Proprioception and performance in surfing

Date of Award


Degree Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Medical and Health Sciences

First Advisor

Sophia Nimphius

Second Advisor

Josh Secomb

Third Advisor

Michaela Bruton


Surfing is a competitive sport that is subjectively judged on the ability to combine a variety of progressive manoeuvres while maximising the speed, power and flow, with the emphasis of certain elements contingent on the conditions. Competitive surfing requires high levels of upper- and lower-body strength and power and joint range of motion (ROM), as well as the ability to re-stabilise efficiently on landing. Additionally, surfers must monitor the frequently changing wave formation for potential manoeuvres while maintaining or regaining an upright stance, which may induce changes in the subcomponents of the postural control system including proprioception. Currently, proprioception is not well understood nor examined in surfers, making it difficult to quantify proprioceptive ability and interpret how proprioception may relate to surfing performance. The purpose of this thesis was fourfold: 1) to examine the relationships between surfing experience, physical performance and ankle proprioception; 2) to determine the effect of an increasing external load on proprioceptive ability; 3) to compare ankle proprioception and physical performance among competitive and non-competitive surfers; and, 4) to investigate the potential for individual changes in ankle proprioception and physical performance in competitive surfers in response to a surf-specific neuromuscular training program. Study one identified no significant differences among ankle plantarflexion, dorsiflexion, inversion and eversion discrimination scores of each limb and that surf experience and lower-body strength had a statistically significant main effect on ankle proprioception. Additionally, gender/sex had a statistically significant main effect on ankle discrimination scores which may be attributed to differences in surfing experience, physical performance, environmental and sociocultural factors. Study two demonstrated a nonlinear change in proprioception, with better ankle discrimination scores for the moderately loaded assessment compared to the unloaded assessment and the lightest and heaviest loading parameters. These results may be related to the underlying mechanisms relating to the mechanical features of the muscle, and the potential discomfort and fatigue imposed by the heaviest loading parameter. Study three identified that senior-elite surfers demonstrated significantly higher ankle discrimination scores compared to junior-elite and recreational surfers. Senior-elite surfers also displayed significantly greater ankle dorsiflexion ROM and reduced relative peak landing force, suggesting that ankle proprioception and landing ability may be distinguishing characteristics of higher-level surfers. Study four demonstrated that a 12-week neuromuscular training program that included components of gymnastics can elicit improvements in proprioception and that changes in physical performance are likely specific to the stimulus. The results also highlighted the large inter- and intra-individual variability in response to training. However, the in-water surf assessment did not provide clear evidence of a performance improvement; though, it is proposed that it may be necessary to develop a more reliable assessment method to clarify the relationships between training-specific adaptations and in-water surfing ability. Overall, the studies presented provide evidence of a bilateral multidirectional proprioceptive ability that is unique to the sport of surfing and is related to both the amount and quality of motor experience attained, as well as the potential for individual changes in response to a surf-specific neuromuscular training program in competitive surfers.

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