Paddler Focus: Chris Wing

The advent of YouTube and Vimeo has in recent years made access to many videos of an instructional nature very easy. Being able to analyse the skills of a wide base of experts is now only a click away. However copying by rota doesn’t always get the results that may be needed, and often bad habits may be developed as well. So the best way of helping skills development, in my opinion, has always been to take coaching or instruction.

One person who has come up with an alternative approach to instructional videos for kayaking is Chris Wing, and it is my pleasure to present a Q&A with him in the first of my Paddler Focus series of interviews.

Chris is the man behind H2o Dreams, producing free instructional and coaching videos such as “The Whitewater Troubleshooter” series tackling common issues paddlers have, and more recently the new “Playboater Troubleshooter“.

Chris is a resident of Cleveland, Ohio and is sponsored by Wave Sport. With his unique and clear take on instructional videos and his insatiable enthusiasm for his sport it was only right that I posed him some questions on the great and good of kayaking.

Chris, could you tell us a little bit about your background in paddling and how you got started?

Chris Wing

Chris Wing, Whitewater Troubleshooter

I started paddling almost by accident when I went away to university. Kent State University had a pretty stellar recreation program and facility, which included outdoor pursuits. I started rock climbing at the indoor wall and thought it would be a pretty cool job. Turns out they weren’t hiring for the rock wall, but they were hiring for adventure trip leaders. This blew my mind; I couldn’t even fathom that taking vacations could be a job. My first boss was excellent at cross training us in everything, but whitewater kayaking stuck with me. Living in Ohio, the area really isn’t known for its whitewater so I spent a lot of time in the pool, watching videos, reading books – basically absorbing whatever I could. I was head over heels. I was learning to teach all the while I was learning to kayak. The two went hand in hand in that environment. Nobody knew any better that I was a newbie myself!

What are the aspects of kayaking that keep you coming back to your boat every day?

The setting. The feel of the water. It’s pull.

Do you feel that sometimes the environment, the whole idea of just being there is often lost these days with the focus on “the gnar”?

It’s largely individual. I think the youth in the sport are primarily focused on the more extreme. They look at a majority of the professional athletes who are accomplishing bigger, scarier and more technical runs and choosing these folks as role models. That I think has always been the case in just about any fringe sport. Some of it is the marketing as well. I don’t think the primal feeling of environment is lost on anyone who has done a wilderness run in a truly beautiful and pristine area, no matter how difficult it is. Those are profound experiences for just about anyone.

What have you found to be the most challenging thing to overcome or solve so far in your kayaking journey?

Group dynamics on the river. When it’s good, it’s good. But man, when it’s bad, it gets really bad. I think everyone has experienced both sides of this one. I think communication and relaying information is one of the most challenging things you can ever encounter while on the river. I also think we have gotten lazy too. I think there is a lot of “follow-me” happening and less actual study and understanding of the dynamics of the river and how we relate to them.

Chris Wing scouting a rapid

In the UK there is a course provided by the BCU to cover leadership and group management dynamics. However it is seen more as a qualification than as something all paddlers should do. Do you think that this sort of problem is confined to younger paddlers, or is it something that afflicts a larger sphere of the sport?

I think this affects the sport as a whole. Human beings are fairly Ego-driven, and I mean that with no negative connotation. Ego is self preservation in many ways. However, in the learning curve of whitewater sports, as well as in life, we come to cruxes that force us to show our vulnerability, the antithesis to Ego. Kids don’t mind showing vulnerability, in fact, when have you ever to know a kid to not let you know exactly how they feel? I think there is a change that occurs in adolescence where we start to really hide our vulnerabilities and not acknowledge them.

Kayaking is the ultimate paradox for us. We can’t ever face our on water demons until we can be absolutely and brutally honest about our weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Honesty and humility with ourselves, the river and other people are the constant struggle to great leadership. It’s an art and not a certification. As leaders trying to teach leadership, we can bullet point only so much, until the understudy has to go and try it, and it is harder than any power point presentation.

Are there any moments in your kayaking career so far that really stand out for you?

I can still remember my first river trip. It was pure magic. I swam a time or two. But the water was cool and clear. The gorge wrapped us up. The drops seemed absolutely huge. In hindsight, they might have been 2-3 foot ledges. It was all instinct for the most part to get down that first time so it was pretty raw feeling.

Any trip that made it feel like that first time really stands out.

What was the impetus that lead you to become a kayaking instructor/coach?

As I said before, I was actually being trained to teach while I was learning to kayak. Teaching was what fed my own addiction as well. I also didn’t have a lot of folks to paddle with so I had to teach people so they could join me. What drives me to continue is my genuine interest in making sure that folks feel that same raw energy I felt when I had my start.

