Footwork skills

Being able to move around on your board confidently opens up your paddling options from catching waves, improving your turns or even just being more stable in choppy conditions.

Words: Scott Warren
Pics: Scott Warren & Emily Crawshaw

Being able to move around on your board confidently opens up your paddling options, but how do you move around with ease on your board? This article includes some valuable tips, skills, and techniques to help your footwork progress, allowing you to push your paddling further, no matter if you are a beginner or seasoned paddler.

Taking your first step
When you move around your board, the most critical part is your first step – get this right, and the rest becomes easier.

This first step will set up the rest of your movements, big or small, by giving you a solid foundation to move from. It will also bring your balance towards the centre of the board and unlocks your hips, allowing you to start your next movement without a significant weight transfer between your feet. The first step also ensures your head is over the centre of your board and so you remain balanced and stable, reducing the risk of you tipping the board over by applying too much pressure to one side or the other as you move.

So what is your first step? You pivot your front foot on its heel towards the centre of your board, ending up at about a 45-degree angle with your toes pointing in. This small movement is all you need to help your next step become easier. Photos 1 and 1.a show what this first step looks like.

The basics of balance
We often take our balance for granted on dry land. We forget that we are essentially falling over with every step, therefore subconsciously relying on our balance to keep us upright. When paddling, we have another dynamic to deal with, often resulting in our legs going stiff and our head and upper body taking over as we compensate for a sudden lack of stability.

Our head is quite a heavy object relative to its size, so we will become unbalanced quickly if we allow it to lead our body position. Therefore, it’s essential to keep your head relatively still when moving around on your board, using your lower body instead to balance. It’s often better to make smaller rather than larger movements and avoid leaning over to help this further. With soft baby steps, you will keep your board more stable and have better balance and control as you move.

One of the best ways to practise moving on your board is to try any movements on dry land first. This way, you can understand how your balance is affected by small or large movements and get to grips with how many steps are required. If it’s unstable or awkward to complete on land, it will be far more challenging on the water.

Using the boards central line
If we revisit the first step, this movement sets you up for positioning your body along the central line (or stringer in surfing terms) of your board. This allows you to spread your weight along the board’s length to add stability rather than just using the width. Foot placement is critical here as you do not want to split the central line completely. You want to keep your front foot slightly to one side and your back foot to the other. As you move backwards and forwards on your board, this allows you to adjust the pressure through your heels and toes of each foot to keep the board settled. You can also use the board’s rails in this position to increase your control further. If you stand entirely down the central line (see photo 2 for reference), you are only using the tail to add stability, and with too much pressure on one side or the other, the board will easily tip over.

Using the paddle
Your paddle is your secret weapon when it comes to moving on your board, so make use of it by keeping the blade in contact with the surface of the water throughout your movements. This way, it can act as an outrigger to give you more stability when placed out to the side, or you can apply pressure to it if you have a wobble to provide you with extra stability. You can even use it to pull yourself back up to your paddling position with practice, as you will see later on when moving forwards. Another top tip here is don’t turn your paddle around in your hands, always keep it in your normal paddling position. Photo 3 is a great example.

Different moving methods
It doesn’t matter if you have just started or have been paddling for years. A good set of skills and techniques will help you stay balanced on your board. Here are three different ways to move your feet.
The shuffle – often an excellent method for beginners, shuffling your feet gives you the most stability at all times. Keep both of your feet on the board and shuffle or slide one foot at a time to move. It’s also an excellent method to use in choppy conditions if you are unsure about moving your feet.

The quick-step – small and precise movements are fundamental as you start to progress and quicken your movements. With this method, you will be lifting each foot as you move, so each step needs to be taken with care and a degree of speed, so you remain stable on your board. Positioning here is also vital as if you keep your feet wide and lift one foot, you can easily tip your board over.

The cross-step – often associated with longboard style surfing, The Cross-Step (photo 4) is a very stylish way to move on your board. It is also an effective way of keeping your body position along the board’s central line and, with skill, can be used in most conditions. You will see this technique used particularly by longboard SUP surfers, racers and downwind paddlers, but it’s not just reserved for advanced paddlers and is an outstanding achievement to aim for with your footwork skills.

