Growing up in Whangamata, it was bound to happen. After Matt Scorringe’s parents moved from Hamilton and took over the family bach in what he affectionately calls ‘Whanga’, the beachfront location had an immediate effect.
“I was probably first on a board when I was about two years old,” Matt says. “My brother surfed, and growing up where surfing has such a rich history meant we had boards in the garage. I think I was about five when I took a foam board from the garage and first started catching waves. Whenever mum wasn’t looking, I’d be up to my waist in the water.”
Fortunately, Matt’s mother usually was looking, as she could watch the young surfer from her kitchen window, to make sure he didn’t drown. When not up to his waist in water, Matt worked at the family gas station to save money for boards. Kiwi childhoods don’t get much more classic than that, and so it was pretty much inevitable that surfing was going to be in Matt’s future.
“There were these iconic surfers like ‘Taff’ Kennings, Bob Davies, and Pete Mitchell around there,” Matt says. “Though, at the time they weren’t called pro-surfers, they were real innovators of the sport in New Zealand. Growing up in that environment – a beach town with three surf shops and what seemed like just 500 people, with the culture and the waves – it had a real effect. There was just no other road for me.”
By age 14, Matt was sponsored by Billabong, and represented New Zealand at the International Surfing Association World Junior Titles annually. He moved to Australia at 17 to be closer to the competition circuit and, soon after, teamed up with pro surfer Josh Kerr, a friendship that would later see the pair travel the world together, living the dream – surfing, and getting paid to do it.
But all that changed in 2009. “I got home from a tour in Hawaii,” recalls Matt. “Eight days later I was having chemotherapy. I thought I’d just been burning the candle at both ends a bit too much, and maybe had a bit of a hangover, but the turning point was when I woke up and my whole body was covered in a rash and I was getting blood noses.” A quick trip to the doctor followed and the assessment was earth-shattering: acute myeloid leukaemia.
“There was really no time to process it or make decisions on it. Fortunately, I responded to treatment, but it took eight months of intense chemo. The initial stage is a bit of a blur to me – it’s one of those parts of your life that you tend to block out a bit. It was a pretty crazy experience and I really had a moment but, once I got to the hospital, that changed. I’ve always been very competitive, so, once I was at the hospital, I thought, ‘Well, this is another challenge and I’m going to smash this thing and win it.’ I set a goal of being back competing in the New Zealand nationals the next year – and, though I still looked like a cancer patient when I got there, it was a stepping stone for my journey back.”
It was also another turning point. Like many people suddenly faced with their own mortality and months of medical treatment, Matt did a lot of thinking.
“When life comes at you like that, you re-evaluate everything,” he says. “Even though I’d recovered, I thought my chance to be a surfer was gone and I’d have to do what everyone else was doing: find work somewhere in the surf industry, move to Auckland, drive the traffic, be a nine-to-fiver. But, a year after my cancer, my partner and I moved to Bali for six months and we decided to try and get some priorities sorted.”
One of those priorities was pursuing his love of surfing in a way that gave back to the sport he loved. His years on the competition circuit had been great and he’d learnt a huge amount about surfing, but he’d also learnt a lot about how many competitors were still not giving it 100%. The accepted mentality was that, to be a good surfer, you just surfed. And things like nutrition, structured coaching and training programmes were for other sports.
“The reason I started The Art of Surfing was that I realised too late that there are so many components to it. Being on tour with Josh at the top level meant I saw what the elite surfers were doing. I got to be in the locker rooms with Kelly Slater and the world champions, see what they were doing, the equipment they were using, and how they were being coached.”
“The big turn-around came after Mick Fanning got injured,” Matt says referring to the champion Australian surfer known as ‘White Lightning’. “He was the first surfer to take training and nutrition and all that high-end stuff seriously, as part of his road back. He came back to win the world title. And then the chase was on; it was a whole new world of professionalism, while, back here in New Zealand, for the most part, we still thought that to get better you just surfed more.”
Embracing a whole new world of professionalism is what Matt created The Art of Surfing for but, when he initially pitched it to the powers that be, the reception was not quite what he expected. Surfing – not just in New Zealand but worldwide – was in transition. The surfing boom was in decline, the global financial crisis was hitting hard and streetwear was taking over from surfwear. So, while the organisation Matt approached liked his idea, they were looking to downsize rather than take on new ventures.
