Becoming too ambitious can rob the joy from surfing
Surfing is so freaking hard!
Ask any of your high achieving friends why they love surfing and at least part of their answer will include, “Because it is hard.” Surfing draws people who are unafraid of a challenge.
The definition of Ambition is desire and determination to achieve success. Ambition, in general, seems to be a good thing. And in surfing, if you are not ambitious you will struggle.
However, ambition can be taken too far. If you’ve ever had a session where you get out of the water and are pissed off at yourself for poor performance than you know what I mean. Or perhaps you externalize your frustration a bit by blaming crowds and conditions.
What’s wrong with ambition?
The problem with ambition is that it focuses on a future result. Look at the definition again: desire and determination to achieve success
Surfing is done in the present. You have to stop thinking and start becoming. You are subconsciously listening for a set breaking out the back. The edges of your vision are hyper aware of the movements of the other surfers around you. Your entire body is waiting for that feeling of lift to know the exact moment you move from prone to standing. When you stand on the face of the wave you are not thinking about the instagram post you are going to make from the photo.
Ambition and Injury
Speaking for myself, when surfing has become about achievement of success, my performance has suffered. It’s been subtle but it is there. Currently, I’m rehabbing an injury that was brought on by ambition. Here is what I mean.
I have an ambition for my surfing. I want to surf big waves. To me, that means waves with 30-foot faces and bigger. There is nothing wrong with this ambition. But when I lose sight of the present because I am striving for the future I run into problems.
So many days I didn’t feel excited to surf but I surfed anyway. Most of those days I was glad I did, exercise and time in nature has a way of lifting my mood. But some days I didn’t feel good about my session. I wanted a break but I didn’t allow myself one simply because I wanted to improve my surfing quickly. Many days I forced myself to endure a brutal dry land workout even when I was too tired to do so, again, because I wanted to improve myself. I’ve been bouncing around the world neglecting my most important relationships because I want to be where the swell is. I’ve blown off work 100 times to catch waves. There is nothing wrong with that, but honestly, sometimes I would have been just as happy at work but I felt I NEEDED to surf in order to achieve my goals.
Pain means stop
And then I began to surf and train despite mild to moderate back pain. It was manageable pain. Surfing didn’t seem to aggravate it as long as I kept my sessions short, but I rarely did. “Thirty more minutes, you need to keep training,” my brain would tell me. Sometimes if I had a bad fall it would really flair up. I would rest a bit but the ambition to improve always got me back in the water quickly. Too quickly.
But you can argue that I just REALLY love surfing and that is why I was pushing through the pain. Which is true, and that is the exact same thing I told myself. “It’s not that I’m too ambitions, I just love to surf!”.
But now that my back is seriously injured and I can’t surf, I’m finding that there are a lot of things I really love. Previously, If I was not surfing through the pain, I felt a void without surfing. But the void wasn’t surfing, it was the result that surfing was giving me – a connection with nature, a thrill and a healthy body. I’ve found I can have all of this without surfing. But ambition for waves with 30-foot faces kept me pushing when I shouldn’t have been. It kept me thinking surfing was all that mattered.
Yes, I love surfing. But I also use it as an escape, as a way of pushing down pain. But running from pain only ever causes more. If I faced pain head on, I wouldn’t need to surf so much.
A hard teacher
And now I’m faced with some time of rest. The doctors aren’t sure but it sounds like at least six months out of the water and many more months of taking it easy on the waves. And I may never be able to surf big waves. So where is ambition now? Ambition brought me to a very hard place.
And now ambition is my teacher. I am learning to be present. I am learning to listen to my body like never before. But even more, I’m learning to seek enjoyment in this present moment rather than looking forward to a future result.
Pain pierces my body and I have a choice. I can say, “wow, this is what pain feels like.” or I can create a story about the future, one in which my life sucks because I never achieve my ambitions. That is when the pain becomes doubled.
Surfing isn’t about performance, good performance comes from being present
The best surfers are never looking to be the best surfers. They are just surfing. They love surfing. Surfing draws them back day after day, hour after hour. They don’t have to force themselves to surf longer sessions, rather they are having so much fun they can’t quit. The best surfers are stoked on a small day. They look like they are a little kid playing on the wave because they are playing. This gives them an amazing style. They make it look easy, because for them, it is. Stephanie Gilmore in this video is a great example of this
And that is exactly why I’m so grateful to be injured right now. When I do get back in the water it will be for the love of surfing. Every wave I surf will be as satisfying as a 30-foot wave would have been. And the more I surf from that place, the more quickly my surfing will improve and the better chance I actually have of getting to that 30 footer!
How’s ambition been treating you?
The next time you get out of the water and it wasn’t fun, don’t get back in until it is fun. If you don’t feel like squeezing into your wetsuit at dawn then don’t. See how you feel. If you felt off all day then I guarantee you the next morning you will be jonesing when the alarm goes off. If not, take another day, or month, to rest. The ocean will be there when you are ready to get back in it.
Injury is something we have written about a lot on Still Stoked, either from our own point of view as athletes, or from the point of view of other professionals.
Here are a few of our favorite articles on this topic:
Losing My Identity: How injury forced me to question who I was
Injury Sucks: The best food & vitamins for ligament repair
5 Reasons injury can be the best thing to happen
How to overcome fear after an injury
What advice do you have for being injured or taking your ambition for a sport too far? Let us know in the comments below. I’m sure we are all suffering from a similar drive, be it surfing, snowboarding or running.