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I have seen it in many sports, and in particular the martial arts, which I have been involved in now for the last 18 years or so. To what do I refer? It is the plateau that people often reach after 2-3 years of any given particular activity. I am seeing it happen in kayaking as well.

Often people reach this plateau and feel that their skills are not developing any further. They might have started out picking up skills fast and seeing real improvements over the short time that they have been taking part, but then this slows down, apparently grinding to a halt. They then end up thinking that they will never be as skilled as they want to be in their chosen sport/activity and as a result they quit.

Let me tell you, most of the very top people in any given sport have plateaus all the time. The difference between them and those who quit is that they push through these apparent ‘skill development walls’.

There is an extremely fundamental thing to understand about sports that involve skill. Once you reach a certain point the improvements to your skill, assuming that you practice, will be much smaller and incremental than when you first started. Quite often what you feel has been zero improvement over a few months will actually be a noticeable improvement to someone watching who hasn’t seen you for a while! You might not think that you are improving or learning, but I can assure you that you are! It’s just that the improvements get smaller the more advanced you become.

Often the best thing to do when you feel that you have reached a plateau is to go back to basics. In the case of kayaking go back to the start and look at your core powering, paddling technique, and basic eddying. Really examine things like ferry glides to understand what is happening. Actively look for ways to improve. Try some zany ideas out! Don’t just paddle in the same way that you always have. Try different ways of performing the same moves on the river. The sure fire way to stagnate is not to experiment.

4 comments on “I quit! Some musings on skills development

  1. Michiel says:

    I agree. One of the reasons people do not develop any further in paddling is lack of change. If you’re paddling whitewater, try paddling flatwater racing kayaks or even better canoes. Chances are you’ll be a rank beginner again with lots of room for improvement. If you can manage to keep those boats upright your core muscles will have improved immensely. So it’s n ot all about getting big shoulders ;-). Or start out paddling your local grade 1 river backwards, see if you can catch all eddies etc., work on paddling techniques. And make sure you keep things fun!

    1. Stu.T says:

      One other consideration for paddlers who feel that they may in this position is to change their coach. Different coaches with different styles and different experiences, perhaps in different disaplines.
      So, why not try a different coach (or if you have not had coaching for a while then seek on out or buy some)

      It is cheaper than new kit and it more likely to promote a change in your paddleing.

  2. Beaverman says:

    Typing this after having paddled 12 miles today in a sea kayak at 97F and not enough wind. At 97F under a hot Arkansas sun and high humidity, you pray for a wind no matter where it is coming from. 4 beers after dinner may have loosened the fingers and the keyboard, so forgive please.

    Been paddling since 1968. I’m not anybody famous or well known, but I was there around the same time and places as a lot of those who are, and while I have been there and done many things, I am more of a has been or might have been to most folks. I am just glad I survived this long while having a lot of fun. I teach or mentor a few paddlers who ask for help as my way of passing things on. I take it as high compliment when folks come back to me to tell me that I am a good teacher and as good or better than some full time professional certified instructors. I have seriously studied how to teach and how to reach a wide variety of people.

    Have gone through several personal periods of skill development that would be accurately described as plateaus. When I was not satisfied with being there, I did some analysis on my own, and occasionally asked others for their frank opinions and observations, even if painful. Luckily, I was blessed with having friends who were brutally honest and almost always more skilled than I was and am. Usually the breakthrough meant that I needed to break my routine. Sometimes it meant that I needed to paddle more frequently. Sometimes it meant that I needed to paddle more challenging water, or just different water for variety. Sometimes it meant working on acquiring more skill in just one area. This lead me to paddling everything on my local river, the Chattooga, backwards from start to finish. I did, and not just once, but for months. It really did step up my skill level, although I will say that the school of hard knocks says not everything on Overflow Creek should be run backwards. Robert Harrison also taught me that canoes can bridge over somethings that kayaks can’t while on an Overflow trip. Doing 300+ rolls a day, and from intentionally harder positions can step up your game. So can doing 300 enders a day for a few weeks in an old school displacement boat. Sometimes it meant paddling with different folks, usually better than I was and paying attention. Sometimes it meant paddling other types of water craft, be it a raft, or open canoe, or decked canoe. Build 25 boats from scratch and you can learn things as well. Watch several talented friends build custom paddles and paddle companies and that can teach you things as well. Rarely is better gear required to advance one’s skills, if you have decent gear in the first place, but I will say that it did make a difference for me with a faster/longer sea kayak and a Lendal carbon fiber modified crank Powermaster paddle after I had been paddleing sea kayaks for 12 years including up to 15 foot seas off Nantucket. A Kokatat Gore-tex dry suit made a significant difference as well, just like a wetsuit did back in the early 70’s. Being able to paddle year round safely, means fewer reasons not to paddle and work on your skills. I can honestly claim to have paddled at minus 15F using mine. Paddling as many makes and models of boats teaches you things that keep you moving up as well, much like riding many other people’s horses or flying many makes of airplanes. Play boats happened while I was away from paddling flying airplanes or riding horses, but creek boats were/are more my thing. Never got into Ik’s and at my age now, I doubt that I will ever get into SUP’s. Have had one knee replaced and it is not perfect. Teaching others can not only keep you from getting stale, it can improve your skills as you think more. Note – not everyone learns the same way or at the same speed, so do not judge someone’s progress by your own or your progress by theirs. In general, most folks have to want to get better to be willing to do what is necessary to change from where they are at. While I heartily recommend to others taking a professionally taught skill school or refresher, I have not availed myself of this method of advancing my skills (other than in flying). but there are more of paddling schools now than there were in the distant past. Always wanted to go to Madawaska canoe school, but no time or money back then. Where I live now, they play boatball rather rabidly. Definately recommend playing boat ball as a keep sharp activity or advancing a beginner’s skills. Taking a whitewater/swift water rescue course can advance your skills, if it teaches you how to look at water and people better. Running every possible route on your local river forwards and backwards at all levels can be educational, as long as you also learn when to walk around to survive. You need to survive to get to the next level. And most folks eventually reach a stage in life when you start to accept being happy with what ever plateau you got to, and then accept regressing at some rate or accepting less risk. I’m at the stage of life now, that I am just happy with any form of paddling that gets me on the water. When my neurosurgeon agreed that paddling obvious helped me when months of spinal therapy had not, and said I needed to paddle as much as I could, it was “throw me in the briar patch Doc”. I live on a 35 mile long lake with over 450 miles of shoreline. That’s my 2 cents worth for tonight. Catch me around a gravel bar campfire if you want more, or come paddle with me.

  3. Nice words.

    The challenge as ever always lies within. I find the break from paddling for the snow season, and then the spring come back a wonderful opportunity to re-establish the firm fundamental foundation, so that you can step on through the coming season. Positive reflection on your own performance is a must and of course enjoyment of what you do.

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