Embracing Change and Age – Robert Sapolsky keynote as it pertains to paddle surfing

Erik Antonson
Erik Antonson
November 5, 2016

It rained yesterday afternoon, so instead of surfing I decided to hop on the spin bike and expand the mind.  In my queue was this keynote from Richard Sapolsky, a Professor of Human Biology at Stanford.  A friend and mentor, Dave, sent me the link after a lunch we had a few weeks back.  Dave started his career in academics, became a high school principal, pivoted to start a software tutoring company in Silicon Valley, sold it, moved to Costa Rica and now builds hand planes for body surfing.

He’s a man in constant evolution, which is why we get on so good.

At that lunch we were discussing how, as we get older, he’s in his 50’s and I’m 37, our peer groups are less likely to try new things.

As paddle surfers this is a constant theme regarding the growth and acceptance.  And the ideas from Sapolsky are 100% relevant.

I recommend you listen to the talk and I’d love to hear your thoughts below.  Here are a few of mine…

(paraphrased from the talk) If you don’t have a tongue piercing by the age of 23 there is a 95% chance you won’t get one.  If you don’t like a certain genre of music by 37 there’s a 95% chance you never will.  And if you don’t fancy sushi by 45ish there is a 95% chance you won’t.

So, as we age, our likelihood of embracing new things drastically declines.  Sapolsky attributes this behavior to our desire for repetition and comfort as we age and begin to comprehend the uncertainty of life.

The younger someone is exposed to paddle surfing the greater the percent chance they will embrace it.  (that’s got me thinking about doing a “kids who can surf come free to our retreat with a paying parent promotion” to expose young surfers to the sport… thoughts?)

In our middle years, say 30-50, to a surfer, paddle surfing represents change.  It is a different way to surf, to be seen in the lineup and to be defined by his or her peers.  Paddle surfing is not a part of the surfing tribe.

Sapolsky makes it clear that we are less likely to change as we get older, so why do older surfers convert?  Their perception of paddle surfing changes.  When faced with injury, low wave counts, and possibly giving up surfing, choosing to paddle surf means continuing to be a surfer, not having to give up the routine – paddle surfing offers more routine and comfort than the alternative.

So young folks are open minded and just need to be exposed to the sport.  And older folks will find their way at some point when paddle surfing represents surfing. What about those the middle?

We need to kill the divide.

Targeting those folks in the middle is all about changing the perception of the sport.  Which was the goal for the Progression Project film.  We need to reframe paddle surfing as part of surfing. Like it is for Mo, Caio, Kai, Zane, Gio, Keahi and Colin, Kalama and Dave Boehne.

Right now, to a surfer, paddle surfing is a different sport and a different tribe, and the perceived change is too large for most surfers to give it a fair shot.

Another line of thought  – Would be interesting to think about this in context of the strange bond of most paddle surfers.  Those of us who switched from surfing or tried something new at ages when most folks don’t.  To go along with other personality traits of paddle surfers.  We’re probably a group that bounces and explores new things, and not as anchored as the majority.  Does that relate to you?

I’d love to hear your thoughts below!  E



Progression Journal


  • Fausto

    My two cents:
    – I think it’s natural that a group of people that try something new tends to bond together more easily, for several reasons e.g. sharing technics that only apply to that new sport, creating a sense of community that was lost when those people left the mainstream sport, and so on. In addition to that, these people have in common a keen eye for the new, and that personality trace also helps to make them bond together;
    – on the other side, I would like to add the perspective that not all paddle surfers have a surf background, me for instance having bought my first board 4 years ago at age of 44 without ever stepping on a traditional surfboard before. So, I think the paddle surf community has much more that former surfers that, for one reason or another, decided to try paddling. How does that group blends into the paddle surf community may be interesting to study as well, but my personal experience is that it’s much easier to be accepted in a sport where everyone is “new” in a way or another than trying to be accepted in a stablished local surf community at my age and (non-existent) skill level.
    – I’m from the time when windsurfing was new and radical, and that leading role in sport innovation was then taken by kitesurfing a few years later, and so on. It would be interesting to learn how those communities were formed and what drove them out from surfing and sailing communities where they derive from.


