The video of John John’s 10-point alley-oop in Bali has upward of two million views on YouTube alone. This viral webclip, along with a sea of other digital surf vids, attests to one of the few things surfers like doing more than surfing: watching other people surf.
We compulsively watch countless hours of guys launching above the lip, getting spit out of barrels, and hacking the open face. Our friends and family may consider these hours wasted, but surf cinephiles may get the last laugh. New studies show that we may be able to kick back and observe our way to better surfing.
Scott Grafton, a professor and researcher of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has devoted his academic career to studying the area of the human brain called the “action observation network”—an interconnected region that becomes activated when we perform a physical activity or when we observe someone else act out the same movement.
In a groundbreaking study, Grafton and his colleagues hooked up recruited dancers to fMRI machines and told them to simply watch a video demonstration of dance routines. They discovered enhanced brain stimulation to this neural network in the subjects, indicating that both subtle and complex athletic skills “can be acquired by observation without the benefit of immediate physical practice.”“I can learn things just by watching. I can feel those things in my body. I can feel the rotations—where you have to push, where you have to lift. I soak it in and learn by visual feel.” —Kelly Slater
According to psychologist Beatriz Calvo-Merino, this research suggests that “while we are observing someone else performing a movement, we are simulating the movement in our head, using the same brain regions that we will use to perform the movement ourselves.” In surfing, this could mean that whether you’re slouched on your couch watching Julian Wilson launch a frontside slob or attempting the maneuver yourself, this intricate web of neural cells lights up an fMRI screen all the same.
This concept, known as the mirror-neuron theory, could help explain how the world’s best surfers can quickly adapt to ever-changing performance standards.
“I can learn things just by watching,” said Kelly Slater when asked about keeping up with the kids in a 2012 interview. “I can feel those things in my body. I can feel the rotations—where you have to push, where you have to lift. I try to soak it in and learn by visual feel.”
According to Grafton, observation can benefit surfers of all levels in various ways. Beginners can sort out the basics of how and where to stand on the board, which direction to turn, and the chain of physical movements needed to get down the line by watching another surfer. More interestingly, advanced surfers can simulate the aesthetics of others, from Tom Curren to Dane Reynolds. “This is what the experienced surfer will care about,” says Grafton. “We can model our own behavior from watching others that we admire.”
“I often figure out the small aspects of a maneuver by watching another surfer,” says Josh Kerr. “Where he looks, turns his head, points his shoulders, etc. It all adds up.”
So does this mean you can crack a beer and observe your way to landing a sky-high alley-oop? Not quite. As it turns out, it’s not just what you watch, but how you watch.
In a related study led by Scott Fey of the University of Oregon, researchers monitored the brain activity of two different groups who watched identical videos of an actor disassembling and reconstructing a complex pattern of toy blocks. One group was told they would be required to perform the activity once released from the fMRI machine. The other group was simply instructed to watch the film. The results? Those who knew they would later be required to perform the task showed much higher brain activation in the specific areas responsible for muscle memory and learning. For us, this means that an intentional yet subtle shift of mental perspective—from passively watching surf clips to actively trying to relate each movement to your own body—can potentially lead to results in the lineup.
The research could also explain why we prefer watching clips of surfers of our own stance. “It makes it way easier to relate to what a surfer is doing if they share your stance,” says Matt Meola. “Actually, my favorite thing to do is watch John John or Kelly in the mirror.”
This all sounds pretty ideal for ambitious webclip consumers, in theory, but after watching Dane Reynolds’ recent feature, Loaded, an embarrassing number of times (17 and counting), I still can’t stick an air-reverse (and apparently neither can Taylor Knox). What’s the catch?
“There are limits to what can be learned through observation,” Grafton admits. “There is no study ever demonstrating it can entirely take the place of direct, physical experience. The bottom line is observational learning is great, but it can never replace the hard work demanded by the physical world and learning how to move within it.”