Surf Coaching, Part 3: Brad Gerlach

Interview by Mike Drentea

Brad Gerlach is one of the most influential professional surfers in the industry. Brad had a stellar professional career, Rated #1 in 1986 and in 1991 and finshing the 1991 ASP Tour ranked #2 in the world. He has tranformed his career now as a well-respected big wave surfer and professional surf coach. Most recently on a 68 foot wave at Todos Santos, Brad became the 2006 Billabong XXL winner. Living the dream chasing waves and seeking new spots to surf, he came up with his own idea for structuring how contest surfing should be done. Following the footsteps of other professional sporting contest, Brad became the Founder and Commissioner of “National Surf League” or often referred to as “The Game”. Gaining popularity amongst professional surfers the “X-Games” modeled their surf contest after the National Surf League. Brad continues to educate other’s on surfing including recent US Open Juniors champion Conner Coffin, through his keen sense of ocean knowledge and experience which will no doubtedly help progress any surfers skills on any level.

What is surf coaching?

An age old tradition of teaching one to surf better by showing them how. A passing down of the knowledge from experience. Inspiring the surfer/student to go far beyond what he and others think is their potential.

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

I actually started professional coaching in 1998. The reason I started coaching mainly came from knowing at an early age that I enjoyed helping my friends surf better. I felt good and worthy helping people to learn a new move or pull off a classic one. I am passionate about technical side of surfing, the unknown, the discovery, the design, the beauty of the effortless turning body etc… Great surfing excites and inspires me.

Whom are you currently professionally coaching?

Parker and Conner Coffin.

What exercises do you and your athlete’s do to train physically and mentally?

A surfing art form based in the martial arts that I have developed. This is from years of study with several mentors in different disciplines. It trains awareness in the center of the body, quiets the mind, uses visualization and creativity to do everything from learn new turns, conquer fear, win heats, flow from move to move and be playful under pressure.

How do you prepare for a contest or a heat?

We prepare to win by doing the stuff I described in the last question way before we get to the comps.

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

It depends if the comp is abroad or local. If it’s local, we will meet 2-3 times in the week leading up. If I’m abroad and I’m traveling with them, then I will see them every day. If I’m not with them, we will speak on the phone 2-5 times before hand depending on time zones and convenience. We also speak during the comp too.

What do you say to a surfer before the contest?

I ask questions and listen. We have good rapport and trust so I may give them a small adjustment suggestion or two. I remind them that all the hard work is over and it’s time to play around, feel good, and express themselves. I also have a few ways to help them get in the zone, quiet their minds etc…

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

How “on” a surfer is, how much fun they look like they are having, how creative they are, how spontaneous and connected they are from move to move. How much power they have and are able to harness from the wave, how committed they are and how beautiful they look doing it. Jordy and Dane are my favorites. I like watching John John, Slater, Knox, and a few others like Dillon Perillo, Adam Melling, Michel Bourez, and Gabriel Medina. I still love to watch Tommy Curren and of course I love the way both Parker and Conner surf. They both have great style.

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

They decide which board they are going to ride. We talk about it before hand and I ask them how they feel about each board. They know deep down what board to ride, I just ask them questions so they feel 100 percent committed to the board before they go out. If I don’t agree, I will ask a few more questions, let them come up with the answer and respect their decision. I do not profess to know everything.

How is coaching in small surf different than big surf?

They’re different things to prepare for. We can usually tell ahead of time what the surf is going to do. We prepare mentally, physically, and emotionally with my art form, experience and visualization. We have designed boards and fins for all conditions.

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

Dealing with the losses isn’t easy but it’s part of it and I accept that they aren’t going to place first in every event. I do expect to win something from every event. My goal with them is by the time they are going for a world title, they have the tools and confidence to win because they learned the ropes while they were juniors.

