Top 10 reasons for retiring from professional surfing

November 19, 2019 | Surfing
Mick Fanning: he won three world titles and retired in 2018 aged 36 | Photo: Tostee/WSL

Retirement is always a critical moment in any professional surfer's life.

There are three different stages in the process of changing a career - the reflection, the public announcement itself, and the day after. And each one of them is hard to deal with.

Life is continually changing, and nothing lasts forever. Compared to executives, designers, chefs, doctors, retail salespersons, administrative assistants, etc., sportsmen and sportswomen enjoy shorter careers. And the reasons are obvious.

The trick is to adapt to the new scenario without dramas, having in mind that surfing is for life. However, sometimes depression, anxiety, stress, and loss of confidence and identity come along.

Some say sports stars die twice - when they decide to retire, and when their long life is over. That is why pro surfers - like any other athlete - should know when to move away from competition mode.

They will face big challenges, that's for sure. But you can't overthink it. Just look forward into the future with a positive and curious attitude.

The Future Is Bright

On one of the pillars of London's Memorial Gates, there's a line of a poem by Nigerian novelist Ben Okri that could help inspire and celebrate someone's retirement.

"Our future is greater than our past." Isn't it true?

In November 2019, David Villa, a top Spanish football player, announced his retirement from the pitch with a simple, yet interesting statement.

"It's better to leave football before football leaves me," underlined the 37-year-old striker, who played for the Spanish national team, Barcelona, Atletico de Madrid, and other professional clubs.

The declaration is also valid for professional surfers. In other words, you've got to know when to leave; you've got to quit on a high note.

Joel Parkinson: he competed for 11 years on the Championship Tour | Photo: Poullenot/WSL

There are several reasons why surfers (prematurely) announce they're calling it quits. Let's take a look at the most common (and understandable) ones:

1. Injury

Injuries affect everyone - the world's best, the greatest, and the most talented performers - and can be hard to deal with.

Wipeouts, chronic pain, joint degeneration, foot injuries, knee issues will inevitably hinder a surfer's performance.

Injuries will have an impact on rankings, and recovery times are never always fast.

When injuries become a recurrent problem, professional surfers tend to be forced to make a hard decision. Retirement due to injury in elite surfing is quite common.

2. Age

Aging is a natural process, and everyone should learn how to cope with it.

But a sport is a physical activity, and no one expects a 45-year-old surfer to perform like a young gun aged 18.

We all know experience plays a huge role in competitive professional surfing. A mature adult may win heats against rookies, but the fairy tale will soon be over.

It's time to know when to leave. And quite often, when you're not winning anymore, maybe it's time to throw a retirement party.

Kelly Slater: still competing aged 47 | Photo: Sloane/WSL

3. It's Not Fun Anymore

Competitive surfing is a tough game in which there's always a winner and a loser.

Pro surfers are highly trained athletes with a focus on strategy, tactics, and performance.

If they need to keep an opponent off a good wave under priority, they'll do it. If they need to force an interference, they'll do it.

As a result, they often become competitive machines; robot-surfers with a sole goal in mind - to win heats.

Inevitably, some of them will feel that the spirit of surfing that made them try catching a wave for the first time is lost.

When that happens, they lose the competitive drive and opt to quit the professional surfing circus.

4. Relationships, Family and Children

It's only a matter of time before a 20-year-old surfer turns 30 and then 35 and 40.

It all starts with a more or less serious relationship with a man or a woman; someone who supports you, travels by your side across the world, and helps you in the ups and downs of your occupation.

Sooner or later, a pro surfer will have to make personal choices with impacts on the professional side, and vice versa.

And when children move into the equation, you realize your life is no longer the most important thing. It's all about making them happy.

Raising a family is often cited as a reason for retirement. And when that happens, it is always an intelligent and wise move.

Owen Wright: celebrating victory at the 2017 Quiksilver Pro Gold Coast with his family | Photo: Cestari/WSL

5. Not Making Ends Meet

Professional surfing has two different worlds: the Championship Tour (CT) and the Qualifying Series (QS).

The CT, also known as the Dream Tour, is the elite of surfing in which only 34 athletes can compete. They'll make, on average, between $100,000 and $500,000 per season, depending on their performances.

However, they're de facto the elite of surfing. The majority of professional surfers - around 1,300 - compete in the exhausting QS marathon.

They'll make, on average, between $0 and $60,000. However, a surfer ranked 50 will probably not earn more than $15,000.

And with $15,000, you can barely pay the travel and accommodation bills, except if you're a sponsored surfer.

So, the time will come when you'll have to put food on the table. And if chasing waves and heat wins isn't enough, you've to think about another way of making a living.

6. It's a Grueling Way to the Top

The Dream Tour is a closed, restricted club with only 34 members.

In order to reach the elite of surfing, a professional surfer must be mentally, psychologically, and physically fit to embark on a long journey of wins and losses, euphoric, and depressing moments.

And then you'll have to fly hundreds of thousands of miles from venue to venue, in order to collect enough end-of-the-season points to qualify for the CT.

Let's not forget that only the top 10 QS surfers ranked on the year-end will qualify for the ultimate league.

It's a strenuous adventure and unsuccessful adventure for 99 percent of the athletes involved in the Qualifying Series.

And after several consecutive years missing the cut, retirement is many times the best option.

7. A Professional Free Surfing Career

Until the 1990s, the concept of free surfing was associated with surfers who opted for not being involved in competitions.

In other words, free surfers were not paid to surf. They were more or less anonymous people who'd rather ride waves for the pleasure of it.

However, with the development of the so-called surf industry, some companies realized that free surfers could be an effective "tool" to sell their products.

Free surfers somehow represent the soul of surfing. The only difference is that today, they're paid to embark on idyllic surf trips, explore secret surf spots, and chase historical swells.

And that's how professional, free surfing was born. Nowadays, they're paid to put the jersey aside and surf by themselves.

So, for many competitive athletes, it has become an interesting alternative to a heat-driven life.

Dane Reynolds: one of the most popular professional free surfers of all time | Photo: Masurel/WSL

8. The Psy Factor

The mental and psychological variables play a critical role in the performance of professional surfers.

At the highest level, every minor detail counts. Mind games are well-known in the competitive surfing world.

And you start losing on a regular basis, confidence levels will drain, and the negative snowball will grow rapidly.

For many surfers, the stress associated with the win-or-lose format becomes unbearable, and they decide to retire.

9. Rebelling With(out) a Cause

The history of surfing is full of odd, unusual, hilarious, and unforgettable moments involving furious and enraged surfers who stormed the judges' tower.

Professional surfing is not like an objective sport like football, where you score goals to win the game.

The performance of a competitive surfer while riding a wave is evaluated by a panel of judges who award scores based on predefined criteria.

However, many times, surfers feel they didn't get the score they were expecting and blame the judges and the organizers for their losses.

Some of them have even developed conspiracy theories on how it's all set up to systematically benefit one or the other.

Whether they're right or wrong, the truth is that some have left the job with no intentions to return.

10. Career Change

Professional surfing can be an exciting occupation, but that doesn't mean you want to do it for three decades.

As time passes by, people develop new tastes, deepen new interests, and broaden horizons.

A pro surfer could be already be investing in a new wave pool concept, a brewery, a surfwear company, or embracing a new life as an environmentalist.

Just because you're obsessed with surfing at the age of 20, it doesn't mean you'll be doing it at 30.

Sometimes, a drastic career change brings more happiness than event trophies and world titles.


Words by Luís MP

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