Pit Crew: Training a Big Wave Champ

Robert Garcia seems to have the Midas touch: He trained Sunny Garcia (HAW) in 1998 when he won the World Title, as well as Andy Irons (HAW) and Kelly Slater (USA) during their Title years. All in all, he counts 17 world champions among his clients in five different sports.

But sports aren't his only milieu: Before Garcia stopped by the World Surf League (WSL) HQ to chat, he spent day teaching actor Liev Schreiber how to box for the Showtime series Ray Donovan. His latest off-screen success is with Big Wave Champion Hawaiian Makuakai Rothman. As the 2015/2015 Big Wave Tour season kicks off with the Quiksilver Ceremonial holding period, Garcia opened up about the fighter within all of his high-performance athletes.

Training a Champ
Makuakai Rothman trains with Robert Garcia as he pursues his goal of big wave glory. Film by Etienne Aurelius.

World Surf League: Did you ever pursue a career in surfing?
Robert Garcia: I grew up surfing on Hawaii. I competed in NSSA competitions but I never had the talent or the drive to get on the [Championship] Tour and turn pro. I'm capable in big waves but I went the educational route. I went to San Diego State and the C.H.E.K. Institute to learn about high-performance training and started applying that to boxing.

WSL: How did you get from boxing back to surfing?
RG: From the time I started surfing, I noticed we've been at a loss for land-based preparation. You can get great surfers like Mark Occhilupo, Tom Carroll, Sunny Garcia and Gary Elkerton and they'll know what they're supposed to do when the waves are good, what boards to ride, how long to surf for, if they're getting ready for a competition in a certain type of wave where to go practice. All of a sudden you go on land and wonder how do I make best use of my time. That's been a big pressure for surfers.

During the early part of the Kelly Slater era with Shane Beschen, yoga was the way to go. But early on Tom Carroll got fit but he never surfed better. He looked better but it didn't really improve his performance. You can always get more fit and you could look more fit but for a surfer, they're really seeking high performance. As I started applying some of the drills I found there was a great crossover between boxing and surfing.

WSL: When did you start coaching?
RG: I started training boxers in 1995. I've known Sunny Garcia since we were kids and I kept telling him he needed to start training. I started working with him in 1998 and by the time we got to Brazil he had clinched the World Title and we knew we were on to something. He had gone from coming close every year to winning it all with just that little bit of organization and planning. That same year, Noah Johnson had no money and I trained him and he won the Eddie. So I was really on a roll and that's when I realized there's a science to every type of preparation.

After months of boxing, even if you never throw a punch or spar, you have an aura of confidence.

WSL: So where is there crossover?
RG: The blanket boxing provides as a crossover is timing, balance, rhythm and speed. A fighter is built sort of like a surfer: They're wired and strong, they have good endurance, they use their upper body most of the time. Just like a fighter is throwing punches, a surfer is paddling most of the time. The most crucial part is the jumping up. Once he gets to his feet he can set the whole wave up. You can execute a perfect turn but if you execute it in the wrong part of the wave it looks wrong. You become an artist out there on the wave.

WSL: How long does it take to train a pro surfer?
RG: The first thing you have to understand is that high-performance athletes gravitate to a certain style of training and you have to apply it. If you're a basketball player I can teach you to jump really high if but now you have to integrate it. So, you have to adjust your shot because now you're shooting from a different angle. So these guys are getting all this flexibility and strength then they have to transition it onto the surfboard and it takes four or five months to integrate everything.

Probably the most important thing is that when you start boxing after a while it brings out the warrior spirit. Everyone has the warrior spirit. Sometimes it's very quiet and docile and sometimes, if you're like Sunny it just comes out all the time. Surfing is more man-on-man than it's ever been before so you need a feeling of confidence. With surfers you go out there and you'll see someone get into position and just sort of let the heat slip away because sometimes they're not as aggressive as they should be. After months of boxing, even if you never throw a punch or spar, you have an aura of confidence.

