Novice Surfers – mistakes when catching waves

After surfers overcome the hurdle of learning how to stand and ride waves, there is a period in their development which can be called the “novice” stage of development. This is where surfers are learning the foundation skills of the sport and every surfer, right from Joe Blow at your local beach to Kelly Slater, must pass through this stage to create consistency in their performances.

Positioning is critical to catching waves

Positioning is critical to catching waves

The skills I am talking about here are the skills of positioning in the line-up, catching waves paddled for, successfully taking the drop, and consistently riding waves from beginning to end. Notice, I haven’t mentioned the performance of surfing manoeuvres, as learning to perform moves, comes later in the developmental process.

The typical novice performance is one where the surfer would paddle for lots of waves, but catch only a few. Once they catch a wave, they usually pop-up slow, ride their waves by going straight through the middle of the wave, and kick-out before the end section, normally because of a healthy aversion to being smashed.

But initially, most mistakes occur around the takeoff, and these can be categorised into two main issues.

1.       Novice surfers typically try to catch their waves from the shoulder of the peak, primarily because of a lack of confidence or fear of being pitched at takeoff. If you like, they take the cautious approach, but you can’t catch waves if you aren’t on the steep face of a wave. In the surf yesterday I heard a father advising his novice son to paddle in deeper to catch his waves, indicating that he was too far out on the shoulder. The direction he gave was correct, but the terminology was wrong, as the novice surfer needs more specific instruction, as in his mind, he was thinking he was already deep enough. It would have been more correct and effective if the father had said, “Paddle over and catch the wave from where it initially breaks”. With this direction, the novice surfer has a picture of where they need to go, and with that comes the direction to position themselves in a more positive way.

Breaking the ledge makes the drop easier

Breaking the ledge makes the drop easier

2.       Most novice surfers get hung up in the lip at takeoff, causing then to fade over the back of the wave or to get pitched. What should be understood, is that there is a ledge at the top of every wave that must be broken through to achieve consistency when taking the drop. This ledge is really the lip that will pitch out as the wave breaks. In soft waves, the ledge is narrow and easy to break through, but in hollow and large waves, it is a significant size that requires forceful paddling to break. Once broken, the drop down the waveface is much easier. To overcome getting caught in the lip, novice surfer should take 2-3 more strokes than they think they should to break the ledge and with that, more consistency when dropping down the waveface.

Positioning oneself on the peak and breaking the ledge are fundamental to creating confidence when surfing, and are foundation skills that will enhance all other aspects in a surfing performance.


  1. Cathy says:

    Can you be more specific about the “ledge”?

  2. Martin says:

    As explained in the blog, the “ledge” is really the lip that pitches out as a wave breaks. When paddling into a wave, it can be a barrier to catching the wave, or if you like the final hurdle that must be overcome to make the drop successfully. And at the beginner and novice levels of development, many surfers struggle to negotiate this ledge consistently.
    If a surfer gets caught in the ledge, they usually have to negotiate a much steeper drop down the face because their board gets thrown out with the lip, as compared with a surfer that breaks the ledge, as their drop, is in front of the lip.

  3. Richard says:

    Martin I have two thoughts about breaking through the ledge. I am a novice surfer.
    1. Is it possible that a surfboard can be too boyant for your weight and so keep you from breaking through easily.?
    2. What do you think about positioning on the board. Too far back , not enough speed. To far forward and you get pitched ?

    Best regards.

  4. Martin says:

    1. I haven’t seen too much buoyancy as being an issue when catching waves. There can be issues with board handling when in the whitewater and paddling through waves, but not when catching waves.
    2. There are real problems with having a too far back paddling position when catching waves. Laying on your board with excessive nose sticking out of the water slows the surfboard, and in many cases doesn’t allow the surfer to generate enough speed to ctach their waves. On a shortboard, when positioned correctly, there should be approximately 6 inches of the nose of your surfboard out of the water when paddling. Having a too far forward paddling position is usually only for a short duration in most surfers development, because it just doesn’t feel right and most surfers adjust naturally to a paddling position that feels flat and balanced.

