Matt is not only a rockstar coach, but also a highly accomplished surfer, who boasts over 10 years of professional sponsorships from internationally recognized brands like Billabong. In 2012, he founded The Art of Surfing Ltd, which is dedicated to helping the next generation of aspiring New Zealand surfers achieve their dreams.
Spencer was able to catch up with him at the Surf Open in Orange County a few weeks back. Here are a few highlights from that conversion. Click Here to listen to the full conversation.
As a high performance surfing coach, you're in a niche within a niche of sorts. Surfing is seen by some as a more casual sport, but based on our conversations, it seems like there is quite the market for people to invest in improving their skills without any competitive aspirations. Why do you think that is?
Funny you say that. I've always thought the same thing - lots of sport lack athletes that want to go beyond competition or beyond that junior level. It’s super common for people to be fully content just playing with their mates and not want anything more.
But I do feel like surfing is one of those lifestyle sports and people surf for all kinds of reasons. And, like anything, if you love it, you can’t help but want to get better. And I think it’s true for most things - the better you get the MORE you love it.
Athletes come to me all the time with request like wanting to make that barrel that they keep missing, or they’re going on holiday and want to keep up with more challenging waves. So I noticed that, even if people say they are casual and want to stay at the junior level, there is a huge space for a market of people who just want to get better for their own gratification.
These realizations are what made me start The Art of Surfing in the first place. I want to help people express themselves even better in this very soulful sport.
So what happened next? Can you describe the journey of seeing the opportunity and ultimately creating a business around it?
So about 10 years ago I started doing in person coaching. Your typical one-on-one lessons, you know, the traditional way that most coaches start out. Since then the sport has started growing globally and became a lot more accepted. From there people realized “hey! I guess there is such a thing as surf coaching!”.
So my business grew pretty quickly and organically as that recognition spread. I also offered a pretty wide range of expertise, from structures and frameworks to actually understanding the ocean and speaking more to the soulful element of surfing. I think that resonated with my audience.
And, of course, more recently remote coaching has been taking off and I realized I could create a business model around that as well. I’m finally in a place that I’ve wanted to be for a very long time. And it feels like finally the technology has caught up, and I attribute that to the general acceptance of online learning in recent years.
Beautiful. You and I recognize that the top surfer in the world's probably not gonna just learn exclusively, remotely. They're gonna meet with people in person, we totally get the value of that. Walk me through the different offers that you have, because I think that's where a lot of people get stuck.
So I actually do remote coaching with all of my athletes, even the ones at the top. Obviously, this is in combination with in-person coaching. But think about it: a lot of my elite clients are constantly going off to international competitions. So, at a certain point, remote coaching isn’t a perk as much as it is a necessity to continue their training when they’re away.
Obviously I use CoachNow to really improve my communication with those athletes. It’s just so much better than hitting them with texts and Instagram, and all these other platforms. In our shared Space, I can pull in their heats, an quickly give them a bit of advice while they are competing so they can turn it around mid competition in their next heat.
And in CoachNow, it’s got actual substance and meaning behind it. It’s so much more than just a simple chat. I can really get into the foundation of their performance and it’s so nice to be able to offer that personal touch even if I can’t be with them in person to support.
With surfing, it’s a lot of technique and training them how to know what they’re doing wrong. One of the biggest things I push in training is the idea that no good surfer learned entirely from just watching YouTube or following a coach online and never interacting with them. When I entered the market, there were so many online foams and communities where people would just binge a bunch of content and offer comments and feedbacks to improving technique.
Don’t get me wrong, these can be valuable and they help improve your surfing marginally. But they’re not unlocking the full puzzle. So it’s nice to be able to focus my offering around reviewing footage they send to me and giving that individual coaching that’s hard to find elsewhere.
So let’s say I’m questioning whether your coaching is right for me. Do you have any lead magnets or “teases” to get people in your ecosystem? What’s the baseline or onboarding flow for athletes who want to purchase?
I try to put out content online on social media and websites that showcases the my style of coaching. I give them an idea of what assessments and live sessions look like and of course I have testimonials from existing clients to show some positive outcomes.
As part of a lead magnet, I have an example review that breaks down the common mistakes we see and about 3-4 iterations of what the athlete’s are doing wrong and what I’d do to help them improve. Hopefully, they see a bit of themselves in those recordings and see what they need to do to fix their own mistakes.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that surfing is done with your feet. People always think it’s about how you stand up, and it all comes down to your legs. But that’s just not true. It’s really driven through your upper body. Your upper body leads and your feet just act as the connection from the upper body to your legs and feet. It all starts upstairs and moves down.
That’s been such a gamechanger for so many athletes and it works as a perfect demonstration of the value I can provide.
What happens when they are ready? What does your offer look like?
We’ve built out a tiered system with a “base” and “plus model.
Base is the academy membership, which is a mix of on demand and remote coaching. Really a way to get them in the ecosystem and understand the basics of surf coaching for a pretty low annual fee.
Then we have the Remote Coaching package, which is more personalized and offers more frequent online feedback through CoachNow. Those are done in “cohorts”, with a new one starting in November. A very popular plan for surfers who are more serious about improving.
Then at the top, there is in person coaching, and I have a few offers there depending on if you want 1-on-1 or group coaching. I also offer camps for kids and teens.
