In Roughing It, his travel narrative about his experiences in the American West and Hawaii, Mark Twain describes one episode from his journey:
In one place we came upon a large company of naked natives, of both sexes and all ages, amusing themselves with the national pastime of surf-bathing. Each heathen would paddle three or four hundred yards out to sea, (taking a short board with him), then face the shore and wait for a particularly prodigious billow to come along; at the right moment he would fling his board upon its foamy crest and himself upon the board, and here he would come whizzing by like a bombshell! It did not seem that a lightning express train could shoot along at a more hair-lifting speed. I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself.--The board struck the shore in three quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me. None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.
We know “surf-bathing,” of course, simply as surfing, and Twain seems to have experienced what many surfing initiates have also discovered: it’s a demonically difficult thing to master, perhaps better left to the natives than to curious foreigners. “Miss[ing] the connection,” as Twain puts it, extending the metaphor of train travel, results in an unpleasant experience that is in stark contrast to the exhilarating sight of one successfully riding the “prodigious billow.” Rather than the hair-lifting speed of the express train, the surfing beginner receives some mouthfuls of water and is thumped, unceremoniously, onto the shore.
Twain’s experience, although played for humor, is nonetheless instructive about precisely how not to learn a new, complex skill such as surfing. He embodies the easily dispirited beginner who gives up at the first sign of difficulty. Later, we will see another late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century American literary figure who embodies an entirely different, and superior, mode of learning. But first, a quick word about my wedding.
In front of friends and family, at the age of thirty-two, I took a public vow to learn how to surf. Then I got married, and the rest of the evening was its own kind of wave that had to be ridden, and when I returned to California, it was late fall, which is not the ideal time to learn, because the waves usually get a little bigger and the temperature a little colder. Of course, it is never the ideal time to learn anything, if you listen to the mind’s evasions and the body’s reptilian fears.
In his The Art of Learning, chess master and martial artist Joshua Waitzkin writes that “we have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of doing it correctly with speed.” In surfing, there is no such luxury. You cannot practice slowly when you are in the water and at the mercy of the waves. Even in between waves, the water is still constantly moving, forcing you to paddle if there is a current or simply to adjust yourself constantly on the board.
During my first surf lesson, taught by a man (let's call him J.) who also offered “ocean therapy” (helping people overcome a fear of water and the waves), I was joined by two women. As we lay on our boards in the sand and looked up at him expectantly, he launched into a condensed speech that he had clearly given on many occasions: “Paddle-paddle-paddle, arch, pop down!!” He repeated this mantra many, many times, and had us enact his words on the beach. It was easy to feel, having mastered J.’s tripartite instruction on land, that mastery in the water was not far away. But as soon as we ventured into the ocean, the clean, smooth motions we had practiced on the beach became nearly impossible. Everything happened too quickly, too powerfully, too unpredictably, too messily. The younger of the two women quickly became spooked and, only half an hour into a two-hour lesson, returned to the beach and refused to come back into the water. “She needs ocean therapy, not a surf lesson,” J. told me, clearly irritated, once he’d checked on her.
I do not mean to imply at all that J. was a poor or unempathetic surf instructor. In fact, he was quite good. But, by virtue of all the time he’d spent surfing, he did seem to have forgotten the visceral helplessness that beginners feel when attempting something as daunting as surfing. “It’s just so easy to me,” he told me, after I asked how he’d just caught a wave on the foam board he’d borrowed from the woman who’d lost her nerve and was now waiting on the beach.
Researchers have often examined the difference between “external focus” and “internal focus” in the learning of new motor activities. An external focus is one in which your attention is directed to the effect you are having on or in relation to the external world; an internal focus is one in which your attention is directed to how your own body feels or is coordinated. If you are shooting a free throw in basketball and concentrate on how your wrist feels as you release the ball, your focus is internal. If you focus instead on the rim or the backboard or the basketball, your focus is external.
The leading proponent of the superiority of external focus in learning motor skills is a psychologist named Gabriele Wulf. She came to the idea in the late 1990s, not by theoretical cogitation but out of her own experience learning how to windsurf. As she describes in her review of fifteen years of research on motor learning and attentional focus, she was struck by how changing her focus while attempting a windsurfing maneuver produced a marked difference in her performance: “While practicing a power jibe, I found that directing attention to the position of my feet, the pressure they were exerting on the board to change its direction, or the location of my hands on the boom, resulted in many failed attempts and frequent falls into the water over several hours of practice. With the spontaneous decision to simply focus on the tilt of the board while turning came instantaneous success.”
The first laboratory experiments on the effects of external focus were performed on balance tasks, both on ski simulators and on something called a “stabilometer.” Participants were asked to focus either on their feet (internal focus) or on the object against which they were exerting force and trying to balance on (external). The subsequent comparison of the effects, which in most instances showed that external focus was a superior method of learning, were subsequently extended to more sport-specific motor skills: golf pitch shots, basketball free throws, soccer throw-ins, and even darts. Jump height was improved with external focus (by focusing on the measuring device, a vertical contraption called a Vertec, rather than on the tips of the fingers).
