Stab Magazine | The Competitors Dilemma: Does A Higher Wave Count Increase a Surfer’s Chance Of Winning?

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The Competitors Dilemma: Does A Higher Wave Count Increase a Surfer’s Chance Of Winning?

Let’s consult an analysis of 467 heats.

style // May 11, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Behold. The great Mark Richards.

“Sometimes, if you sit for too long (in a heat), you don’t get the waves, and someone who has caught those inside ones and racked up some medium scores can win.”

MR’s comments are lifted from his stint in the com-box during Quarter Final Four of the Quiksilver Pro (yeah, we’re looking in the rearview). Wade against Italo.

In the first half of the heat, Italo had taken seven waves, included in which were his two best heat scores. Wade was yet to commence. It’s worth noting that Italo’s ability to turn knee high lemons into excellent scores is far superior to Wade’s, especially in small surf. See the Quik Pro final for more details. 

MR again.

“In inconsistent conditions, do you sit and wait for set waves, which is obviously Wade’s tactic here, or, like Italo, do you take off on anything that comes through and try and turn it into a score.”

Wade took nearly fifteen minutes to feel craft beneath his feet. His first wave made it into his top two. As did his second. His third and final was a throwaway.

Italo rode eleven waves. And won.

The Great Competitive Dilemma, as outlined by Mark Richards, has always attracted debate. 

Therefore, the 2018 men’s CT season (minus the Surf Ranch for obvious reasons) has been dissected to uncover whether a surfer is best to be selective or ride anything that moves.

The eternal question: should you stay or should you go?

It appears beneficial to take at least as many waves, if not more, than your opponent/s

That is, according to the numbers.

Over the 2018 season, heat winners averaged 6.14 waves per heat, second placers 6.10, and third placers (where applicable) 5.69.

There were 467 (ocean-based) heats in 2018. In 261 (56%) of them, the winner had the equal highest, or highest, wave count of that heat. 

This broad, general view indicates that over the course of a season, it’s favourable for surfers to catch at least as many waves as their opponent/s in individual heats.

Same trend exists for most events

In eight of the ten events for 2018 (again, excluding Surf Ranch), the majority of heat winners surfed at least as many waves as their opponent/s, if not more. For some events, this was a small majority, such as the Oi Rio Pro (53% of heats), whereas for others it was substantial, like the Pipe Masters (75% of heats).

Same trend exists when looking at surfers of differing abilities 

Let’s look at competitors who enjoyed varying degrees of success in 2018: high rank, mid rank and low rank. We’ll take two of each to try and paint a more accurate picture.

Medina (1st) and Wilson (2nd). Buchan (17th) and Colapinto (18th). Pupo (36th) and Asing (37th). Their combined average wave counts per heat for 2018 were as follows:

Medina/Wilson: 7.53

Buchan/Colapinto: 6.27

Pupo/Asing: 6.25

CT finals also tell a story worth reading

It’s difficult to isolate the influence of wave count on a surfer’s success because other variables muddy the water: ability, conditions, judging of scores, stance, location etc.

But finals are different. They are the purest match-up that competitive surfing can offer. Finalists are often (but not always) similar in ability and form, at least on that particular wave at that moment in time. 

Of the ten finals held in 2018, on eight occasions the winner caught more waves than the runner up; on one occasion the finalists caught the same amount; and on only one occasion the winner caught less waves.

But beware, statistics can be misleading.

Some caveats.

Let’s again discuss the example of Italo at the top of this webpage. Does catching lots of waves assist him into commanding heat positions, or does being in a strong position afford him to be less selective and launch into any rotten insider and attempt to go large and better a score? Recall the chicken or the egg conundrum.

Also, the priority rule. It complicates our stats by imposing a competitive cost on those who ride a lot of waves. 

And examining heat results is no experimental study. Correlation doesn’t equal cause and effect.

Yes, I concur, some of the statistics above show only small differences. But small differences in statistics can matter. Gifting opponents even one extra ride provides them, on average, with about 15 percent greater scoring opportunity.

Finally, it’s a brief analysis. Take it as a discussion piece, not gospel.

Have we cracked the code of world title success?

As with life, answers are cloudy. Truth often lies in the grey.

The numbers suggest that surfers should ride at least as many waves as their opponents. Being overly patient appears to be a risky approach. 

But given the shifting dynamics of every heat, perhaps the larger emphasis should be on a surfer’s ability to pick the right moment when to stay and when to go.


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