Whitewater kayaking is often seen, particularly through the eyes of manufacturers as one of the smaller segments of the market, yet it is also the most publicly visible. Why do you think that more people don’t take up white water kayaking? Is it real fear, perhaps false perceptions, or maybe something more, perhaps the public perception that marketing gives it?

I think it literally comes down to time and cost. At the startup, there is a great deal of equipment one has to acquire, and then there is the prospect of instruction, which I encourage before equipment a lot of the time. But what makes it worse is the learning curve can be discouraging. I mean, what other sport can you do for several years and still be average? The learning curve steepens dramatically when you can dedicate a great deal of time to it. It’s comfort. The typical person will not make the lifestyle change necessary to excel in this sport. It truly is a lifestyle sport; that means it changes how you live. I’m not so sure everyone is ready for that, let alone know what that means beforehand.

I do believe the sport is accessible to anyone that truly wants it. The one thing I always ask my students to maintain is willingness. With time, the skills, the understanding and the challenging lines will follow.

What do you think needs to be done to improve the take up of white water kayaking? Or do you feel that it may always remain a small niche?

What would help incoming folks to return to the sport is a clear path, or at least an understanding of their progression. Access to equipment while they put the money to the side to get their own. A mentor is a great thing to have.

What I have described in essence is a paddling club. And there are a great deal of strengths as well as pitfalls in clubs. The strength is generally in human resources, access to people going to different places. Basically, they excel with beginners to advanced beginners. They offer the hook. At this point, the only pitfall I have seen with clubs is plateauing or staying too close to what is familiar, which can be due to a lack of access to advanced teaching. But overall, they really do offer the best foundation for retainment in our sport.

This reflects some of the conversations I have had with paddlers over here. I know through experience that often clubs can lose some fantastically capable paddlers due to the lack of progression onto more challenging water, and it is something that comes up a lot when I talk with other club members. Do you think that there are any easy solutions to this? I know some would say that artificial whitewater such as that at the Olympic Lee Valley course may give an avenue for clubs to practice more regularly and gain skills on tricky water. How do you feel about such venues?

That’s a really tough question and I might have to stew on that one a bit more. However, I have taught and trained on an artificial course for 6 years and my paddling/teaching progression went through the roof. An artificial venue is a great supplement to other paddling. I know personally, there is a lot of stigma surrounding our park, in terms that it does not prepare you properly for natural flow. I tend to disagree from a skills perspective.

This topic begs another question though, which is how important is aesthetic to the paddling experience? And I feel the aesthetic value is highly underrated. Experience is a qualitative value that cannot be measured and I believe experiences on a “off the grid” run to be far superior to artificial courses and dam released runs.

As a coach you will have seen many different types of paddler from all sorts of backgrounds and skill levels. What do you find seems to be the most common issues paddlers come to you to try and overcome?

Always rolling, hands down. There are a few other things that are a common theme. But I tend to agree with where people have put their focus. A person who truly has a bomber roll will be willing to try anything in paddling. Your comfort is a quality of the roll: the more comfortable, the better your roll.

I can certainly relate to that on a personal level as a lack of a confident roll has often held me back from trying things out. However do you think that it can sometimes work the opposite way too, with someone with a solid roll perhaps taking more risks with the expectation of relying on it to get them down difficult water? The story about Walt Blackader often heavily relying on his roll to get him through rapids springs to mind.

I’m just going to say that when we are keeping ourselves upright in our kayaks we are only experiencing the river superficially. I’m not saying getting your ass kicked down any run is a quality experience. But your overall spatial awareness is heightened when you are comfortable rolling in any situation and in any fashion.

I find also the longer I paddle, the more I yearn to know what’s happening beneath the surface too. We really have only scratched the surface with instruction. The folks who are life time learners of the river have been masters of every kind of roll, every kind of stroke and every kind of craft. I think depth of knowledge is what we strive for. Or at least that is what I strive for.

Chris Wing

What do you think is the biggest thing that holds people back from achieving a reliable roll? Is it psychological, perhaps not liking the idea of practicing in a cold river? Lack of facilities such as a pool? Or something more?

Some people/instructors undersell the skill. They don’t feel competent in teaching it and try to put it off. It is not only a hard skill to learn but it is a hard skill to teach. It deals greatly with comfort and if the instructor doesn’t have the skill set to put the student at ease, then they are already struggling at the presentation of the skill.

Everything again comes down to ego and vulnerability. As long as you are a willing participant in being exposed, then the quicker you can work through your comfort issues and into the hard skills. This goes for both the student and instructor. The instructor is just as much a student in this process. They have to learn as much about the individual as possible to make it an attainable goal for the student.

cuyahoga

Recently you have been producing some extremely informative and freely available instructional videos about kayaking. You have approached them with a unique take and philosophy over many other videos out there. Could you explain some more about this approach and what lead you to take that particular angle?

