Surfing is both huge fun, and very hard to get the hang of. On my last trip Down Under I was offered the chance to try surfing for the first time in my life, and jumped at the chance. My friend Jen Rowland and her two lovely children Rafael and Maya took me on a warm Sunday morning to Collaroy beach in Sydney. The weather was perfect- warm enough, but not too sunny or hot. In borrowed wetsuit shorts and shirt, lathered in sunscreen, I took Rafa’s board out into the surf and had a go.
An hour and a half later, I was done.
In that hour and a half, I spent exactly two whole seconds actually standing on the board. Proof, if you don’t believe me- Jen happened to catch the very moment!
There are many parallels to learning swordsmanship.
Measure, for example. You have to be in exactly the right spot to catch the wave as it starts to break. Too far out to sea, and it just bobs you up and down. Too far in, and the moment has passed. Expert surfers get on their boards and paddle to get themselves to the right place. Beginners like me stand still and hope. This is so like fencing. When teaching beginners, it’s best if they start out standing still. Doing the same action while already in motion is much harder- and a necessary aspect of their development. Board paddling = footwork.
Timing. You can be in the right place all you want, but if you don’t hop on the board at exactly the right time, you’ve missed the wave and have to wait for another one. Get on too soon, and you drift. Too late, and the moment has passed.
Patience. I spent a lot of that hour and a half waiting for a wave that would work. I don’t think I missed a single one through impatience, which was great. I missed a lot through not realising early enough that it would be a good choice though.
Precision. A little too far back, and the board tips you off backwards, or goes shooting out from under you. A little too far forwards, and the nose dips and you get thrown off forwards. In theory one can feel either of these and correct for it, but I didn’t manage to realise in time even once.
When it’s right, it’s easy. On several occasions I got myself to the right place at the right time, mounted at the right part of the board, and kneeling, surfed along in fine style. Standing up only happened the once, but I can totally see that when you have the knack, it will be exhilarating and effortless.
Feedback. The sea is a perfect feedback mechanism. It doesn’t care about you or your silly board, it just throws wave after wave at you, tirelessly. You either fall off or you don’t. Either way, the next wave is coming. The sea cannot ease up on you, or give you false positives. You can find gentle spots safe for beginners, or monster waves to challenge the very best surfers. Anyone can get perfect feedback every time. How much faster would we learn swordsmanship if that was true in our training?
Danger. Disrespect the sea and it can kill you. Get unlucky, and it can kill you. Sounds a lot like swords to me. I did stub my toe trying to snap onto the board, badly enough that it’s still visibly bruised a week later, but other than that it was an injury-free experience, because a) Jen chose a safe spot, b) it wasn’t crowded and c) we were lucky.
Failure. This feedback system generates failure automatically. My rate of failure was about 99.9%, if you take standing on the board and surfing ‘properly’ as ‘success’. This meant I got tons of real practice in, and definitely improved. Because ‘failure’ was fun as hell, I totally didn’t care how often I failed. By the end, I understood surfing much better than I did at the beginning. In swordsmanship practice, you should always be operating at your optimal rate of failure, usually somewhere between 20 and 40%, and this is true in every other field too. So the question is what constitutes failure? On each individual attempt, success was being in the right place at the right time to catch the wave. When that got easier, success became getting onto the right place on the board, after catching the wave. In those areas, my failure rate was around 40% (that’s what it felt like, anyway, and my instinct is pretty good about these sorts of things). This is a useful lesson- a big mistake I see beginners make is to view full-speed execution of the technique in competitive freeplay as ‘success’- which is a very high bar, and will keep them at 100% failure for a long time. It’s important to identify lower bars to jump, or steps on the ladder to climb, and to have a specific definition of ‘success’ for every iteration of the action.
Know when to stop. Fatigue is the enemy of skills acquisition, so when I felt that I’d learned everything I could that day, I stopped. (This is the voice of wisdom borne of painful experience.) After 90 minutes, I was getting mentally tired and my toe was sore enough that I had decided to not even try standing for the last fifteen minutes or so. After I’d made the decision to bring things to a close, I stopped after the next successful wave- it’s always a good idea to finish on a success.