Glenn Hall couldn’t stop pacing. Last week, during the first semifinal of the Maitland & Port Stephens Toyota Pro at Merewether Beach, two hours North of Sydney, spectators packed the contest area. But Hall was 100 yards up the beach. Alone. Staring out from underneath his black trucker hat and sunglasses, he had his gaze locked on the ocean and surfer Matt Wilkinson. When the commentator called out Wilkinson’s first score, 9.77, Hall pumped his fist. He kept pacing.
“I definitely get more nervous when Wilko is in a heat than when I was surfing in one,” Hall admits.
The last time Hall, 34, donned a rashguard jersey was less than four months ago, during the Billabong Pipeline Masters, when he lost to Adriano De Souza, the eventual world champion, in Round 3. But five days earlier, there had been more on Hall’s mind than his own result and the risk of not re-qualifying for the World Surf League Championship Tour (CT). He was focused on Wilkinson: making sure he had the right board for his Round 2 heat against Adam Melling and consulting which spot on the reef offered the best waves. Hall wasn’t simply offering the advice as Wilkinson’s friend and fellow CT competitor. He was Wilkinson’s coach.
Hall, 35, spent 12 years struggling on World Qualifying Series (QS), before securing a spot on the World Tour for 2013. It took Wilkinson one year to qualify. But after making the tour, Wilkinson failed to parlay his wealth of natural ability into top results. Since 2010, he has been better known for his flamboyant wetsuits, wild (sometimes permed) hair, and an arrest for public intoxication in Newport Beach, California. Each year when the tour arrived for its final stop on Oahu Wilkinson was often on the precipice of relegation to the QS.
Growing up one beachside town apart from Wilkinson in New South Wales, Australia, Hall had seen his “good mate” squander his chances to contend on the tour too often. So during the holidays in 2014, Hall implored Wilkinson the same way he had on several occasions.
“It is time to start achieving what I think you can achieve,” Hall told him. “It’s time to pull it together and finish a year where you look back and are satisfied that you gave it your all.”
This time Wilkinson heeded the advice. He agreed to a somewhat bizarre, but necessary arrangement. He hired Hall.
“I think Glenn Hall is a natural coach,” Ian Cairns, a surf coach and founder of the Association of Surfing Professionals, says. “He has heaps of surfing knowledge and has the ability to be friendly with most people. I’m not sure many other guys could have handled that situation with Wilko.”
Cairns has an appreciation for Hall’s attempt at balancing competition and coaching. In 1981, Cairns’ last year on the World Tour, he assisted Shaun Tomson and received 10% of his winnings. Still, the relationship was fairly informal. Professional surf coaches at the time were nonexistent
“We just surfed,” Peter Townend, the 1976 World Surfing Champion, says of the era. “We coached ourselves.”
That has changed. While surfing is often depicted as an individual pursuit, over the past 10 years, as contest prize money has increased along with an emphasis on training and nutrition, there has also been an influx in surf coaching. Hall cites Mick Fanning and Phil McNamara, who started coaching Fanning when the latter was a teenager, with bringing coaching to the fore in surfing’s top ranks.
“I think Mick was a big part of introducing more professionalism in surfing,” Hall says. “When he came back from his injury [a torn hamstring] and won his first title [in 2007] everyone was pretty amazed. He was so focused and dedicated. It set a new boundary. A lot of people took his preparation and effort into account and it’s snowballed from there.”
Perhaps that’s why several former top pros are in evidence at CT events, albeit on the sand instead of the in the water.
Former World No. 2 Luke Egan helped propel Joel Parkinson to the world title in 2012. Brad Gerlach has coached Conner Coffin during his ascent to the Top 34. Chris Gallagher recently started advising Jordy Smith and will coach him during the CT events in Australia. On the women’s side, Mike Parsons coaches Lakey Peterson on a full-time basis, and Shane Beschen has worked closely with Carissa Moore, the three-time and reigning World Champion. Given the variety and complexity of the surf breaks on the tours, success is often correlated with experience and makes the role of surf coach more akin to Mr. Miyagi than Vince Lombardi.
