6 mistakes you will make learning to surf

Learning to surf is tough. I recently read an article that spoke about surfing being a 10-year sport. Yup. 10 years. That’s how long it could take to get good, but that’s not to discourage you. Learning to surf is great fun and so so rewarding. One wave is all it takes and you’re hooked. Hook, line and sinker.


Having spent the last 2 months surfing El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I’ve had the pleasure of surfing alongside so many girls. A pleasure it always is. Despite my encouragement (a girl should always encourage the other chicks out there), I always see my fellow ladies make the same mistakes (the guys too).


To dig a little deeper into what I was seeing, I asked professional surf coach and owner of Chix Surf School in Sydney Australia, Gee Cormack what she thought were the top six mistakes when learning to surf. This is what she said:


Read: 6 tips on surfing in a crowded line up



#1 Not paddling hard enough to get up to the same speed of the wave

This is because you are using the wrong part of your arm to paddle. If you don’t use the power from the shoulder blade to drive the water away, you will find the board won’t move with the speed you are looking for to lock onto the wave. When paddling for a wave, you need to do the extra extension (which you use when doing the freestyle stroke in swimming), and bring your stroke right down by the side of the board.

A great way to practice your fast paddling is to do ‘stop start’ sprinting in a pool without using your legs.


Learn to surf
Learning to paddle is all part of the process. Understand the ocean and you will understand surfing.



#2 Not doing those two extra paddles needed to get onto the wave

Surfing isn’t just about being able to stand on your surfboard. It’s about understanding the ocean and how a wave works that allows you to ride a wave. Many people misread a wave and think they have locked onto the wave when they haven’t. Through understanding where the energy pockets are on a wave and the power, speed and formation of the wave you will know when to paddle and when to stand.


If you haven’t fully committed to the wave then you won’t paddle with all your strength. Remember before going for a wave if you’re not going to give it 100% then don’t go for it at all. If you do go for it, do two more paddles than you think you need just to get in front of the wave, otherwise you fall off the back when you try to stand up.



#3 Not positioning yourself on the correct part of the board when paddling (or standing up)

Weight distribution is very important when riding your surfboard. If you don’t learn where to lie and why you position yourself on that particular part of the board, you won’t understand how to manage your speed.


The other reason for not lying in the right position is because of the fear of nose diving (going head-first over the front of the board). It’s very important you find the spot that allows the board to glide and not anchor the back of the board into the wave, as this will slow you down.


Once you have found the right spot to lie, you must arch your back and raise your chest OFF the board. This will shift your weight and will allow you to paddle with full strength, your arms and your shoulder blades. It will also prevent nose diving and will stop you from sticking your bum out when standing.


Learn to surf
Gee teaching the correct technique to pop up on your surfboard. Remember practice makes perfect.


Read: Don’t be scared to paddle out: Girl surfer myths put to rest



#4 Going to one knee or kneeling when trying to stand up

When learning to surf, many people go to their knee when standing up. This is because they are not able to cork their back-leg to the side and sweep the front foot underneath them, to the front part of the board. To surf you need to be able to stand up quickly and in the correct position right away.


There is a technique to do this, ‘the pop up’. Practice ‘popping up’ on the beach over and over again, before trying to do it on the water. This is definitely the best way to learn. Lots of vinyasa in yoga, press ups and planks will help strengthen your body to make this motion easier.


learn to surf
Practicing your surfing positioning and your 3 step stand up before going out in the water is a good way to get rid of bad habits. Remember front arm pointing to where you want to go, knees bent and look up.



#5 Waiting until you are at the bottom of the wave to stand up

Once you have paddled onto the wave, you need to pop up straight away. While you are still at the top of the wave! Belly surfing and popping up at the bottom will make it much harder to get to your feet. This is because  the speed you generate traveling down the wave helps you to balance.


Knowing the exact moment to pop up is a feeling. You feel the board begin to travel with the wave. It is that EXACT moment you push down on your board to pop up. At the bottom, the wave will catch up to you, putting you in turbulent white water, making it almost impossible to pop up on your board.


Learn to surf
A strong, straight push up with your chest high will allow your feet to come through to the correct positions.



#6 Grabbing the sides of the board when trying to stand up

The sides of the surfboard, known as the rails are oh so tempting to grab, but they are a major no-go zone!


You want to position your hands directly under your chest to pop up and not touch the rails (like the young girl in the image above). Grabbing the rails on each side of the surfboard will push the board off balance, making it harder to stand up or forcing one side of the board to dive under the water flipping you on your side. When practicing your pop up on the beach, think about your hand position and don’t touch those rails when in the water.


Learn to surf
Gee Cormack ripping showing that practice does make perfect



Taking a surf lesson is the number one best thing you can do when learning to surf. It will help your confidence, you will progress quicker and you will have support in the water when you need it. All your questions can be answered. Surfing isn’t easy so get yourself off on the right foot and take a lesson. Somewhere like Chix Surf School on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, Australia is a great place to start (I will be heading to see Gee for an advanced session when I get back as even though I can surf, I can always improve my technique).


Many women feel intimidated when they think about learning to surf, they feel it’s a boys sport or they will suck at it so why try? Young girls don’t join the local surf club because they are the only girl or they wouldn’t be welcome in the water. This gave Gee Cormack the drive to find a way to let these women feel free to learn to surf or just meet other like-minded girls. Chix Surf School is not just a surf school for beginners to advanced, it’s a community where ladies and young girls come to learn how to feel confident enough to go out there and give it their best.


All photos courtesy of Chix Surf School.
Thanks Gee for the help and support in writing this article.


Other useful learn to surf articles:

Want to learn to surf? 10 things you must know

The learn to surf intro by Surfline


Editor’s note: If you are after travel insurance for your next surfing adventure, Still Stoked recommends World Nomads. Prices are really reasonable and they insure actions sports (including heliskiing!) without charging a mega premium. You can also purchase the insurance after you have left home for your trip and extend the trip online during your trip; something that is quite unique to World Nomads and really helpful if your plans change as you travel.


Hiya, I'm Alexa. Always on some sort of adventure! I'm excited to share my stories & introduce you to other rad women, also living the dream. I'm here to inspire you to do the same :-)


  1. Loved your article. Thanks! I’ve only been surfing for a year and a half and in this last 4 months I’ve found the old knee finding it’s way to the board before I pop up! I do lots of self talk before the next wave comes along, and in it comes again! I’m going to start pop ups on the floor at home again. 🤙🏼


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