I tried to build it out so that there is something for everyone. If the people listening want to check them out, they can see all the offers at theartofsurfing.com.
Let’s talk a bit more about the actual coaching you do. I’m a pretty inexperienced surfer, and honestly have been more frustrated than anything when I try to give it a go. How basic do you get with your coaching? Are you coaching people on every step, from the paddle out to the actual surfing?
While many people think paddline is like swimming, it’s completely different. Being a good swimmer doesn’t make you a good paddler. It’s completely different and uses entirely different muscle groups. Your back has to be arched a certain way, you have to use your lower back and shoulders together in a somewhat counterintuitive manner, etc. Usually the people who come to me area t a baseline for paddle efficiency, but obviously that’s something I would correct right away if not.
When remote coaching, I always ask them to capture footage of what I call the “in between moment”. It’s the moment you see a wave and decide “that’s the one”. So if they are having a friend recording from the shore, I ask them to send over the exact moment when they start positioning themselves for a wave and get ready to catch it.
Because the biggest issues present themselves in the in between moment. It’s about the way they paddle to the wave and where they try to catch it from. Tons of surfers only have one method for how they position, twist, or paddle. They only know one way to build propulsion and gain speed to catch the wave, but in reality there are tons of different ways to tackle it. Think of it like a serve in tennis - there’s spins, kicks, bounces, etc. Tons of ways to serve a ball. It’s the same with surfing.
These subtle things separate the good from the great.
When we talk about The Art of Surfing as your private business, that’s obviously different from your role as the New Zealand National Coach. I’m sure there’s crossover, but what was it like launching your own business in this world? How has your niche evolved? Where do you see it going?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to help those at a higher level. But obviously that’s not where the bulk of the money is, so I had to move quickly to expand.
Moving into the development of younger kids added a good amount of value to the business. It’s consistent money coming in and it’s nice to be able to rely on parent to bring me new aspiring athletes and also having that additional authority enforce some of the practicing.
So yeah, I identified that middle space and focused on in-person coaching, one-to-one lessons and groups. I quickly discovered that “sweet spot” of how many sessions or groups I could do in a day without overworking myself.
Obviously I had to wear a lot of hats and put my ego aside while figuring out what worked best for me and the growth of my business. I actually was one of the first people in surfing to do video analysis, so that also kept me ahead of the competition. Back in the day, no one was bringing iPads to the beach - it feels like that’s increased exponentially in recent years.
Because of my experience with digital coaching, when Covid hit I really saw a boo, when lots of other coaches were struggling. It really validated the thesis I’ve carried since the founding of the company and further solidified the importance of diverse membership offerings. So going to keep going in that direction for the foreseeable future.
You have a LOT of clients. Can you tell me how you use CoachNow to facilitate your coaching?
When I start a 20-30 person cohort, I pull everyone in to the same group, so there’s a “home base” feed where everyone can interact regardless of skill level. I tried a few different processes here, but after some data testing and running different forums, this seemed to work the best for my business.
I kept the groups publicly accessible since the cohorts aren’t very big. The Group environment works perfectly because I can separate people out into their individual channels on the side. So there’s the main feed for everyone to see, and then their individual footage goes in their own channel for feedback. That way everyone is learning from each other if they want to see how I’m coaching their peers.
Right from the back I make the schedule super clear so everyone understands the expectations. This is when/where you submit footage, this is when I provide feedback through text of voice memo, here’s how we’re gonna communicate, etc.
Again, because it’s public to the cohort, I can cherry pick some examples from individual channels and feature them on the Group feed as a way to demonstrate progress or show common mistakes, etc.
I also do this for the Academy membership, which gives you one review per year. Even though it’s not a high touch membership, by having EVERY academy member post to the same feed, the value isn’t siloed to one person. They join the academy and immediately see hundreds of videos with feedback. Super easy way to add value.
When I ask for feedback, time and time again my athletes rave about how much they love seeing the feedback on other surfers. So for me, that’s the real magic of CoachNow, aside of course from the stuff I’ve mentioned earlier around better communication and analysis.
That is a very cool case study in how to leverage your expertise away from selling your time for money.
Yes, exactly. Because if you are just offering lessons, it’s really hard to scale past a certain point of profit. I realized early that I needed to have a system in place for people to learn without needing my attention all the time. 5 minutes here or there? Sure, but I didn’t want it to be more than that for people in the lower tiers.
And that also allows me to spread my value a lot further than I otherwise would have. If all I was doing was one–on-one lessons, it would be quite expensive because I know my value and I know that my services are in demand. Now it’s no longer a compromise or a question of “why should I focus my attention here when I can make more money over here?”.
You’ve gotta put a value on yourself and think of ways to not shortchange yourself. But, obviously, I love working with beginners too so this was the perfect solution. It was a hard Band-Aide to rip off but I’m very glad I did.
Then you start to see renewals in addition to new customers and you have this ah-ha moment realizing that this can grow exponentially. Once the groundwork is there and set up to avoid your constant interaction, there really is no ceiling. Relying on one type of business can be dangerous.
Amazing. Thank you so much for meeting with me today, this has been great. Where should CoachNow members go if they want to learn more about you?
My pleasure, hope it was helpful.