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Recently I had a brief discussion with someone about the merits or otherwise of being coached in kayaking. This person was keen to get himself onto much harder white water in an effort to improve. He is a very solid grade 3 kayaker, but he wants to be equally solid at grade 4.

We both had polar opposite views of the best way to progress. He was of the opinion that he didn’t need any technique coaching and that it was simply a case of getting onto the water and naturally becoming better through trial and error.

There are merits in what he says. Certainly guys like Sam Sutton, from what I am aware, have become good through a combination of natural talent and time on the water. Surprisingly Sutton has only been kayaking for around 7 years at the time of writing. He was winning extreme creek races much earlier in his career as well, only three or so years after starting. Others too are naturally talented such as Aniol Serralsoses and his older brother Gerd.

There is one common theme between such people. They eat, drink, and sleep kayaking. They started young, and they are on the water almost continuously, travelling to some of the most challenging rivers in the world. They are also paddling with people who are their equals or even better in terms of abilities.

There is a saying, “perfect practice makes permanent”. The emphasis being on the word “perfect”. Many of the top guys, if asked, will emphasis practicing on low grade rivers and even flat water to improve strokes and core skills, but that practice must be high quality.

Then there are strategies to use on the white water including selecting lines, using the water to help you down a rapid etc. These sorts of aspects will become more critical on harder water. If you are still crashing, drifting, and surviving down lower grade water without being able to pinpoint where you want to be and get there, then there is a lot of developing for you to do before being able to properly tackle the harder stuff with any degree of competence or safety.

If you can only get out to paddle once a week sporadically then the trial and error method of learning really does start to fall apart. You will not have enough river time to really ingrain and learn water reading strategies, key stroke placements etc. Hoping that you can barrel down the rapids and somehow learn something meaningful is going to take a very long time indeed, as well as risking ingraining bad habits. Not least because the rain Gods won’t play ball each time you have a chance to paddle and you might end up on lower grades more frequently than you would like, thus further reducing time on bigger water.

To disregard technique, especially a stroke like the basic forward stroke is detrimental in a big way. I once had a conversation with another paddler who told me that he couldn’t see the need for a perfect forward stroke because he hardly used it in whitewater.

The flaws in such a statement are gargantuan to behold. For a start the method that you use to power the forward stroke effectively transfers to all the other strokes too. If your forward stroke is ineffective, splashy, and is all arms, then how do you expect to make that critical line when you’ve messed up and the river is wanting you somewhere else? How are you going to make strong, effective ferries, or apply strong turning strokes? Lastly how on earth do you expect to master the boof or power stroke if you do not understand how to apply a perfect forward stroke? After all, the boof stroke is exactly that, a perfect forward stroke that is followed through.

Of course it may be a coincidence that going out on the flat water to practice a forward stroke is not the most exiting of prospects to some of these people. However to disregard it is to ignore an incredibly important part of your paddling.

Just because you can drift down a grade 2 or 3 rapid without much effort in a big boat does not necessarily mean that you should. If you drift down such rapids without taking a proactive approach and attempt to read and use the water in the same way you would a higher grade then all you are doing is training yourself be slow and lazy on the bigger stuff as well.

I speak from experience here. One of the biggest criticisms of my paddling style is that I can be quite mono-speed in that I have a bad habit of not varying my stroke rate. It is something I am working on now to change because failure to do so could mean being taken off line in more critical rapids.

Another example is the forward stroke. I practiced all I could using books and some videos as reference. I thought I had nailed it until I went to a session with Simon Westgarth and he pointed out that I wasn’t really powering it very effectively. He went on to demonstrate why that was with practical demonstrations, and it has now changed the way that I paddle.

I wouldn’t know these things unless a high level experienced coach had pointed them out to me. That is why coaching is so necessary if you are aiming to push things, and your time on the river is limited. How can you ever improve by trial and error if you are not even aware of which aspects you need to change or improve? This doesn’t just apply to technique, it also applies to reading the water, using the flow, key stroke placement and many more aspects.

You might say to yourself that you are aware of the need to improve an aspect of your paddling, but you might be totally unaware that one other very small change in another different aspect may transform the way that you paddle. Such things can only be shown to you effectively by an experienced eye giving you guidance.

Learning by trial and error can ingrain bad habits which become reinforced over time. This becomes more apparent the more time you spend in a coached environment and you see people from all spheres trying to unlearn poor, and sometimes damaging technique.

You can’t be coached all the time, clearly. You have to take the sessions and then spend some time applying what you have learnt. However at least you have been pointed in the right direction instead of stabbing blindly in the dark, which is what self teaching generally is. Especially if you are someone with a life outside of kayaking and can only get out onto the river infequently.

4 comments on “Self teaching vs coaching

  1. Allen M. says:

    A reckon Sam Sutton and every other bad ass paddler that taught themselves … spent a lot of time on the water paddling with people that were, at the time, much better than they were. They were teaching themselves, by watching others and analyzing the lines, the strokes, the posture … and many other things.

  2. Hamish Norton (Coach/Trainer) says:

    There are some good points in here. The short of it though is the more you apply yourself, the more you’ll get out of it, the greater the paddler you’ll be.
    If you think it’ll just come to you by pushing your boundaries, heed the warming; you’re taking bigger risks than you need to and potentially endangering others.
    The mantra, “Absorb”, “Modify” and “Apply” come to mind.
    Become your own coach, feed that thirst to be come best you can.
    Like mentioned above paddle with those you’ll gain from, and take it all in.
    You’ll enjoy the paddling, and the comradery.

  3. tvcrider says:

    You have written an excellent article! The same thoughts apply to sea kayakers, including ‘reading the water’. I have a pretty decent skill set, but I recently attended a Sea Kayak Rendezvous in Maine, USA. It was basically a highly organized sea kayak meet-up run by BCU and ACA coaches/instructors. Over the Rendezvous’ three days participants stayed with the same pod (4-5 paddlers), but drew a different pair of coaches each day. Yes, my skills helped, but I learned so much about reading water and fine-tuning various technique elements. It was time and money very well spent.

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