  5. Mick says:

    Hi Martin,
    Your point on catching waves for novice’s (particularly breaking the ‘ledge’) is spot on and is a point I still struggle with at times. I think this is a tip a lot more experienced surfer’s take for granted and forget once the break through this level and forget to pass on when they teach others.
    I’ve only just breaking through this barrier and have almost reached the next level but this has taken me quite a while to come to terms with as fear was probably my worst enemy.
    What also helped was a better paddling stroke, I was having shoulder pain and struggling with speed before I did some research on stroke and now things are much better.

    Paddling into waves and a proper stroke technique are (to me at least) the most basic fundamentals that should be taught/learned to accelerate your surfing progress, these have been the biggest things that have kept me back from breaking to the next level.
    A couple of ‘in depth’ lessons and training on these topics would be great.

    So far I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from your content on this site Martin, keep up the good work.
    All the best and thank you,

  6. Martin says:

    The reason better surfers don’t teach it is because they don’t think of it. Most good surfers can’t really describe what they do, they just do it. It’s mainly when you are learning that you really have to concentrate, later it’s all about feel. So as a result, don’t be too hard on the advice or lack of advise you get from better surfers. Becasue I coach, I have had to be able to verbalise what I see, and come up with training drills to rectify any issues. Breaking the ledge was a problem for me at one time, but overcoming it made my surfing much more enjoyable.
    I will look into describing how to train to better this area of performance soon.

  7. Bobby says:

    Really awesome advice! I just started out and never really thought about it as breaking through the ledge. It just paints a much better picture the way you explain it. I have been riding a fish that has a little extra foam on it. It’s 22.5 wide and 3 inches thick. I’m 5’10 and 145lbs. I have been struggling though. I got the board for free and can’t afford a longboard right now. I think my problem right now is kind of getting past fear.

    I have caught waves before but the fish is so fast before I know it I’m down the wave and no time for popping up. I also realized I am popping up wrong. Practicing on carpet , I was using my toes. And on a shortboard your toes are hanging off the tail in the water. So now I’ve been practicing with my feet up in the air no toes to push off just all upper body.

  8. chris says:


    I have been coaching my 10 year old daughter for 5 years now. and she has difficulty being consistent when catching waves. The way I explained it to her was think speed, speed, speed while paddling for the wave and then as it lifts you up think catch, catch, catch. by doing this it helps her timing and also makes her take those extra strokes to break through the lip. However in steeper surf fear still plays in and I see hesitation which causes her to miss waves by stand up to early.

    Your advice for making games or earning rewards has made a big impact for us keeping by keeping focused. And by the way you are spot on about being a good surfer does not qualify you for coaching. I am 36 still compete and learning how to be a good coach is something I’m still learning. I think part of it is the patience, when you can see the student has the skill down and they keep making the same mistake which holds them back can be frustrating but it’s all in the students development. You can tell them something until your blue in the face but they need to explore it for themselves and get over that hurdle on their own.

    Thanks for all your advice it helps me be a better coach and we have more fun!

  9. Damian says:

    Hi Martin,
    I think this pretty accurately sums up the phase I find myself in, I’m 51 years old, very fit, and comfortable in the water but I am struggling to get past this point in my development as a surfer riding a short board.

    I’m want to deal with catching waves in the right spot and overcoming the apprehension that comes with it – both from the a lineup perspective, and from the anxiety that comes from looking over the edge – it always looks scarier than it really is.

    Is the somewhere in your training videos that specifically deals with technique to ‘break the ledge’? how to you train surfers through this anxiety? How do you know when you’ve broken the ledge? Etc.

    Thanks for the awesome site, I’m loving the videos.

  10. Bernardo says:

    Hi Martin,

    Do you think you can elaborate a bit on the comment Mick did regardin paddling strokes? I think I have a similar problem but I haven’t found such good tips on the internet.

    I see that I get less speed paddling (when paddling side by side with more experienced surfers) and I also get shoulder pain when I push too hard.

