Isn't Surfing Supposed to Be Fun? Sometimes, It Doesn't Seem Like It Is Anymore

If anyone personifies fun in professional surfing, it’s Happy Gilmore. Photo: WSL

The Inertia

The recent Bonsoy Pro, held earlier this month at Australia’s Snapper Rocks, served up plenty of highlights, with a number of rides scored as “perfect,” including one backside barrel by eventual women’s winner Erin brooks lauded as exceptionally perfect, for man or woman. Yet for myself, and I’m sure many others who tuned into the Gold Coast action, the high point of the event was a novelty heat, run to essentially kill time at the day’s end of early round competition, featuring five world champions: Kelly Slater, Stephanie Gilmore, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson and Mark Occhilupo.

Something about this presentation of masterful surfing, contrasting so sharply with the conventional competitive performances on display earlier, couldn’t help but delight onlookers and, judging by the many comments, online viewers alike; the event’s color commentators gushed ecstatically in a manner rarely applied to formal competition. And I believe that it wasn’t simply because we all were watching five of the world’s very best surfers, but in the way these champions, all of whom still display the form that won them their titles, expressed that preternatural skill: they looked like they were having fun. More precisely, that they were just playing around out there. Which, naturally, got me to thinking about the idea of surfing as a form of play. Because even a basic understanding of surfing’s essential appeal makes it clear that while one might play other sports like soccer, football or basketball, surfing is perhaps the only sport that actually is play.

Consider the historical origin of sport, in virtually every case finding its roots set deeply in either mock warfare or basic survival. Ollamalizli, the Mesoamerican version of basketball dating back to 2500 BCE, often acknowledged as history’s first recorded sport, pitted rival teams against each other, the losers being sacrificed in a gruesome religious ceremony – makes losing a Super Bowl seem like merely having a bad day. Tsu Chu, a Chinese ball game reckoned as the earliest form of soccer, was first mentioned in a military manual dating back to the second century BCE. Even evidence of tossing the javelin, history’s first field sport, carbon-dated back to 70,000 BCE, evolved out of the human need to kill either a hairy mastodon or even hairier Neanderthal bent on stealing one’s water or women. 

Now I’ll ask you, does any of this sound like fun? Especially when compared to the original forms of surfing, as enjoyed by first-century West African fishing villagers and a few centuries later by our Hawaiian progenitors, who by 500 AD, had advanced playing in the surf into a culturally significant art form, with men, women and children of all ages experiencing not only the simple joy but the psychological benefits of such play. 

A recent treatise published in Psychology Today describes play as “fun, imaginative, relaxed, self-directed activities, with benefits tied to increased cognitive flexibility, social responsivity and improved social regulation.”

And that’s just for the groms. It seems that adult play can provide even more profound mood, and even life-altering benefits, shown through study after study to “reduce stress, promote optimism and strengthen one’s ability to take on other perspectives.”

Reams of quantifiable data that can’t help but lead to a particularly salient question: when it comes to modern surfing, what the hell went wrong? Because judging by decades of collective attitudes and behaviors, not to mention today’s vitriolic online comment culture, very few surfers seem to be enjoying any psychological benefits of playing in the surf.

Which brings us back to the Bonsoy Pro, and that eminently entertaining world champion’s performance. What was so different about that 40-minute heat that brought crowds of onlookers, live commentators and even some online viewers to their feet? I’ll posit that it was because these five surfers weren’t competing, but simply playing together, enjoying all the benefits of the latter and none of the downsides of the former.

Let’s go back to Psychology Today, which states that “competition has the undesirable quality of being a ‘zero-sum game,’ meaning that in order for you to win, someone has to lose. Indicating that competitiveness is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need to survive.”

Now, why I’m surely not the only surfer who, at one one time or another in their life, truly believed that I just couldn’t live without surfing, in truth it was hardly necessary for my survival. Just as I’m equally confident that plenty of you will assert, quite stridently, that sure, surfing would be a lot more fun, a lot more like play, if we all didn’t have to compete for those waves available during an arbitrarily prescribed period of time each go-out. Fair enough point. I’m not going to provide any sure-fire answers as to how to deal with modern surfing’s most “undesirable quality”, that being the seemingly intrinsic concept of “my wave.” I will, however, offer an alternative concept for your consideration. The same Psychology Today treatise points out that competitiveness’ mirror image is cooperation, even providing a decidedly non-academic quote from philosopher Bertrand Russell, who wrote, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”

So, go ahead and fight for waves as if your life depends on it, but also allow yourself to at least occasionally think about the Russell’s quote the next time you back-paddle, drop in on, or bad vibe a fellow wave rider. Keeping in mind the original intent of those West African villagers and happy Hawaiians who first began playing in the surf: it’s supposed to be fun.


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