Why is Surfing Addictive?

surfing Mar 23, 2017

Do I have A Surfing Addiction?  

@surf_coach posed the question "why is surfing addictive" on Instagram and it got me thinking.  Why IS surfing so addictive?  So I did what I always do when I get curious – I did some research. 

I had to start with “what is addiction?” before I tried to reason what makes something addictive.  Addiction is a heavy topic and has endless resources that send you to drug, alcohol, sex, and even shopping addiction.  I didn’t think my surfing addiction was that bad…but drug and alcohol addicts don’t think they have it bad either.

There were numerous sources discussing the science behind addiction, such as what happens in the brain when the addiction makes a shortcut to the brain’s reward system.  Then the brain makes sure it happens again and again, laying down memories of the quick sense of satisfaction, and then creating a conditioned response to certain stimuli.  Cue - Behavior - Reward.  A habit is just formed.  Our noggins are gnarly.  

After searching days on this topic, I determined it is way too deep for me to get into here -  and I love science and research!  Right when I was about to scratch writing this post, I found the most basic explanation from Anthony Robbins.  Yeah, I know, he’s the self-help guy, but he makes a lot of sense here. 

Be fore warned: Tony doesn't provide any scientific references or academic sources.  These are his own conclusions.  However, it doesn’t take more than a little simple observation to see that he’s taken a bunch of concepts from Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs.  He adds a few twists though.

Let me summarize Tony’s explanation and see if the results line up with whether or not I have a surfing addiction.

Addiction = fulfilling at least three basic “psychological needs”

What are Tony’s “psychological needs”?

First one is Certainty.  All humans need some kind of certainty in their lives.  Okay, well, I’m pretty certain when I catch a wave that it will give me a high sense of enjoyment and/or adrenaline.  Check.  I'm well on my way to a surfing addiction, but I need at least two more.  

Second one is Uncertainty.  That’s right, Uncertainty.  Surprises.  The Unknown.  I never know what the wave is going to do – every section of every wave is different, every wave is different, every session is different.  There is a lot of uncertainty now that I think about it.  Check.

Third “psychological need” is Significance / Uniqueness / Importance.   Surfing is still unique, despite the millions of people worldwide partaking in it.  I suppose I feel significant because I do something unique, and there is a mystique associated with surfing.  I certainly feel important when I get hooted into a wave, and even feel important when I hoot others (because I know how awesome that feeling is). Okay, check. 

Fourth “need” is Connection and/or Love.  Not to get all mushy on you, but I definitely get a sense of connection to the ocean.  But Tony is talking about a human connection here.  Despite most lineups being as quiet as a library, I certainly feel a sense of connection with other surfers when I'm floating around with them.  My wife always challenges me to see if I can go more than five minutes without talking about surfing or the ocean when I'm around my surfing friends, and I'm still trying to prove to her I can.  In addition, when everyone in the lineup is getting waves, there is a sense of connection when you hoot even a stranger into a wave, or get hooted yourself.  Check.  

The fifth human need is Growth / Progress.  Now this is definitely one that exists in surfing.  This constantly drives me - to learn more from those who have the knowledge.  Each time I go out I strive to do a better bottom turn, or cutback, or just simply make the entire experience easier by improving paddling technique (hint, hint).  And every time I go out, I progress my surfing little by little.  I always learn something from my experience in the ocean.  Bottom line is, this is one big, hunky, gigantic checkmark!

The last human need according to Tony is Contribution.  Twenty years ago I taught my friend to surf.  It was an incredibly fulfilling activity.  In college, I paid most of my school tuition through a job teaching surfing and other watersports at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center.  I loved it so much that I sometimes forgot to clock in.  And now, I’m passing on the knowledge I’ve discovered in surfing paddling technique, surfing fitness, and other wave catching advantages to as many people as I can reach.  When I hear back from clients who have applied the techniques I teach, it fulfills me more than any of the previous needs.  Super check! 

According to Tony's definition, in order for me to have a surfing addiction, it needs to fulfill at least three basic “psychological needs”.

  1. Certainty – check
  2. Uncertainty – check
  3. Significance / Uniqueness / Importance – check
  4. Connection / Love – check
  5. Growth / Progress – Check
  6. Contribution – CHECK!

Uh-oh.  6 out of 6!  


Nah.  I'm not addicted.  

I can stop any time.  

I promise.  I have complete control.  

I just CHOOSE to keep surfing.  

No problem...  


Tell you what, I'll go surfing to think about it and get back to you...

See you in the water!

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