The Neuroscience of Surf is a series exploring mental mechanics that surfers employ, from how the brain reads waves to the brain’s role in one of John John Florence’s signature alley-oops.
Story Highlights:
Your first instinct when surfing poorly is to outwardly show disappointment.
This adds tension to your muscles, which limits performance.
Forcing a smile tricks your brain into releasing endorphins and neurotransmitters.
These endorphins and neurochemicals reduce tension and keep muscles loose, increasing the probability that you will actually nail the next wave instead of continuing to bobble. 
“You know what’s weird about surfing? It really weighs so heavy on you when you lose a heat. And guess what? There’s only gonna be one winner in every event, so everyone’s worried about that heat they lost. And it can weigh you down. So you need to be fresh, you need to feel young again.” – Ross Williams, at the Moche Rip Curl Pro in Peniche while commentating on the Jordy Smith-John John Florence heat in the semifinals.
The commentary by Ross Williams during the Rip Curl Pro is spot on, but it’s not just relevant for pros and for losing or winning heats.Sometimes, no matter what you do, you’re just out of sync with the ocean — doesn’t matter if you’re a pro or a beginner. So how do you prevent it from weighing you down? Our immediate response is to let everyone know that we’re disappointed in ourselves, with a frown, body language, or even verbal cues. And while it might be nice to let the frustration out, this is a horrible tactic. Instead, forcing a smile may take that weight off your shoulders and instill a new fire in your paddle and in your turns. In fact, there is empirical evidence showing that smiling (instead of the typical discouraged response) can trick your brain and potentially reset your whole session by releasing neurochemicals that reduce tension.
Sure, flashing a genuine smile is hard when you don’t want to smile. But the cool part is that the brain doesn’t really care whether it was hard or easy to smile; a forced smile is still a smile, so much so that it will do the trick and get you back on track. And this isn’t anything new. Giants in science like Charles Darwin and William James have speculated about this since the 1850s. Since then, classic and recent psychology experiments have quantified this phenomenon (see Further reading for details). For example, scientists had participants hold pens or chopsticks between their teeth, which unbeknownst to the participants, forced their mouths into a smile. Participants reported being happier with forced smiles than other manipulations, though they didn’t know why. This is because the brain hates inconsistency. It likes your internal state and external appearance to match. So, if you flash an outward smile, it wonders why; and thereby releases endorphins and neurotransmitters to support this curved facial movement.
These neurotransmitters and endorphins are the same ones that are associated with genuine happiness, which reduces stress and relieves tension in muscles. Reduced tension means better paddling, greater endurance, and increased flexibility to push your turns a littler harder and a little further. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s the pro surfers having fun in heats that generally walk away the winner. Likewise, it’s the pros that stop worrying about strategy and instead focus on enjoying their sessions — competitive or otherwise — who turn their year around. Don’t believe me? Think about Kolohe Andino and Jordy Smith’s breakthrough performances this year; they have been recorded admitting that their loose-ness is a major reason why they’re surfing better.
On the flipside, it should also be of no surprise that the pros throwing tantrums and splashing water in a show of disappointment are the ones that tend to lose heats. Granted, the first instinct during a rough go is to become aggressive in the line-up, to frown, and to show everyone that you’re annoyed with yourself. But if you really want to make the most of your paddle out, try overriding that instinct and simply force a smile.
And what’s the worst thing that could happen? Maybe you force a smile and continue to surf poorly in your session or in your heat. But you would have surfed poorly anyway with all that cortisol bathing your system from your stress-induced outward show of disappointment. The best thing that could happen? You start feeling better from the brain out — and surfing better because of it!
Be sure to catch up on all the installments in the series, including the first one — The Neuroscience of Surf: How Your Brain Reads Waves.
Suggested Reading:
Adelmann & Zajonc (1989). Facial efference and the experience of emotion. Annual Reviews of Psychology. 40:249-280.
Davis, Senghas, & Ochsner (2009). How does facial feedback modulate emotional experience. Journal of Research in Personality. 43(5): 822-829.
Strack, Martin, & Stepper (1988). Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54(5): 768-777.