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Mind games can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, or how skilful, once they set in they can take you back to the fearful mindset of a beginner.

Kayaking is a funny old thing when it comes to psychology. Some people seem to know no fear, while others feel the fear but are really, really good at not letting on that they do. Many others feel the fear and will openly admit it, but also allow the fear to control their kayaking. It is best summed up as “head games”, and I am suffering from it.

Head games never make sense logically, but our minds find a way to make them control us.

I started freestyle as a way to improve my general boating. When I first began messing around in short boats I was paddling all the time. I’d paddle my creek boat on rivers all through the winter going on trips all the time, and attending a considerable number of coached courses in places like Scotland and Slovenia. In the summer I would take both my creek boat and my playboat to CIWW pretty much every weekend without fail and mix it up between them. Even though I couldn’t do any freestyle tricks, paddling the shorter low volume boat was more of a challenge, and thus helped skills.

In the middle of the week I’d go to the slalom practice organised by Cheltenham and Wyedean clubs at Symonds Yat. There was also a group who privately set up their own slalom course at Nafford who I used to join in occasionally. Between that in the summer, I used to go with friends to the weir in the evening and generally mess around.

In short I was doing a lot more paddling, in a lot more varied situations, in different boats, than I do now. But I was also younger with less responsibilities in my life. It’s easy to paddle a lot when you don’t have much else to think about.

Thankfully the freestyle keeps me on the water regularly, although not in the varied situations as before. And that’s my fault. And it’s something I will be correcting from now on. The Ripper will now be coming with me each and every time I go to HPP for a few blasts down to get my down river skills back on track again.

A recent study found that one of the factors that made top athletes really good at what they did was variety. It wasn’t just practicing one skill, but doing a lot of variety within that skill. It’s another reason why if you paddle a river boat continuously you should get into a playboat a bit, and vice versa.

But what about the head games I mentioned? What I have been finding recently is that for some bizarre reason I’m having issues going into places like Fairy Wave at HPP. It’s exceptionally odd as it’s an absolutely fantastic feature, and one that previously I was comfortable on! At the moment I’m having great trouble even getting onto it.

This is of course incredibly frustrating as I know logically there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Or at least not ones that are presenting themselves. It’s doubly frustrating because I have an absolute ton of stuff from a coaching session a few weeks back that I really want to be working on, such as cartwheels, plugging, much better flat spin technique, and setting up for roundhouses etc. All stuff that is rather impossible to practice if your brain is going “No!”

The process

What I’ve found has been happening is that I am totally up for paddling all week, but when I arrive at a place for some reason all the doubts start creeping in. What if my roll fails? What if Emily swims and I have to chase boat? What if, what if, what if?!

And it’s all ridiculous. My roll is generally solid, apart from one mishap a few weeks back, which again was part of the head game issue. In fact that incident shows up just how utterly, utterly stupid the head games thought process is.

I had been attempting a high cross on Twin Wave but got flushed out, and in the process of going off the back of the wave ‘tripped’ over my paddle. It happens. So I roll up on my offside. I actually come all the way up but for some inexplicable reason fall back in again! So I roll up on my onside, and the same damn thing happens! I was up for crying out loud!

So anyway, my stupid thought process went like this. “I don’t want to go through jaws upside down. I know, instead of trying a third roll which I have plenty of time and space to do, I’ll pull the deck and go swimming through it instead!”

Yeah, dumb. *Reallllllllly dumb*!

So not only did I have have pretty much all the time in the world to have another roll attempt, going through Jaws upside down would not have been a terrible experience, and there’s plenty of flat afterwards before Troll Hole!

So what am I going to do about it all?

This cannot go on, and I’m not going to let it. Taking advice from a few people I am going to do a few things.

  1. On Fairy Wave I’m just going to go in and set small challenges for myself, such as side surfing for 10 seconds on one side, coming out, then going back in to do the same the other side. Yep, this is a pretty big step backwards in terms of skills practice, but I’m not exactly going to get my mojo back by thinking about how I’m going to do a loop or a blunt etc!
  2. I want to make my back deck roll instinctive. On my first failed roll I mentioned above, if my back deck roll was one of my natural ‘go to’ rolls I could have been back up in a second after I started to topple over again. It’s sooooooo much faster to do than a screw roll or C-C because there’s no set up faffing. You could probably do 2-3 back deck rolls in the time it takes someone to go over and wait until they float to the surface into set up and do a traditional roll.
  3. I’m going to mix things up more and bring my river boat so I can do some blasts in that to keep my general skills in check, which helps with confidence in abilities by reminding myself that I’m not a complete beater!
  4. If something is going badly, change tact and do something different. If I am having a bad day on one feature, go for a blast down the course or go onto a different feature.
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