John John Florence was a prodigy in the surfing world, becoming the youngest person ever to win the World Cup of Surfing at the age of 13. Fifteen years later, he’s a two-time world champion and is now preparing for the Olympics this summer, where he’ll represent Team USA in surfing’s Olympic debut.
But, the road to get there wasn’t easy. John John tore his ACL in the middle of the 2019 season, jeopardizing his qualification for Tokyo. He came back just 5 months after surgery, beating out the legendary Kelly Slater in the Pipeline Masters tournament to clinch his trip to the Olympics.
John John explains how his mindset was critical in overcoming the injury. This conversation is a deep dive on mindfulness, visualization, and the mental skills needed to be successful in sports and in life.
2:30 – Born to Surf. John John’s mother first put him on a surfboard when he was 6 months old.
5:20 – Inspired by the Best. John John grew up in Hawaii, on the north shore of Oahu, and watched the best surfers in the world as a child. “I grew up getting to spend my time in the water with Kelly Slater and Andy Irons and Mick Fanning and all these guys. Kelly and Andy were battling for world titles when I was at a young age. Surfing in the water with them and then seeing them win the world title the next day at Pipeline, right in front of my house, was just a crazy thing to be growing up in.”
6:27 – Competing Against Your Idols. “When I first got on tour, I remember coming up in a heat against Kelly [Slater]. I thought, ‘I can’t beat Kelly. This is the guy that I’ve grown up watching win world titles.’ … It was a hard thing to wrap your head around, being in a heat with this guy, trying to beat this guy, ‘I can beat my hero.’ It took a while.”
7:57 – The Mental Side. “For me, the mental battle is everything when you’re competing. When I feel mentally good, that’s when I surf my best. When I’m able to let things go and move past things in my mind, I just allow myself to surf my best.”
10:09 – Controlling the Controllables. “You’re dealing with a competitor and you don’t know what he’s going to do. But you’re also dealing with the ocean and you don’t know what’s going to happen there. A wave could come, but a wave might not come. That just goes back to the mental aspect of knowing what you can and can’t control within those moments.”
15:50 – Mindfulness in Sports and Life. “I like to use competition as a platform, essentially. You get to compete, you get to test different mindsets, you get to test certain things in a really compact format. You go through a whole range of emotions in competition in a really short time frame, so you learn things really quickly. I’ve found that taking what I’ve learned from competition and applying it to life just works, and it works so well.”
21:53 – Acceptance. “Whenever you accept the way you are or accept the way something is, you can move through it a lot easier than trying to fight with it.”
22:31 – Overcoming Injury. John John tore his ACL in the summer of 2019, and returned to competition 5 months after surgery to claim his spot on the U.S. Olympic surfing team. “Everything has to do with mindset,” John John says. “It just became a fun goal, almost. I said, ‘Hey, I want to see if i can heal this thing before the Pipe Masters and do the best I can in the Pipe Masters in order to qualify for the Olympics. It turned into one goal and it pivoted to another goal and then pivoted to another goal. It felt free-flowing through things I wanted to do.”
25:55 – Defying the Odds and Qualifying for the Olympics. John John says two weeks before the Pipe Masters, he could barely even stand on his board. “I [thought], ‘There’s no way I can do this.’ [The first wave came along] and I said, ‘No way.’ … So what I did was I broke it down into smaller pieces. I thought about it in the sense of, ‘If I can’t do it, I can’t do it. But if I feel confident then this will be an amazing opportunity.’” John John was ultimately able to surf in the Pipe Masters and qualified for the Olympics, edging out Kelly Slater for the final spot on the team.
29:12 – Surfing Strain. “I never realized how much we push ourselves surfing, especially when we’re free surfing and having fun. My brother Nathan and I have 20 strains all the time. Regularly having 20.6, 20.7 strain. I didn’t realize how much of a toll surfing takes [before I wore WHOOP].”
32:15 – Tracking Heart Rate Variability. Will explains how WHOOP measures heart rate variability and why the readings during your final 5 minutes of slow wave (deep) sleep can best predict how recovered your body is the next day.
44:25 – Managing Red Recoveries. Will and John John discuss how your body can be worn down mentally along with physically when you have a red recovery. “If I see a red, I think, ‘Okay, don’t do anything physical.’ But then I’ll go ahead and do phone calls and other decisions that I haven’t been able to make the days before because I’ve been [doing something] physical, and I’ll be making all these decisions when I’m super unrecovered, super tired, and not thinking clearly,” John John says.
45:51 – Accepting the Day to Day. Will and John John talk about how they think about red recoveries. “If I wake up on a day that a contest is running, they’re running regardless of whether I’m red or not. You have to have that acceptance, ‘I’m red today, I’m terribly recovered, but I’m going to do the best I can do.’”
50:34 – Sleep Need. “If I don’t get over 9 hours [of sleep] it’s really hard for me to get green recoveries.” Will notes the amount of strain John John takes on each day is contributing to his high sleep need.
Connect with John John on Instagram