“Looking back now, it was perfect for me because it made me realise I was going to have to do it all on my own. I’d looked around and there was no one else doing what I wanted to do. To this day, nearly 10 years later, I’m probably still the only one doing what I’m doing here in New Zealand.”
Like most surfers of his generation, Matt was self-taught. He had, in fact, turned down the opportunity to be tutored by ‘the godfather of technical coaching’, Martin Dunn – largely because he felt surfers had to be self-taught with the raw talent being shaped by personal style. He now sees the error of that and wishes he’d had a mentor and teacher – but, he realised, that if he never had one, he could at least be there for the next generation.
“I came home with all the knowledge I’d picked up and, after recovering, I have focused my work on helping our surfers do better,” Matt says. “I’d been in competitions where we’d come up just short, and I knew that if we tweaked what we were doing, more Kiwis could be on the next level. I still see a bit of the pushback against coaching but it’s changed a lot. When I started, there were a lot of people who wanted to come and train, but didn’t want to be seen coming to train! There was this mentality that getting trained in surfing wasn’t cool. People wanted to go to recluse spots to train, so they wouldn’t be seen. That’s changed completely now.”
One of the drivers of that change has been the acceptance of surfing as an Olympic sport. “Surfing,” says Matt, “particularly in New Zealand, is still seen differently to other major professional sports – and the Olympics will change that. It will mean the sport will be taken more seriously and we can start working towards finding the best path for our athletes at Olympic level. I’ve talked with friends in snowboarding and other sports that have recently been made Olympic sports and they all say it takes time. It’s like the chicken and the egg – you need funding to get results, you need results to get funding – but it’s great to see that we’re off to a really good start with two athletes going to Tokyo.”
Matt’s role in preparing New Zealand’s Olympic contenders has been as head coach of the Olympic Pathway Programme he helped create with Surfing New Zealand to get Kiwi surfers up to Olympic qualifying level, and he’s more than happy with the results. “We’ve now got two athletes qualified for the 2020 Olympics – Billy Stairmand from Raglan and Ella Williams from Whangamata – who both attended workshops in that programme. Now we just need to get some more structures and mechanisms in place to support them and the sport. At that level, you’re travelling all the time, so you need coaches, nutritionists – all the support required – on different continents. Part of what I’m doing is not just bringing my knowledge but the connections and contacts to make it easier.”
Olympic-level mechanisms have been in place in Australian surfing for some time, only on a much bigger scale. While Matt might be envious of their resources, he’s not sure it’s what we need here in New Zealand. “I think they’re getting silver spoon fed over there and I don’t think it’s producing the grit and determination needed in the sport. There are competitors from other countries where their families depend on their success and they’ve got all the fight in the world that money can’t buy. Hard work beats talent nine times out of ten, and our biggest issue as Kiwi surfers is that we’re laid-back Kiwis! For the most part, we don’t have the dog-eat-dog mentality we need; I want to focus on making a programme for our surfers that helps grow this mentality. We are world-renowned for sports and I want to play a part in making surfing one of those sports.”
And as though helping shape a whole new generation of surfers and raising our stand-outs to a whole new level isn’t enough, Matt is also upping the game for nonprofessional surfers here in New Zealand, from his base in Mount Maunganui.
“Moving to the Mount was the best decision I ever made, on all levels,” Matt says. “It’s not really known for consistent surf here, but the way it’s become a hotspot and the way surfing and the beach lifestyle has grown is great. The amount of kids coming through at development level is fantastic; we’ve gone from one squad a week to five, and it’s still growing. My business is completely built off word of mouth, and you can see there is now a real hunger for coaching and teaching that is great for the sport long-term.”
A man with so much on his plate can’t be everywhere at once, unfortunately, but, ever the problem solver, Matt has a plan. “I want to go to every region, I want to help every grassroots surfer everywhere. So I’ve really turned my focus to the online side of The Art of Surfing, and people out there want it. I’ve developed a library of online content for people who want to learn how to surf, from beginners through to elite. And we’re going to take this global. We’re known as the go-to in New Zealand and we’re confident people will come along for the ride, but the potential in places like America is really where we could see growth. It’s been a three-year project but, in the last six months, it has really come together.”
With all this going on, does Matt Scorringe still find time outside of coaching, teaching, developing online content, and mentoring Olympic surfers for the thing that got him on this path back in ‘Whanga’?
“Oh yeah, of course,” he says. “Surfing’s the one thing that keeps everything else at bay!”