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When you are learning something new, it can seem sometimes like there is too much information to take in. It doesn’t matter if it is learning to roll, to paddle, to do a freestyle trick, to boof, all of these things contain multiple aspects that all go together to make them work. And to make matters worse, each individual aspect can be further tuned and refined as you go on, to make them even better. In other words, once you think you’ve learnt how to do something, there is always a way to make it better, more refined, more efficient, or to get an altogether better result.

If for example you learn to roll and you then manage to come up, you might think you’ve learnt to roll. You might have rolled in the same way for 20 years, or you might have paddled using a particular way of doing the forward stroke for 30 years. There’s a common myth that you should leave well alone what works for you. But to say this means that you aren’t accounting for the fact that if you really examined things you might actually find a much better way, and then wonder why you’ve just spent the last three decades doing things the way that you have.

But whether it is learning from scratch, making refinements, or outright improvements, it can’t all be done in one go. The best way to learn is to break things right down into much smaller chunks. Let’s take two of the examples I mentioned above. The roll and the forward stroke.

The common components of all rolls could be (in no particular order);

  • Headgame and being comfortable under water
  • Waiting for the right moment
  • Paddle dexterity
  • Activation of the correct muscle groups
  • Correct use of the head
  • Being relaxed enough and using the correct muscle groups to allow the paddle only to act as passive support

The components of a pure forward stroke could be;

  • Correct paddle length
  • Connectedness to the boat
  • Posture
  • Power starting with the core
  • Full use of torso rotation to power the paddle movement
  • Rotational reach/wind up for the catch
  • Vertical paddle
  • Move the boat past the paddle, not the paddle past the boat
  • Not allowing the paddle to go too far back and end up lifting water
  • Keeping a quiet paddle
  • Don’t drop the top hand
  • Engaging the next stroke quickly and smoothly

Clearly if you tried to think about all of these things at once you’d end up throwing your paddles away in frustration. Yet sometimes this is exactly how some people try to learn!

Break it down and learn to cook

Learning is a process and can be summed up by comparing it to learning to cook. You wouldn’t try to create a meal worthy of a Michelin starred restaurant if the extent of your culinary experience was that you were only just capable of making yourself beans on toast.

Likewise you wouldn’t make a cake by taking all the required ingredients, smashing them all randomly into a bowl, and then placing them into the oven expecting an amazing cake to emerge after half an hour.

Sometimes each of the component ingredients need to be put together first, in stages, and then combined for the final cake or food recipe.

Sometimes this could be drilled right down to the slicing of an onion. A recipe might call for an onion to be finely chopped. You also need to make a fine distinction between chopping an onion and slicing an onion. But if you don’t know those differences, or how to do them properly, then you might not be able to prepare that onion adequately for the recipe you are preparing.

The loop conundrum

Currently I am trying to learn to flat water loop my freestyle boat. Learning on flat water is often harder than when the water is helping you. But it allows me to break movements down and understand them without having to be concerned about simultaneously dealing with the hole/wave.

So for the loop I need a few things, each of them taking time, and sometimes frustration to learn. To do a flat water loop properly I need to able to do the following:-

  • A double pump
  • A bow stall
  • The ability to balance and have control over the bow stall
  • The ability to ‘pump’ the boat to generate momentum for the aerial launch
  • Once the boat is airborne to throw the body forward and under the boat
  • To immediately throw the body back and my legs forward and over myself.
  • To keep the body going back all the way to the completion of the move.

I can do pretty much every part except the last two, and yet they are the most important. At the moment I keep twisting the boat to the side because I keep naturally going for a roll position. It’s a habit I need to get out of.

To help with this, during coaching session with Lowri Davies, she got me to try doing the movement without the paddle so I could really throw my body and arms back. It was moderately successful and showed up some important things I also need to think about and do.

This is an example of how although I know from a general perspective that I need to throw my body back to help open up and push my legs forward, the actual process of learning the movement can be broken down. Another aspect to this was getting the stern stall as well, which allows me to practice that last part too, as well as some dry land exercises and other tips that were suggested to me by Bartosz Czauderna and Sam Ward (not dropping names, just want to give credit where credit is due).

The key thing is not to get too frustrated, no matter what kayaking technique you are learning (easier said than done, I know). But to break things right down and look at this process as something to be enjoyed on its own.

Sometimes if you reach a stumbling block, it can be worth going back to the beginning again to see if you’ve missed something, because quite often something not going quite right at one point can be traced back to the stages before it.

4 comments on “One thing at a time

  1. WetandMucky says:

    Great post – A really useful tool I found for this on a coaching course is take the stroke or technique you are learning and write it in the middle of a sheet of paper, then mind map (or brain-storm if you’re ‘old school’) all the elements to that technique, everything from the essential parts to the little finishing touches to finesse the move.

    From here you can identify the “Key” components and work on them first in a step-by-step process, once you have them down you can add in the next element, then the next and so on. It’s a tool coaches use as for guided self discovery, but equally useful to do yourself.

  2. If the change improves things it was worth it if it doesn’t then it wasn’t. So it comes down to what you are willing to risk (both level and probability), how much or what you will gain and the effort needed to find out the answer. The second one is fixed but the others vary from person to person. So last night I tried a fix on my dodgy rolling which worked well (2 swims followed by fix and 3 rolls) and revisited emptying a kayak which didn’t (the normal, bow first way fails entirely the backwards, stern first method half works). Both pretty safe choices – it can’t really get much worse and I didn’t spend a lot of time having a go and it might actually work. Still not given up on the emptying a kayak just putting it off again as whatever is wrong really isn’t obvious unless it’s being short which seems to be a bit of a theme with this.

    1. kayakjournal says:

      So what you are saying is that there’s no point in self examine technique to try and improve it because there’s an off chance it could be worse? If you don’t try new things you’ll never improve. If you give up on something before being sure you are actually doing it correctly in the first place, you won’t improve. Sarah, let me ask you a specific question regarding your rolling. Why is it failing? What action/movement are you doing that is causing it to go wrong? Got a video?

      1. The trying to roll bit works quite well except for the second try which is non existant. Still a huge improvement. Come up about half the time, either stalls or just completely fails. Assuming it still looks the same as before everything sort of works but nothing works well. Paddle always ends up deep and the successful tweek was to try to put my head on my shoulder to discourage head lifting. Very surprised when I actually remembered that upside down! If I was describing the process I say fall over, get paddle in position, think for a while, throw the paddle out and hope. What goes wrong? I can feel the outcome but never got the hang of remembering what I did. I know other people can but it’s not far off the idea of reaching the top shelf, yes you can but it’s not realistic to think I’m going to. No recent video as I stopped when all it showed was that nothing much had changed in about 2 years. That sort of thing makes you cynical about the idea that working at something makes the slightest difference. A quick look back says this year I managed to finally repeat rolling on the legacy course after 3 years of swimming. This time is going better so it’s now a unreliable skill rather than a one off event. Alright that proves that working at something (head games) does work in the end but also confirms that the effort versus reward bit is frustratingly slow. You have to admit that 4 years to get to a low standard is going teach low expectations and a reluctance to try anything new or difficult.

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