I believe it all happens how it’s supposed to happen, so I don’t sit there biting my fingernails hoping they will advance. I release my feelings on the result and pay attention to the now so I don’t miss a beat. This way no matter what happens, I can give them clarity, which helps them get better, smarter, and stronger.

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

Hahahaha, depends on what country you are talking about? Inside joke for all the guys from my era. Love you crazy guys!

No, really there were coaches when I was on the ASP tour too. Derek Hynd helped Occy, Greeny, and the Billabong crew. Greg Day helped Damien Hardman, Luke Egan and Me. I also worked with Ben Aipa as did Sunny Garcia and John Shimooka. Michael Ho helped Derek Ho and there were other trainers too. Mentors, shapers, Tommy had Al Merrick to help him, etc. Surf coaching isn’t new. Sometimes the boys would even help each other. My friends John Glomb, Jeff Novak and Dave Kennedy helped me. I coached Marty Thomas to a higher ranking than myself one year. hahaha the guy ended up 9th and me 14th…HA! So, I started traveling with my lady the year after and found myself in the number one spot until I broke up with her mid-year… Derrrrrrrrr!….. not a good decision on my part. A total grom decision.

There are many examples big and small. For instance, every year I went to Bells, I stayed with my good buddy Glen Casey, a Bells local. He would help me get to know the wave, support me the whole week by talking together about how to win, eating good food, and laughing our asses off thus putting me in a winning state of mind.

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

How you say something is just as important as what you say… otherwise they may not hear it.

At the right time, I might say something like this: “Hey bud, it’s important to feel the pain of the loss without any damaging words to your psyche. When the pain subsides, we will take a look at what you can win here and how that will make you better”

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

It depends where we are but usually we go out to dinner with all of our friends and talk about how fun and exciting the day was. It’s a stoker to be rewarded for all the hard work and time put in. The competition is tough, as it should be, there are a lot of great surfers out there these days. It’s a fun show, especially when the waves are pumping.

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

Having high expectations and when those aren’t met, anger and frustration have the surfer in a negative mind space. They start thinking too much and miss the infinite opportunities available. They lose focus on the rhythms of the ocean. Basically they lose the feel.

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

Straighten your back. Good posture is mandatory for good performance. Surf without moving the arms. They should not move separate from the twisting and turning of the body/torso. Bend your legs and surf to the speed of the wave. Quick movements aren’t necessary unless your timing is off.

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?

I am writing an advanced fundamental surfing instructional book and this tip needs a longer explanation than I can give here.

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?

As I said in the above question for tips on an everyday surfer, the arms should enhance the look of the turns and add beauty. The power with the best pros lies in their ability to access the whole body. In top performance there is no separation between upper and lower body, everything is connected. Current example is Kelly harnessing the power of mother-nature in Fiji. The cool thing about watching a surfer in this state is, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how or why you can still feel the magic.

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

Confidence is the ultimate feeling to have for high performance. To improve in this area one must be able to see and feel one-self doing whatever it is they want to do. Visualization is the bridge and after having the technical, using your imagination is the best way to train.

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? Give waves away and be in a joyful place. There are still lots of open spaces in a crowded line up. Have lower expectations, respect people and be genuinely stoked another human being is catching a good one. This isn’t easy, however doing so increases the chances of being happy and being in a joyous state of mind and loving tends to make one attractive. I believe waves want to party. Who do you think they want to party with?

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

I see surfing performance going toward creative, radically subtle turns within the wave face. Upside-down type of stuff. There will always be aerial surfing especially in shit conditions. Aerial’s will be used more and more to gain speed like skateboarding does or floater’s do. You can feel the power and speed when someone does something major on the wave face. I’m talking about turning on the wave where we haven’t seen anyone turn yet. This will happen because of increased focus on flexibility, proper strength for surfing, video analysis, freedom of personality, and equipment advancement. Not to mention good coaching. Hahaha…but seriously every surfer will probably have a coach/mentor someday.

Be sure to read Part 1 in the series with Sean Mattison and Part 2 with Chris Gallagher.