With surfing’s debut at next year’s Tokyo Olympics looming large we discussed the high-performance challenges and training pathways of the sport in Australia with Surfing Australia’s High Performance Director Kim Crane.
An ex-Australian Women’s Hockey Team representative with a varied career in leadership, sports administration and high performance, she moved into the role at Surfing Australia in 2017. Upon taking on the position she saw a major opportunity that the sport has in Australia through Olympic participation, and that is a chance to boost developmental and performance pathways in the country.
On face value it seems an odd fit between high performance and surfing where surfing is a sport that is deeply cultural, instinctive and individually driven. How do you bring the two together?
Kim Crane: “I think there’s a bit of a misconception out there in the sense that people see surfing as only a lifestyle sport and therefore not typically high performance in its focus. Whilst this is fundamentally true there are many similarities to high performance sports across the board.
“The purpose of our high-performance program at Surfing Australia is to support Australian athletes to become the world’s best surfers and people. I’ve reflected often on the fact that I think it’s a strong point-of-difference for surfing that our high performance landscape is actually played out in the environment, and at the grassroots or core level it is a lifestyle sport because you see that reflecting back at you when you understand and get to know the individual athletes themselves; they’re self-aware values based characters, who are authentic and have such a deep appreciation for their sport and for the people in it. I see a real joy that naturally flows from that which is delightful and infectious to be around.
“Every athlete has highs and lows, but I think that intrinsic platform that the sport is built on, allows them to transition with conviction through the challenges that we expect in a typical high-performance journey.
“We support our athletes by providing a framework for planning and preparing for performance, trusting that we can facilitate solutions that lead to marginal gains that can give them a competitive edge.”
How does surfing’s inclusion at the Olympics next year impact the sport in this country?
KC: “The decision to include surfing into the Olympics certainly put the microscope on how we’re working, where can we improve, what different types of expertise we’d need in our program, what we can do to add value to campaigns and will our athletes be ready.”
Considering your athletic background and your post-athletic career, how do you foster a team culture in a sport that is individualised?
KC: “I think it’s a part of the role I’ve enjoyed the most. My background has been in team sport and I was lucky to come through in an era where I was coached by people like Ric Charlesworth who taught me a lot on how to build effective high-performance teams.
“You’re right in that the challenge that we have with surfing is that our athletes are operating as individuals who compete against each other on the world stage.
“The Olympics simply acted as a catalyst for us to build meaningful relationships with our athletes and to get people together in the context of a team. We’ve invested a lot of time to build trust with each other so we can mutually share insights and knowledge for the greater good, not just for the individual. I can proudly say we’ve made significant inroads around that but as you know when you’re building relationships inside a sport as large as surfing that has a rich history and so many stakeholders, trust takes time, and not for one second am I thinking that we’re totally there yet. Change is confronting for some and it needs to be managed carefully with empathy and understanding.”
Surfing has no consistent conditions so if training is done in controlled conditions – wave pools, indoor environments – how do you replicate natural conditions in a controlled high-performance environment?
KC: “The challenge we have in our ‘competitive field of play,’ if you break down the 11 events on the World Tour, is each event is fundamentally played out in a different wave profile. To learn how to train for those different wave profiles is difficult and takes years embedding yourself in different environments.
“What we’re finding when our athletes come through the talent pathway, a part of our role is to facilitate almost a generalist type approach when we support their technical competencies so it can be applied to a lot of different wave profiles when they present themselves. Do athletes have both the fundamental basic and innovative surfing skills that they will need? Controlled environments like what we see in facilities like Surfing Australia’s High Performance Centre and different wave pool technologies certainly speed the skill acquisition process up and we have evidence of this already.
“It is difficult, it takes a certain sophistication and being mindful of monitoring load or over-training. We’re also reflecting constantly on how much competition is too much versus allocating time for skill development. What we’ve found in our sport is that one of the complex challenges we have is there is actually a saturation of competition options. It’s tricky to navigate, particularly in a professional sport where there’s a lot of opportunities to build a profile and generate income.”
Describe the sport science and athlete performance aspects that has crossed over to surfing?
KC: “I can only speak from the perspective of Surfing Australia’s high-performance program. Sport science is having a much stronger presence and wider reach in the sport; we’re connecting with the performance support providers, we’re e introducing systems and processes for being able to plan and prepare together, measure training loads, and ensure service experts are working effectively together whilst understanding what principles have an impact and which ones don’t. It would be fair to acknowledge that surfing is still in its early stages in its development of high performance but don’t be fooled, it is the athletes themselves that are driving the appetite for deeper knowledge and expertise.
“If you compare surfing to sports like rowing, swimming or track and field we’re quite young, still on a steep learning curve. That is both an advantage and disadvantage in a sense that hopefully what I’ve been able to bring with some of the staff we’ve recruited into the program who have worked in other sports, is we know what best practice looks like and are able to to adapt and tailor that to surfing in a way that is fresh and evolutionary.”
Has Surfing Australia begun modelling its athlete pathways on other sports?
KC: “The ones that we’re modelling and duplicating ourselves on, and the one I hold as the shining light example, is winter sports. We have strong relationships and work closely with the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia, and Ski & Snowboard Australia, because essentially there is a creativity in the disciplines, art form and sports cultures that are very similar. I want to be able to protect and nurture surfing’s unique culture but at the same time learn from winter sports around how they actually put some of these systems and processes in place to build the capability of their sport.”
Take the medals away, what do you hope the first Olympics experience brings to surfing, and what does success look like?
KC: “It’s really important to recognise this is a first for our sport, so success for me actually looks like over the course of the journey being able to look in the mirror and honestly say did we support our athletes who will be selected to be ready to perform, in what is a very unique environment – yes it is just another competition for them – but the nature of an Olympic Games is it will be unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before.
“We’ve got some challenges with Tokyo, the surfing precinct itself is an hour and a half outside of Tokyo. We’ve chosen to set up a sub-site where we’ll be located during the course of the competition and part of our role is to make sure that the athletes from a performance perspective are in an environment that is conducive to allowing them to be the best that they can be.
“As high profile athletes they understand that comes with some expectation from the public and from the system but collectively we’re comfortable and experienced in dealing with that, so we acknowledge it, yes, but at the end of the day I simply want to simplify the process so they’re comfortable and ready. If we are able to look each other in the eyes and say we were the best planned, the best prepared then essentially the performance will take care of itself and that to me is success.”
Interested in hearing more about High Performance? Kim Crane will be a panelist at the ‘Sports High Performance’ session at the upcoming Australia Sports Tech World Series in Melbourne on Friday 23rd August.
Final tickets are selling fast, and you can save 10% with the promo code Bullpen10.