Stab Magazine | The Mind Games of Kelly Slater
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The Mind Games of Kelly Slater

My master at Stab magazine tasked me with a story one evening as I stood on my master bedroom’s deck smoking a cigarette. It was to be a look into the competitive mind of Kelly Slater. An honest, straight, probing story about what makes him tick. No fluff. Kelly was to be in Southern California […]

news // Mar 8, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 12 minutes

My master at Stab magazine tasked me with a story one evening as I stood on my master bedroom’s deck smoking a cigarette. It was to be a look into the competitive mind of Kelly Slater. An honest, straight, probing story about what makes him tick. No fluff.

Kelly was to be in Southern California for some two weeks for the Trestles Pro, before leaving for France. He was close to his 11th world title and the story sounded interesting and so I excitedly agreed. I emailed Kelly that night. He responded one hour later.

“No thanks. You’ll just say that other people are sexier than me.” I emailed my master and told him that I had been defeated. That my reputation had preceded me into Kelly’s heart.

“Email him back,” he responded. “Kelly is v v competitive and he’ll love the challenge of crossing mental swords with you.” And so I did, and three hours plus seven emails later we had a tentative date. In my last communiqué, I had even offered Kelly final edit before the story went to press. He wrote back, “I don’t need it (final edit). It is just hard to spend your whole life doing something and have it picked apart.” The quiet exhaustion of a man alone with his own greatness was palpable and I appreciated his vulnerability.

We tried, over the next two weeks, to set up a meeting date and finally we had one. It would require me to drive back from Arizona at 4:30 in the morning (I was there with my wife who was attending ESPN‘s women in sport conference. She didn’t enjoy it and so called me to kill five-star time with her in the desert) to San Clemente but it would be well worth it.

I arrived in San Clemente early and spent some hours laughing with the staff at the Surfing magazine offices before calling Kelly and confirming our location. He told me, on the phone, that he had fucked up and double-booked a birthday dinner with his girlfriend’s parents. An important event. And so I had to settle for a phone interview.

Phone interviews are always problematic. Not being able to see the subject’s eyes or observe his posture drains a story of life. And I have spent enough time with Kelly, in the past, to know his eyes hold secrets. He fixes you in that gaze. I needed that. To peer in to his soul and to soak there for a minute.

Or I thought I needed it, for the interview that Kelly gave me was one of the most honest I have ever had. He answered each question thoughtfully, pausing and letting the words roll around in his mind before speaking. He took the time to dig into himself and say things that were not only not trite, but very interesting. Very personal.

He gave the interview his full attention and after 30 some minutes I felt bad because he was sitting in his car, alone, talking to me while his girlfriend and her parents were inside the restaurant enjoying each other. I cut him off and told him that I had enough and thanked him for his time. He almost seemed hurt.

Two weeks later I had yet to write the piece. I had the 30 minutes of transcript and I had listened to the recording four times but I didn’t know how to do his words proper justice. And then he emailed me again. Jamie O’Brien’s Twitter account had been saying unkind things about him and he had been told that I was writing the messages. He wrote that, if it were true, he and I were going to have big problems whenever we next met. He wrote that he had given me an honest interview and returning his honesty with Twitter filth was unacceptable.

I have not written anything for Jamie O for years and told this to Kelly and also told him to get his facts straight before challenging me to duel. He was kind in response, but the fact that he referenced the honesty of his interview made me realise that he had given a piece of himself. And the best way I could honour that was by placing his words on the page without adornment. Simply and beautifully.

Stab: When you paddle out do you know you’re going to win?
Kelly Slater: I don’t know I’m gonna win but I know my chances. I know my odds based on… if you look who you’re against and what their strengths and weaknesses are and what sort of waves they’re good in and if you’ve surfed against each other before and what your records are… if you run the numbers in your head and then pick the right board for the conditions… those things all weigh in and give you an idea of how you’re gonna fare.

When you’re out there are you always thinking about who your competition is? Are you surfing to their weakness? How much a part of your surfing is that? It depends. Sometimes, look, sometimes you’re just gonna get a guy who is better than you at doing something and you can’t really compete with him at that level. Maybe it’s a certain air or charging a big wave or whatever. Maybe the guy is really, really good in big powerful waves doing carves but he’s not that good in small waves. So, you want to try to, in a competitive way, control that. Like, I can do this thing he can do but I can also do this thing he can’t do. And, there’s a certain level where guys at events want to send a message to other people, you know. I’ll notice it with Taj a lot where, I don’t know if he’s intentionally trying to do that, but sometimes it seems that way because he seems to do great on the Gold Coast especially in the early rounds. Some guys, maybe they really want to send that message and just kill someone in a heat that they don’t need to… they’re getting, like, two nines when they only needed two sevens. It’s rad to see that surfing, but at the same time it’s like you used up a little mental capacity. You know, I watched Lance Armstrong win a lot of the Tour de France’s and he wasn’t doing it by going out and trying to smash everyone every day – because it’s not a battle, it’s a war… If you’re able to win at an event that maybe doesn’t suit your surfing or if you’re able to get a good result, better than you might expect at that location, then you’re ahead of the field. You know, like, if you’re in the Tour de France and you’re really good at just speed, if you get into the mountains and you’re going up hill but you beat a whole bunch of guys who are good in the mountains then you reeled ‘em in and you’re way ahead of the curve.

