3 Things Surfing Taught Me About Karate


I’m looking around, trying desperately to see who this girl is yelling and pointing at.

“Stay the f**k away from me!”


She was talking to me.

And that’s how my day began, word-for-word, as some crazy surfer girl tried to scare me away from “her waves” this morning at beautiful Waikiki Beach in Honolulu.

(Yeah bro, I’m in Hawaii. Didn’t I tell you?)

Surfing is hard.

And drama queens don’t make it easier.

But I’m trying to learn.

If you haven’t been to Hawaii before, let me tell you something: It’s basically a mix between Okinawa, California and Thailand. Both culturally, socio-economically and gastronomically.

In my first week I’ve already been cursed out by this crazy surfer girl, roundhouse kicked in the leg by a Polynesian thug on the street, approached by a… uhm… “geisha”, split a bottle of Japanese rice wine with three gay guys at an all-garlic restaurant (long story), learned Karate from world champion George Kotaka, overheard several convos between drug dealers (“Watch out, five-o creepin.”), met MMA legend BJ Penn at his gym, got pulled over by the cops, snorkeled with gigantic turtles at a black volcano sand beach, stargazed from the world’s highest mountain (Mauna Kea), eaten amazing food (brown rice sushi!), seen Hawaii’s tallest waterfall and much more.

And I’ve only been here a week!

But I digress.

Now back to today’s topic.


Or, more specifically, what my journey as a beginner in the art of surfing can teach you about the art of Karate – straight from the action-packed beaches of Hawaii.

I’ll keep it brief, so read carefully:

#1: No swim? No surf.

The first thing any surfer needs to do is swim.

A lot.

In order to get out to the sweet spot, where the big waves form and you can actually start surfing, you need to lie down on your board and swim like a mofo – against the frickin’ waves.

  • Yes, you will swallow gallons of water.
  • Yes, you will flip over.
  • Yes, your shoulders will ache.
  • (And yes, you might even get run over by other surfers.)

But that’s the price you pay to get to the waves and finally surf.

Just like Karate.

See, before you can truly enjoy the thrills of challenging your physical and mental capabilities in Karate – whether at a grading, tournament, friendly sparring or even the notorious street – you have to put the hours in at the dojo. Thousands of them. You have to go through the struggle of swimming against the waves in order to effortlessly ride them later on.

Because nothing in Karate comes free.


The price?

Training, training and more training. Swimming, swimming and more swimming.

Against the waves.

Against yourself.

Against your opponent.

The cost? As high as you’re willing to go. As hard as you’re capable of pushing. As far as you’re willing to swim. You pay with blood, sweat, tears, and the occasional bruise. The occasional splash of salt water in your eye. The occasional kick to your ribs, and blow to your ego.

It will hurt, and it will take time. And there’s no escaping it. You might not have signed up for it, but it’s part of being a Karate-ka.


Is it worth it?

There’s only one way to find out.

Swim, bro.

(Surfers say “bro” all the time.)

#2: Forget the “perfect” wave. Perfect is now.


You’ve managed to swim all the way out to the calm spot where all the beach boys float around on their boards. Great. You’ll be doing that about a million more times, but for now, feel free to give yourself a pat on the back. You’re awesome.

Now you wait.

And wait.

And wait.

For the perfect wave.

Waves come. Waves go. Some people decide to go, some decide to stay. But after a while, you notice that everybody are gone. They surfed! And you’re all alone.

Because you just sat there, hoping, wishing, waiting for the perfect wave to come and gloriously schwoosh you to the beach like a boss.

Newsflash, bro:

It’s not going to happen.

Just like in Karate.

The only perfect wave is right here, right now.

See, when you tell yourself that you’re going to do a “perfect” kick, score a “perfect” point, do a “perfect” kata, or tie your belt in a “perfect” knot; you’re subconsciously putting so much pressure on yourself that you’re unknowingly setting yourself up for failure before you’ve even begun.

Indeed, you can literally wait forever for that “perfect” moment to catch your opponent off guard and nail a “perfect” counter – but more likely you’ll get nailed fifteen times yourself in the process – with “barely perfect” techniques from your opponent.

In fact, most of the time, “perfect” will take you nowhere.

Except to Disappointmentville.

So seize opportunities. All of ’em. No matter how small, insignificant or imperfect they may seem at first. It’s easier to say “bro, that wave was perfect!” in hindsight, rather than saying “bro, I’m gonna surf the perfect wave now!” in foresight.

