For various reasons, not all of them to do with me being crap, I have been to a remarkable number of beginner surfing lessons and I now consider myself somewhat of an expert on surf schools. There is huge variety in the quality of the teaching and in the information given not only between different schools, but between different instructors at the same school. I also suspect there’s a national variation, between surf schools in France (I’ve tried 2, watched 1) and the schools in England and Wales (tried 3).
In France we found our lessons had a large emphasis on safety, with a long talk on the beach about how to tell if a beach is safe, how to read the waves, how to escape from rip currents and so forth. We were all given a warm up on the beach before we went in the sea, and I saw surfers openly warming up on the beach before heading out to the waves. In terms of style of surfing, the French lessons went straight for the ‘correct’ technique, teaching us to pop-up on the board, from a lying position to standing in one smooth movement involving a lot of upper body strength. I was incapable of it, not having the strength in my arms, but I went away and did push ups for a while and was able to get it the next time I tried a few months later. The French school also taught us about waves, and which bit of the wave to catch, and why.
In the UK, the emphasis is on ease and quick thrills. There is little idea that you might be taking up surfing as a sport in any serious way, and little information is given that will help you if or when you go out alone. The safety talks vary widely between instructors, but are usually kept to basic information about hand signals from the instructor (which can also vary between instructors) and a little bit about how to get out of rip currents. Nothing about how to read a beach or the waves. There is no warm up given at all, and you rarely see surfers in the UK warming up on the beach before they hit the waves. No information is given about where to catch a wave, because you’re encouraged to catch the white water after the wave has broken, which also reduces the need to know about paddling properly. In learning how to stand up, most instructors tell you first to get to your knees, then to swing through one leg between your arms in front of you on the board, then to twist and stand. This multi-step process is significantly easier than a pop-up if you have little upper body strength, but can make it hard to then get to the point of one smooth movement for pop-ups if you want to progress. Once you’re past the first beginner stages some UK instructors are seemingly incapable of giving more advanced tips. This is a shame as there is a lot to be learnt while you’re catching easy waves, not least about paddling technique and where to catch a wave and how to stand correctly on the board. Good instructors will manage to tell you this.
So, why the huge variation? I think the difference is down to a expectations about what the students are going to do with the knowledge from the lessons. In France they assume you take a lesson because you want to learn to surf, in the UK they assume you take a lesson because you might wanna give it a go. These expectations lead to different teaching styles and attitudes towards the people taking the lessons. If the French technique could accommodate weak women and get them standing, it would be pretty darn near perfect. The UK approach, with it’s lack of emphasis on safety, preparation and proper technique is letting down not only the beginners, but also the better surfers who find increasing numbers of ill-informed, dangerous beginners joining them in the water.