Funny, I was just watching Voluptuous and the boards you were riding there, I mean, everybody was riding, were retardedly long and I forgot that boards were that long in the ‘90s… Yeah (laughs), I even think a 6’1” is long now. Somebody showed me a 6’1” the other day and I was like, Oh my God, I can’t believe I rode that for 10, 15, years. It’s ridiculous. Around ‘96 I was riding 6’1”s and 6’3”s all the time.

How much does toying with your boards, fins, the whole set up, keep you progressive? It keeps it interesting for me. To be honest, I’m really bored with competition. I mean, I do like the challenge and the, you know, it keeps you pushing to better yourself but if your boards are making it fun to ride those waves and helping you to progress, it’s a lot easier for you to enjoy it.

I’m sorry. Did you say you were bored with competition? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, obviously, I don’t get super excited about contests unless the waves are really good. If the waves are good then I’m excited because I get to surf by myself.

Do you think it’s a Catch-22? The more bored you get the better you do because you don’t care? I don’t know! I… (thoughtful pause) I feel the experimentation… you know, like, in New York I rode a five-fin and I had never ridden a five-fin before and but it was fun, it was exciting to be able to be on something new and have it feel good right away.

Why do you think that you are so good? Even for me, you’re killing it. You make the generation under you look old. How is that happening? Do you even think about it? Well, I don’t necessarily think I’m doing anything the kids aren’t doing. I mean, some of the airs and grabs and rotations guys are doing are pretty crazy and the shuv-its, which I don’t have in my bag… the stuff that Julian (Wilson) and Josh (Kerr) are pulling off all the time, they’re super technical. It’s debatable whether they’re functional at this point but they’re the most technical stuff anyone is doing. I mean, look, the basis of surfing, the bread and butter of surfing, is doing a rail carve. The bread and butter of surfing is a bottom turn and a top turn and that has to be, in my eyes, that still has to be the best part of your surfing. I think that will always be true but then you have speed and your approach off the bottom, reading the wave… there are so many things that go into it and guys like Julian have progressed more than anyone recently. He’s started to get his carves really going whereas I felt before his carves were probably not up to par and I think now they are. And Josh, him and Josh are kind of the same thing in a way, where their strength is really their air surfing and tricks, their innovation, whereas, you know, the opposite could be said for Parko where his strength is his carving and drawing that line that looks really smooth. And modern surfing is becoming more and more of that, a real mix at any second on a wave. And I think Taj… Taj really has that but I think that there’s just… (pause) guys are getting good really fast. Gabriel Medina is 17 years old and the kid is probably the best aerialist in the world right now.

Are you aware of the mind games you play in the water? Everyone talks about getting mind fucked by you. Is that a conscious thing? The ownership of that is totally on them. I’m not gonna say I’m not a competitive guy but, you know, if they’re getting mind fucked that is because they are not in control of themselves for whatever reason. So, that is not my problem (laughs). That is their problem. Like, Parko the other day, Parko had a wave down at Lowers and he’s coming down the line and I was paddling back out and I was paddling fast to try and get out of his way and I was thinking in my head, “Oh what’s he gonna do? How is he gonna use that section? How’s he gonna come around it.” I was thinking about what his choices were. And he got stuck between two kinds of turns and he fell. And he came up and said, “Ahhh you fucking did that to me.” And I was, like, “Really? I didn’t do anything. I was just watching you ride a wave.” But, you know, people say that all the time and for whatever reason, I don’t know what that is. I don’t know (genuine thoughtfulness).

When you’re out with a younger kid do you compete against them differently? Will you sit on a kid more, say, or push a kid off the peak or different tactics or do you surf the same no matter the age of the competition? I don’t think I surf different based on the age. You know, the situation calls for how you surf against someone. Some heats you may feel like you don’t have to surf 100% to win, for whatever reason, but then all of a sudden you’re in a situation where you have to surf better than 100%, you know? It’s a weird thing when I surf against really young guys 18 or 20 years old because at this point I feel like I have more to lose than they do. I don’t consciously go out with the idea that I’m going to sit on someone or not because with priority you don’t have to worry about that so much. It comes into play in the last couple minutes of a heat if there is inconsistent waves and there is one spot to take off, but if you’re at a beachbreak and there’s a lot of waves then… I mean, if you’re against Jordy he can get any piece of shit and do a huge air reverse and get a nine. I mean, if you’re Backdoor at Pipe and it’s clear that there are good rights or lefts or peaks or whatever (thoughtful pause)… you might be able to win a heat based on priority. If you hassle him at the beginning and get in good synch with the waves then you can really choose because there are waves that are clearly better than others. And, at a place like Pipe or Teahupoo, you’re not gonna beat someone by going and doing some big manoeuvre. You’ve just got to man up and take off deep and get the best barrel. So it’s different in different places but I notice that some guys really like to hassle and really like to make sure that they have the first good exchange and, if that is the case, if you sneak a wave that they don’t want and you beat them on first exchange I think it rattles people. And that’s competition.

What is the future of competition and the kids you’re gonna look at to do well? Do you think anyone’s ever gonna challenge your 15 or whatever you’ll have at the end, titles? (Laughs) Wow. It’s a long road. I’m sure… I know if I was starting right now and Mark Richards had 10 I would think, “That’s a lot of my years gonna be used up trying to get there.” But, it’s possible. If you set a goal, if somebody sets a goal to get to that, number one is just a number in the way. I mean, when it comes to if guys are really competition surfers or not, I’m neither here nor there because there are times when I really despise that I’m on a world tour. Sometimes I want to be off it and other times there is no place I’d rather be because the best guys are there and the waves are good and that is the stage we have to be able to present what we can do. It’s almost like you go freesurf and build up all that, all your abilities and talent and practice and everything then you have this stage to use it on and I think that is the cool thing about competition. And, yeah, it does seem like there is kind of a backlash against it. There was a backlash against competition and then Dane, even though he has been on tour, he sort of symbolises that. But there is now a backlash against the backlash. John John is on the world tour, Kolohe wants to be on the world tour, Gabriel Medina, Miguel Pupo, Yadin Nicol… all the best young guys are on the tour now and there is no one you could argue to me who is one of the best guys in the world who is not on tour. It is the environment you want to be in to plant those seeds, I think, and push yourself. If you see a guy doing crazy stuff in competition you want to do that. You want to be able to have that ability and that confidence. As a young pro, especially, it’s real exciting.

Do you know when you’re going to walk away? Ever competing again I don’t know… If I were to win the title this year (and y’did!) I’d be done for sure.

Really? I think so…(pause)… I don’t know. That’s kind of my feeling. I don’t think I’d want to do it full time anymore… I just get so tired of the packing and the monotony of that and just being uprooted all the time that, I just, need a break (laughs).

But you totally fuck yourself because you go to the first contest of the year and you win and you have to keep going. (Laughs) Look, I’m satisfied. I’m totally satisfied. If I never win another contest again, that is fine with me, like, I’ve had a great time. I obviously have a certain ability and I’m still utilising that and hopefully that is able to push the level somewhat. At least the competitive level. Hopefully.

Where is home going to be when you are done? It’s gonna be a lot of different places. I love Australia, I love Hawaii, I love going home to Florida and seeing the friends I have always known and so it’ll probably be a mix of those and California as well.

Do you think being on tour so long makes it impossible to settle down in one place? Yeah, it kind of does. I realise that a lot now. I think it’s virtually impossible not to love most of the lifestyle.

Are you friends with the guys on tour? I don’t know… I’m not really in any kind of clique. I’m kind of a snob when it comes to that. But certain guys I really enjoy being around. I think I’m real good friends with the Hobgoods and there’s a lot of guys I really like, like Josh Kerr. He and I get along really well, but we never hang out very much but we enjoy bouncing ideas off each other and we have fun surfing heats. Jeremy (Flores) and I are pretty good friends and there’s no one I don’t get along with but I guess when you leave tour there will probably be only a few guys that I’ll be real close with, for whatever reason. But, I think I get along with most everybody.

Does anybody ask you advice? Not really, no. I think there is a certain level of pride there where people wouldn’t ask that so much. But at the same time, I sort of help Kolohe a little bit. Not that he’s on tour with me right now, but it’s real exciting for me because I get to share something with him that he’s interested in and… honestly… if almost any guy on tour came up to me and asked me advice on surfing against someone I’d probably give him pretty honest advice.

Secrets? No, I’m open. There are certain things I keep to myself, about the way I’m mentally preparing, what I tell myself, or how I kind of affirm what I’m going out to do, but that in itself would be different for everybody. 

Books? Look, there’s no real tricks. You gotta be comfortable with yourself. You have to be confident in your abilities. And you have to figure out if you’re going to play offence or defence. And are you gonna switch in heat. A lot of times with priority you got to play defence. But, you also have to know how to play priority or no priority, both situations, defensively and offensively. Like, sometimes without priority I’m more offensive because I’m aggressively trying to attack.

Is surfing like chess for you? Yeah. It is basically. There’s a board and you are trying to figure out the best option and sometimes you win and sometimes you make the wrong choice and you lose and it’s over.

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