Number one, I am not trying to reinevent the wheel. We know what the physics of our techniques are. My approach is to figure out the best way to relay those physics to the student, give them ownership and ultimately give them the ability to be self-coachable. The only way you can do this is to not ignore the physics.

A lot of standardized kayak certifications give you a curriculum to teach. While I think as a beginning kayak instructor you do need that, I also think that some of our approaches to teaching have been band-aids for bigger problems. In this paradigm, I found myself going back on things I had said in beginner lessons when I had a student return for something more advanced. A lot of my whitewater troubleshooter series really was trying to address my own pet peeves as an instructor, and thus my approach appeared as something new. There are a lot of instructors who think the same way I do and many who actually taught me to think differently in terms of my approach to teaching.

But ultimately the student has formed my approach. I really tried paying attention to what discouraged beginners early on in the learning curve, and what continues to complicate boaters as they become intermediate boaters. You will find that the themes stand out clear as day.

In the UK it has been observed by some that sometimes running a river becomes more about the class of water that you have run, rather than the enjoyment that is gained from being out on the water. This is in contrast to how some have observed paddling in the US where the fact that you are out on the water in the first place is celebrated. Do you think that there is a tendency for people to feel pressured to run before they can walk in white water kayaking? Perhaps ending up on a much higher class of water than they should be through peer pressure or in a effort to improve by doing ever more difficult water when they might not even have the lower grades handled well?

I think this is the theme everywhere at the moment. Getting down a run from putin to takeout doesn’t mean you are a master of that run. And we generally base rivers as pre-requisites for other rivers. This shows a lack of development in judgement. That judgment, however, is forged through experience and you cannot have experience without, well, experience. So there is a paradox that lives in this question and answer.

This also becomes reflected in our instruction progression as instructors are looked to advance students along as quickly as folks who have not received instruction. The question, “why am I not running this, when Joe Blow is already running this.”

It comes down to a precedent that has been reinforced recently: quantity over quality. Quantity is easy to gauge and quality is not, as it is more subjective. Therefore, folks are setting the bar based on the number of runs and which runs. It’s the same progression we always have struggled with, only now it has been exacerbated by how quickly kayaking as a whole has stepped it up.

I can say for the folks that are hoping to achieve what they see happening at the top end of the sport that it takes a great deal of experience and skill to execute safely.

sternsplat

Related to the above, quite often in the UK a person can be chastised for using what some consider to be a large boat like a Diesel, Burn, Mamba, or Nomad etc down rivers. There’s a certain type of paddler here who seem to suggest that unless you are paddling the lowest volume, sliciest, most edgy boat then you won’t learn anything and the boat will do everything for you. Is it the boat or the paddler?!

It certainly is the paddler. If you took the paddler out of the boat, would the boat travel downstream with control? The boat is a tool, however, and knowing how to use a boat as such and not as a crutch is imperative. So yes, I think we see, especially with modern design at the moment, a shift to boat buying that offers the most forgiveness.

I think the best paddlers can hop into any boat at any time, adapt and learn how to make the craft they are in perform. I used to reference paddlers that I really looked up to as “being able to paddle a Tupperware box and make it look good.”

The point, though, is that life long paddlers will paddle everything and really learn each crafts nuance. Each boat can force you to paddle differently, and as a result, this expands your depth of knowledge and your personal toolbox for the river.

Chris Wing coaching

A lot of coaching these days is based upon outcomes, often with less focus on the specifics of absolute stroke technique. How do you feel about this? Do you think that learning is best achieved by self discovery or do you think that a precise technique foundation should be there as a base?

It has to be a combination of both. If you always put absolute focus on technique you take a lot of the joy out of paddling as well as flexibility. There is a saying in teaching that you remember more from what you discover than what you hear. Learning is best with a blend of presentation and feedback. Again, it’s individual, and we tend to over generalize the learning/teaching process.

When teaching a rank beginner, I choose to give them a few minutes of paddle time before I give them any information. This short period of time helps them develop a natural style before I complicate things with the burden of knowledge. You would be surprised how this works with particular skills and how much time it will save you in the long run as an instructor. This isn’t the answer to teaching every skill though. Flexibility in your teaching and learning style can make you a more complete instructor/student. The only inflexibility that has to remain between the student/instructor is trust. Everything else is open to creative thought.

In one of your videos in the Whitewater Troubleshooter series you made specific mention of the overuse of edging, and how you only need to use the edge as a tool, with a hull flat to the surface often providing the best base. With the exception of a couple of coaches such as Simon Westgarth and slalom coaches I have not come across this take on things much over here. Why do you think such issues prevail? Is it because not enough people take coaching/instruction or is it because the idea of over edging a lot is ingrained so deeply across a majority that it gets passed down as doctrine?

I don’t think edging is overused, I think it is being taught as a band-aid for a bigger issue, which is the students ability to stay upright. And when we teach the student this way, we reinforce that edging is merely used for stability and, moreover, that flipping over is a bad thing, which leads to future comfort issues.