    Thanks a lot,
    Bernardo Cunha

  11. Tim says:

    Hi Bernardo.
    I have a Nick Carroll book at home that gets pretty deep into the paddling technique of surfers.
    I will post his comments when i get the chance.

  12. Tim says:

    Hi again Bernardo.
    I went through the book that Nick Carroll wrote looking for the paddaling section. There are afew photos and diagrams so it might be best to buy the book for yourself. It is called; “The Complete Guide to Surfing Your Best: Volume Two”. You can get it here;
    Or post your email address and i will take some photos and send them to you.

  13. Jeremy says:

    Hi Martin.

    I’m a novice surfer too and I was wondering if you think there would be any point working towards being a pro at the age of 15 and only been surfing for about 4 months?

    If not oh well cause I will always love surfing and this site has helped my skill a huge amount.
    Thanks heaps, Jeremy

  14. Ryan says:

    Jeremy nothings ever a lost causes If you love doing it just keep surfing and get as much time in the water as you can then you can worry about going pro.

  15. Chris says:

    Very interesting subject. I have two key thoughts when I look back on how I broke thru this stage. I grew up playing a physical sport, American Football. As I learned to surf I would paddle with a furious intensity. However I realized I eventually that I was out of the “flow” of the ocean. You could call that poor positioning but I think that the concept of tuning into the flow of whatever surf spot you are at is paramount. The best surfers do not seem to be paddling hard. They are synched up with the break and ultimately better positioned as the swell approaches and consequently don’t need to scratch as hard. Funny how women seem to learn this better. The second big step is to understand that fast hollow waves are an altogether different animal than your local Old Man’s mushburgers. Everything is accelerated exponentially. You need a charge mentality in these conditions. Also most people would be better served to angle their boards 20deg towards the breaking direction. Helps get you down the line versus straight towards the beach, engulfed in whitewater.

  16. Udit says:

    Yes, breaking through the ledge. I felt it yesterday here at Silver Strand in Oxnard, CA! I paddled calmly until I felt the board lift, then I paddled HARD, turning on the gas, and yes, I felt like I was IN FRONT of the lip. Caught a really long left.

    Thank you Martin.

  17. TimE says:

    Hi All, Scenario 2 rings true for me also and is rapidly becoming a nightmare, so much so that I found this site/blog after internet searching why I kept fading or pitching on *every* wave during an agonizing 2hr session in steeper surf.. No lesson or tip from experienced mates mentioned the concept of ‘breaking the lip’ to make the drop, they’ve only talked about positioning to catch the wave.

    I bought the Nick Carroll book last week but it does not cover how to consistently make the drop. There are numerous great tips, but none that will help me make the drop on a steeper wave (3/4+ft).

    If anyone has any book recommendations or tips that cover the topic, in addition to Martin’s, they’d be gratefully received.

    Many thanks for covering the subject Martin, albeit 4 years ago!

  18. j says:

    What’s helped me both break through the ledge and drop in on steeper 3/4 ft waves is mental focus, making sure my eye line is on the spot of the surf down the line — this helps make sure my torso is slightly further out than normal on my board and that my torso is slightly arched up (to see better!) but also prevents me from pearling. When I make a steep drop some of it is the pushing up motion, but most of it is timing, speed, and agility and most crucially taking advantage of that moment of weightlessness when you begin to drop. It’s scary in the beginning but then you being to learn you can handle those drops and time actually slows down now when I drop in on steep waves b/c I’ve learned to recognize the gravity-less moment to make that split second pop up. Definitely becomes muscle memory and instinct after you continue to practice!

  19. rachel says:

    Hi Martin, I have always been a fan of surfing but living in the Midwestern U.S. is not conducive to such a hobby :) Anyway, I wanted to share a blog I just wrote since I quoted you. I hope that is ok. Surfing has beautiful analogies for life and I wanted to use some of what you said to make my point. I am glad you all are doing what you love to do! Rachel Willoughby

  20. Andy says:

    This is really great information – specific and well-articulated. Some of the best I’ve found on the web (and I’ve done a lot of searching). Thank You from Oregon! :)

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