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Developing Your Surf Timing

Surfing is a challenging activity, and developing perfect timing in an ever changing environment like the ocean can be especially challenging. Perfect timing is developed through mastering basic surf techniques such as catching a wave in the ideal position, popping up with speed and grace, and turning with the flow and the wave to generate speed and smooth maneuvers. In addition to mastering the physical skills, it’s also critical to master the mental aspects of surfing to truly express your unique style.

5 Keys to Developing Perfect Surf Timing:

  1. Develop muscle memory
  2. Know what you can and cannot control
  3. Manage expectations
  4. Use fear to fuel positive experiences
  5. Practice mindfulness

1. Develop muscle memory (mastery) through practice and repetition to allow your body to respond spontaneously to the changing environment on a wave face (1). Muscle memory depends on repetition and, to some degree, on confidence. "Part of regaining coordination--or achieving it for the first time--is about trusting that anyone can build muscle memory," says Dr. Deepak Chopra, a best-selling author and holistic physician. "Practice may not make us perfect, but we can get a lot better."

Home Practice

  • Practice pop-ups: 1000s!!! Mark ideal foot position on the floor with tape and practice every day.
  • Burpees: Simulate pop-ups and strengthen critical core muscles--the ones in the video add a jump at the end which are great for developing explosive power.
  • Tricep push-ups: Develop the muscles needed for efficient pop-ups.
  • Agility drills and Plyometrics: Both types of exercise develop timing and fast reactions.

2.  Knowing what you can and cannot control will help you stay focused, positive and confident--all leading to more flow and great surf timing.

What you can control:

  • Equipment: Choose the correct board for your current level of surf skill and the conditions. Wear a wetsuit that's comfortable and warm enough. Put enough (not too much) wax on your board.
  • Fitness: Develop paddling endurance, core strength and explosive power.
  • Warm up before you paddle out.
  • Health: Practice proper nutrition and hydration before a surf session--(eat 60-90 minutes prior to surfing, primarily complex carbs with a little protein, like oatmeal, a protein smoothie, a multi-grain bagel with peanut butter; drink 2 large glasses of water within 2 hours of paddling out). Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Self talk: Keep it positive and focused on strengths. Rather than focusing on what you did wrong on a wave, keep the focus on what you did well and want to increase.
  • Where you paddle out: If you like crowds and highly competitive surfing then paddle out at Swami's--if not, then don't. It's okay to choose a less crowded break until you feel comfortable competing for waves. 
  • Who you choose to surf with.
  • When you surf: With respect to crowds, tides, wind conditions, etc (although sometimes those pesky day jobs have a say...!)
  • Your reaction to others in the water: If the vibe is hostile, first look at yourself. Are you smiling? Did you say hi to anyone? Are you accepting of all levels of surfers? Then consciously choose your reaction or lack of reaction. Or you can choose to surf elsewhere. Often there's another peak close by to enjoy. Always choose peace and serenity over being "right" or "entitled."
  • Your breath. It may sound funny (not if you're a Buddhist) but you can always return to your breath when unfocused, frustrated or disappointed. For example, try this breathing practice: 4  (inhalation): 7 (hold): 8 (exhalation). Repeat this sequence 4 times and you will definitely shift your focus back to yourself and feel more centered.

“Adversity is a fact of life. It can't be controlled. What we can control is how we react to it.”--Unknown

What you can't control - Since these factors can't be controlled, it's best to not focus attention on them. Instead, focus on what you can control (above).

  • Weather: Make the best of whatever conditions you’ve been given (or choose to do something else--yoga, run on the beach, burpees . . . )
  • Other surfers in the water: They are everywhere. We all contribute to crowded conditions, so it’s best to embrace them or surf at a less crowded spot (that may not be as good).
  • Wave size and shape: Before you paddle out, take a few minutes to study the break. Is it closing out? Is everyone getting worked on take off? Is everyone on a short board and you have a long board or vice versa?
  • Tides 
  • Traffic on the way to beach, the parking spaces available, etc.

3. Manage Expectations
Working on improving your skills is critical to better performance, but once you are out in the water, try to let go of all expectations and simply experience your surf session. Expectations force your mind to judge every movement against that expectation which leads to a more critical self-talk, which can sabotage your session.

Recent research has shown that having an attitude of willingness, rather than strict goal orientation, has more positive impact on outcomes. Having an open mind about the outcome of an activity engenders a sense of autonomy and intrinsic motivation (Herbert, Scientific American Mind July/August 2010).
 An example of an expression of willingness is "I'd like to just experience what it feels like to drop in on a super hollow wave" rather than "I will catch 5 perfect waves today." The second statement leads to feelings of anxiety and stress, whereas the first statement opens your mind to possibility and choice, increasing your odds of flowing with the conditions.

4. Fear 

Most of us encounter fear at some point while surfing. Where you experience fear depends on your level of skill and experience as well as your physiological make up. How we respond to the emotion of fear significantly impacts our surfing and timing. Some surfers use the physical reactions of adrenaline (increased heart rate and muscle tension) to fuel their drive; they see it in positive terms, feeling ready to take on the challenge. While others experience a negative reaction with extreme tension, discomfort and a desire to flee. 

Here are some tools for dealing with fear:

  • Remember the acronym for F.E.A.R--False Evidence Appearing Real--think about what is really scaring you and the odds of that actually happening. Then try to think of a time when you dealt with the same situation successfully.
  • "Feel the fear and do it anyway"--Susan Jefferies. One of the best ways to extinguish a fear is to experience that which frightens you.

5. Cultivate mindfulness--Consciously seek to experience the fearful activity. If it’s dropping in on a bigger wave, think "I really want to experience what that feels like, the whole thing, dropping in, wiping out, paddling back out." Then challenge your senses to experience as much of the action as possible--your breathing, your heart rate, your level of muscle tension, the feel of the water rushing all around you as you roll with the whitewash. Remember, we were submerged in liquid for nine months prior to birth; submersion is actually a natural sensation. Meditation is a great way to train mindfulness and diminish the negative impact of fear. A great book on the topic is Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

And of course when not surfing, practice Yoga to develop mindfulness in movement, breathwork and meditation.

(1) (Source:

(c)2010 Waves of Change (Mary McGibbons-Craft)

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