Stab Magazine | How to Win Contests and Alienate People

How to Win Contests and Alienate People

The psychology of staying hot and axing the competition.

Words by Morgan Williamson

No sport has an arena that fluctuates quite like surf. As Ex-tour competitor and coach of Conner Coffin, Brad Gerlach tell Stab, “what’s so rad about this sport is it’s played on a mystical field. You can make one tiny mistake and lose your heat, or make 16 mistakes and end up winning.” So, what goes into winning heats? There’s undoubtably a psychology to it. Kelly Slater’s a classic example, “Kelly’s got to be one of the most winningest competitors of all time,” says Brad, “in any sport. He’s a person who has a strong feeling of knowingness and it’s exhibited quite clearly when he surfs places like Pipe. You look at that and go, okay, how do you get that feeling? It’s not by thinking, it’s all feeling, it’s inside of you.” 


The King on his human throne at his last victory: The Volcom Pipe Pro. When the waves are good, Kelly will shake things up a bit.

How’s it differ from the tour’s doyens to the young cats just making their names in the big leagues? “The younger kids,” Olympic sport psychologist, Bill Cole tells Stab, “have very little to lose, because they haven’t done much yet. Without expectations they’re able to manage the pressure better. The veterans tend to lose their passion. Especially the ones who’ve achieved a great deal. The challenge for them is to not bore, to not feel worn out, or feel that they must win because that’s what’s expected. The outside expectations that get thrown at the vets is massive. They have to convince themselves they’re competing because they love their sport, their career and want to make a real mark before they retire.” Which is emanating from the King at the moment. Thus far in the season, he’s yet to have a finish higher than round three. “I just want to surf,” Kelly told #TOURNOTES’ Peter King, after his loss to Leo Fioravanti at Margaret River. “I’m tired of the young man’s game, trying to fight and hassle for every wave. I just want to surf and display my surfing and I haven’t done a good job of doing it the last few years.”


What kind of face do you make when you take out your childhood idol in a heat? Well, it looks a lot like the one Leo’s sporting! The young buck and the 11x world champ embrace.

“Pressure,” says Bill, “is in the mind of beholder, there’s factual pressure, big events, key moments, etcetera. But the thing that everybody floats out there is the top players handle pressure so well. That’s not true. What they do is convert the actual pressure that’s out there into fun and excitement. They embrace the challenge and are curious about it. When they turn the negative into positive, in their mind they’re not playing under pressure.” Let’s examine Gabriel Medina for a moment. If Gabs snags a wave in the dying minutes he seemingly never falters. He loves the challenge and channels the pressure, the outcome’s a product of his ego and almost always falls in his favour. “There’s guys that love their sport and competing,” says Bill, “they have the right mental attitude and there’s nothing wrong with having a good, strong ego.” For instance, his heat against Mick at the Pipe Master’s last year. As the heat came to a close he snagged an unimpressive wave, still Mick fan’s hearts everywhere dropped. When there was no barrel to be found he blasted a rotation for the win, dashing Fanno’s title dreams and making due with his present.


Gabs clinching the Triple Crown and dashing Mick’s title hopes with one big twist on a meager wave.

“The best possible performances happen when there’s no thinking,” says Mr Gerlach. “It’s pure feeling and pro-acting, not reacting. The moments on a wave when you’re thinking about points and winning while surfing, you’re not surfing the way that feels good to you. That’s the main difference I see, some people are winning and thinking, they’re not fun to watch but they’re still winning. Then there’s the guys that are free-form, ripping the bag out of it and they keep a certain cognisance that they’re in a heat. There’s things you need to pay attention to but not necessarily think about. Even my 13 year old, I don’t need to tell him, make sure you catch the best two waves. That’s the stupidest shit ever,” he laughs. “The rules of surfing are not complex, the complexity comes down to staying in the moment and having a knowing feeling, which is confidence.”  


Gerr’s laid back style transcends generations.

“Adriano de Souza pictured himself as the world champion, he set his sights on it and made it a reality,” continues Brad. “For me, from my own upbringing surfing in the 70’s in California and seeing it as an art, I don’t appreciate somebody who looks like they’re working when they’re surfing. But, he won the world title doing that. There’s a method he’s using and it all comes back to confidence and being in touch with the ocean. No disrespect to him, I just don’t see the magic when he surfs. But that doesn’t mean I’m not impressed.” 


No better sport or personality in surfing than the honourable Mason Ho. Here, he congratulates ADS on clinching the title.

I ask Brad on Conner’s strong start to the season, “he really visualised himself winning the first two events,” he says. “It’s not a pipe dream. It’s do-able and he believed it. The  mistakes he made were on account of thinking not feeling. That used to frustrate the hell out of me. When you start thinking, well, last time I picked off waves on the inside and lost, and this time I waited for the sets to come and still lost… all the while the other guy was picking off waves on the inside. When that starts to ping-pong around your head it makes you looney. When it comes down to it, winning and staying hot is about feeling, trust and intuition.” 


Mr Coffin came out of the gates firing, the kid’s set to be a menace on tour. Got to love the raw power in his rail game.


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