Karate was made to be used right here, right now.

True perfection always happens in the moment, and should be considered a gift.

That’s why it’s called the “present”.

(Cheesy, I know.)

#3: You shouldn’t ride every wave.


Catching waves is a skill.

But catching the right wave is a whole other skill.

If you want to get the most of your surfing experience, you’d better choose your waves wisely, bro.

See, you need to surf waves that are just outside of your comfort zone, but not too far in your danger zone. Waves that are big enough to literally lift you higher and take you further – but small enough to not crash down on you.

You need waves that fit your skill level.

Just like in Karate.

There are far too many people around the world who spend their precious dojo time going through the same motions with the same partners with the same mindset – week in and week out – like zombies. They never consider dipping their toes outside of their comfort zone. Because, quite frankly, many of them are afraid of progress (and the consequences it brings).

But as sensei Einstein once so famously told us:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting progress.”

(By this definition, many Karate people are insane.)

Small waves won’t elevate you.

Big waves won’t either.

Thus, one of the most important tasks facing any surfer who enters the beach – any Karate-ka who enters the dojo – lies in identifying which waves – which battles – are worthy of choosing today.

Nobody says they have to be bigger than yesterday’s, or bigger than somebody else’s.

They just have to be big enough for you – today.


And that’s three lesson surfing taugh me about Karate, in my first week on Hawaii.

Hopefully it taught you something too.

I’m off to climb a big-ass volcano now.

Wish me luck, bro.



