How can I improve?

Improving skills in kayaking is a subject that comes up often. I know some may be thinking as they read this article “Who does this fool with no pieces of paper to his name think that he is?” True, I am not a kayak coach, but I do teach martial arts, so I can still offer a perspective from the point of view of learning physical skills in a live, constantly changing fluid environment/situation. There are in fact many parallels between the learning of martial arts and kayaking. Particularly in Wing Chun, the art that I practice, which is very focussed on reacting to an opponents movement at close range while in contact with them. I quite often see and hear the same questions being asked by paddlers on both social media sites, and on coached kayak sessions that I have taken part in or have observed.

In addition to the questions being asked are some of the attitudes that are held. In all of this discussion however, it must always be remembered that the point of kayaking is to have fun. Whilst some people are sponsored, the primary reason that we do this activity is, frankly, to mess around in the outdoors on our days off or at the weekend, and to forget about the dullness of the week just gone and ahead at work. Unfortunately the vast majority of us cannot go out paddling on a whim, and so we need to make the most of the time on the water that we have.

Kayaking as a martial art

Often when I am teaching someone or training with them in the martial art that I do, I get asked how to improve. There is sometimes a bewilderment at a certain skill, or level of skill. The lazy answer is that the way to improve is simply time spent practicing. When someone I am teaching has only been practicing for a couple of years when I have been training for 22 odd years, you would naturally expect me to be better than them! This isn’t always the case I might add. You can in fact sometimes learn a lot from beginners, their mindset, and their line of questioning. In fact some of my biggest “aha” moments have come when a novice has asked me some question about something that I had never previously thought about or considered.

Old habits die hard

Part of the key to getting better at a skill is certainly to practice, yes, but to practice  smarter. A case in point is the power stroke, or boof stroke in kayaking. At its heart this is just a perfect forward stroke. A paddler could practice such a stroke by pulling back on the paddle, and shifting their weight back. If they did this enough they would get good at performing that method. But would it be the right, or the best way to perform the stroke? Most, if they know the mechanics of what makes an effective paddle stroke would disagree.

Another example is the roll. Many people muscle their way up. They manage to get upright due to sheer force, and then struggle on the last part of their roll with their head coming up far too early. I have seen some paddlers getting away with this for years. The saying goes that any roll that gets you up is a good one. Much like the old aviation saying that any landing in which you can walk away from is a good landing! Even if the plane is a wreck!

The trouble with this is that it excuses bad technique that could well be physically detrimental, and getting someone to ‘zero’ themselves back off and relearn the movement to be much more effective often means that they initially swim more, or can’t get as much power in the stroke as they had previously, whilst getting used to the newly learnt method. It can also be very frustrating because sometimes bad habits are so deeply ingrained that it literally feels like going back to being a rank beginner again for some. There is a reluctance to accept that sometimes you do have to go back to square one in order to get truly better. A better way to think of it, though, is that it is fine to take one step back in order to take two steps forward.

Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect technique. So it is very hard to get people out of bad habits, particularly when they are reluctant to accept that they have bad habits to begin with! I have been on courses where fellow students did not want to be corrected on what they were already doing, and instead simply wanted the coach to add to their ‘skills’. They often failed to realise that many new skills were not open to them because the basic building blocks to do so were not there yet.

Break it down

Another question that gets asked on a regular basis is how to get better on a certain grade of water. Well, it depends on what your idea of ‘better’ is. If it is just surviving so that you can tell your mates that you are a G4 or 5 paddler, and you want to post up a photo on Facebook going off a waterfall, then the answer is simple. Just paddle a lot more G4 and 5.

If on the other hand you want universal skills for truly enjoying your boating, then it pays to actually examine what you are doing and how, and perfecting those skills on lower grades. There is a sizeable tendency for some paddlers to chase the grades and to turn their nose up at lower classes of water as if it is something that they are forced to do. I find it pretty funny in conversation how regularly a paddler will say that they have gone on, say a G2 or 3 river, but then add a caveat, as if to apologise for doing it because they are ‘normally on Grade 4’.

Vary it up

One of the best ways to develop skills is varied practice. Doing the same thing over and over just gets you good at doing that skill. This is excellent for practicing a very specific area of skill that you want, but even then, varying the way that you practice is the way to truly improve. This is why I find it impossible to accept how anybody can become bored on any grade or type of water. If you do, you simply aren’t looking hard enough or creatively enough.

Being varied applies just as much to isolated practice as it does to the idea of trying out different aspects of boating, such as slalom or freestyle, rather than being fixated as a river runner.

Rolling is a another prime example of how varied practice is extremely beneficial. So many paddlers simply practice the roll by going into a setup position as they roll over on flat water. Of course, you very rarely go over in setup position when you capsize for real. The solution that is often offered to this conundrum is to go over in differing positions. This is perfectly valid, but you are still going over prepared and knowing what will happen.

Yet, even flat water playboating would help with this. Going over in all sorts of positions over and over. Since getting bitten by the playboating bug I cannot sing its praises enough. Even if I only have flat water available to me I can have an absolute blast! And this summer I hope to take to the waves and holes much more so that by the end of the year I can hopefully be at least a little less crap at it!

Because of the environments in which we paddle white water, paddlers can find it difficult  to find ways to isolate skills and find ways to develop them in a useful way outside of situations that could potentially mean an uncomfortable swim. As with all aspects of life, sometimes you simply do just have to jump into the cauldron. For example if you want to improve your skill at getting out of, or playing in sticky holes, you do need to put yourself in a few sticky holes in order to achieve that aim.

Be more open and creative

However you can certainly isolate different aspects of the skills you need. For instance to improve your balance and edge control, and upper and lower body seperation, that in turn will help you in those situations, at least helping you stay upright for longer while you work on that skill. You just have to get creative sometimes, and start to see how what you practice in your kayak in different environments connects with other areas.

Take big stoppers as another instance. How can you isolate such a skill without having to find a big stopper on a river and re-running it? In the UK we rely on the rain for our rivers, but we are also very lucky because nobody lives more than 75 miles from the sea (okay smart arses, I know I haven’t taken into account actual road mileage). However, take a small boat, go to the coast, and practise paddling out through the breaking waves! No rocks to worry about for the most part, and if you swim, as long as you are careful to pick places without huge rip tides, you will just wash onto the beach if you cock up.

Even when the surf is medium, the breakers that you have to plough through are usually much bigger than anything on most UK rivers. So not only can you improve your balance and ability to deal with those big hits, you can also practice different boof strokes to lift your bow over them. You can practice hitting them side on, and at different angles to act as huge laterals. It’s not all about catching the wave. But then you can also practice surfing skills on the way back in! And then eat ice cream. It’s win-win!

Unfortunately many people will not see those parallels. They view going to the beach to surf as simply just that, and the breakers as something to be put up with in order to get a ride back to shore. The parallel with dealing with stoppers is seen as somehow a separate and unrelated skill to anything on the rivers. It isn’t as long as your mind allows you to see it as such. It all adds up and stacks together.

But what is important here is that such practice is simply about mucking about and trying different things. You want to make sure you are using good technique, but doing that while having a laugh takes away the silly idea of formalised dull training for the hobbyist.

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