The Surfer’s Burden
Have you ever been asked why? Why are you so obsessed? Why does it seem like nothing else in the world matters? What is it about the sport of surfing that bends you to its will and commands you like a little cultish lamb?
I’ve often wondered why myself. After all, I’m no stranger to the pleasures of sport and life – I’ve climbed mountains, ridden powder, run marathons, raced cars, flown planes, played ball, jumped cliffs, partied hard and loved harder – I’ve done a lot of things that bring fulfillment and purpose to the lives of so many. Yet no matter how hard I try to indulge in life’s pleasures I find at the back of my mind I am burdened by a single truth that I cannot escape – I ride waves. I ride waves, and there is nothing else that seems to compare.
Most everyone who will ever read these words knows the feeling; there is just something about surfing we cannot put our wrinkled, weathered fingers on. It’s not just the act of weightlessly flying down a peeling wall of water (although that surely has a lot to do with it). We surf because when we do our souls are cleansed, our minds are clear, our bodies are tuned, and we are alive. Yes, I surf, and yes, I will tell you that I believe surfing is the greatest sport ever conceived by man. Biased? Of course I am. The thing is though, I just might be right.
I’m not interested in making an argument touting surfing’s worth relative to other sports and experiences based on my subjective opinion – I’m making that argument based on facts. Just take a look at the numbers.
According to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) the US participation rate of surfing in 2010 was 2.7 million – one of the lowest of all major sports naturally due to the geographic barriers associated with the sport (this compares to 19.6 million and 46.5 million for skiing and bicycling, respectively). Of course, the participation figure is not meaningful of itself but digging a little deeper into the OIA data reveals an interesting insight – surfers reported one of the highest average frequency rates. In other words, the number of times the average surfer surfed per year far exceeded that of any other major sport – excluding transportation-related sports with virtually no barriers to engagement such as bicycling and jogging – at an average 22 times per year. What does this tell us? Well, if the number of times a person engages in a sport or an act is a proxy for its appeal, then it seems to imply that the sport of surfing is somehow objectively much more attractive than others.
Ok, so people on average find the sport of surfing to be better than others. That still leaves the door open to the more difficult part of the equation: the why? How can we explain why we observe this phenomenon? There is a one-word answer: flow.
In his New York Times best-seller, “Flow”, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi pours a few lifetimes of rich knowledge of the psychology of optimal experience into a couple hundred pages. According to Mihaly, there are inescapable laws which govern our consciousness, and we achieve a higher state of consciousness, called flow, when the thoughts entering our mind are ordered and focused. And the most effective way to generate such an ordered and focused state of mind is by engaging in activities that are challenging and require skill-development. Correspondingly, our state of flow depletes when our consciousness is chaotic. Make sense right? Ever had a million things on your mind at once or a million things at once to do? How did you feel? Compare that with how you felt once you actually started doing something in a focused and deliberate manner – the difference between actually accomplishing your to-do list in an attentive manner compared to thinking about all of the things you have to do.
Now extend this simple idea to surfing in the context of your life. We are all plagued with problems and concerns and general influxes of thoughts that create psychic disorder. But all of this vanishes in an instant as we suit-up, and life outside of the very moment fades into a deep and distant memory when we peer out into the horizon and find the next macking set start to roll in. Of course one might argue that the same can be said for other sports but the magnitude of difference between other sports and surfing is vast. A continuous challenge, an inherent fear of the unknown, speed, weightlessness, risk and reward – all notions, according to the hypothesis, that compound the effects of flow. And where else are these notions amplified more than when you find yourself in conditions just at the cusp of your comfort zone, adrenaline pumping as you race along walls of water, pushing yourself and your surfing to the next level?
The pattern continues even at the highest levels of the sport; in our sport you find that professional surfers actually love to surf and some of the best surfers in the world make the conscious decision to put their professional careers on hold simply to re-engage their love of surf, and we totally get it. Now, imagine if LeBron announced he was leaving the NBA to play pick-up!
We surfers know the feeling. It is why we are so protective of our breaks and so defensive of our piece of mental heaven. We are a cult of adrenaline junkies who have been blessed by either luck or fate to have a relationship with surfing. I had always thought that my relationship with surfing was unique – that the cosmic powers that be somehow predetermined I would live a lifestyle devoted to surf. A perfectly romantic notion, but as much as I’d like to believe that, I know the vast majority of us who touch the sport are just like me – it provides us with so much positive mental energy we become hooked and believe we were destined to ride waves. The fact that participants of surfing love it so much that they believe they were destined to ride waves says a lot, and if that doesn’t sell the ESPN, Olympic and other mainstream sport elitists that surfing is the greatest sport in the world – and, while we’re at it, that Kelly Slater is the greatest and most dominant athlete to have ever walked the face of the Earth – then nothing will.
We are obsessed because our minds are hardwired a certain way – just as we are hardwired to love food and sex – and the sport of surfing exploits this physical mapping more so than any other. It may be mildly depressing for some to read and digest what I am saying for themselves – that life experiences somehow seem to fall short of the experience gained from surfing – but all is not lost. Surf as much and as often as you can, but when you can’t, don’t despair. Use what you know about flow – wherever you are and whatever you are doing focus intensely on the task at hand, make a challenge out of it, work on developing your skill, enjoy every experience while it lasts because you will be in the water again soon.