  • Brad Weston
    Nice analogy bro! Always nice to read your posts...especially this one. As an ex casual surfer and lifelong Karateka I can relate, in more ways than one, to this post! (In Aus we used to say "brah" instead of "bro") Always a pleasure!
    • Awesome Bra(h)d-san!
  • Manuel
    great article Jesse as always! =) I especially like the third lesson, I'm a huge fan of "no-extremes" "bring balance to everything" approach. (actually the "huge" adjective is an extreme but never mind that) =P
  • Steve
    Mount Everest is the world's highest mountain. Mauna Kea when measured from its oceanic base is more than twice Mount Everest's height but technically it is not the highest mountain in the world. Unless of course you have been introduced to that other past time Surfers in Hawaii enjoy and felt incredibly high on a mountain ; )
    • Manuel
      But the Chimborazo is the farthest spot from the centre of the Earth, if we continue on this trend we might be listing all the *maximum points of the planet! hahaha!" =P
      • Well, yeah, I guess everybody wants to be the best/highest/most popular nowadays :)
    • I have indeed noticed this "other" pastime you speak of, Steve-san! :)
  • Erik
    Thanks for sharing. I lived in Hawaii for three years and it was fantastic. So true on the surfing. It's hard. It's like riding a bicycle and I never could get it right for the reason you say...practice. I left after 3 years still on training wheels. If you are still on Oahu, ask about the stairway to heaven hike on the Windward side. It's daring but awesome for average hikers. May be closed now though due to safety. Enjoy your trip!
    • Erik-san: I drove past the stairway to heaven... and kept on driving :)
  • Greetings from Hermanus...the world,s best land based whale viewing site The one new goal i set for myself is to learn to surf,and given the fact that our bay is home to THE GREAT WHITE SHARK ,a certain amount of tension and drama is par for the course But I acquired the wetsuit,surf board,wax etc and duly set off to the local surf spot for my 1st encounter And like karate...where I could not even manage 1 simple push up during my 1st lesson,the mystery of surfing was slowly introduced by some smart kids,who were clearly pros? The task of getting on the board and balancing was somewhat challenging,but dusted within a day Paddling out to the gathering behind the waves proved most arduous , and despite being in peak karate condition,this task had me beat ,but the secret is to keep at it After much effort,and gallons of swallowed sea water and many dumps in waves,I had to take a break for winter However,come October,I hope to employ a professional teacher to take me to the next level Surfing and karate ,and living by the sea is awesome
  • Greg
    Sounds like ur having fun! Very eventful time tho......! Thank you for a really interesting and inspiring insight again into the reason I pursue this sometimes rollercoaster of a martial art. Have fun Bro! ;)
  • Richard Kimura
    Aloha, Jesse Glad to read you are having a bang up (literally) time here on the islands! (^^) Make sure to stop by Waimea Bay and jump off "Da Rock", at least that's what we called in back in 1964. Oh, and pick up some ono (delicious) apple pie at Sunnyside Drive-in in Wahiawa, my old home town. My buddy visiting was also yelled at by local surfers, so "no big thing". Gahahahaha
    • I checked the rock out, Richard-san. Next step is jumping! :)
  • Great post, brah! Those are some good points, for both surfing & karate. Hawaii has got "da best" waves; I really miss the beaches there. The ten years I lived there was where I got my first karate training, and my intro to boogie boarding. No need for a wetsuit!
    • Not to mention, "da best" spicy ahi poke, William-san! :)
  • Mark A
    Living on or very near Cocoa Beach (Hometown of the best surfer who ever lived - Kelly Slater) my entire life, I have surfed for the majority of it. Jesse, we do not call it swimming, we call it paddling. You certainly took away some good lessons from your experience. Now, what you need to understand, is that we have an etiquette, much like karate. Just as there is a pecking order of sorts in the dojo. There is a pecking order in the lineup. Failing to establish priority, and wave hogging are good ways to get others pissed off. And your positioning determines whether or not you should paddle for a wave. Failure to observe it, can result in you "dropping in on" or "snaking" another surfer. That is undoubtedly why the girl got angry with you. You were interfering with her due to your ignorance of etiquette. So she was within her rights to call you out for it. However, given you were at a highly popular tourist beach, she damned well knew that you did not know. She could have, and should have, taken a minute of her time, to inform you of why your actions were considered rude and disrespectful. The same way you inform a n00b in your dojo, if their ignorance results in rude and/or disrespectful actions. Instead of yelling at them or laying a beatdown on them for it (running you over). She displayed "bad budo". Many of us are not like that, and are closer to the laid back attitude surfers are often stereotyped as. When I see n00bs in the lineup, I treat them like kohai. If they allow me to of course. If they choose to "beard the lion in his own den" they are on their own.. If they are receptive I explain a few things to them, help them with the fundamentals of body positioning for paddling and sitting the board, and even call out when they should paddle for a wave. Then woot! for them if they get picked up. If one cuts me off or something, I explain why it was a dick move. If they fail to heed the advice I will run them over next time. Just running you over without telling what you are doing wrong first, is back to them being aggressive and angry people. Which is something I have never understood about the Hawaiian islands. They live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, and yet there are droves of angry, hostile, people, that fight at the drop of the proverbial hat. Cobra Kai surf club FTL? Anyhow, if you ever find yourself in Central Florida, shoot me an e-mail. I have an extra longboard, and we can hit it if there is any surf while you are here. Fall and Spring, the weather is excellent and the waves are more consistent than summer, when it is very hot, humid, and often flat. Hang loose!
    • Mark-san, thanks for chiming in and shedding some light on the surf culture for me. I appreciate your wisdom in the art of surfing and I'll definitely keep your offer in mind!
    • Jay yu
      Great perspective on the etiquette of surfing. I must add on the perspectives from the locals point of view. I agree on with you on what the person possibly should do in the case of someone cutting them off. There should be some form of courtesy especially since this is Hawaii. But, from another perspective the locals get cut off all the time from tourists and people unfamiliar with surfing etiquette . There are hundreds of visitors at the beach that are either ignorant or are unfamiliar with our customs here. So the locals experience that behavior possibly hundreds of times a year. Hawaii also is ever shrinking in space so the tourists are seen as unwelcome to many who have been living here for a long time. The waves and beaches are seen as valuable commodities here in in an ever shrinking Hawaii. I myself would most likely not be very nice if this was to happen on a daily basis over the years. Even if this was a "tourist" beach I can understand why the girl got angry. The issue is quite complex with cultural undertones clashing. Hawaii is a very unique place with melding together. Sometimes what may be black and white on the mainland may be different shades of grey here. I do agree with your idea of the beach as a dojo. Great analogy!
  • Szilard
    And this is how karate (and surfing) is similar to marriage. :)
    • Hah! I'll keep that in mind Szilard-san ;)
  • Jack M
    As usually awesome as your insights are Jesse, I'm afraid I still have to call you a lucky bastard for being able to just go to Hawaii while I am stuck in rainy England, not even able to train kata in the garden because it's too rainy and nursing a bruised toe from accidentally kicking a cabinet. Lucky Bastard.
    • My pleasure, Jack-san! :)
  • Thank you very much for your wonderful article Jesse. Surfing is awesome!
  • Jay yu
    I hope you had a great time here! There are many of the oldest dojos outside of Japan here in Hawaii. Many of them are unique to Hawaii also. If you are still in Hilo you should email me!! Laters!!

Leave a comment