Moving backwards
By now, you should have some valuable skills taking you from your first steps to challenging your progression. Putting it all together will help you stay stable and in control of your board throughout the move. When moving backwards, a helpful tip here is to place the paddle back and behind you slightly, as we see in photo 5. Putting the paddle here means you have an outrigger for extra stability throughout the move, and if you have a wobble, you can stop yourself from falling off the back of your board by applying pressure to the paddle.

Moving forwards
When moving forwards, you have a few options with the paddle. Placed out to the side and even used in a wide swinging arch as you move, the paddle can act as your outrigger giving you more stability. This is an excellent technique for choppy conditions as you can apply pressure on the blade if you have a wobble. Another option is to place the paddle in the water as if you are paddling forwards. With this technique, you use the paddle to pull yourself forwards in combination with a Quick-step in image 6. This method takes some practice as, without good timing, you can pull yourself over and off-balance.

To jump or not to jump?
We have covered using steps to move, but there is an alternative that also has its place. Jumping backwards and especially forwards is a speedy way to cover the distance from your boards tail to the standing area and works well on longer boards. When jumping, try to land with both feet simultaneously and use the paddle as an outrigger to add stability. It’s a good option for racing and in choppy conditions.

The only five stances you will ever need.
To progress your footwork, it is worth practising moving between different stances, putting together the use of your paddle, footwork and balance skills. No matter what kind of paddling you are doing, there are just five stances you ever need, so this is an introduction to them so you can practise and progress your paddling further.

Parallel Stance – your feet are in line with each other across your board’s width (image 7.a), usually being your normal paddling stance. The Parallel Stance is excellent for flatwater paddling but is a locked-in position as you don’t have added control front to back when it gets choppy.

Split Stance – the Split Stance is an alternative paddling stance that unlocks the hips for easier movement on the board and adds control in choppy conditions. Your leading or front foot is placed slightly in front of the other across the board’s width. In this position, you can remain stable as the board moves around, using your hips and lower body to balance (image 7.b).

Ready Stance – This is your base from which your next move or skill takes place. It’s all about being prepared to move and sets you up for what’s next like we see in image 7.c. The Ready stance is having your front foot angled towards the centre and your rear foot placed behind but still under your hip. The Ready Stance can be used when catching waves, setting up your buoy turns or sprinting, as a few examples.

Open Stance – The Open stance is simply a wider version of the Ready stance and is the foundation where you do your bigger skills and moves from such as step back turns or paddling over waves. The Open stance allows you to shift your body weight around to control the board (image 7.d). With this stance, you maintain control of the board through heel and toe pressure, and you can sink the tail of the board easier by putting more weight on your back foot.

Surf Stance – This is the only stance where you completely split your board’s centre line with both feet (image 7.e). Predominantly used when surfing on a wave or in downwind paddling and running on a wave. The Surf stance gives you maximum control when applying pressure to one side of the board or the other through the board’s rails by using heel or toe pressure.

To sum it all up
There is so much more to stand up paddling once you have the confidence to move your feet. Practising the skills and techniques included in this article will open up your paddling world and allow you to achieve and do things you never thought possible. SUP doesn’t have to be complicated, and your progression should echo that. Take small steps and focus on consistent progression rather than giant leaps and use your time both on and off the water for practice. You will be amazed at how you can learn a new skill on land and transition it onto your board.

I all too often come across experienced paddlers who are holding themselves back by simply stating they need to go here and be doing that to practice a specific skill. Well, I say you learn more and progress faster when you can learn to think outside the box. Why wait to be in the surf to learn how to catch waves when you can practise the skills needed on flat water. Here you have control and safety without the constant barrage of waves to get your skills right first. When you are ready, you can head to the waves to enjoy it, enhance your skills, and not fight the conditions.

Check out for details on Scott’s SUP Coaching, Events and Training business, and you can follow him on Facebook & Instagram @SUPScotty.

Huge thanks to our advertisers

2 Comments on Footwork skills

  1. Andy Burrows // February 21, 2022 at 2:15 pm // Reply

    Excellent article Scotty..Best I’ve read on this subject..

  2. It’s the best advice I got when I was learning….keep moving on the board… especially on flat days when you can practice your skills.

Leave a Reply