Try as we might to try and kill it, the brace, particularly the high brace still gets taught as a primary technique. Usually any discussion of such things opens a hornets nest of opinion. But something to consider is that those of us who hate the high brace with a passion and think it needs to go the way of the fibreglass boat never say it’s an invalid technique. Just not a particularly good one. Here’s why.
It’s reactive rather than pro-active.
One thing I have found to be constant amongst those who have learnt braces of any sort as their primary means of regaining stability is that they are always ready to brace, instead of being pro-active with their paddling. Weight is already primed to go towards the back of the boat in anticipation of being tipped over instead of keeping a positive, slightly forward posture, ready to drive over waves and features.
Watch any slalom paddler. Do they brace, ever? The answer is no. Have you ever seen a top modern coach bracing their way down the river? The answer is no. There’s a reason for that. It’s not because they are so good that they don’t need to brace. It’s because they use far better methods so that they never, or very rarely, need to call upon them.
On that note I still see low braces being taught as a method of breaking into the flow. The excuse is often that it is easier for a beginner to understand. But it is passive and puts you at the mercy of the flow, and by teaching it as the main method from the beginning, all you are doing is making it much harder for them to undo the habit later on. It might once have been the bee’s knees, but it isn’t any more and there are far, far better methods now such as using a driving stroke into a stern squeeze.
It doesn’t address the reason you tipped.
Being reliant on a brace, especially a high brace, is a band-aid for a bigger problem. In other words the reason you tipped will go back much further than just the feature that tipped you up.
It makes bad posture your default, even when in features.
I see this a lot. Someone will go in to a hole or onto a wave, but because they are expecting to tip and high bracing is their default, they pretty much spent the entire time in that high brace position trying to ‘scull’ their way around. Not only does it look ridiculous, but it doesn’t work. Positive posture and drive trumps passive and unstable body position every time!
It looks ridiculous.
Yep, high bracing in particular looks crap. No really it does look awful. So stop its unless you are wearing a purple and fluorescent yellow cag with a Wildwater helmet and nylon spray deck while paddling a Perception Whip-it.
It puts your shoulders at risk.
Yes I know people are going to chime up and say “A decently done high brace is fine for the shoulders”. But there’s a big elephant in the room with this. Firstly most high braces I see most certainly aren’t done properly, and secondly most high braces I see taught aren’t taught properly. Thirdly most high braces I see done live on a river are done in a panic, and therefore not done properly. The result, as I have seen on numerous occasions, is a popped shoulder. I’ve been there when it’s happened.
I don’t care how good you think your high brace is. If it is one of your main go-to reactive stability recoveries you are lucky, that is all. The clock is ticking, but you can change your methods if you really want to.
What are you supposed to do instead?
For a start you need to make a positive, upright paddle posture natural. So many paddlers are lazy and slouch. That’s bad for your back, it’s no good for core rotation, and it’s completely ineffectual for transferring power to the hull.
Second you need to learn a really good forward stroke. Learn how to use your core to power the stroke, not your arms. When you try to paddle fast do you create lots of noise with great big swathes of water being scooped up everywhere? You need some forward paddling tuning. Do you feel stress on your arms and shoulders after lots of paddling? That’s a sure sign you are not using the right muscle groups.
Third, you need to read the water better, learn better positioning, but importantly you need to learn about anticipating the move you are about to make. To have a better river running strategy as it were. You need to be ahead of the game. Modern boats like to be driven. Learn the art of looking and going, and learn about better paddle placement and timing.
Spend time learning paddle dexterity. I see paddlers who have been boating 20 years or more who still can’t slice their paddle cleanly through the water to transition to another stroke.
Keeping your paddle in the water and being able to transition is not right for every type of water or feature, particularly when things get really big and pushy, but learning really good paddle dexterity and water feel is a highly practical thing to learn. My first kayak teacher, Dan Povey at River Strokes, had me doing hours and hours of this type of practice, and I can honestly say it was one of the most useful things I’ve ever been taught or made to do.
Learn to balance on edge. Again, Dan had me doing hours of this back when I first started. There’s a reason for it. Having fine control over your edges is essential. Not only that but it gives you much more ability to balance and trains the right muscles to do it. I know it isn’t glamourous to go out on flat water and just practice holding the boat on edge, as well as paddling forward with it on edge, and holding circular arcs using one nice vertical blade on the inside of the turn, but it pays dividends.
Learn to embrace the feature rather than leaning away from it.
What the hell has all that got to do with bracing?
Nothing. But that’s the point. Bracing is the result of instability. Instability is mostly due to poor technique, strategy, stroke timing, weak edge control etc.
A case in point is being able to paddle while holding an edge. A lot of people will drop the edge on the side that the blade is in the water. If you are paddling at an angle to, or sideways to the water, particularly if it’s pushy, and you drop the wrong edge, I needn’t tell you what will happen.
Another one is going off a drop. It’s another place where I see people doing a high brace a lot. The reason why they need to do this is pretty simple. Instead of driving off the drop with a positive body position, driving the paddle with their core, and then absorbing the drop with a forward crunch, they lean back.
Leaning back creates instability even on flat water, let alone going off a drop. But a lot of paddlers find this a really bad habit to break. Others lean back because they think that the old school boof technique of hauling back the body works.
Which goes back to the point I made above. Stop leaning away from the feature. If you paddle towards a wave, whether it’s forwards or going into it sideways, and you react to it by leaning away, guess what? You’ll become very unstable. And yet I see people who have been paddling for years still doing this, and yes, reacting with a high brace!
You’ve heard the saying “failing to plan means planning to fail”? I don’t think anyone actively thinks to themselves “I’m going to go towards that feature, and then lean back!” when scouting a rapid.
So you need to make the more positive paddling methods your default, so you don’t have to think about them. This might mean going back to much easier water if you have great difficulty. The hardest thing is that when we are under pressure, unless you work really hard, we always fall back to what the brain finds easiest and most reactive. And that will generally be the technique you have been doing since forever, which might well be the leaning back followed by a high brace. Which is why it’s doubly important to teach beginners from the beginning not to do it.
As soon as you teach bracing as the first call of stability recovery you are giving them an automatic crutch habit that is exceptionally difficult for coaches in their paddling future to break.