The Inertia for Good Editor
The Everlasting Frustration of Surfing

In no other sport can one progress so slowly and regress so quickly. Photo: Austin Neill//Unsplash

The Inertia

Surfing is difficult. Then again, most sports are. However, according to ESPN and a group of sports scientists from the United States Olympic Committee, riding a wave is far from the most challenging sport an athlete could take on. On a list of 60 sports, ranging from boxing to auto racing to fishing, surfing ranks 23rd in overall degree of difficulty and it’s 12 spots behind Alpine Skiing overall, making them the two action/outdoor sports ranked highest in the Degree of Difficulty Project. 

Bruises. So many bruises on so many egos.

The top spot overall? Boxing.

“That’s the sport that demands the most from the athletes who compete in it,” reads the ranking. “It’s harder than football, harder than baseball, harder than basketball, harder than hockey or soccer or cycling or skiing or fishing or billiards or any other of the 60 sports we rated.”

The rankings were built based on grades given in 10 categories or skills that contribute to overall athleticism: endurance, strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, nerve, durability, hand-eye coordination, and analytic aptitude. Surfers got a top-10 ranking on the list for their ability to overcome fear (nerve) but were rated around the middle of the pack for all the remaining nine categories.

One grade that sticks out is a mediocre 4.88 out of 10 for “the ability to evaluate and react appropriately to strategic situations” (analytic aptitude). ESPN uses the example of “Joe Montana reading a defense” or a “basketball point guard on a fast break” as examples of this skillset being put into play. But it’s fair to argue that it takes a lifetime to become familiar with all the variables that allow us to surf well: wave conditions, processing lineup dynamics in real time, and understanding positioning to catch a wave. And that’s before one even makes a read while surfing the wave itself. A curious ranking for certain.

The learning curve is obviously steep when it comes to riding waves, let alone riding them well. 

“There are very few sports that are so dependent on slim margins for error, pinpoint timing, and various environmental factors beyond our control,” wrote The Inertia’s Brian Sousa. “Sure, soccer on a rainy field with a hostile crowd is a challenge; but the ocean is in a perpetual state of fluctuation. As are the surfers around you. As is the weather, the tides, and your sudden lack of motor skills when faced with a gaping wave at its zenith.”

All that and still just a 4.88.

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