“It is much more of a subtle job than, say, a football coach where they're yelling and blowing whistles,” Beschen, the High Performance Surf Coach for Red Bull, says. “It's all about building confidence and decision making.”
Those decisions are varied and nuanced. Coaches help select the right board. They help read the conditions and devise a heat strategy. They film their surfers and then review the video footage frame by frame to dissect technique. Although Gallagher lives on Oahu, the geographic separation does not prevent him from coaching the likes of junior phenom Jake Marshall, 17, from Encinitas, Calif. Marshall sends footage to Gallagher via Google Drive that they both assess during Skype share screen sessions.
The obvious shortcoming for surf coaching is the playing field and it’s variables of tide, swell, and wind direction that pose a challenging calculus. Plus, surfers are by themselves sometimes more than 50 yards out in ocean, which prevents direct communication. But that hasn’t stopped some from trying. Filipe Toledo’s father, Ricardo, often motions and whistles his son toward set waves. Michael Ho, the 1982 Pipeline Master, has adopted a more discreet technique. He hangs a towel on a railing of the Volcom house to tip off his son, Mason, when the best waves at Pipeline are approaching.
“There are no rules that say you can’t,” Hall says with a chuckle when asked about in-heat coaching. “As far as I know it is a free-for-all, but most surfers at this level know how to position themselves out in the lineup.”
Says Coffin, “Between Brad and me there’s pretty much no communication during the heat. Trying to grasp advice from someone on the beach would take away from being in the moment and my connection with the ocean.”
Hall and Wilkinson did not have to worry about any separation at the Billabong Pro Jeffreys Bay in South Africa last July. They drew each other in a three-man heat during Round 1. It was the only time they squared off all year. The other opponent?
“We’ve got to smoke this guy,” Wilkinson remembers telling Hall.
Even the best-laid plans can dissolve when you face the 11-time world champ. In less than 10 minutes, Slater scored two eight-point rides. After the latter, an 8.83, Hall paddled over to Wilkinson. He didn’t offer any advice. They both laughed.
“We got flogged,” Wilkinson says.
But with Hall in his corner, that result has become more of a rarity for Wilkinson. He stayed just outside the top 10 for most of the year and finished ranked 18th, the best result of his career. And although Hall was hampered by a back injury and failed to re-qualify, his experience with Wilkinson has paved the way for his new career path. This year he will coach Wilkinson and Owen Wright on the men’s side, along with Owen’s sister and former World No. 2, Tyler Wright, and Laura Enever on the women’s CT.
“I hope coaching can be a long term career,” Hall says.
Now, back in Australia for the Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast of Australia and another CT campaign, Wilkinson and Hall still surf heats against each other—for practice. Sometimes they’ll compete to see who can catch more waves in 30 minutes, but each ride has to score above three points. Wilkinson says Hall’s a fair judge. Wilkinson has also added a training regimen from his friend and Australian professional rugby league footballer, Chris Heighington, of cardio and core workouts five times a week
“I definitely feel stronger,” says Wilkinson. “Working [in the gym] also keeps me psyched to go surf.”
Although Wilkinson hasn’t cast off his eccentricities (he wore a cowboy hat and bowtie to the WSL awards ceremony this week), his surfing is drawing more attention than his attire. He won his Round 1 heat of the Quiksilver Pro against Slater and Coffin. In the semifinal of the Toyota Pro at Merewether, a QS 6000 event that many CT pros use as a warm up for the Quiksilver Pro, Wilkinson followed the 9.77 with a 9.67 and trounced Matt Banting. That momentum carried into the final. Wilkinson secured two scores in the excellent range and defeated Leonardo Fioravanti (17.83 to 13.33).
It was Wilkinson’s first event win since 2012. He earned $20,000. After the last horn sounded, a crowd swarmed the shoreline. Hall was among them. Although Wilkinson received the praise, Hall says he was even more excited than for his own victory at the same contest in 2010.
In his new role, Hall gains satisfaction from lifting other surfers to greater heights. In this instance, that assistance was literal. Hall propped Wilkinson onto his left shoulder and helped chair him up the beach.