Mind Surfing Imagery


By Richard Bennett – Surf Psychologist

How many times have you run your hand along the wall while walking down a hallway or dug your hand into a bush and “stalled” under the over-hanging branches? Or carved long, stylish turns down a big hill on your skateboard or pushbike, or pretended you were flying through a huge tube while driving your car under a bridge or through a tunnel? Hundreds? Thousands? And most of us at some time or another have sat back, closed our eyes and imagined how we would surf those amazing empty waves that fill the pages of surfing magazines. Imagining what manoeuvres we could do and how we would weave and speed through the perfect barrels…

Surfers tend to call this mind surfing and much pleasure can be derived from indulging the imagination. However, mind surfing may also be considered a form of mental practice that when used in conjunction with physical practice, can enhance our surfing performances.


Every surfer “mind surfs” the barrel at Pipeline

Sports psychologists use mental practice techniques such as imagery to assist athletes in many areas of their sports performance. Imagery is often a central mental process we use when we go “mind surfing”. Imagery is where we create or recreate an experience in the mind. It requires no external stimuli or environmental props so you do not need your board with you or even be at the beach. Imagery is a sensory experience that occurs in the mind. It can and often does involve all our perceptual senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Emotional responses that may occur during the physical practice of an activity can also be incorporated into the imagery.

There are two types of imagery – internal and external. Internal imagery is where we see the image from our own eyes, as if we were inside our body looking out. Visually these images are like those seen when a camera is mounted on the surfer (e.g., on their board or a helmet). Internal imagery is considered primarily kinesthetic in nature as we can also imagine the feel of our body and the surrounding environment when we are performing an activity. For example, while imagining yourself doing a critical snap under the lip you could sense where your centre of gravity is over the board and feel your board staying under your feet as it slices a clean line through the wave face below.

External imagery is considered primarily visual in nature as the athlete imagines watching their sporting performance from outside their body. These images are like footage shot from the channel, a boat or the beach. With external imagery you could see where you are in relation to how the wave is breaking down the line or view the position of your body during a particular move, checking for any awkward movements to adjust and smooth movements to reinforce and practice. When “mind surfing” you can use either internal or external imagery, and both types of imagery can assist with improving your surfing.

How imagery works

Sports psychologists have suggested several explanations for how imagery assists in the learning and enhancement of sports performance. Three popular theories include Symbolic Learning Theory, Attention and Arousal Set Theory and Psychoneuromuscular Theory.

Symbolic Learning Theory suggests that imagery facilitates performance by assisting athletes to plan and mentally rehearse movement sequences and possible responses into symbolic components. It is like constructing a mental blueprint for a motor skill such as a bottom turn. Imagery practice is believed to strengthen the mental blueprint making the bottom turn more familiar and perhaps more automatic, and hence increasing the likelihood of successful completion of this manoeuvre.

In Attention and Arousal Set Theory imagery is said to facilitate performance by helping the athlete achieve their optimal level of physiological arousal and to selectively attend to task relevant stimuli. This aids to maximize clarity of focus and concentration while minimizing distraction. For example, imagery could be used in this way to adjust your arousal level before a surf, as well as to focus on a particular manoeuvre you wish to practice or part of the wave face you plan to explore.

Finally, each time we go surfing our brain sends electrical impulses to our muscles to direct our movements. Psychoneuromuscular Theory suggests that through imagery we can recreate these electrical impulse patterns and practice them without actually moving a muscle. For example, imagery practice for a cut-back would assist in strengthening and reinforcing the electrical impulse pattern for the correct sequence of muscle movements, and hence increase the likelihood of successfully completing the cut-back. This theory is supported by research that has found increased levels of electrical activity in the muscles associated with the use of imagery.

It is likely that aspects of each theory collectively explain how the imagery components of mind surfing work to both facilitate our learning of surf skills and enhance our surfing performances.

Maximising your mind surfing imagery

Mind surfing imagery will enhance your surfing performances more so when it is practiced in conjunction with regular physical practice. It will be more effective with skilled surfers as they have a greater understanding of what is involved in successful radical surfing. Also, surfers who have a vivid imagination and prefer imagic thinking will benefit more from using imagery. However, imagery ability and application skills can be learned and developed. The following guidelines will assist you in maximizing the benefits from your mind surfing imagery.

– Go into much depth and detail with the image using all five senses and really explore what you see, hear smell, taste and touch
– Be vivid with emotions. Explore how emotions feel physically (e.g., increased heart rate, hair standing on end, warmth in the face) and what thoughts accompany the emotion (e.g., positive or negative)
– Depth and detail with kinesthetic feelings such as balance, poise, muscle movements and comfort level will also enhance the clarity of your imagery

– Developing the skill to control and manipulate images at will increases the effectiveness of your mind surfing imagery

– Being open to and developing your imagery ability to “stand back and look at your surfing” will facilitate the adjustment of weaknesses and reinforcement of strengths in your surfing performances
– Set yourself up in a comfortable and quiet area and relax by taking deep, even breaths. Draw your focus to your minds eye…
– Begin with external imagery that recreates already experienced events to build your skills in vividness, controllability and self-perception
– Start with a two-dimensional image then progress to three-dimensional images detailed scenes then specific surfing scenario’s as your mind surfing imagery ability improves
– Once skilled, internal imagery may be used to facilitate kinesthetic detail and modulation of emotion
– Pre-surf imagery can serve to mentally rehearse and prepare for specific manoeuvres or surf situations
– Post-surf imagery assists with performance evaluation increasing awareness and learning potential from each surf
– Regular practice develops your mind surfing imagery ability and hence the potential benefits from this psychological technique. Even just a few minutes of quality imagery practice can be effective

A Caution
Negative-outcome imagery can be detrimental to performance. You’ll quickly know that you’re on the wrong track if you’re falling off in your mind. Therefore maintaining a positive attitude, clear focus on successful performance and a firm belief in the effectiveness of this psychological technique is encouraged. Being guided by an experienced Psychologist will also avoid negative effects and truly maximise your benefits from mind surfing imagery.

Mind surfing imagery can be used to enhance specific physical skills and skill learning. It can also be useful in developing psychological skills such as maintaining attentional focus and concentration, modulating emotion and arousal level, facilitating relaxation and stress management, increasing your self perception and confidence, and as a tool for mental preparation to achieve your ideal performance state. It’s also great to keep fresh and motivated for your surfing, especially when you are land-locked by injury or other reasons. Try following the guidelines above, using your creativity to have fun and improve your surfing with mind surfing imagery.

First published in Tracks Surfing Magazine Australia December 1999