Data Analyst, Writer

Medina vs. John John. According to the numbers. Photo: WSL/Damien Poullenot

The Inertia

2017 has proven to be an epic season for the World Surf League. Miracle ComebacksPerfect 10’s and the championship open until the very last event, where John John Florence claimed his second world title. I’m not going to review the year; there are enough videos and articles out there. I did, however collect and analyze all waves from the 11 events this last year: the data behind a great season!

This season saw a total of 7,326 waves ridden. Surfed in 558 heats, by a total of 55 athletes (including wildcards). The basis for this analysis is every wave that is available on the event pages of the WSL Men’s CT. All waves from all heats count, not only the two scores that are used to decide who advances to the next round.

Differences between surfers

The first thing I wanted to know is how many waves each athlete caught on the CTThis would be a sort of productivity gauge. To add context I wanted to be able to label the waves into categories indicating the quality:


That’s why I classified each wave as low, medium or excellent:

  • Low: waves scoring lower than a five.
  • Medium: waves scoring in the five to eight range.
  • Excellent: waves scoring higher than an eight.

I now have a way to measure quantity (amount of waves) and quality (classification). I created the following graph to visualize the results. It shows the quality and quantity of the fifteen most productive athletes on the tour:

Wave classification by surfer.

Gabriel Medina has been the most productive/aggressive athlete when it comes to wave count.

Difference between surfers in amount of waves they caught during the season

Some athletes surf more heats than others, which influences the difference in wave count. However, the complete top four (John John, Gabriel, Justin, Jordy) surfed between 48-50 heats. Gabriel even surfed the least heats from the top four (48). What’s most impressive to me is that almost one out of every four waves that John John Florence surfed resulted in an eighth or higher. There’s no other logical conclusion other than that this Hawaiian has a sixth sense when it comes to wave selection.


John John Florence vs. Gabriel Medina

The difference in surf styles – mainly between John John Florence and Gabriel Medina – sparked my interest so I figured to focus on this a bit more.  To account for the difference in heats, we can look at the different scores another way, by looking at the distribution of the scores. I plotted all the scores for each athlete in box plots. One box plot represents all scores from a surfer divided in four equal sized groups. (Read more about box plots here.)

The difference in surfing styles is noticeable again:

  • 50% of John John’s waves score above 5.3 points
  • 50% of Gabriel’s waves score above 2.6 points

Although it does not tell us anything about who the better athlete is (in the end all you need is your two best waves to beat your opponent’s). But it does show us different surfing styles by the arguably two best surfers on tour.

To see how their scores are distributed over the 10-point scale, I’ve grouped all the individual scores into bins: all waves between 0 and 1, 1 and 2 etc…. By calculating the percentage of each bin, we can see a more detailed distribution of the two surfers and their waves.

A lot of these low scoring waves are likely to be the ones they try & bail. Or they are failed attempts at ‘all or nothing’ scores.


What does all this mean? We can see that the two world champions have distinct approaches when it comes to wave selection. Aggressive vs. Calculated?  Perhaps Medina makes a quicker decision to quit on a wave, whereas Florence keeps trucking, resulting in fewer scores in the low range?

Let me know what you think; I hope this analysis spurs some insights from your side and hopefully some new questions to analyze!


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