If you want to take your paddling skills to the highest level you can achieve, it is extremely important to get good instruction right from the beginning. This little bit of advice may seem fairly self-evident and not particularly earth-shattering which is maybe why it is so often overlooked and ignored by beginning paddlers.
I’m currently reading the “British Canoe Union: Coaching Handbook”. Any of you out there who are instructors should get your hands on this book and take the time to read it through (if you haven’t already) from cover to cover. If it weren’t such a long book, I would suggest that it be mandatory reading for all ACA Instructor Development Workshops. Chapter 7, “Coaching Novices,” may be the single best chapter I have ever read on the topic. While most of this information is generally stuff I already knew or have heard, I have never seen it laid out so succinctly in one place and presented with such impact. I’d like to share a few of the nuggets of wisdom from this book. (Passages in quotation marks are taken verbatim from the book.)
While reading chapter 7, I came across a very interesting sentence, “the more canoeing or kayaking experience a person has, the more deeply ingrained any bad habits are likely to be and the less a person is likely to accept that they have them.” Do you know anyone like this? Are you this person?
While it is true that there may not be just one ‘right’ way to do something (just watch the many different DVD’s out there on how to do a forward stroke), “there are some definite ‘wrong’ ways of doing things”. (Every one of those forward stroke DVD’s will agree that you need to be rotating your torso to produce a strong stroke.) Doing your kayaking strokes the wrong way can lead to injuries, cause you to get prematurely tired, or prevent you from being able to master more advanced skills.
Any teacher can tell you that “it is a lot harder to undo bad habits or replace them with better practice than it is to teach the correct thing in the first place”. The author of chapter 7, Bob Timms, uses the analogy of a wall to illustrate this concept. You can only build a wall as high as the strength of its foundation will allow. If you want to build higher, you will have to take down the existing wall to improve the foundation. Then you will end up building the whole wall over again. It would have been a lot easier to build the stronger foundation at the beginning. Get the point?
When instructors work with more experienced paddlers that are having difficulty learning a new or more advanced skill, it is common that the root cause of the problem lies in the legacy of a poor foundation that was laid early in the paddler’s career. The three common areas in which the root of the problem might be found are:
- “Flawed or weak basic techniques and skills”
- “Inability to adapt” (can’t seem to perform as well when in unfamiliar surroundings or using unfamiliar equipment)
- “Lack of self-awareness” (what the paddler thinks he/she is doing is not what the instructor, or a video camera, sees them doing)
If you are struggling to improve your skills beyond their current level, it may be that you are suffering from the legacy of a poor foundation laid in the early days of your paddling experiences.
When you are getting started in paddle sports, besides getting a good instructor to teach you the right way to do your strokes, it is a good idea to paddle in a variety of environments and types of paddle craft. This can help to reduce the problems associated with the “inability to adapt”. This doesn’t mean that you should paddle in boats that don’t fit you properly or with heavy, inefficient paddles. Poor or ill-fitting equipment will have a negative effect on your performance. The idea is that the quality of your performance should not be dependent on your using a specific kayak or paddle. If you have a good, solid forward stroke, you should be able to paddle a recreational kayak, a whitewater kayak, or a sea kayak in a straight line.
In the case of “lack of self-awareness”, video analysis along with instructor feedback can assist students as they develop the awareness of their posture, body position, and movements. This is also referred to as kinaesthetic awareness. A student who is leaning back when the instructor tells him to sit up straight and tall, may be suffering from a lack of self-awareness. He may feel that he is sitting up straight. He doesn’t yet have the correct ‘feel’ of what it means to be sitting up straight and tall. If your instructor is telling you that you need to keep your head down as you finish your roll, and you are sure you are keeping your head down (that is until you see yourself lifting your head on a video screen), you may be lacking in “self-awareness.”
The biggest problem of the three listed above is usually the first one, “flawed or weak basic techniques and skills.” Many paddlers think that they have learned to perform a particular skill or technique, but in actuality, they have learned ” ‘cheating’ tactics or coping strategies.” A coping strategy refers to a method that a student may have devised to achieve a desired result, but it is not the best or most efficient way to perform the skill. An example cited by Timms is that of a paddler who learns to edge her kayak by leaning back toward the rear deck. The student achieves the desired result of edging the kayak, but this position is much less efficient for the trunk muscles making it more difficult to perform other skills while edging the kayak. It will be more difficult to paddle the kayak while holding it on edge because leaning back will inhibit torso rotation in the forward stroke. A good instructor will identify the coping strategy early on and get the student to use the correct technique to edge the kayak before that coping technique has a chance to become an ingrained bad habit. While this might seem to make things harder for the beginning student, it will make it easier to learn the more advanced skill of paddling a kayak on edge in the future.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? If you want to save yourself the frustration and struggle of trying to overcome deeply ingrained bad habits. Get a good instructor and take some lessons early. With a good foundation of basic skills and self-awareness, you may be able to teach yourself some of the more advanced techniques later. Trying to save a little money at the beginning of your career by skipping the formal instruction may cost you a lot more later when you struggle to advance your skills to the level you desire. You may end up spending more time and money to unlearn your bad habits, or you may be stuck with a lot of expensive gear that you are no longer using because you have given up the sport in frustration.
Viewed in the context of your long-term participation, good early instruction is really pretty inexpensive.