A few years ago I took a holiday at one of those personal development centres on a beautiful Greek island. You know the ones – you can take a whole load of classes from tai chi and yoga to self-discovery and creative writing. My tutor for this particular selected development opportunity – windsurfing – was Windy Bob. He was a colourful, laid back character. He looked like an ageing, raffish hippie; deeply tanned, longish grey hair and a sense of humour and fun that had taken him from country to country, working and flirting his way casually around the globe. The itinerant lifestyle seemed to suit him well.

Our first day at the beach, Windy Bob made windsurfing look so easy – just wade into thigh high water, step onto your board, pull up the sail, and off you go. We practised on the beach, and I thought this was going to be a breeze.

windsurfing in atsistaFirst of all, I found I was unable to just step up onto a board in thigh high water. No problem, I’ll just take it inshore to knee height. What I didn’t account for was the wobbliness of actually standing on something floating, even on the tiniest of waves! I mean I’d been sailing before. Lots. Oceans with seven metre swells, but never a narrow board in the, admittedly gentle, surf of the Aegean. This was going to be harder than I thought. I tried and tried again. Once I’d found my balance atop the board, and had started gently floating out to sea, I had to pull up the sail. Filled with water, this became a heavy and precarious task. Just as I’d get it up, the gentle breeze would tug it viciously from my hands and I’d fall off into the sea. Then began the arduous task of swimming awkwardly, towing the board, back towards the shore. I rapidly became used to, if not fond of, the taste of seawater. After the first day, I renamed the lessons Scrambling and Drowning!

Day two heralded a more trepidatious approach to the lesson. I watched Bob carefully, trying to memorise every effortless move he made, before taking my board to the far side of the surf and heaving myself aboard. First, stand up. Check. Slowly bend down to reach for the sail. Chec…splash! I thought I was going to drink the bay dry.

Day three, and I was pugnacious – ‘I am not going to let this beat me!’ I cried as I dragged the board into the sea. The sunbathers on the beach muttered their encouragement. While it’s true that on this day I did get further towards the island in the middle of the bay, it was only because I was floating with the tide and breeze as I scrambled to get on again and again and again.

Day four, I did manage to stand up and get the sail up for periods of two or more seconds on several occasions. But even Windy Bob’s personal instructions failed to materialise a ‘proper’ sail. Oh, we laughed in the bar!

Day five and I faced my final Scrambling and Drowning lesson. I don’t think I have ever been so determined to master something. I was going to sail out to the island or die trying. I did neither. I felt dejected. I had never tried so hard to learn to do something before, at which I was such a complete failure. I exhausted myself as I scrambled up onto the board, and every time I fell off and drowned just a little bit more. The sunbathers on the beach, although supportive, just added to my humiliation at the hands of a plank of wood and a bit of cloth. Windy Bob had done his best, I had listened and tried to act as directed, and I had failed.

I was about to throw in the towel, when I thought I’d have one last go, and amuse the bathers before retiring. I stood in the surf, and drew myself up to my full height and decided that I was going to be Windy Bob. I closed my eyes, and took a deep breath and relaxed. I stood like Bob, I smiled like Bob, and I whistled Bob’s song. I squinted at the horizon, felt the gentle breeze on my skin coming from behind to my right, and then stepped effortlessly up onto the board and pulled up the sail. I angled the sail to catch the breeze, holding firmly but comfortably onto the bar, and took off towards the island at a slow pace. I relaxed, my knees bent slightly, just like in my Tai Chi class, perfectly balanced, I felt the sun on my face. I sailed to the island, turned around and tacked back towards the beach not a single thought or judgement in my head about what I was doing – just doing. As I drew back to the shore I stepped off the board into knee-deep water and the beach exploded in applause and cheering. I smiled. I bowed, just like Bob, and I’ve never been near a board since!

What I learned that day is that some things can’t be learned intellectually – they are felt.  You can’t learn how to windsurf in your head, you learn to windsurf in your body. Your head can mess up your bodily experience though. Re-naming the lessons Scrambling and Drowning, had certainly contributed to my repeated failure to get it. Just like re-naming your mother-in-law ‘The Mother-in-Law from Hell’ will probably get you treating her in a way that kind of expects, and therefore, achieves those results. Or saying all people who try to live on state benefits are worthless scroungers, when most of them are just trying to get back into work. It’s similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy – you can create the reality to match your expectations by the way you interact with the world. Windsurfing, requires that you feel balanced, that your body stays relaxed, yet confidently supple and alert. You can rehearse it in your mind, which may well enhance your physical experience, but your body has to learn what it feels like to do.

When learning to windsurf  – make like Windy Bob and get out of your head and into your body. Come to your senses and relax, feel your sense of fun, shut off the thinking and immerse yourself in the sunshine and the breeze – rather than the water! It is called windsurfing after all.


Come and explore more about learning at an Introduction to NLP event or talk/masterclass about talking to yourself – The Magic of Your Inner Voice, or  Train Your Brain or Mindfulness and Meditation. See events page for details.

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