Why do we surf? A matter that ad campaigns won’t settle

Surfing is the most ephemeral of sports. Research has shown that only around 4% of a surf session is spent riding waves.1 That percentage dwindles further when one also calculates the time spent waiting for the right swell, searching for the best break, and waiting to catch the right set wave. Think of all the, thousands of dollars spent on a surf trip half way around the world only to find lackluster waves. This is not to mention all the occupational conflicts, relationship conflicts, and obsessing over the weather forecasts. It all begs the question that surfers eventually find themselves asking, “what makes it all so worth it?”
Apparently, the advertisers at Billabong recently caught onto this aspect of the sport and started an ad campaign called “I surf because…..” in which surfers write one-liners about why they love to surf. This goes into an online competition with the “very best” answers winning surf travel and placement on the Billabong website.2 It is clear that Billabong is searching for the briefest, catchiest, commercializable answer. The true answer to the question always seems elusive.
Human beings are notoriously poor at determining the causal aspects of their own personal motivations, behaviors, likes, dislikes, etc. Any educated guess about our reasons for habitually surfing requires a broad understanding of psychological theories and concepts.
While introductory texts simply define psychology as “the field of science that deals with mental processes and behavior”, further inspection reveals some debate over whether psychology is a discipline of science at all. Many of the most popular psychological theories appear to result as much from philosophy and personal intuition as that of scientific experimentation.
Though psychology may have spawned from philosophy, it strives mercilessly to be a discipline of science. Each theory must be vetted and supported by research experimentation which results in predictable outcomes. Unfortunately, the most interesting of human topics are not conducive to this type of research. For instance, the reasons for surfing cannot easily be tested with rigorous scientific or laboratory experimentation yielding results that will later provide for the development of laws or theories about surfing. As Georgetown Professor Daniel Robinson once said, “you can’t perform an experiment on Napoleans loosing in Belgiums”.3 That is to say, complex, one time, events such as “why someone chose to surf this morning” cannot be answered by rigorous scientific experimentation. “Why we surf” involves complex events that only take place through personal agency- unfortunately we can’t use lab rats.

Whenever psychologists venture into discerning internal desires, lusts, loves, and the like, they invariably move toward the soft science side of psychology. This form is based on a combination of qualitative experimentation, case histories, inciting events, inductive reasoning, and extrapolation from pre-existing findings. Many of the highly cherished theories in the field of psychology are only partially backed by experimentation and are often in conflict with findings from other schools of psychological research.
Although aspects of psychology can be viewed as a soft science, it is an important one that has taught us greatly about the human brain, the mind, and human behavior. I mention this out of defensive guilt for much of the theoretical yet unscientific suppositions this (or any) future articles will have to offer about surfing. Having mentioned this, I do believe that psychology represents the lens through which one may discover all the kaleidoscopic variations as to “why we surf”.
The field of psychology is very broad, and there must be at least 20 subspecialties within it. In this blog, I began by researching Sport Psychology, a young subspecialty within the broad field of psychology. Sport Psychology is generally defined as the “study of the mental factors that affect and are affected by participation and performance in sport, exercise, and physical activity”. It also seeks to understand mental factors that affect performance in sports activities and applies these to enhance individual and team performance. For example, research-based applications may be used to improve performance by understanding “peak performance”, managing emotions or minimizing the negative psychological effects of injury/loss.4 My initial venture into Sport Psychology seemed a logical choice.
In my spare time, I poured through professional journals such as the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, the Psychology of Sport and Exercise, and the International Journal of Sports Psychology. However, there was little evidence or discussion even tangentially related to the question of “why we surf”. Sport Psychology is more focused on applications such as improving competitive ability, reducing injury, and dealing with drug use and mental disability among athletes. I perused titles such as “Novice motor skill performance and task experience is influenced by attentional focusing instructions and instruction preferences” and “Construct validity of multiple achievement goals: a multitrait-multimethod approach” abound in the literature. Another of my favorites, “Analysis of contextual information sharing during table tennis matches: an empirical study of coordination in sport” convinced me that this line of research was not for me.
The hope I had that Sport Psychology would answer some of my own questions about surfing were largely dashed. However, the research and development in sport psychology is being applied to surfing, especially at the professional level. In recent years, the sport of surfing has drawn enough notoriety and financial success that it is feasible for professional counselors to actually follow the tour, helping young (and old) athletes achieve greater success. Surf psychologists and counselors are available to national amateur, WQS, and WCT athletes. The standard sport psychology interventions include relaxation training, deep breathing, visualization, imagery, mental practice, self-talk and goal-setting. Over the last decade, psychologists and counselors consulted professional surfers in such techniques to help the mind become better grounded for competition. I had not realized the extent to which sport psychology had become involved with competitive surfing until I came across Richard Bennett’s book The Surfer’s Mind.
First published in 2004 and reprinted in 2007, The Surfer’s Mind appears to be the premier surf psychology text. It is well resourced by Bennett’s experience over several years following the ASP circuit, numerous interviews and quotes from professional surfers, and Sport Psychology research. Each chapter can stand alone as a meditation. Chapters cover subject matters such as the core elements of performance, tuning in your surfing, and career (surfing) development. In an interview Bennett explains, “A free mind is a powerful mind. The best way to free your mind is to let go of attachments, transcend fears, trust your intuition and keep things simple.”
Bennett’s book covers most performance aspects of surfing such as how to focus on maneuvers, how to deal with localism, how to surf bigger waves. As is typical of a sport psychology text, it focuses on the how’s of surfing. The book is applicable to surfing in many ways, but sport psychology ultimately left me wanting more answers to different questions. I found myself searching to know the why’s of surfing.
I moved on to other aspects of psychology. Many schools of psychology exist including psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, social learning theory and humanistic psychology just to name a few. The ideas are swimming around in my head between surf sessions.
Some would say that to go on intellectualizing about “why we surf” is antithetical to the whole vibe and feeling of surfing in the first place. Don’t we surf to get away from all that? Today, I am in agreement and content to leave my views on the matter alone. In the words of Isaac Newton, Hypotheses non fingo – I feign no hypotheses.

1. Mendez-Villanueva A, Bishop D, Hamer P. Activity profile of world-class professional surfers during competition: a case study. J Strength Cond Res. 2006 Aug; 20(3):477-82.
2. http://www.isurfbecause.com
3. Robinson D. The Great Ideas of Psychology lecture series. The Teaching Company. 1997
4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sport_psychology

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