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Science says you’d rather go this way than the other way. Science! Photo: Cameron Kirby/Unsplash

The Inertia

“You going left or right?” At a crowded beach break, if you’re paddling for the wave of the day, the surfer behind you will undoubtedly ask which way you’re going in an attempt to split the peak. As it happens, a new scientific study may shed new light on the probability that given the option most surfers (both recreational and professional) will favor their forehand.

Researchers Jannik Dörr and Philip Furley from the German Sports University in Cologne, and Florian Loffing from the Universtiy of Oldenburg recently published a compelling study in an academic journal with the extremely wonky name, Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition. Their study was two-fold. First, the researchers conducted surveys among surfers across the world and asked them to document how much they prefer to surf frontside or backside, if at all. The results are interesting.

“Recreational surfers preferred surfing frontside and described themselves as more skillful when surfing frontside as this is facilitative for picking up visual information,” explain the authors.

The second bit is even more interesting. When analyzing the over 4,000 waves surfed in the 2014 WSL Men’s Championship Tour season, Dörr and his team found that even at the elite level both goofy and regular surfers prefer their forehand – goofy-footers, for example, are 1.71 times more likely to go left than regular-footers in a contest with both on offer.


Critics of the League’s recent changes that led to the Fiji Pro getting axed (one of the tour’s best lefts) have cited the move as one that’s tipped the scales to favor dedicated right-handers over lefts. “The WSL hates goofy-footers like Medina!” they chant. On the other hand, fans of regular-footed surfers might raise issue with the venue change to complete the Margaret River Pro. Uluwatu, after all, is a left.

Not so fast, though. Another key component of Dörr et. al’s research found that while surfers generally favor going one direction, on the Championship Tour there’s no statistically significant relationship to performance. “One reason for this is that professional surfers most likely have acquired skills and strategies to circumvent potential performance limitations due to personal characteristics like physical size, body composition or surf stance,” write the authors. The most recent Pipe Master, Jeremy Flores, for instance, is a regular foot. Italo Ferreira, a southpaw, won Bells this year. And the list goes on…

It’s worth pointing out that the study looks at the WSL season as a collective and doesn’t account for skills that may be easier to perform on one side over another. Do backside barrel riders get scored higher or lower than their competitors with another foot front? Do big open-faced pointbreak waves favor a vertical approach that’s easier to achieve facing one direction? Etc.


The study of recreational surfers, on the other hand, asked respondents more specific questions about their abilities on their forehand versus backhand, which all skewed toward the former. A bit surprisingly, they reported “speed” was the hardest backside skill over “tube riding” and “advanced maneuvers.” In another set of questions, respondents said they had much less control on their backhand. Whether this difference in ability is real or perceived is the question that remains.


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