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Open-Minded: The Psychology of Stadium Surfing

"Huntington is such an amazing place to have a contest. It's not about the points or the prize money. It's the crowd."

Kanoa Igarashi should know: The 20-year-old Championship Tour (CT) surfer grew up in Huntington Beach and won last year's event. The crowd the US Open of Surfing draws -- on the pier, on the beach, the largest in North American surfing -- creates a distinct stadium environment, unlike any other stop on the Tour. Crowd aside, there are no shortage of distractions capable of psyching out a competitor in Huntington Beach. The Open is notorious for them. From media exposure, to tricky conditions, to various sponsor commitments and the extracurricular entertainment; success is predicated on a an athlete's ability to block out the noise.

Local favourite Kanoa Igarashi of the USA (pictured) is chaired up the beach as the winner of the VANS US Open of Surfing after defeating Tomas Hermes of Brazil in the final with a heat total of 17.23 points (out of a possible 20.00) which included a open The men's US Open may be a QS contest but for Kanoa Igarashi, his win on home turf is still one of the biggest triumphs of his career. WSL / Kenneth Morris

Igarashi, who's currently ranked No. 17 on the Jeep Leaderboard, is practically still glowing from all the fanfare on home turf.

"We're still celebrating that win," he said. "I have a picture in my room with all my friends in the water right after I won that Jimmicane [photographer Jimmy Wilson] took. I live for moments like that. It was a six-month long celebration. After last year the whole city was lit up. There hasn't been an HB guy [win the Open] since Brett [Simpson] in ‘09."

It's not only the event winners who have crowds to support them -- or with which to contend.

An excited crowd of photographers flocked to enjoy the surfing action of Round One at Huntington Beach, California, USA. Photographers at the US Open. WSL / Kenneth Morris

"Running down the beach is a little difficult sometimes," said Cooper Chapman, an Australian QS surfer who competes at the US Open each year. "Trying not to get distracted by the dust storm and thousands of people, just finding bits of sand to land your feet on while running down can be difficult. But once in the water it's all about focusing on the job at hand."

"Your concentration or ability to control what you focus on may be the single most important mental skill, second only to confidence. If you struggle with maintaining your focus, you will make more mental errors, get distracted easily, and under perform," wrote Florida-based sports psychologist Patrick J. Cohn, Ph.D, author of 10 Costly Mental Game Mistakes Athletes Make Before Competition.

Cooper Chapman (AUS) Martinique, 2015 At the US Open, there's no paddling away from the roar of the crowd. Above: Cooper Chapman in the quieter waters of Martinique. WSL / Damien Poullenot

Paige Hareb, a CT surfer from New Zealand, is quite familiar with the focus-factor. After being sidelined from the Corona Open J-Bay because of injury, she'll be back for the US Open -- with her Huntington game plan in mind.

"It's such a mental thing, you can easily let the crowd get to you, but you can almost just as easily block them out and be completely in the moment," she said. "I know some competitors don't like the crowd at all, others like to ‘put on a show for them,' but honestly, I try to be completely in the moment and take the crowd out of it completely."

Including all of the surfers, skaters and BMX riders, there are more than 300 athletes involved in the Open. Last year, hundreds of thousands of spectators found their way to the Huntington Pier during the week of the event. Most of the fans in that massive crowd are hoping to score an autograph, snap a selfie, or perhaps even rub elbows with the pros at an after-hours party.

Paige Hareb (NZL) won her third round heat at the 2014 Vans U.S. Open of Surfing. The last time Paige Hareb competed at the US Open was in 2014, when she finished in 9th place. Her best result in Huntington was a 5th in 2012. WSL / Rowland/ ASP Handout

"If you allow the pre-game hoopla to distract you from the real mission, you will not be fully prepared to compete," Cohn wrote.

Easier said than done. The trek across the beach from the base of the pier to the competitor's area can be a mission in and of itself. Paddling out in the shadow of the pier -- another favorite viewing spot for fans -- may also ratchet up the pressure. But when the horn blows, hopefully, it all disappears.

"When I'm out in the water I'm just focusing on what I have to do to get through the heat -- listening to the beach commentator and what scores I have, what I need, who has priority, that sort of thing," added Hareb. "If I'm really winning the heat then maybe I'll take more notice of the crowd or hear the people on the pier and soak up the atmosphere a little bit."

Filipe Toledo of Brasil advanced to the Semifinals of the US Open after winning his Quarterfinal at Huntington Beach, California, USA. For fans, the US Open is a rare chance to get up close to their favorite surfers. For surfers like Filipe Toledo, it's all part of the experience of competing in Huntington Beach. WSL / Kenneth Morris

"Sometimes it's cool to use the crowd to get excited, especially finishing waves in the shorebreak. It can be really cool hearing the cheers," says Chapman. "And after the heat it's cool to look in and soak up the atmosphere, but while the heats going nothing else really factors in."

A vital component for success at the Open is experience. Knowing what to expect before paddling out can make a world of difference when it comes to calming the nerves. Both Chapman and Hareb has surfed in the Open before and have a clear idea of what it encompasses.

"I've been doing contests for a long time now and have competed in Huntington over several years, so it feels normal now, but yeah, when I first went there just walking through the masses of people to get to the comp site was pretty overwhelming," says Hareb.

Kanoa Igarashi at the Vans US Open. Igarashi, finding mental space in the crowd. WSL / Steve Sherman

"I've competed at Huntington since I was 17 and really try to focus on my own surfing," adds Chapman. "Preparing for it is no different. Once I'm in the water I'm so zoned in on the waves and what I need to do to win that the crowd kind of gets blocked out."

At the end of the day, winning at the Open is as much about a surfer's mental game as it is their airs or rail game. There's only so much a surfer can control before and during a heat.

The conditions, the crowd, their opponent: they're all going to do what they're going to do, but a surfer can control the boards they're riding, their warm-up and pre-game routine, as well as their strategies and mental headspace during a heat.

Record Crowds at 2017 VANS US Open of Surfing! Beach umbrellas at the 2017 Open. WSL / Sean Rowland

"When you feel prepared, you feel more confident," wrote Cohn. "When you feel fully prepared, you feel ready to play your best too. Everything you do prior to competition-practice, workouts, assessing the competition-helps you feel ready to compete. Of course, you have to put in the time to work on your skills prior to competition, but then you must trust in the training and practice you have completed."

You can watch the Vans US Open of Surfing live on CBS Sports Network (US only, check local schedule), the WSL website, the WSL app, and Facebook.

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