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When Your Kid Wants to Try Competitive Surfing

Updated August 29, 2014.

Got a kid who loves to ride the waves? If you're a beach-going family and your child loves surfing, she may be interested in kids' competitive surfing contests. As with many other sports, your child can surf for fun without ever worrying about scoring points and moving up in the rankings. But the thrill of victory (and prizes) is out there for kids who love competition.

The basics: There are many different types of surfing (shortboard, longboard, bodyboard, and more) and you can usually find a contest for all of them.

Typically, competitors will surf for a designated time (20 minutes is common) with a panel of judges watching. During the allotted time, surfers should catch as many waves as possible, up to a pre-set maximum. Judges award scores based on the maneuvers a surfer performs and his speed, power, and flow while riding the wave. Surfers must follow basic surfing rules and etiquette about who gets priority for a wave.

Age kids can start: Some kids' competitive surfing contests are open to "keiki" ("child" in Hawaiian) as young as 3 years old. Others usually have age divisions that just set a maximum, so if your young child is skilled enough to compete, he can. In the youngest age groups, kids are sometimes allowed to have adult helpers in the water with them while paddling to a wave.

Skills needed/used: Balance, flexibility, and endurance (for paddling).

Best for kids who are: Strong swimmers with experience in open water--and who live near the ocean!

Season/when played: The surfing contest season typically lasts from August to June with national championship events in June.

Smaller, local contests are concentrated in the summer.

Team or individual? Surfers compete individually but some National Scholastic Surfing Association (NSSA) competitions also include events for school teams.

Levels: The NSSA groups its competitors into the following levels; other governing bodies use similar groupings.
  • Open Season age divisions: Mens (age 16 and up), Juniors (ages 13 to 15), Boys (age 12 and under), Mini Groms (ages 10 and under), Womens (all ages), Longboard (all ages). Open Season is the highest level of competition and all surfers must be students.
  • Explorer Season age divisions: Mens (all ages), Juniors (ages 15 to 17), Boys (ages 13 to 14), Menehuene (age 12 and under), Masters (ages 25-34), Seniors (ages 35-44), Super Seniors (age 45 and up), Duke (age 55 and up), Womens (all ages), and Longboard (all ages). The Explorer Season includes advanced, intermediate, beginner, recreational, and non-student divisions.

The NSSA JR. program is for kids in grades 6 to 11 who are novice competitive surfers; it includes surfing and bodyboarding events.

Appropriate for kids with special needs:Adaptive surfing can be an option for kids with physical disabilities. Children with autism can try surfing through programs such as Surfers for Autism and Surfers Healing.

Fitness factor: Can be high, since surfers must paddle their boards in ocean currents and then use strength and balance to ride waves.

Equipment: Surfers need a swimsuit and/or a wetsuit, depending on climate, and of course a surfboard (learn more about how to buy one). Proper board size is based on your child's height and weight, so you will have to change boards as your child grows. Sun protection is also critical.

Costs: You can find a used surfboard for $150 or so, and prices will go up from there for new boards. Joining an association is usually required to enter contests; membership fees can range from $50 to $150 per year. Smaller, local contests are inexpensive or free. Larger, sanctioned contests will run you $100 or so for the first event and slightly less for each additional events.

Time commitment required: A couple of hours a week for practice, at minimum; a competition may take place over 2 to 3 days and require travel.

Potential for injury: As in any water sport, drowning is a risk--and a more serious one in open water. Surfers also need to be vigilant about protecting their skin from the sun. Most common injuries are cuts, scrapes, and bumps to the face, legs, and feet; surfers also sometimes suffer broken bones, sprains, and strains.

How to find surfing schools:

Associations and governing bodies:

If your child likes surfing, also try: Skateboarding, skiing or snowboarding; other water sports such as sailing, swimming, or diving.

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