Surf Coaching, Part 1: Sean Mattison

Interview by Mike Drentea

At Korduroy, the majority of our energies are spent on subjects that involve finding stoke outdoors. For most of us, this means catching some waves, going on a hike or skating down the street. But for some groms and their parents, the idea of getting paid to surf is an attractive dream that warrants hiring a coach to take their skills to the world stage. While this endeavor doesn’t apply to most surfers, the refined wave knowledge of Sean Mattison, Brad Gerlach, and Chris Gallagher can help us all have more fun in the water as well a provide a behind the scenes glimpse into the exclusive world of high performance shredding in this three part series on surf coaching.

Sean Mattison is a bit of a surfboard and fin junkie. Surfing since he was eight years old as an amateur in Florida, Sean’s professional career ran from 1988-1995 respectively. Most recently, Sean created a rear stabilization fin called the “Nubster,” (or for Kelly Slater’s sake the “Knubster”) which is a 5th fin dubbed a “guitar pick.” Thanks to Sean’s advice to Kelly Slater who used the fin to win contests in New York and Portugal last year on one simple adjustment to his equipment. Mattison has over 30 years of waterman experience and a tremendous amount of knowledge on waves and wave mechanics. He is the owner and lead instructor of Surf Coach USA. Being a professional surfer takes dedication and commitment and Sean’s surf camp builds confidence, self-discipline, nutrition, and a gives an abundance of ocean knowledge to improve one’s skills as a surfer.

What is surf coaching?

To me surf coaching is learning how to communicate and understand an athlete’s strengths and weakness. Motivation is a big part of coaching an athlete as well as educating them on the mechanics of the wave. Some people need a little help, some people need a lot.

When in your career did you decide to offer your expertise as a professional surfing coach?

I started coaching while at Surf Ride in the mid 90’s with Joey Buran. Joey and I have a long history as he was my surf coach when I was on the Bud Surf Tour. I met him as a grom so it was a perfect fit and a great team. It was just a bunch of young groms that we taught and I thought it was a neat experience. It was then I found a new passion being involved in coaching and a few close people in my life encouraged me to take surf coaching serious. That led to a great opportunity when I was asked to be part of the US Team to coach with the Kevin Grondin in South Africa. Soon after that, I was fortunate enough to be part of the “San Diego Sea Lions” which included Brad Gerlach, David Barr, Rob Machado, Taylor Knox and a number of great athletes. Looking back at my coaching career, I have coached some wonderful kids through the years as well as winning an ISA Gold Medal. The experiences are priceless and to be able to offer my expertise as a service is just fantastic and I enjoy it!

Whom currently are you coaching professionally?

With each surfer you have that moment. What I mean by that is, if you look back at many people’s careers you will find that students had many different teachers offering knowledge and wisdom to them at different times of their life. Everyone has different personal experiences and it is being able to invest time in the student and shaping who they already are for the time you have together. I have worked with a lot of up and coming surfers such as Lakey Peterson, Kolohe Andino, Courtney Conologue, and Brian Connely to name a few.

What exercises do you and your athletes do to train physically and mentally?

For any surfer young and old, staying limber is very important. No one wants an injury so personally I partake in “hot yoga” but for my surf camps I will usually bring down a trainer that will introduce the importance of stretching, and a concept of nutrition and training. Finding out an athlete’s weakness and strengthening them can be difficult. You will find that with some people their anatomy is incredibly strong just by nature. Not the case with others, and they might be completely opposite. I feel many times in many kinds of sports the stand out star isn’t always the best coached but sometimes the guy who can last and that is why staying healthy is so important.

How do you prepare for a contest or heat?

This is where understanding the mechanics of the wave and getting your free-surfs in become very important. You want to surf at different times of the day during different seasons and really learn the personality of a certain wave. You can’t win a surf contest without catching waves. It doesn’t matter your skill level. It takes catching good waves, surfing them good to the criteria, and not falling off to be successful. That is why some surfers become sort of like a meteorologist because it’s an important thing to understand the tides and how it affects the break, swell or how many waves in a set?

How often do you and an athlete meet leading up to a contest?

I have open sessions with the athletes I coach so it really depends on them. We want to learn the location as much as possible so we might have a surf session at high-tide, another at mid-tide and low-tide. I kind of look at the surfers maneuver choices and ask myself was that the right decision? You try to keep it simple and pick on the things that are important for an outcome and say to them “Keep this in mind, this is what’s going to happen because the personality of the wave. I never want to be that coach ranting in your ear “do this, do that”. So it’s more of a collective approach to instructing between coach and athlete. There is a point of over thinking sometimes and finding that balance of instinct versus experience.

What do you say to a surfer before the contest?

I tell them have fun. I don’t need to say much, very little. Maybe if there is a change in the environment and it went from peaky rights to giant and closed out. I will then step in and let them know they need to change their approach to the conditions.