    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      Hey Fausto, I agree with you.

      Also interesting to think about the relative distance from top levels of performance vs. other popular sports. That creates an excitement and ownership in direction.

      Pura vida! Erik

  • Chelsea

    Well, I am soon to be 65 years old, have been learning how to paddle surf for the past
    few years and I love it! I was first exposed to paddle boarding on a vacation in Cape Cod
    on a salt water pond on a gigantic size board 5 years ago. My husband grew up surfing but really liked the idea to return to southern California and take up paddle surfing. We started with a large board and have transitioned to 9-9′-6″ for my husband and now I have recently transitioned to a 7’0 29″. I catch waves and fall a lot. I am motivated to gain more and more experience to carve waves. Earlier this year, my husband and I went to a paddle surf camp in Nosara for a week. It was a fantastic experience for each of us. We go out usually twice a week, on my husband’s days off. For me it has been a big learning curve but I am excited to keep learning. There are many people in their 50’s and early 60’s having fun on the waves. We are respectful of the surfers and we often go to other spots.

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      Excellent! I don’t ever care where someone is on the learning curve if they’re passionate about learning and challenging themselves. Glad you got waves when you were here! I live right on the bay where you guys likely surfed a few times.

  • Andrew

    Greetings from Queensland Erik. I am sure I am not alone in wanting to thank you for creating such a great educational resource with Paddlewoo.
    I just hit the 50 mark and have been paddle surfing for around 4 years now and would agree with Sapolsky’s arguments.I have surfed for nearly 40 years and It was difficult to go back to being a learner in my 40s, having many and varied kook moments. Certainly I did think about giving it away a while ago. But thanks to some free online education from articles by yourself and Dave Kalama ( loved the Larry Cain podcast!)things are really coming together.
    We have less to prove to other people and more to ourselves as we age and more patience than our younger selves. It is worth persevering!
    I don’t believe there should be too much focus on the division between surfers and paddle boarders as I think eventually most people will embrace both.
    Surf etiquette,understanding the surf zone and acknowledging our own limits are the areas where the educational focus should be for paddle surfers to gain more acceptance.

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      Yep. I think within 10 years surfing and paddle surfing will basically be the same thing. Especially with the coming of wave pools, which will be a much better learning platform for surfing and shortboarding. Contest surfing is going to change. And paddle surfing is much better suited for the ocean.

  • Ryder

    Right on Erik! (Long comment alert! Bombs away….) I love the brand change to Progression Project. It captures the state of the sport and is what needs to be done to help us all move forward. I assume there are a lot of guys and gals out there like me that crave all forms of knowledge and shared experiences around paddle surfing. Please keep providing this in as much detail as possible from as many sources as possible! As Sapolsky said, the process of critical thinking, learning a new skill, and synaptic plasticity is not only exciting; it opens us up to novelty every day we’re out there. I feel like this is the common bond amongst paddle surfers–something we get to experience each time we downsize a board, paddle into a bomb, draw new lines on the face, gain more acceptance, etc. It’s exciting and rejuvenating!

    I’m 29 y/o and picked up the sport two summers ago in Montauk, NY with zero prior prone surfing experience. I didn’t have a single friend that surfed, let along paddle surfed, but I knew that I needed to be surfing on those waves. With the crappy summer conditions, a 10’6” longboard style paddle board allowed me to get tons of reps, get my ass kicked by the ocean, and get out there regardless of conditions. It also helps that the dynamic, full body skills you train are super transferrable–I effectively trained for a marathon and a winter of skiing purely by paddle surfing all summer.

    To be honest, I never felt like a “surfer”, and I don’t think I ever will. I grew up in Ohio playing hockey, loving skiing, sports, and snow. I now live in California and paddle surf at Pleasure Point at every opportunity, but my goal in learning protocol, technique, and lineup respect is not to become part of the tribe. I simply want to enjoy the magic of surfing MY best waves while being surrounded by the ocean’s power and its playful critters. Paddle surfing gives me the opportunity to maximize this experience while challenging myself to perform at a higher level each time out.

