Stab Magazine | Common Traits Of The World’s Best Surfers

Common Traits Of The World’s Best Surfers

Here’s what you can learn from Dane Reynolds and Jordy Smith.

Words by Damien Fahrenfort

Ask any professional surfer how they improve their surfing and they’ll usually struggle coming up with an answer on the spot.  

Not because they’re inept, or want to keep their trade secrets under wraps, either. It’s difficult to be introspective and critical to your own surfing—and even tougher to differentiate your approach from the pack’s.  

Thankfully, a third-person’s perspective, comparing your pros to joe-blow’s, allows for a more stringent analysis of how top-level guys surf so goddamn good.

Generally, the everyday man surfs for a number of reasons: social gathering, a bit of exercise, some phone-free time. But mostly, surfing provides a temporary disconnect from the dramas of the real world.  

Pro-surfers experience these same feelings—the same disconnect, the same replenishment, the same stoke.

But they do something that the Everyman doesn’t: pros surf with intent.

Without getting too philosophical, Ol’ Bertie Einstein once said, “If you want a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”  

While Einstein never quite felt wax beneath his feet, his sentiment applies just as well to modern day surfers, as it does to the well-lived-life of a theoretical physicist.

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Surfing’s elite plot a game plan too, more instinctual than considered though.


Greg Ewing

So, let’s talk goals.

Remember when you were a kid: aiming to catch your first wave, trying to thread your first proper tube. Or that time you worked tirelessly to stick your first air?

Surfing as a beginner is a splendid time filled, with goals and achievements—sure, you weren’t ripping, but you were improving with each and every wave you caught.  

Once most surfers reach the ‘intermediate’ phase, those goals typically dissipate, replaced by contentment, or worse: stagnation.

We get over that initial ‘skill’ hump and we’re happy to continue on a sideways plateau.

As you would’ve noticed—aside from the ailments of old age and the laws of physics— pro-surfers’ skill-sets are on an inexorable, skybound trend.

What’s their secret?

Albee Einstein had the answer, and it’s as simple as it sounds: just surf with a little more intent. Set your goals. Those ambitious sessions as a grom, that’s the way the pros are constantly surfing. And they continue to improve because of it.  

“Life without goals is like a race with no finish line”—a cliché, but clichés always hold an ounce of truth and in this case it applies to surf. Without goals, you’re surfing nowhere, fast.  

The good news is that these long-buried goals aren’t too difficult to unearth. You may have progressed past the point of merely aiming to ‘bend your knees on your bottom turn’, but there’s no reason you can’t set your goals higher. Dane, Jordy, John John, you name it, they all do it.

There are two main things that happen when you start surfing with intent:

  • Firstly, you improve.
  • Secondly, you get addicted to improving.

Your improvement begins to self-perpetuate and you soon find yourself on the path towards serious progression; like someone who starts seeing changes at the gym, you get addicted to that feeling.

You can’t stop.

This isn’t the type of crippling addiction you want to avoid, either: your surfing improves and your stoke climbs with it.

So now that we have your attention…

Here’s How to Surf with Intent.

Let’s start off with an example—take Jordy Smith.

Last year, Jordy was constantly working on his signature carve—the one that tore apart J-Bay and Trestles last year.

It’s pretty difficult to improve near-perfection, but with a bit of work with his coach Chris Gallagher, Jordy managed to further refine that man-carve, altered the way he moves his hands and shoulders, which tightened his arc and allowed the South African to exit each turn with more speed and projection.

Secondly, Jordy addressed his between-maneuver jive—something we can all probably work on.

When we relive Tom Curren’s magic wave at J-Bay from ‘92, we’re often taken aback by the quality and pure power of his turns, but what makes this wave truly memorable is the seamlessness of his between-turn transitions—there’s no pumping or arm-flailing in sight. These stages between waves is what separates the 9’s from the 10’s, and is what I believe the WSL is referring to within their ‘flow’ criteria.

You may not be under the judges’ scrutiny, but adding a little flow to your surfing never hurt anyone.

Another cogent point is to maximise each wave, surf the shit out of it—don’t just race to the end section and launch another throwaway air.

Stand up, take it slow, and map out your attack plan, well before you start driving down the line. Once you begin to make a habit of this, you’ll begin to notice the ease with which this surfing becomes natural. You will no longer need to overthink it, your muscle memory will know what to do the moment you set your soles into the deck.

Repetition is the key to success

Another gym cliché, we know, but it’s tried and tested. 

Skateboarders will go an entire day trying to nail a trick at a spot, and often spend a full day learning a new trick.

The majority of the time, skateboarders spend falling, slamming and falling, all fucking day—and repeat the process until the trick’s nailed.

We know no two waves are the same in surfing, but no two waves at the same spot are world’s apart either.

You can therefore apply a modified ‘repeat’ method skaters use to practice turns, airs, whatever. That’s the way I learned to chop hop, which is the fundamental building blocks of learning to punt. Baby steps, but it’s better than crawling forever.

In Jordy’s case, instead of chop hops, he would be like, “Okay, I need like a full rotator for this edit, I need a backflip, I need an alley-oop at North Point…” You catch our drift.

Depending on your specific aims, there are two different ways you can approach repetition: comp-oriented, or free-surf-focused.

If Jordy is preparing for J-Bay, he’ll work on mechanising his turns, solidifying his transitions and accelerating down the line through Impossibles, repeating the process of surfing a wave from its beginning to end.