What kinds of things are you looking for in the replays during contest?

Video is a great tool because it exposes what’s going on with the surfer and his board. I look at the replays and try to tune into what his equipment is doing, his or her approach to the wave, what kind of lines the surfer is drawing, and there wave selection. These are the things I have to identify and say “Hey, we need to do this, or we need a different board because that one looks boggy.” Sometimes in choosing the right board for a contest surfers also may have chosen one that is wrong and it will show either way.

How do you distinguish what is the best board for the athlete and wave?

The relationship between surfer, shaper and coach are very important. For example, what makes the Superbank different than Lowers? Wave speed, how it breaks, etc. Surfers will naturally adapt to it, and the shaper customizes that curvature to fit that kind of wave based on what the wave does. So you need a board that changes direction really quick. You’ll find that between the ages of twelve and fifteen the kids have incredible growth spurts and they are constantly changing their boards. So what was the magic board is now not. When you see a surfer with just the right volume of board it looks effortless. That is why people have a repute of quivers that they can pull out for certain conditions and it’s the repeated refinement that helps educate us in our selection.

How is coaching in small surf different than big surf?

Small waves you have to figure out how to create speed either with your equipment or your bodies drive and movement on the wave itself. With big waves it’s really understanding the amount of water and its volume. Understanding the mechanics of the break and harnessing the speed from the wave makes for two completely different approaches and perspectives on wave riding.

In your surf coaching career, what is the hardest thing you’ve had to deal with yet?

The hardest thing to do is change habits and make new ones at a frequency that the surfer can identify with. Everything we do his a series of habits. How we paddle for the wave, how we look for the wave, how we approach the line, what maneuvers to apply to the wave. These are all habits that are embedded in our brain. The timing, the sequence connecting with the board, and understanding the wave are all important things that we do out of habit and to change something sometimes can be a reckoning ball. Having to identify what the athlete’s bad habit is and having them stop it and create a new habit is one of the hardest things to do.

Before surf coaching arrived what did guys on the ASP World Tour do to prepare for a contest?

Elite surfers always have had mentoring. For example when Kelly Slater was a young kid many people along the way has shared a thing or two with him, whether it was Matt Kechele or Bruce Walker. When Kelly met Al Merrick, there is video of young Kelly with Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke Jones and all these great surfers have all shared a thing or two about their knowledge of a wave. Much of a surfer’s success has a lot to do with how well he or she can apply the knowledge and wisdom that has been shared.

What do you say to a surfer after an emotional loss?

Naturally, you tell him the truth and if he just got out surfed and he did everything right and could not have surfed a better heat and that he just lost because the other guys skill level is just better than yours. You just need to improve your skill level against that person for next time. Use the loss as motivation for improving and ask what can we take away from this experience?

What is the best way you like to celebrate after an athlete wins a contest?

I believe all celebrations have that moment where all the hard work has payed off and you celebrate obviously by having a nice dinner with friends… that sort of thing. For me celebration is limited. You have the big “hoo rah,” but what is the end goal? If your goal was winning that one surf event and nothing more than that, then game over. But if you can say it’s a new season and I want lots of wins and carry that momentum to the next contest then that’s what’s it’s all about.

What are a couple of the most common mistakes the average surfer makes that keeps he or she from catching more waves?

Not understanding the mechanics of the wave, where to look for waves, wrong equipment (board choice) may not be the best to catch waves.

What are some basic tips you can give the everyday surfer to improve their basic surfing?

Watch people who are better than they are, mimic lines of the surfer you like and learn the mechanics.

It seems like all the kids are doing airs these days, how would you suggest a good surfer start to take their surfing above the lip?

All maneuvers are derived from speed.

What are some things that the best surfers in the world have in common with upper body movements while surfing? What about their lower body?

Breaking down the maneuver into chunks of before, during, after – how do you set up for the maneuver, what is your body doing during the maneuver, and where are you in completion to the maneuver.

How important is confidence to surfing well? How do you suggest that people improve their approach in this regard?

Confidence is incredible because if you are successful riding waves you have a great time, if you fall you get frustrated and over it and you lose the fun. Learning the mechanics and making better board choices also helps build confidence.

Much of your job is helping young surfers catch more waves and surf them better, what are your personal thoughts on wave etiquette for younger surfers fitting into increasingly crowded lineups?

Surfing is a very selfish sport and just like everything you will learn as you go. But a good note is to show respect to locals and learn that it’s not always about “you”.

Where do you see the sport of surfing and surf coaching five years from now?

In my crystal ball I see more money and bigger stakes in contest. I see huge sponsorships, insane progressive surfing with gnarly boards and new technologies being used in all aspects of surfing. I see more surf coaches for professional surfers as well as your everyday surfer looking to improve their skills.

For more on Sean’s coaching and surfboards, check out:
Surf Coach USA Website:
Von Sol Surfboards:

Photo: Steve Trailkill