Baseball players decide which pitches to swing at. If the ball is outside the strike zone, it’s generally better not to swing.
Imagine that the ocean is similarly sending you “pitches” as waves. Paddle for one outside the “strike zone” and you’re unlikely to get a good ride.
What kind of pitches can the ocean throw? No two waves are the same. The endless combinations of wind, swell, tide, and position are part of what makes the sport so captivating. At the same time, like a baseball hitter, you can categorize the “pitches” being thrown at you and swing for the ones that look promising.
One common mistake while surfing is to turn around and paddle without keeping an eye on the wave. You may as well be closing your eyes while a baseball pitch is being thrown at you. Instead, watch the wave and anticipate the best position to catch it. You can paddle to the left and right, keeping an eye on the wave, and only fully turn around once you’re confident that the wave is in your “strike zone”. Even then, you’ll want to look to the left and right for last minute adjustments (and to watch out for any other surfers).
Usually, the best position to catch a wave is in “the pocket”, or where the wave is just about to break. The coaches at Surf Simply call this strategy “paddling to Spot X”. Call “X” the center of the strike zone. When you see a wave approaching, ask yourself if X is within your paddling radius. Like a baseball hitter, you can also swing if you won’t catch the wave exactly at “X”.
Outside of “X”, the wave will be flatter or steeper. For a flatter wave, you’ll have to paddle harder, and for a steeper wave, you’ll have to increase the takeoff angle. As long as you’re in the strike zone, stronger paddling and angling can compensate for sub-optimal position. But, outside the zone, you’ll waste your energy by missing the wave, going over the falls, or eating whitewater. Obviously, the size of your strike zone will vary depending on your paddling fitness and angled takeoff ability.
The ocean will give you endless “at bats” and never count your strikes, so in that sense, perhaps surfing is more forgiving than baseball.