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Deliberate Practice

Riding the Biggest Waves

“If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” — Mario Andretti

When he was just a boy, a big wave taught Makua Rothman something that every athlete should learn.

It happened in a surfing competition; Rothman was one of the youngest people ever in the event. And then came tons and tons of water.

“I went under,” says Rothman, now 24 and a championship surfer. “I panicked, but then I knew I had to relax to get to the top. And so I did, and all was well. It’s still a lesson for us all today — if you go under — relax.”

Whether you’re riding the biggest wave or trying to hit a foul shot in a tournament game, you’ve got to relax. Rothman, legendary for riding a 66-foot wave, has grown to appreciate the mind-body link. He calls it the key to surfing.

“The most important thing is to be in good mental and physical shape and to maintain an ever-present high level of concentration,” he said.

Rothman’s life reads like a textbook in skill development as outlined in books like “Outliers” and “Talented is Overrated.”

Growing up on Oahu’s North Shore, he began surfing at a younger age, with his father and the nearby big waves pushing him to ever-higher levels of competence. Even today he spends 25 hours a week — more than 1,000 per year — in the water. He’s well past the 10,000 hours of practice considered the standard for mastery. But mastery is not a word he would use in connection with surfing.

“The greatest lesson is to respect the ocean,” he said. “No matter how many hours you spend out there, no matter how many championships you win, you must always respect its power and its might. You can’t ever let up.”

Coach Tully’s Extra Point: Rothman’s asthma actually helped him develop the ability to  relax in competition. It forced him to learn to control his breathing.


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