Nick Carroll: Do You Believe Someone Could Teach You to Surf Better?
COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL
Martin Dunn and the Pursuit of Skill
“Nobody can teach you to surf.”
This was the old wisdom, part of the mythology of the dirty ol’ 1970s, before the whole world went glossy. Back then, it was: Instruction? Piss off! Surfing wasn’t just some dumb sport! In some sense, it was a mystery — something you had to unravel for yourself, and suffer in the process.
Now, though, it seems everybody can teach you! At least if you dare to google "learn to surf".
Do that and you’ll quickly find the world of online surf instruction is as kooky as it is broad. “Five Ways To Improve Your Pop-Up!” “One Weird Trick That Makes Your Duck-Dive A Thing Of Beauty!” “Become an Expert Surfer In Just A Few Weeks!”
There’s Surf Strength, there’s Surf Yoga. There’s guides to Adult Surf Camps. There’s how to catch waves, and how to put on a legrope. There’s pretty much nowhere you can actually learn to do a very good cutback.
Then there’s Martin Dunn.
Martin is an ex-Surfing Australia head coach. But that’s very much “among other things”. He coached half the young Australian pro stars of the late 1990s, ran the highly successful Aussie team of the early 2000s, helped his own son Ben to a solid pro career, and co-coached Connor O’Leary to the WSL Rookie of the Year, using training videos that pinpointed several small but key technical issues.
If most good surf coaches are obsessed with one approach or other, Martin’s obsession is technique. He sees it as first and foremost in coaching any surfer, from elite to duffer. He has read extensively on skill acquisition, and how knowledge of correct technique is applied at all levels of many other sports, and finds it frustrating to see people being directed to, say, get fitter in order to surf better, rather than taking on the surfing itself. Get the technique right, he thinks, and everything else will follow.
Thus his latest project, Surf6.coach — a kind of awareness training aimed at developing correct technique. It’s a 13-week course done totally online. Oh, and by you, of course. Says Martin: “It’s our attempt to give real training to any surfers who want to be better.”
Surf6, which is still in test mode right now, is designed to improve the key surfing moves using land-based simulations, including skate work, along with surf-based drills. Students video themselves on their phones to check their progress and get feedback online as they go. Lots of clips will be available on how and where to do moves for best effect, breaking things down: Martin’s three types of snap for instance.
It sounds almost like a 2019 version of Martin’s fantastic but barely known product: “Ripstix” – little stickers showing you correct body position in cutties and top turns and stuff. You stuck ‘em on the nose of your board, where you could study them while actually riding waves. Well, in between riding waves anyway.
Martin says he’s had around 60 people do beta testing on the program.
“If I’m working on technique with somebody face-to-face, it goes like this: Day one is awareness. Day two is surfing, playing around with stuff. Day three is when you begin to do the work.
“A lot of the time, people are getting most of a move right but making a small error somewhere.
It’s a bit like learning to dance. When you do that, you do it in steps. Step one, step two, step three, then put it together.”
So far, so good. Then Martin does something those kooky online offerings never do. He tells me the truth.
“We’re not advocating a miracle cure,” he says. “You’ve gotta work at this. There’s a level of body awareness that people just do, they don’t think about it. When they do (Surf6) they’re going to have to think about it. If you’re a motivated surfer you’ll get results.”
The work ethic! You’ll see this in numerous other sports. Like golf for instance, where even total duffers obsess about their swing — and people make serious money trying to save them.
But is surfing really like other sports? Take Ripstix — some of Martin’s supergrommet students used to swear by them, but they were never a commercial success. Most of us go surfing in order to escape work — are we willing to work in order to improve? Do we even give a hoot?
“The difference is cultural,” Martin says. “You just go surfing. I can teach people to surf better through instruction. The issue is that people don’t believe that about surfing.
“The whole sport is elite by nature. It’s aspiration, not reality. Ninety per cent of the surfing population want to be better. Maybe they don’t want to work super hard on it, they just want to have fun, which is great…. The wisdom seems to be if you wanna be better, just go surfing. Which is fine if you’re athletically gifted. For the rest of us it may not be like that.”
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