As Alan Stokes prepared to jet off to Costa Rica for his inaugural winter retreat, we sat down with him and asked him to reflect on the lessons learned from his career so far.
Interestingly a large part of the discussion centred around his recent adoption of an approach to wave riding which has been flourishing on the fringes of professional surfing for many years but has only recently started to gain popularity among high performance pros.
Simply put, it’s centres around selecting the type of surf craft and fin set up that will allow for the most fun in any given conditions. To recreational surfers, and longboarders in particular, it seems entirely intuitive and even obvious, however, as Alan describes, many high performance surfers were slow to adopt it.
The reasons for this reluctance stem from the fact many pros felt they had to pursue high performance manoeuvre’s in all conditions to train for competitions, which at low levels are invariably held in conditions fairly unsuited to shortboarding and to produce the kind of content people wanted to see.
However, times have changed on both fronts, regional competitions have become far less important and surf fans get just as excited by flow, and style as they do by high performance aggression, opening up a whole new world of opportunity for creative exploration for established and aspiring pros alike.
Alongside these topics Stokesy talks motivation, longevity and ponders the the socially constructed nature of time:
After so long surfing professionally, what motivates you most now to get out and surf and has it changed over the course of your career?
I learnt to surf when I was 6 years old and have been surfing professionally since a few years before I left school. I remember my school teachers were really understanding with all the travel and competition I was doing.
I was never that switched on in school always thinking about waves and tide times or a particular turn or trick I was working on. In all honesty I found the educational system to be dull and outdated. The teachers were expected to teach a certain curriculum that put everything into a neat little box leaving them teaching in a way that was unexciting and uninspiring.
I know now that I really only pay attention to things that I’m really passionate about and automatically make more space for these pursuits by switching off from things that hold no significance at the time.
Today with the internet and the ability to research and cross reference any subject, kids are in an amazing position to switch themselves on to anything that interests them. With hard work and dedication the potential to become experts at a faster rate is very real.
It has been extremely liberating for me and discovering different surfboards like twin fins, longboards and hydrofoils only adds more passion to the pursuit of wave riding.
Today, after over 20 years surfing professionally passion is my motivation. Passion for simply riding a wave. Some days I might be passionate about trying to land a bigger air and then the next day it might just be passion for feeling glide on my longboard or that crazy sensation when hovering on a hydrofoil.
There are so many ways to enjoy wave riding or just being in the ocean that I have learnt to just let the conditions on the day dictate my passion.
When I was younger I would get frustrated trying to surf a certain way, when really the waves and conditions that day were not suitable for that kind of surfing. Now I know no matter what the surf is doing, I can have loads of fun if I keep an open mind and choose the right equipment, or maybe just go for a swim and bodysurf.
It has has been extremely liberating for me and discovering different surfboards like twin fins, longboards and hydrofoils only adds more passion to the pursuit of wave riding.
Having such a one track mindset and always trying to be progressive in some way or another, because I wanted to be considered the best, was great at the time and allowed me to analyse my surfing and be extremely detailed about my approach. To some extent I felt like I came close to mastering the art of riding a wave and surfboard but it was only one board and that started to play on my mind. Something eventually had to give.
I realised that all the training, competition and my hunger to keep winning was starting to affect what surfing was to me. There was no balance, constantly pushing, not wanting to be pulled, I was starting to loose the very reason I surfed.
Luckily for me at the same time surfing started to change and online content became king.
As a sponsored athlete brands always wanted more visibility understandably, and this only fuelled the change. Suddenly surfing events in average conditions, trying to generate enough speed to do a half decent turn and comp results had something else to be measured against and it was clear that video and photos of perfect waves or crazy rotations would be the new measuring stick.
For me it opened up all this creativity, I could now picture exactly what I wanted to do and go and do it, I wasn’t restricted to heat times or rules, I was still competitive but now it felt better, I was solely being competitive with myself.
At this point I’ve learnt through all of this that I’m just extremely passionate about simply moving. Pushing myself physically through stressful barriers, whether it is in the surf, in the gym, out on my bike or on my paddle board creates the opposite of stress; calmness, clarity and an overall feeling of existence on a greater level.
Having been extremely active my whole life I can only describe it as some kind of active meditation, after only having become aware of this state as an adult and trying to pin point what I was feeling. I can only theorise that as kids we are in this active meditative state a lot of the time, but as we grow into adults suddenly we process all this information and start labelling our thoughts and emotions.
What have been the moments or achievements you’re most proud of?
I guess there are so many moments I am proud of to some extent, winning at an event or landing a particular trick but it’s hard to pick just one. I suppose I would just say that I’m proud to say that I don’t give up, to me that feels like the biggest achievement, if you want to label it that, and I chase that feeling everyday.
I know that as long as I’m driven by passion I will be very happy and achievements are just a byproduct of that mental and physical state.
Is there anything you’d like to go back and do again if you had the chance?
Not a chance, I have learnt a great deal from my past, I try not to look too much over my shoulder at the past, although it is hard not to. It’s human nature but I do know that the lessons I have learnt only serve me well today and that’s exciting.
I love this quote from Albert Einstein “The distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” What Einstein is saying is that the past and future have no actual reality passed our memories and what we predict may happen in the future.
It is a trick, we think in linear flows, one thought follows another thought. Even the social construct of time reflects this linear flow, one minute follows another minute, leaving us feeling like there is a past, present and future, the persistent illusion. The art of meditation and activities that require a lot of concentration like surfing, can, with practice, silence this linear flow of thought and our perception of linear time, leaving us experiencing and seated in what Einstein theorised as a single existence or a timeless now.
What’s your advice for up and coming groms to have as long a career as you have?
My first piece of advice would be to learn about your body and mind, become aware of it and how it feels always. Treat it as the most important thing you have. What you are is what you eat so eat smart. Stretch like a cat and train to increase strength through dynamic movement whilst maintaining flexibility.
My advice for any one young or old would be to live your life through passion. If you’re not sure what you are passionate about then you have to explore things that you are naturally drawn to, that you enjoy.
If it is surfing and you are really passionate about it, dive a little deeper, really immerse yourself in it, live, eat, and breath it. Without you even knowing it, your goals and ambitions will carry you and with practice and dedication the rest will naturally fall into place.
If you want to join Alan in the playful beachies of Costa Rica this February for a week of surf coaching, yoga and cold beers click the link.