Reflections on Professional and Junior surfing in South Africa.
I grew up surfing, and feverishly competing, in the 90’s and 2000’s. Moving to Kommetjie when I was 10 was a major wake-up from Hout Bay’s tepid closeouts, and the only way I was going to catch up to the local heroes, Damian Fahrenfort, Adrian Gouws and Cheyne Cottrell was by surfing past dark every day.
Anyway, after reading Cyle Myers’s firestarter article(s) on the Zigzag online platform I had a constructive reminisce about my own experiences as a competitive surfer in SA and abroad. I consider myself part of the crew that competed against and perhaps, in some small way, helped shape the superstar of our generation, Jordan Smith.
It seemed like the competitive surfing structures worked quite well back then and the following should be read as a mixture of personal experience, food for thought, and practical suggestions.
My parents were not dyed in the wool surfers but they understood that to reach the top, you gotta rock n roll. So, they organized coaching, faithfully videoed my sessions, and generously transported my new band of brothers and I to the hallowed juice of the Cape Point Reserve, the buttery walls of Vic Bay, and the racetracks of Seal point and Supers. We were very blessed that our parents had the resources, will and time to play a critical role in the development of (relatively) well-rounded competition surfers. However, this support can be a double-edged sword. When you lose an important heat, you’re understandably upset; this is where the support structure can make or break the competitor’s attitude towards winning or losing. Mom may make you a hot chocolate and gently chide the heat winner for snaking you, where dad will give you a bear hug while loading the van to go surfing down the beach. Textbook loving parents. But there’s a flipside. I remember Jordy telling me once “My dad would bring me down to the beach every day after school, offshore, onshore, rain or shine. If it was howling East slop and I refused to go out, he’d promise me: 3 waves from the back and I’ll get you the new Ninja Turtle action figure.” It’s tough love, and, in Jordy’s case it clearly bred a bullet proof attitude and mind over matter outlook. And look where Jords is now, on the World Tour and currently sitting in a world title contending position.
Competitive Free Surfing & Hierarchy
There was a very defined pecking order in the Long Beach lineup. The young shredders were kept well in hand by the older crew. Jason Ralph, Jack Smith, and Dan Beatty, amongst others, made sure you knew who was boss out there. There were guys from the Indian Ocean side, and further down the Atlantic who would literally tiptoe to the backline and then gratefully zip across to Pebbles if the crew was out in force. This structure in the water translated into a drive and hunger to match and challenge for a place in the tight fist of surfers sitting smack on the boil. If you couldn’t crack that nod then you’d better make damn sure that you’re tearing the guts out of the 2nd tier waves you did get.
Accessible Coaching & Sponsorships
Quintin Jones was one of the best competitive minds and surfers that SA’s produced. Although overshadowed by Sean Holmes, Greg Emslie and Seth Hulley in terms of international profile, QJ beat these guys often and went on to become a multiple SA champ. More importantly, he played a guiding role for guys like Brendan Gibbens, MFeb, Beyrick de Vries, as well as giving tips to the likes of Damian Fahrenfort, Stacey Guy, and of course, Bianca Buitendag, who he still works with today. Quintin goes all out to ensure the groms are taken care of. Most importantly he’s on the beach every day, without fail, always at hand with a gentle critique, comment or idea, and always with the end game of improving your surfing. Coaching in South Africa should not be discussed without putting Graham Hynes’ name firmly in the conversation. Hynsey molded the hotshot crop of talented KZN kids, namely, Jordy, Wok, the Redman brothers, Jacko and Chad du Toit into a formidable competitive unit who went on a multi-year unbeaten SA champion hot streak. At this time, the local brands were buying into the kids. Aside from the “core” brands of Quik, Billabong, Rip Curl & Volcom who were practically obligated to invest in the talent, one of the most supportive was retail giant Mr Price’s RED. Not cool, not hip, but damn they hooked their boys up. So much so that the “core” group panicked and did everything in their power to shut them out, eventually succeeding by various ways and means we’re not going to discuss here. The point here is that, back then, sponsors came to the party.
Integrated Junior & Senior Series
The Quiksilver King of the Groms. The Billabong Junior Series. A countrywide competition series translating to an event or two per month. Throw in a smattering of high caliber Senior comps attended by all SA’s creamiest crops and you’ve got your best version of a talent breeding ground. In the seniors, we’re seeing 4 man heats reading like this: Lyle Bottcher, Shaun Gosmann, Jordy Smith, Chad du Toit. Sean Holmes, Paul Canning, Daniel Redman, Antonio Bortoletto. The key here was that the juniors got real, first-hand experience of surfing against hardened WQS campaigners which prepared them for the step up. Colin Fitch and the WSL Africa squad have done amazing work with local brands to bring 8 WQS events to our coastlines in 2017, and this will surely expand and serve as the springboard our current contenders require.
Early on in my own competitive surfing career I had the hard realization that I did not have (read: want) that killer “FINISH HIM” instinct. This put paid to my own relatively lofty aspirations. But, when I read Cyle’s piece I couldn’t help but reflect on how I felt when foreign surfers came to compete on our shores. Despite my nonchalance I wanted to smash them, and so did the rest of the boys. We soon found that the feeling was mutual when a group of us went to Australia to do a bunch of Pro Junior events. The Aussies are self-assured in their abilities and strategy, almost to the point of arrogance, and they gave us many valuable whippings. In fairness to them, they’re talented, contest savvy and they respect you when you beat them. But back to mind games. My personal best international result was a 2nd place finish at the Jetty Pro Junior in Sydney, and I sincerely believe that the reason I did not win was due to a lack of sufficient mind management. Sports psychologists and sports scientists were already a norm back then and smartly utilized in an integrated plan for the Aussie and USA professional surfers. The Brazilians, however, have something else: A culture of winning. They are the example that truly embody the concept of “throwing heart and soul”.
High Performance Exchange Camps
In my opinion, SSA needs to think out the box. Take 10 juniors and the national coaches to Brazil for 10 days, set up high intensity fitness and training sessions with their Brazilian counterparts and schedule the camp to culminate in a WQS event. Alternatively, how about getting Twiggy, Greg Emslie and Travis Logie involved and take the kids to some crazy slabs up the coast and let the ocean do the rest.
I believe that SA’s juniors are missing international exposure, intensive training camps, and knowledge transferal from the hugely experienced past campaigners, as well as the benefits of surf psychology. We have the talent, the resources, and the infrastructure to produce surfers capable of competing at the highest level. But beware… Professional high-performance surfing is very glossy and sugar coated right now. It’s best we train our groms to see the undercurrent of grit, graft and determination to succeed, cos that’s what it’s going to take to join the elite and become a world title contender.