Edging is an element of control in turning the boat. It provides directional stability in carving turns. So, especially when we teach students to exit eddies in this way, they struggle to maintain control if they are trying to keep the direction of the boat constant, such as in ferrying.

The true enemy of stability and momentum is dynamic spin. In essence, we have taken the emphasis off of what controls spin, which is stroke choice and timing, and put it on edging, which yes offers stability but also enhances turning in the kayak. Big concept? Yes. Important to understand as a beginner? Absolutely.

I hear 99% of instructors teach this way. It has been passed down through generations of coaches and instructors and this is just an example of how doctrine can lock us in to dogmatic thinking. This dogma, which the student is not aware of, pigeonholes them in to many of the aggravations they experience from beginner to intermediate. In this particular case study, that is boat control.

The instructional videos that you have created over the years, that people can watch for free on Youtube, are some of the most informative I have seen, and also some of the best shot. The production value is going up with each series that you produce. Do you feel that you might take this further in the future, perhaps into the realms of documentary filmmaking?

Firstly, thank you for the high compliment! We are very proud about the videos we have produced. I have many folks to thank for the co-production. I spend a great deal of time sitting and contemplating and visualizing the result. In recent history that has resulted in more refined scripting, hence the better production quality. It takes a lot of time and effort to put this idea into action, so, the more preparation, the better the result.

Instruction has been a long time occupation and passion of mine and I do believe that we will continue along this path. The one thing we lack is the consistency at times that you see with many folks producing traditional instruction video. By that, I mean consistency of timing and availability. I take a great deal of time with each and every video. I want it to be complete and digestible but at the same time, truly addressing common pitfalls. I tend to need more than a simple how-to, I am always more curious about, “how the heck did that happen?”

In terms of future projects and the possibility of documentary filmmaking, I will simply answer, yes.

Is a follow-up to the Whitewater Troubleshooter on the cards, perhaps dealing with more advanced river running/creeking concepts?

We are currently mid-production on the Playboater Troubleshooter and we look to wrap up that series about mid-September. These series, although relatively short in nature, are very time consuming. I think we will be looking to expand on the current videos first and release them as a full collection for DVD.

What’s awesome is that these videos have begged even bigger questions and we have been taking notes and thinking about how we can make them even better. My goal is not to simply remake the same videos we have already produced. There is no growth with that approach. Our philosophy at H2o Dreams is, Creative, Passionate and Driven. That’s not a catch phrase, it really is our philosophy. Always growing.

Chris Wing

In 10-15 years how do you see your own kayaking as well as the state of the whitewater industry in general?

So I am just coming to the end of my first 5-year plan, and I am pleasantly surprised at my follow through. It’s not entirely what I envisioned, but it never is. So I suppose it is time to start thinking ahead again! 10-15 years is way beyond my scope, but I’ll give it a go.

I certainly see myself being a lifelong paddler and instructor. I see myself developing many more critical thinking instructors; folks that will even challenge my own thought process. I do see myself stepping back from full time teaching of kayaking eventually as I would like to explore a bit more in and out of the kayak. There is a hope to develop a non-profit side to H2o Dreams focused on stewardship but we are still dreaming that up. My life long goal, however, is to continue to remain dedicated to the river environment and community.

In terms of the industry, there are folks who have done way more research on this topic than I have but my sense is we will be faced with a few options: continue down the path that we have already known and remain small and niche- which is fine and sustainable; experience growth that will benefit only the producers (i.e. manufacturers, big schools, governing bodies) in the sport and then experience the same growth/decline we saw around 2001; or grow communities that benefit the people on the frontlines, which are the educators, the club members and the people just getting their start in the sport. I think there are some trends that we are seeing currently that are reassuring but we need to keep it up.

3 thoughts on “Paddler Focus: Chris Wing

  1. Great interview, one comment re: paddling edgier boats as a learning tool.
    Of course it is the paddler that controls the boat, and as Chris says a good boater will make paddling look effortless in a big or small boat. However I believe there is an educational benefit to a developing paddler to using an edgier boat as part of their learning, it provides more direct feedback as to the consequence of edging, trim and balance, and how to make these work for you. A learner jumping straight into a large “safer” boat will of course still progress, but by design the direct feedback from the water is reduced, reducing the feedback the paddler gets and potentially extending the boat time required to understand some of these dynamics.
    It’s not an all or nothing answer, and ultimately we need is to paddle as many different boats as we can, but I do think exposure to an edgier boat is a valuable tool in teaching the dynamics of our sport to someone who is keen to progress quickly.

  2. Pingback: Paddler Focus: Chris Wing – H2o Dreams

  3. Pingback: Paddler Focus: Chris Wing | H2o Dreams LLC

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