6 Ways to Free Yourself from Perfection in Surfing

Have you ever made the perfect plan to surf?

The swell charts were lining up, the wind and tide were going to be perfect for your favorite spot; you had called out of work, made sure you were free from any of life’s many commitments; your surf buddies were off too. You were ready to catch waves that would be, in a word, epic.

And then that morning or lunchtime or afternoon session comes, and the waves are flat. The wind has shifted so they are mushed into un-rideable mayhem. Tides are relatively predictable, but for some reason the normal tide height that gets this spot going just isn’t happening. For some reason, it seems, the wave goddesses and gods have decided today will not be your victory day. Today, you will not have the perfect surf session.

Have you ever jumped in without checking a report?

You’ve looked at the waves for less than five minutes, but you’re hot and sweaty, or you’ve only got an hour of sunlight left and decided to just go for it? You drove all this way in traffic and there’s no point turning back now? The conditions are significantly less than perfect, but you think to yourself that just getting out there today will be good enough?

And then that session turns out to be glorious. Sets come in from the horizon, larger than you’d expected. A shift in the wind glasses out the water, and no one is out. Or you see a dolphin, a turtle. You do a better backside snap than usual, or make a perfect take-off.

The freedom from perfection becomes the perfection, while the striving for it becomes your downfall.

In surfing especially, the challenge to find perfection is omnipresent. The radical changes of tide, sea, and sky on any given day make for a hunter’s mentality. Where are the best waves, when is the best time to go, which day, when is it least crowded? These questions are ever-present in the minds of surfers, yet some of the best experiences of surfing are often unplanned and decidedly imperfect ones.

Here are 6 ways to free yourself from the pursuit of surfing perfection, to radically shift your surfing into the present moment and make the most of every minute in the water.

1. Check the surf report less and paddle out more

Surf forecasts and reports are great, yet they can seriously impact your surfing in a negative way. How many times have you checked the report, only to see that the conditions are poor and the wind is onshore. You think, well, I could do something else instead, the waves aren’t that great. Or, your expectations are through the roof, only once you arrive at your home-break, it turns out the waves aren’t firing nearly as hard as you thought. Try paddling out more often without checking the report first, just to get in the water. Eliminate expectations and increase the frequency of your surfing by going more regularly, without letting a bad report dissuade you.

2. Get creative

Not every session has to be about catching as many waves as possible. Take a mask out with you on a longboard during a long-period swell and explore the reef, learning about the different patterns and rock formations below while seeing sea creatures and improving your breath-holds. Take dives from your board after breathing up and count how long you can stay under to enhance your cardio. Make up songs and sing them to yourself; count your breaths; watch the clouds above you and notice how they shift and ooze about in the sky; say positive affirmations to yourself; make a new friend out in the line-up. Getting creative in the water allows us to step back from the hyper-focused surfer mind-set, and return to the appreciative calm and freedom that we love so deeply about surfing. Letting go of that wave count can dramatically shift your view of a session.

3. Practice mindfulness in the water

Become more mindful of your body when the surf isn’t stellar. Listen to your heartbeat as you paddle. Celebrate the health and wellness of your body for making it into the water today. Pat yourself on the back for taking time to surf. Pay attention to each rotation of your hips as you search for waves on the horizon. Listen to the quiet emptiness of the sea. Check-in with your body from head to toe: how does my mind feel, what are my shoulders and neck and arms doing, where is there pain, am I engaging my core, how tight are my hamstrings, how do my toes feel in the water? Remember that there is always more to gain from surfing that just catching waves to re-orient your surfing goals. Prepare for those heavier and faster waves by checking in with your body more, learning it’s rhythms and needs, and getting grounded. Mindful practices in the water are invaluable for your performance in and out of the water. Working towards a mindful surfing practice on the calm days will strengthen your mental clarity and awareness, so we are even more prepared for those heavier and faster-paced days.

4. Eliminate the “Should have been ____” from your mind-set

Although it can be a fun way to start a conversation with people by talking about how the swell was a week ago, yesterday, or even an hour ago, it can also take us right out of the here and now. Sure, the waves might have been better earlier when you were working. Sure, they might have been better last week when you were sick. Sure, they might have been fantastic two days ago, when you had something else you had to do and missed out. You might have missed out, but what good does it do to reminisce or wallow in that? Yesterday is yesterday, there is only today and the moment you are here right now. If you missed out, then you missed out, but don’t let the waves you are able to catch lose their joy because you’re obsessing about the ones you missed.

5. Surf the same break consistently

Although it can be exciting to surf new spots and search for different waves, getting comfortable at a specific break in a variety of conditions can be just as beneficial and trying a new spot regularly. Find a balance between getting out of your comfort zone and creating repetition. That way, you learn how to interpret a specific wave each time you’re paddling out. In doing this, you’ll gain greater and greater mastery of the same wave. Rather than being disappointed when it’s not firing, you can start to see the small improvements you’re making based on that specific break, rather than getting hung-up on conditions. Repetition is crucial to surfing better, and repetition at the same break can do wonders for giving you a greater sense of how your surfing is changing based on your personal surf journey. This frees you from the should I go there or here or where is better to surf, because you’ve got a consistent stomping ground to build your confidence and understand the mechanics of each unique day out in the ocean.

6. Thank the ocean after every session

Finally, giving thanks to the ocean is a way to free yourself from the perfectionism of surfing. Thank the ocean for challenging you that day, for not giving you perfect waves. Thank the ocean for giving you an extra trial or two, because these are the exact days that will contrast with the epic ones. Thank the ocean for superb conditions, and terrible ones. Bad conditions and rough sessions are the greatest opportunities for improvement, because when the waves pick up or the wind drops, you’ll be that much more stoked. Amazing conditions are the result of a magical confluence of so many factors, it’s a wonder when we get them. Give thanks for your wipeouts and falls, the wind blasting you in the face, and for the heavy current strengthening your arms. See the possibilities for value and advancing your skills, rather than the disappointments. Give thanks every time you get out from the ocean, because no matter how it went, it was a blessing to be out there doing what you love.

Wherever you surf in the world, wherever your surfing journey takes you, remember that perfection isn’t the goal. We don’t keep coming back to the ocean because we are perfect, we keep coming back because we are in love with the pursuit of ecstasy that surfing brings us.

Remember that the stoke wouldn’t be as great if surfing were always easy, which is why the worst days and the best days are each a treasure unto themselves.