Daddy Dearest

"You just need two good waves to win the heat. Two."

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

For me, the silver lining of an otherwise drab digital cloud is that many cameras these days shoot two different formats: both stills and high-quality video. Essentially two types of camera in one.

This dual functionality exists with the Canon 5D Mark II, a camera which I happen to use. When I’m feeling less than inspired about shooting stills, I’ll break out the video feature on my camera and experiment with it.

Lately I’ve been using the video function for surf training with my daughter, and shooting footage of her contests. I’ve even recruited my eldest daughter, who is a talented videographer/editor, to shoot with us.

While reviewing some of her recent contest footage, I came across something disturbing. Unbeknownst to me, my eldest daughter had filmed me while I was coaching her sister in a heat.

This footage pictured me waving directions and reacting to her waves from the beach—something that might sound innocuous enough, but when seen on screen, amounted to something else. It amounted to fairly wild, emotion-fueled gesticulation. It amounted to overly-emoted, Shakespeare-in-the-Park disappointment.

In short, this footage amounted to the actions of a melodramatic dork.

This discovery hit me especially hard because inappropriate surf parenting has become a pet peeve of mine. Over the last year or so, I have been exposed to top-level junior competition and a few disturbing moments, which includes a few select fathers going absolutely ballistic on their kids during surf contests.

When talking about this Little League Dad Syndrome with other parents, I began to realize that these were not isolated events. Several of them relayed highly disturbing stories. For example, one dad called his son a “f–king pussy” for pulling back on a big close-out, and another about a dad who routinely browbeat, pushed, flicked, and on one occasion, even head-butted his young daughter…in public.

What the hell is going on?

In addition to eliciting a mixture of anger, embarrassment, and disgust, these stories raised a lot of questions for me, not the least of which is: How did we get here? How did the pastime of riding waves—the drop-everything, happy-go-lucky, rapturous life of surfing—come to a point where parents would psychologically brutalize their own children?

The reprehensible nature of this abuse aside, there are other questions too: Is this just misplaced, vicarious desire gone wrong? What kind of humans are these fathers raising? Can this fear-based performance enhancement sustain itself without causing these juniors to crack apart psychologically later on?

While mulling over these questions, I have to confess to some impure daydreaming about these dads on my part, including one dark, revenge-exacted fantasy: a Bad News Bears/Throw the Ball, Joey! mutiny, whereby these browbeaten juniors get to the NSSA Nationals and instead of cementing a finals victory and a big contract, they take off on a big set wave at Lowers, pull their boardshorts down, and shine a full moon at their dads all the way to Church.

Unfortunately, life isn’t that poetic. Some of these kids have already slayed the amateur ranks to such a degree that they now sit with major sponsorship and large annual salaries.

And that’s perhaps the saddest news of all about this type of Little League Dad behavior: It seems to be working. At least three of the country’s top young surf stars have fathers who seem to possess a Captain Bligh streak, and their associated tongue-lashings and intimidation seems to be eliciting victories.

At least in the short-term anyway.

I should note at this point that I understand and acknowledge that tough love and strict coaching can sometimes be the price of success. Discipline in sports is often tantamount to a well-oiled performance. However, I also understand the difference between constructive, non-malicious strictness and calling your young kid “a pussy,” or even hitting them. In my book, that’s just wrong.

Way wrong.

My guess is that these bad apple dads have no idea how reprehensible their behavior is. For one reason or another—a self-fulfilling upbringing, a lack of conscience, bizarre insecurity—they do not see their actions as particularly evil. They think only of the desired result. That if they yell long and hard enough at their child, that it will produce a positive outcome.

Another reason that these surf dads continue to browbeat their kids, and can get away with it, is because we let them. I have seen this firsthand, especially with well-known surfers. Despite public abuse, witnesses somehow excuse this appalling behavior because of fame, which is kind of bizarre…and just plain stupid.

I am also confronted by one huge, over-riding question about this behavior: How much of it is my business? Should I just ignore it? Leave it alone?

The existence of this blog validates my conclusion that yes, this is definitely some of my business. As a photojournalist, a father, and a member of society, I think we need to expose this conduct and, at the very least, talk about it.

The bigger picture is that the vast majority of surf parents out there are loving and incredibly supportive of their kids. They use their well-earned paychecks to pay for contests. They drive up and down the coasts toting their juniors around ad infinitum. They encourage and console their competitive offspring when appropriate and needed. It’s actually just a few select toxic dads out there that go off the deep end, and unfortunately when they do, they contaminate the entire pool for the rest of us.

As mentioned, I have seen this malevolent seed begin to take root in myself, and would encourage other surf parents to take a long, hard look at their own behavior. Emotion and the desire for my daughter to do well had begun to blind my better sensibilities, and not until I got an accidental view of myself from the outside did I realize what was going on.

As surf culture evolves, I think we should take a good look at things, confront the flaws, talk about them, and stop sweeping things under the carpet. History is rife with examples of the danger of hiding things.

Hidden things have a tendency to haunt.

Most importantly, I think we owe this introspection to surfing itself. We have received this incredible gift of being able to ride waves, and we shouldn’t lose our souls in the pursuit of trying to impose vicarious ambition.

In the meantime I will do my part by concentrating on keeping my wild gesticulations to a minimum.