Say what? Aren’t you supposed to lead with your head? Well, yes, but only sort of, and it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Anyone who has had any coaching will at some point been told that they need to look where they are going. Where the head looks, the boat will follow, so the saying goes. But this is only partly true, and in some ways it’s a bit like pedalling a bicycle using only the power of your hips. In other words, the head and where you look is a good indicator of where you aim to go, but in order to actually make the boat go that way more effectively we need to employ something a bit… more connected.
I see it all too often. A person will be told to lead with their head, so they turn it in the direction they want to go. A taillie or stern dip is a good example of this. Yet that person’s torso remains resolutely perpendicular to the front of their boat, despite where their head is looking. I’ve even see paddlers torsos rotating in the opposite direction to where their head is looking!
We often have a chat when we paddle between rapids. Looking at our friends as we converse doesn’t make us crash into each other. We still paddle forwards. This perhaps isn’t the best example, but it’s an illustration of the fact that your head rotation is pretty isolated from the rest of your body, and why so many people cannot employ the idea of ‘looking where they want to go’, instead ending up, well, where they didn’t want to go!
For the boat to follow where you are looking you need to look lower down. No, not that far down you dirty scoundrels! To your waist.
Where is your waist? Stand up and put your hands on it.
If you put your hands on your hips, go to the back of the class! Your waist is the area just above your belly button and below your rib cage. In Chinese martial arts we refer to ‘waist power’ because it is so important in generating power in punches and other movements. Yet it is one of those things that a huge number of people fail to employ, instead relying on localised limb muscles.
The muscles around the waist area, all the way around your torso, are big and potentially very powerful. The important thing about them, and what makes them so relevant to the direction you want to go in kayaking, is that if you rotate from the waist upwards, your lower body naturally wants to follow, and in a free floating environment it has little choice but to do so. The Einsteins amongst you will have now twigged that your lower body is the thing that is connecting you to your boat!
Try this little experiment. No cheating now.
Get in your boat on the flat water and paddle forward. Now do the same thing but look to your side using only your head. No cheating by putting in cheeky sweep strokes you at the back there!
Right, now I want you to do the same thing but paddle forward while making a concerted effort to rotate your torso to your right hand side from the waist. Unless you are breaking the laws of physics you will have noticed that your boat will have turned fairly noticeably.
This isn’t some sort of voodoo. If you have rotated your torso to an angle and you continue to forward paddle, unless you are making a concerted effort to modify your stroke to keep the boat on its original line, the boat simply has to turn, because your left stroke is now going at an outwards angle (relative to the hull), and your right hand stroke is now pulling in towards the hull. So not only does your lower body want to follow your torso, your strokes automatically become turning strokes.
This works more subtly than you think. But the crux of it is, by all means look where you intend to end up, this is still very important, but utilise your torso much more as a direction indicator.
A lot of people might think they are rotating their torsos, but in reality they aren’t. Imagine you have one of those laser pointers attached to your chest and you have to shine it at the point on the river where you intend to go. That is all.