I emailed Dr. Wulf after I’d begun my quest to learn how to surf. She wrote back quickly and decisively: “I have no doubt that a focus on the surfboard would be more effective than any focus on body movements.” Buoyed by her confident declaration, and feeling that I now had the authority of scientific kinesiology at my disposal, I returned to the water. But either my focus remained insufficiently external, or I was focusing on the wrong part of the surfboard; my frustration was relieved only by the pleasure I took in observing the pelicans dive-bombing for fish in long, elegant arcs, or the stately procession of dorsal fins as dolphins swam parallel to the shore, just beyond the break. I was accumulating “time in the water,” which might eventually translate into the physical reality of surfing waves.
I had read about territoriality in the water, but I never experienced it. Instead, I discovered that a remarkable loquacity, not always eloquent but often philosophical and incredibly sophisticated, characterized many experienced surfers you might encounter in the water or on land. T., a retired airline maintenance worker who now ran a pool cleaning business, which left him plenty of time to surf in the winter, described to me how he loved the surf cameras that were installed all the way up the West Coast to Alaska, allowing him to track the swells as they moved southward. He explained to me the difference between “back-foot surfers” and “front-foot surfers” (he himself was a back-footer, having grown up surfing on single-fin boards), and how the topography of Point Concepcion deflected the bigger swells and how the most experienced surfers at Swami’s, a famous break north of San Diego, could tell when a big set was coming, because they’d see it hit first a little farther north, at Boneyards, and then they’d be able to get into position for the best waves before the less experienced surfers knew that anything was coming. He described his annoyance at these same ignorant surfers, who instead of learning to read the ocean would simply observe and follow the more experienced guys, exploiting their hard-won knowledge to get into the right spot at the right time.
Then there was Travis. We were the only two out on a very small day when I was struggling. Travis had floppy back hair and was thickly built—he told me he’d played baseball and football in high school, and now, at twenty-three, had been completely swept away by surfing. He went out nearly every day, regardless of the conditions, and had a kind of Saint Bernard-puppy-dog enthusiasm for the entire experience. He would wax poetic about the waves and the water and asked me several times if I knew what he was getting at, as though he couldn’t approach this magnificent thing directly. He alternated between offering me technical advice on the takeoff and my paddling (“You got to cup that water!”) and reaching more abstract, philosophic heights (“It’s not a bad way to live”). He told me about surfing a challenging break in La Jolla before he really knew what he was doing. “I went right in there with all the other guys and fucking charged those waves! I got fucking worked, but they were all like, ‘I fucking love this guy!’”
It was tempting to think that you could watch guys like Tim and Travis and get better just by observing them. In fact, the usefulness of observing experts in action has often been noted as an aid to learning, and correctly so. But to me there was always something slightly deceptive in watching an experienced surfer negotiate the waves; it appeared so easy, so effortless, that I had trouble pinpointing its causes. On the other hand, I found it very helpful to watch beginning surfers, those at my level or even worse, as they failed. Their failures, which were also my own, highlighted by a kind of negative example the correct technique. For instance, if someone had not acquired enough speed and was merely slapping at the water in desperation, you could see that you had to give yourself a few extra seconds to build some momentum, and then take long, smoother strokes that extended deeper into the water. It was easier for me to see precisely why you had to paddle in a certain way when I saw it done so poorly. You might call this the power of aversive learning. In a sense, it’s another incarnation of external focus: rather than an object or piece of equipment or ball, you’re focusing on another human being, and can see more than you can in observing yourself.
To account for the presumed superiority of external to internal focus, Wulf has proposed the “constrained action hypothesis.” An internal focus, she suggests, induces a conscious mode of control that constrains the body’s unconscious and automatic motor processes. The result can sometimes be what she calls an episode of “micro-choking.” I would suggest, however, that the superiority of external to internal focus also has to do with proprioception, our sense of where and how our bodies are moving in space. In general, when we are learning a new movement or skill, our proprioceptive senses are inaccurate, sometimes wildly so. You think your body is doing one thing while in reality it’s doing another. It takes an observer or instructor to notice that you’re not really bending your knees once you pop up on the surfboard, or that you’re not really following through once you hit a forehand, though in both cases you think you are. If an internal focus on the body’s own movements is encouraged, then that focus may be naturally distorted by our (mis)proprioceptions, and bad habits may be hardened into permanent errors. But if we adopt an external focus—make sure your foot reaches that logo on the surfboard, for example, or that you scratch your opposite shoulder on the forehand follow-through—our proprioceptive faculty is not nearly as important. We are forced to look and orient and feel ourselves outward, to an objective marker that will guide us to the correct bodily technique.
There is something unwittingly Platonic about this theory of learning. If knowledge, as Plato argued, is the soul’s recollection of things once known, so too is the learning of complex skills a way of allowing the body to access patterns of movements it already knows how to do. In surfing, for instance (once you discount some of the minimal fitness required to paddle and swim), none of the movements required are individually difficult to master; it is their swift integration that poses the greatest challenge. External focus allows you to access those unconscious memories, or skills already learned, to perform more complex actions.
After I had reached the point of being able to stand up in the whitewater and it came time to go out beyond the break, where real surfing actually took place, a profound frustration set in, which I suspect is common to many beginning surfers. One of two failures usually took place: either I could not generate sufficient speed to catch the wave, and pounded at the water helplessly as wave after wave passed me by; or (to compensate for the first failure), I slid up on the board to generate more speed and shift my weight forward, and thus found myself constantly “pearling,” or digging the nose of the board into the water, which led to a head-over-heels wipeout that was often frightening. Caught between these two extremes, which seemed to represent hydrological physics conspiring against my success, I nearly cracked and gave up. There were middle-aged men with potbellies who took off effortlessly and gave me slightly pitying looks as I flailed about, fit but helpless in a foreign world.
One day in late summer I remember as particularly awful. I’d gone to a spot slightly farther north that had been recommended as friendlier to beginning surfers, and the conditions looked favorable. Two hours in the water produced not a single ride, and my shoulders ached from the buildup of lactic acid. I came out of the water convinced that this had now become an impossible task, that I was too old or had some East Coast, neurotic gene that prevented me from catching waves. I had reached what the philosopher William James, in an essay on the sources of human energy and second winds, called the “fatigue-obstacle.”
It is astonishing that even tiny differences within the broadly correct technique itself can have such large effects on whether you’re able to surf the wave. For instance, the pop-up is one of the most difficult things to master in surfing. You must go from lying prone on your stomach on the board to standing, arms out and knees bent, your front leg having darted forward under your chest and establishing a firm stance near the center of the board. I found it nearly impossible to get my front foot far enough forward—to the spot where my hands were when I began to press up. Focusing on the leg, willing it to move forward more powerfully and quickly, failed to work. My “internal focus” on performing the correct movement seemed self-inhibiting. By chance, I experimented with the placement of my hands, and noticed where they were in relation to the board when I initiated the pop-up. When they gripped the side of the rail, I was unable to generate much force to raise myself up. When, instead, they were pressed down entirely on top of the board, so that I was able to mimic an actual push-up, my leg swept forward much more easily, and ended up much closer to the correct spot. An “external focus” on my hands in relation to the board had solved the problem of my leg placement.
The day after my terrible session, I returned to the water once more, not quite desperate but with more resignation than usual. It was mid-August, a Tuesday, late morning. The waves at Grandview Beach were small and clean. I caught a wave, pressed up, stood, and surfed it for several exhilarating seconds. Convinced it might have been a fluke, I paddled back out. And then: an impossible profusion—one after another, too many to count. I couldn’t consciously and precisely identify what had changed, but it had less to with sheer effort than with timing and instinct. As I watched the waves roll toward shore and my board, I knew, at least on that day and on that morning, with that tide and slight offshore wind so perfect for sculpting rideable waves, exactly where to be.
Roughly one hundred years before my small but long-awaited breakthrough, Jack London recorded in his memoir Cruise of the Snark his travels across the Pacific, which took him to Waikiki in 1907. His is a much more elaborate, and wonderfully overheated, account than Twain’s. London evokes the fear, and the awe, that the beginning surfer may feel: “Why, they [the waves] are a mile long, these bull-mouthed monsters, and they weigh a thousand tons, and they charge in to shore faster than anyone can run. What chance? No chance at all, is the verdict of the shrinking ego; and one sits, and looks, and listens, and thinks the grass and the share are a pretty good place in which to be.” Suddenly, however, appears the figure of a dark man, “rising like a sea-god, not struggling frantically in that wild movement … but standing above them all [those mighty monsters], calm and superb, poised on the giddy summit.”
And here is where London’s experience veers sharply away from Twain’s; where Twain retreated into helplessness (“Only the natives truly master the art of surf-bathing”), London’s sense of possibility was aroused: “you are a human being, one of the kingly species and what that Kanaka can do, you can do yourself. Go to.” Joining the young Hawaiian boys in the water, London “tried to do everything that they did, and failed utterly. The breaker swept past, and I was not on it.” He misses wave after wave, remaining “in disgrace behind.”
He is saved by the appearance of a friend, Alexander Hume Ford, a “globe trotter by profession, bent ever on the pursuit of sensation”—an early twentieth-century adrenaline junkie. Ford had been surfing for a month and was “wedded to it.” He gives London his board, a seventy-five-pound behemoth, and shoves him into a wave when it rolls through. He instructs him on where to lie on the board (“just so far forward on the board and no farther”). Falling under the spell of what he calls the royal sport, London agrees to go out the next day, farther out where the “big smokers came roaring in.” He describes the first big wave he ever caught, and recalls the “ecstatic bliss” at having done so. His second session lasted for four hours, and yielded an agonizing sunburn that kept him bedridden the next day. It is from this bed, suffering from painful blisters, that he produced this very account, which he concludes with a rousing call to the water: “But tomorrow, ah, tomorrow, I shall be out in that wonderful water, and I shall come in standing up, even as Ford and Freeth. And if I fail tomorrow, I shall do it the next day, or the next. Upon one thing I am resolved: the Snark [his boat] shall not sail from Honolulu until I, too, wing my heels with the swiftness of the sea, and become a sunburned, skin-peeling Mercury.”