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SURF6 sits down with Australian Pro Surfer Connor O’Leary to talk about the patience and perseverance required to reach his level. They touch on the importance of foundational skills, the early years of his surfing experience, his developmental experiences, and the skills that he had to learn to become the world-class surfer that he is today.
SURF6: Connor, you are a surfer of international success at the highest levels but that didn't happen overnight. There was a process involved in that. It started when you came to me looking for advice when you were about 11 or 12 years of age. Do you remember that early development work?
CONNOR O’LEARY: Yeah, so vividly. You've had the experience coaching my mum (former Japanese surf champion Akemi O'Leary) and I was at that level where I needed expert advice to help my career and make myself better at surfing. So we came to you. The first thing I remember that we worked on was the pop-up. You said: "Hey, you're not jumping to your feet, and that's why you're late to some sections and you're not getting into the wave early enough." I was doing a kind of three-step stand up.
Yes, I remember the three-step pop-up.
I remember you said something like "Okay, the next session you're only allowed to surf the wave if you jump to your feet." I feel that was the most valuable advice I've ever had because if I didn't fix it there and then it wouldn't have helped me progress at all. Jumping to your feet is such a valuable thing in surfing. The quicker you get to your feet the more time you have to read the wave and then set up the waves to the best that it has on offer. I still remember the first couple of times, I was jumping to my feet and falling off and going "This sucks - I can't do it." And it's funny looking back now that I'm doing it. I mean if I didn't get called up from it earlier there it would have crippled me for the rest of my surfing career.
Without a doubt. You wouldn't be able taking of ten-foot Cloudbreak in Fiji and pulling them straight.
Yes. Imagine trying to get under an eight-foot slab at Teahupoo trying to do the one, two, three-step. You'd have no chance.
You know, you're not the only one: Layne Beachley (seven times world champion) she had that problem where she had like a climb, well I call it climbing to your feet. She worked on it, she overcame it. But it's a major problem for a lot of surfers.
Huge. I mean we're actually going through the same thing with my little brother Rick at the moment, like he's doing the same thing like the climbing up the board [instead of jumping to his feet]. Your world will change when you jump to your feet. It's funny because I always tell Rick: "This is what I was going through when I was young, too. You're not alone. And look at me now: I'm jumping to my feet."
It's definitely the most valuable thing that I've taken away from coaching with you: It's jumping to your feet.
The pop-up was part of the training early on. Also, we worked on your bottom turns and your speed creation and lifting your arms up. And as you got all those foundational techniques under control we worked on more advanced moves like your aerials, your fin bust, your re-centering, and difficult finishes. Did you find any of them difficult to incorporate or did some things come easy?
Airs are the most difficult skill because it requires a lot of repetitions. And you know you're going to have surfs where you try 20 airs and you don't make any of these 20 and you leave frustrated. But then you're going to go out and do 10 airs and you make all 10. So it's a matter of how you're feeling and whenever you do start getting frustrated trying to think about what you've been told and what is the technique. So it was difficult, but it was always really fun. I just feel airs definitely took a lot longer than a lot of the other skills.
What was it like for you developing those foundational skills?
After being able to pop up properly, going to the bottom was a very new thing for me. A bottom turn is probably the most crucial turn in surfing. If you don't have a bottom turn you can't do anything. But once you're at the bottom you've got a whole face to work with and it's a matter of what top turns to pick for the section in front of you. I feel like the bottom turn was probably one of the most fun skills to learn just because once you got it nailed, you can go to the bottom and then you look to the wave face and are thinking "what am I going to do with the wave section in front of me". You suddenly have all this time and all this extra speed and drive and it sets you up for the rest of the wave. It is so crucial.
You want to improve your bottom turn so you can start picking the right turn for the section in front of you?
You spoke about aerials. SURF6 users are working more on foundational surfing skills. The reality is that aerials are actually made up of those: You need to create speed, you need to bend your body to get a good launch off the top, you need to be able to re-center on landing. So they're all the things you learn when you're learning how to do your bottom turns, cutbacks and finishes. If you can learn these skills right there, then you've got the potential at some point to do aerials.
Exactly. You've got to have a good base. You see so many people, all the young kids these days who are so focused on doing airs and doing all the radical stuff. But in hindsight, doing all the basic stuff first sets you up to then be able to progress in a successful way with doing airs and, knowing what to do when you are in one of those situations. So you do definitely need the base like bottom turns, cutbacks and throwing your arms to create speed in order to move forward in surfing. I'm still reminding myself of those basic things every day.
I don't know how many times I had to remind you about throwing your arms to create speed!
Yes. When we work together you still do it! Even today, this morning when I was surfing alone I had a wave and I was on my backhand and I got a bit stuck and I flicked off. I said to myself "Okay, on the next one, I need to remember to throw my arms on my backhand because that's the way to create speed". I feel like throwing your arms on your backhand is definitely a little bit harder than throwing your arms on your forehand because it's a little bit more awkward. But it definitely works. And like I said, I still remind myself every day, every surf.
Are there any strategies or are there any techniques that you use to keep your mind on the job? When you're working on your surfing, are there things that you do?
It depends on the conditions. If it is a good day to try airs because the board is going to stick under my feet with the wind I'm going to focus on this. In an everyday surf it's about trying to adapt to whatever you did after a wave. Like I said before, this morning I took off on a wave and should have thrown my arms. After I finished the wave I said "The next time I'm in that same situation, I need to throw my arms". So it's about constantly reminding myself of the things that I did wrong on the previous wave and to then focus on the next one and try and nail it.
You've done a lot of training over the years which means that you can self-evaluate what's going on because you're fully aware of your movements and your body movements. SURF6 is about surfing six waves with a focus task. Do you think that will be an effective way of keeping focused?
100 %. It is effective if you focus on six waves or you on a 15-minute block. I've been doing a lot of 15-minute heat drills to keep the intensity up instead of doing a whole 30-minute heat. Sometimes during the end of my session, I'll do a 30-minute heat just to finish it off.
When you're trying to get better focusing on six waves or eight waves is good. And then do something else because if you do one thing for the whole surf you end up losing focus. You end up getting frustrated because you're making mistakes. So changing it up a couple of times in each surf always keeps it interesting. For myself, it keeps me on task and focused on the whole surf instead of having one task of the whole surf and then eventually getting frustrated and tired.
You want to work on your surfing with effective focus drills?
Obviously you've worked through your frustrations and you know it's difficult to always stay positive with what's going on but you've learned how to deal with it. What you said will help people working through those same frustrations understand that pro surfers like yourself and world champions, they all start somewhere.
Yeah, it's a good point. A lot of people look at myself and guys that are in that elite stage and think: "Oh, you guys must have been talented from the very start".
It's not true. I couldn't even jump to my feet when I was a kid and that's where it started. So it's important to let people know the truth and give them motivation with telling them: "If Connor O'Leary wasn’t able to jump to his feet when he was a grom and now he can surf the way he does, then that's epic and you can do it, too".
That'll hopefully motivate everyone to keep moving forward, to keep learning and hopefully succeed to become a really good surfer down the track.
Thanks for your time Connor.
Are you motivated to work on your surfing?
This original interview was edited for better readability.
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