WSL: Do you have an overall philosophy when it comes to training?
RG: My philosophy is to train the complete person. It's hard for you to separate spirituality, physicality, being in shape, and your mind and intelligence because they're all tied into you. The ultimate athlete is someone who knows how to eat and rest because he knows his recovery cycle. He doesn't separate it from the rest of his training. I don't teach one segment of the diet or say 'here's what you do when this happens.' I teach it as all one thing. It's like 20 balls of yarn and as it's being spun you only see one cord but as you get closer you see 20 things that make the one cord and so that's sort of how the training is.

Rothman's Determination
Makuakai Rothman gets hyped for the Punta Galea Challenge, just a glimpse of the Hawaiian charger's determination.

WSL: When did you and Rothman meet?
RG: I've known Makua since he was about 14 years old. I was training Sunny and he looked up to Sunny. He would stay with me for the summer at Mission Beach and he got really into the MMA and boxing scenes and he was about ready to jump into it. His dad was up for it so we were really preparing him. And that created a bond. I'd shake him out of bed and I'd make him run until he threw up and finally he said, "OK man, I'd rather surf."

WSL: So what does his training look like now?
RG: When you go training high-level athletes you do an intake, a questionnaire of what he needs help with what he'll look and feel like at the end of the season. Then while you're running him through drills you make your own assignment.

Makua has always had problems with his asthma and he's easy to motivate when the waves are big and hard to motivate when the waves aren't so challenging. Academically, you have to say to him, "In order for you to get better at surfing you have to get better at surfing small waves." You have to take him out of his comfort zone. In the military they say you get very comfortable at being uncomfortable. I make him surf small waves every day. He doesn't like it, but eventually he's gonna like it or he's not gonna be a World Champion. He knows I'm going to attack all his weak points. They say a chain is only as strong as the weakest link so as soon as I shore up all those weak links he will be complete and he'll be very hard to break.

The only difference between the hero and the coward is how the hero directs his fear.

WSL: What breakthrough did he have this year that helped him win the BWT Title?
RG: We've had good results but the consistency of not just winning one event but going through a whole season. We needed to find a way to keep his attention longer. I think it took him being more mature as a man and as a father, that really changed him a lot. He looked at his career and realized he had to take it seriously. Right now Makua's in training with [boxers Manny] Pacquiao and [Ray] Beltram. When he's with them his whole demeanor changes. He sees how serious the fighters have to be. If they lose one fight they go all the way down to the bottom and have to work their way back up. Every single event there's so much at stake.

WSL: How do you train an athlete in a sport like big wave surfing where you're not sure when the next contest will be?
RG: Once an athlete's over-trained there's no second wind. He gets in that chronic fatigue. So it's all about pacing. It has a lot to do with diet. We work closely with Laird Hamilton and research the recovery cycle. We can calculate energy and what's available. Then we have feedback from the athlete. If the surf looks good we might surf for the next few days and not do any training.

WSL: What are the other differences between training a big wave athlete and a Tour athlete?
RG: It's more intense. Small-wave surfing is more acrobatic. Even if a guy doesn't catch a good wave he can turn it into a nine. When you're looking at big waves, everyone knows it's life threatening and these guys are pushing each other because it's a competition situation so that in and of itself makes the pulse flutter.

WSL: Is fearlessness something you can train for -- or is that out of your range of capabilities?
RG: There's no such thing as fearlessness. There's only you being able to contain your fear. The only difference between the hero and the coward is how the hero directs his fear. The coward runs and the hero is scared but he stands and fights. When he's out in big waves, all those guys feel that fear, but it makes them drive harder. Once they get out there, they're just a bunch of guys that love to surf big waves.

Don't miss Rothman, who is up for a Surfline Performance Award, at the Big Wave Awards LIVE on the World Surf League homepage and WSL App May 1, 2015.