    In order to ensure that all competent and respectful paddle surfers are accepted at any break, we need to: (1) SHOW surfers that paddle surfing is a legit athletic endeavour, challenging, and has a place. The work you’re doing here is amazing. Mo, Kai, Zane, etc are nasty, but they are lifelong watermen that surfers view as anomalies. They can lead the charge, but the rest of us have to follow as ambassadors of the sport. That’s my goal every session. (2) Accelerate the individual paddle surfer towards his or her end goal quicker. It may not be the race to the bottom for everyone (it is for me), but rather a race towards where you are going. That could mean tackling a steeper learning curve at my age, or exposing kids when they’re younger. Realistic conversations about individual end goals, equipment, and skills needed to get there will help hasten progression.

    Keep up the amazing work man! Everything you’re doing is on point. Contact me if you’re ever interested in possibly quantifying/analyzing biomechanical and biometric data as a part of the progression project–that’s right in my wheelhouse.

    • Erik -- PaddleWoo

      Thanks for the note and feedback about direction Ryder! My passion is learning and exploring what I love deeply, and that doesn’t start or end with paddle surfing. The switch to PP allows me to bring in more of what I love.

      I am absolutely interested in analyzing biomechanical and biometric data. I was just talking to a UF researcher about that last week. HR and energy output as it relates to volume would be a good one.

      We were just up in Santa Cruz. Loved surfing Pleasure Point. Paddled it the first day that Maverick’s broke around the 15th of Oct. That day was hectic, but did get a few fun sessions earlier in the week. Many breakfast burritos from Hassan.

      About the tribe of surfing. I understand where you’re coming from, but here’s a few things to consider. 1) Surfing all boards is a ton of fun. I don’t understand why surfers don’t try paddle surfing, I also don’t get why paddle surfers wouldn’t want to surf. 2) The best paddle surfers come from surfing. Caio, Gio, Mo… all surfers first. If I wasn’t a surfer first, I wouldn’t be able to paddle surf at my level, and I for sure wouldn’t be able to articulate and coach someone through rail turns. Learning to surf without a paddle won’t hurt your paddle surfing. 3) Surfers control all the best lineups. And while showing respect and assimilating into a beach break will allow you to get a waves and not get hassled, until we’re a part of the surfing tribe we won’t be able to surf the world’s best waves. Or at least those of us with normal talents. 4) Paddle surfing fits more with surfing than flatwater paddling or racing.

      All the best! E

  • Colas

    Interesting topic. Although by reading the title, I thought it was about the changes age bring to one’s paddle surfing. It could be an interesting subject for another post. For instance, in my experience, at 56, I definitely feel that I can reduce the length (had a 6’6″) and volume of my boards (105 liters for my 100kg) nearly as much as younger guys, but width is for me a very different challenge. I can surf a 25″ SUP but it is not fun.

    I suspect that managing short lengths is a matter of paddle technique, low volume is understanding how to place our body weight, but balancing on narrow boards is mainly reflexes. And reflexes seems what degrades the most with aging. I would be interested to know the opinion of others on this.

    Ah, and back to the subject of your post, old monkeys may not learn easily new tricks, but I guess can combine them. I started Windsurfing and Surfing while young, and SUP allowed to me to combine the two: The simplicity of surfing and the closeness to the wave, and the mastering of high volume (fast and powerful) boards while having something in your hands to balance on.

  • Giri

    I am definitely seeing that 50 is not what used to be 50. People still think they are young and that is making them try new things. And seeing some of these guys do new things other people experiencing mid life crisis do try out something new. Guys are living high paying technology jobs and becoming organic farmer or adventure tour guide etc. There is thins massive issue of mid life crisis afflicting modern educated man. People will realize and they will say enough is enough and go after their passion no matter who says what.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: