your limits – find a place that’s good for beginners and not too crowded.
  • Being reckless and ignorant to those around you.
  • Not spending enough time familiarizing yourself with the break or the basics.
  • Wrong positioning on the board – too far forward, you’re going to nose dive or sink, too far back, you’re going to add drag and make it difficult to paddle and catch waves.

If you’re not sure whether you’re making a common mistake or not, it never hurts to ask for some feedback.

Tips for Avoiding Surfing Mistakes and Getting Better (At Any Level)

  1. Surf more – this one’s obvious, but the more time you spend in the water surfing, the better you will get. Be sure to remain aware of what you’re doing so you can recognize bad habits and things that aren’t working. The more you perform a certain maneuver, the faster it will become second nature to you. This might also mean finding where to beat the crowds so you can get more waves.
  2. Get familiar with how waves break – The better you understand the waves, the better you’ll be able to surf them. When you develop a better eye for how waves form, break, and section, you’ll get better at recognizing where you should be and how you should be moving your board.
  3. Add some foam – If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut or the waves are just not that great, try adding some volume to the board you choose to surf. You’ll catch more waves and have more opportunistic to try new things. Surfing a lot of waves on a bigger board is going to be better for your overall surfing than struggling to catch anything on a smaller board.
  4. Have someone film you, work with a coach, take a lesson – seeing yourself surf on tape may reveal things your missing when you’re on the wave. Additionally, getting the help of a coach or lesson can improve your technique and help you overcome some bad habits or obstacles more quickly.
  5. Get out of your comfort zone – as you start to feel confident and comfortable with a certain wave height or type, gradually up the level of difficulty for yourself. Try new maneuvers. Try connecting your lines and developing flow and style.
  6. Surf somewhere new – a huge part of surfing well is being able to improvise and adjust, surfing new waves in new locations helps develop that skill.
  7. Changing Direction Requires Your Whole Body – initiate maneuvers with your head, arms, upper body and you hips, legs, and board will follow. You’ll be able to better complete turns and do more powerful maneuvers.
  8. Stay Loose – Get low, bend your knees, and move your body as you need to. React to the wave and with your maneuvers. Staying stiff will cause you to loose balance and fall.
  9. Get to know your equipment and body positioning – Become familiar with how your board and fins perform is key to selecting the right equipment for the right waves. Beyond that, becoming familiar with your board’s volume distribution, balance points, and turning capabilities is key to surfing it well. If you’re tipping off to one side, move towards the center. If you keep pearling, either adjust your weight backwards or angle your drop-in. If waves keep passing you, either move forward on the board or try to catch them deeper.
  10. Get out of your head – Don’t stress or get frustrated if you mess up – that’s part of the learning process. Holding onto your mistakes is only going to make the rest of your session harder for you.
  11. Relax and have fun – Stay calm and relax – you’ll surf better with a clear head and staying focused on the present. And if you’re not having fun, what are you surfing for anyway?
  12. Embrace the process – When it comes to surfing, you’re never done learning. There’s always something to improve, new ways to approach a wave, and new things to try.
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