If it’s edits he’s after, the focus will shift from completion to singularity. Jordy will focus on landing the biggest turns, the loftiest airs and making the deepest barrels—as the beauty of film allows all of this to be spliced into a 3-minute highlight delight.

Just like those multiplication tables you forced into your brain in primary school, the moral of the story is practice makes perfect.

Engage With Your Equipment

When it comes to equipment the pros are lucky—they surf seriously, day-in, day-out to find those magic sleds.

Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t have that same luxury. But this doesn’t mean we can’t pay slightly closer attention to the equipment we ride.

SITD AlanvanGysen 1145

Working on your strengths isn’t the worst idea. Even guys like Jordy know there’s room to improve.


Alan van Gysen

Think about the last time, if ever, that you swapped out the fins in your thruster, or opted for a larger twin-fin setup at your favourite point. A board you previously passed off as “a lemon” might be reignited with fins which provide that little bit of extra drive. Change up your go-to set-up, mix and match—those clip in fins you bought are designed that way for a reason.

Even think about the wax you put on your boards. While it might not be as integral as the blades under your back foot, don’t underestimate what the white glue can do.

Have you ever used anything other than Sex-Wax? Have you ever rubbed on some Fu? Or even tried the stickiest pairing on earth, the bootie/wax combo? Even something as simple as wearing booties when the water-temp drops, might give you that little extra you’ve been searching for, and even if it doesn’t, there’s no harm in trying.  

Even something as subtle as the wetsuits we wear makes a noticeable difference. Different strokes for different folks, and fortunately most wetsuit brands offer different cuts. If your current neoprene isn’t quite cutting it, swap it out. A 20 percent increase in your comfort and warmth levels might just allow you to spend an extra 30 minutes in the water and score you an additional three or four workable waves—a worthwhile investment.


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After all, a good set of fins are the honey that makes the medicine go down.


Greg Ewing

Reassess Your Percentages

No, we don’t mean your strike rate at Ravisi’s on a Friday night, we’re talking about your ratio of rights to lefts, forehand to backhand.

I recall talking with Dane about him filming for Chapter 11, and I asked how things were coming along with the film: “It’ll be good, but I’ve only got rights,” Dane said. “Like, I need to be able to showcase some lefts.”

Even Dane Reynolds, with nothing left to prove, after revolutionising modern surfing, felt he needed to reiterate his backhand abilities. Unlike the majority of us forehand frothers, pros ensure that they’re capable of jamming it, regardless of which way the foams pushing.

Have A Gameplan

Where are you going to sit? Which peak has the least people?

Pro’s tend to have an instinctual sixth sense for assessing conditions, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t become masters too—even if it requires you to spend an extra five minutes in the carpark scanning the lineup, planning your attack.

Watch someone like Gabriel. He’s surfing 100 meters one way, then 100 meters back. He’ll alter between lefts and rights, save paddle time in between. Just watch one of his CT heats, the man is a wave-seeking missile.

No Excuses

We hammer this line of thought a lot, but those who try it, swear by it.

The best way to do this is to not check the surf—unless it’s in borderline suicidal conditions.

And even if you do see it, keep expectations to a minimum. Nothing beats the feeling of stoke, but over-hype can easily squander what would’ve been a fun session, into one were you’re gutted it didn’t live up to initial hype.

If it’s tiny and onshore, stop flapping and get your flow on.

If it’s cross shore and peaky, point that beak to the beach and punt.

If it’s solid but a closeout, just work on your backhand tube stance.

That’s the reason most girls are rubbish at tube-riding—because they don’t have the opportunity to practice enough. Groms are used to just practice slotting into closeout after closeout. And while it’s a grind at the time, it’s worthwhile for your abilities in the long run. There’s no reason why girls or anyone else can’t be as good or better at surfing barrels than men—it’s simply a matter of practice and commitment.

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During Stab in the Dark, Dane’s shortest sessions even in the worst surf were two hours. Good sessions would run four to six hours.


Greg Ewing

Make it a Cardio Session

A lot of the time, when the period is up and the winds are offshore, you’re stinging for one of those set waves you spotted earlier from the lookout, but there’s an issue with this approach: everyone else wants those.

Surfers like Jordy are able to adapt to these situations, in doing so maximizing their wave count and getting their heart rate up while they’re at it, with a simple shift—surfing the inside.

Skirt and teeter around the border between the sets and inside shorepound, paddle around, paddle away from the crowds, pretty much do anything and everything short of snaking the locals.

I often find that the more I move, the more waves I catch, and as previously mentioned the best surfers have the same formula.

You’ll get more waves, probably get a little fitter and also improve your surfing.

At the end of the day the more waves you ride, the better you’re going to get. No one ever improves from catching two waves per session, regardless of how damn good they are. If the bloke on bombie patrol catches five waves at 10 seconds a piece, he’ll rack up 50 seconds of actual surfing; but if you can twenty insiders at five seconds a pop you’ll have surfed for double the time.

Even adopting this approach when those longer period swells grace your favorite point break is beneficial. If the sets are six-foot, you should be searching for those inside four footers—not because you’re scared of the size, but because the bombs generally close out more and every other man and his dog is hunting for the “wave of the day”.

Quality is good, but when it comes to improving, quantity is better.

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Keep moving, surf longer, make small improvements.


Alan van Gysen

Do your time.

You can forget all this and just surf, but one thing I’ve learned about the world’s best surfers is that they surf for longer, each session, than most. They’re happy to log two, three, four-hour sessions. Honestly, what’s the difference between three 40-minute sessions or one two-hour surf session?

A lot of wasted time spent wet in parking lots, pretty much.    



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