Surfers: carefree drifters or elite professional athletes?

Surfers: carefree drifters or elite professional athletes?

As surfing enters the domain of being a ‘serious’ sport after being accepted into the Olympics, what lessons can be learnt by the rest of us in business and in life?

Not only are professional surfers now planning for their annual World Tour, they now have a four-year cycle, as seen in many other sports globally.

Or are the Olympics ‘not seen as cool’, as suggested by certain sources earlier this year and will the Olympics not be treated as a pinnacle event?

Are professional surfers really just a bunch of laid-back, carefree drifters, who are more likely to skip school or a day’s work, or are they extremely dedicated, disciplined and hard-working athletes, who have to meticulously plan throughout the year to be at their peak for the 11 events on the WSL Championship?

With the annual Pipe Masters set to begin next week at the famed Pipeline on the North Shore of Hawaii, we see an event which is the ultimate test in performing under pressure, where skill, fitness and character is tested to the limit in some of the most dangerous conditions the ocean can produce for a surfer.

Surfing as a ‘sport’

Whether people are in agreement or not, surfing has, for some time, been a professional sport, with pro surfers having levels of physical and mental ability to match it with some of the best athletes in the world.

Australia has its own High Performance Centre on the NSW Far North Coast, which is funded by the AIS, training the current and next generations of surfers. Additionally, there are development pathways which would be the envy of many other sports, with clear progressions towards the elite level and ultimately to compete on the World Surf League (WSL) Championship.

Professional surfers will have arduous strength and conditioning programs, with certain fitness levels needing to be maintained otherwise they are literally putting their lives at risk given the demands certain conditions – such as the previously-mentioned Pipe Masters – will put on the athletes. They will follow strict nutrition plans and have to deal with significant travel. Whilst the burden may be eased by travelling the world to some of the most exotic and beautiful places on the planet, it can certainly take it’s toll on the body.

As can be seen, there is significant planning that goes into being a professional surfer.

This has implications for life after sport, where planning ahead is the key to athlete identity in retirement. One quick glance through LinkedIn and there is a significant lack of professional surfers (or even ex-surfers) who have any form of professional profile online.

Surfers certainly do have their own unique way of doing things and do not often follow convention, but perhaps if the wider business community is to start taking them seriously, they need to start taking themselves seriously?

However, there are numerous examples of professional surfers who have moved into business and transitioned successfully; others not so much, but belies the argument somewhat that they do not take themselves seriously.


Many surfers have invested in or started their own business, a process which requires significant planning, research and a certain amount of good judgement, coupled with some good guidance. It is also imperative that it is a product or service for which they have an affinity and not just done because it is felt that there is a need to do something.

Current professional surfers Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Josh Kerr and Bede Durbidge have started a boutique beer company. Mick also has signed as a mentor and ambassador for a fashion brand, Van Heusen. Taj Burrow, now retired, has invested in a health food bar, using locally-sourced produce. And Ace Buchan has written a best-selling children’s book!

Kelly Slater, the most decorated surfer in history, has launched his own clothing company as well as having a large hand to play in developing the world’s longest, rideable artificial wave, which could have global implications. Whilst he may have earned a pretty penny from surfing, inclusive of endorsements (estimated net worth is US$20 million), he certainly looks to be channelling his high-performance mindset into to his life outside of competing professionally.

It is the female surfers who really look to be leading the way, especially in non-surfing related careers. 7xWorld Champion Layne Beachley is on the Board of Number of different organisations, albeit one does include Surfing Australia. Sally Fitzgibbons is a successful author and has started her own lifestyle business, including a fitness app and hosting women’s lifestyle seminars. Additionally, both have full, complete LinkedIn profiles and a detailed professional online presence.

There are other examples of course, but certainly a varied array of offerings.

David Neitz and Mick Fanning inside their brewery, Balter Brewing Company. Photo courtesy of

Missing a trick

There still seems to be a distinct lack of professional surfers who take full advantage of their acquired skills and apply them appropriately to their life beyond the sport.

This perhaps may be a bit of an unfair assumption, with many surfers getting paid beyond their professional careers to continue surfing as a free surfer in movies and becoming ambassadors for the surf brands that supported them during their career. However, this primarily looks at the top-end surfers and perhaps doesn’t contain, certainly not to the same extent, those surfers which don’t quite reach the heady highs of Kelly, Mick and Layne.

Surfing and surfers may be a victim of their own perceptions and many may believe they have to conform to a certain type of character, whether that be starting a brewery, developing an artificial wave, or simply staying attached to the sport because it is all they know and is all they have ever known.

As surfing gets thrust further into the global sporting landscape, more emphasis should be given to educating these athletes on what it is they can offer to the wider community, whether in business or otherwise. They should be inspired to find out how they can apply their finely-tuned and developed skills to the world beyond sport and that this education is something easily accessible to them.

I’m sure most surfers would have interests outside surfing and this is something that should be encouraged to be explored and perhaps needs to be led by the sport itself.


Surfing is now in the Olympics; it is a sport that undoubtedly contains elite athletes who are extremely resilient, with high physical and mental capacities. A sport where only last year Mick Fanning was attacked mid-competition by a shark in South Africa and was saved by his fellow competitor Julian Wilson, only to come out the following year and win the same event at the very same location that he was attacked! What business wouldn’t want that level of resilience and performance under pressure?

It’s time to shake off the preconceived stereotypes and look to unlock the potential that exists within surfers.


For the Spanish version: Surfistas: ¿Vagabundos despreocupados o atletas profesionales de élite?

Patrick Wright

Patrick (Paddy) is the Head of Partner Relations at The Final Whistle. A Sydney boy through-and-through, he has spent close to 9 years living in London from two different stints. He has a background in Financial Markets, but is now a student of Nutrition and Strength & Conditioning.

Interests: career transition, nutrition, strength & conditioning, surfing, most sports, education, travel, connecting with people, talking.

First article: September 2016


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