As I watched 42-year-old Kelly Slater pull off another incomprehensible maneuver in competition last week, I was reminded of something I read recently about what makes great athletes great. If you missed it, in the quarterfinals of the Drug Aware Margaret River Pro, the ageless, hairless wonder flew out of a tube and was already on his way toward banking off the top of the wave, which was rapidly cascading. Other elite surfers might have escaped the barrel with enough time to straighten out towards the shore, but none would have dared such a cheeky combination. As surf encyclopedist Matt Warshaw tweeted afterwards, “Nobody else would of even thought of it.” I’m gonna tell you how he did it.
I’ve been researching the factors that influence athletic prowess for years and have recently come across some interesting findings. Nature and nurture seem to be fairly equal contributors, as evidenced by Kelly’s ideal build and flexibility coupled with his insatiable hunger for improvement and a wicked competitive streak. The 10,000 hour concept is pretty reliable, give or take a few thousand hours and assuming that the hours represent deliberate practice. Regardless, there are plenty of masterful surfers, but none of them would have considered trying what Kelly did on that wave. The key to his freakishness, I believe, lies neither in his creativity or his quick reaction time. It’s all about perception.
David Epstein, in his 2013 book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, spends a great deal of words explaining how an elite athlete perceives his or her playing field as compared to others. “Where the novice is overwhelmed by new information and randomness,” Epstein writes, “the master sees familiar order and structure that allows him to home in on information that is critical for the decision at hand.” The ability to mentally slow a situation in order to come up with the perfect move is apparent in listening to Kelly talk about surfing. He can spend three years dissecting one instant of wave riding.
Epstein cites multiple studies measuring elite athletes’ perceptual superiority, be it in volleyball, tennis, field hockey, cricket, boxing, or chess. Across the board, the masters are able to look at an image of their playing field for mere milliseconds and glean all sorts of information. For less skilled participants, this isn’t the case.
Why would surfing be any different? If anything, given the moving surface we deal with, perceptual skills gain a larger importance. Surfers are essentially making predictions about how a wave will act, and Kelly’s insane perceptiveness of the playing field separates him from us as well as from his competition.
This latest instance of Slateriority took place at Margaret River, a spot he was having a hard time figuring out, a slow, wonky wave that rewards restraint over an all-out assault. Kelly surfed (for his standards) like a kook in the first few rounds, then spent a day riding Margie’s much more intense neighbor, the Box. Back at Margie’s for the final day, Kelly experienced the main break in slow motion.
Guys like Kelly, according to Epstein, “Need less time and less visual information to know what will happen in the future.” In other words, Kelly feels what will happen on a wave and is able to put himself in places the rest of us cannot imagine. Honed on tiny East Coast waves that required him to find and extract any semblance of power, he is now afforded a much larger field to work with. As a result, he sees the future.
Kelly once explained to me his “Parallel Planes” theory of proper surfing technique. Imagine a plane extending out from your shoulders and another extending out from your surfboard. Those two planes, he said, should always remain parallel to maintain perfect form. In order to keep them parallel, you must know what the wave is going to do before it happens. Kelly doesn’t react to situations on waves; he makes predictions and acts accordingly.
If perceptual ability is such a difference maker, and I believe it is, can we all acquire it? Sure, with heaps of time spent in the water while your brain is still developing, so probably not as an adult. Too much conceptualizing about surfing, while doing it, is counterproductive. Thinking while engaged in activity, Epstein confirms, “is the sign of a novice in sports, or a key to transforming an expert back into an amateur.” So no, you’re not going to learn how to see a wave through Kelly’s baby blues. We’ll have to settle for our own boring old eyes, but at least we get to use them to watch him.