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Fear and confidence

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By Andy Holt BCU Level 5 Inland Kayak coach Level 2 Canoe coach

I close my eyes one more time and visualize my line, I look up from the eddy and see my Kayak buddy below the rapid, throw line in hand with a smile he gives me the thumbs up. I take one deep breath. It’s time to go.

Confidence and self-belief are the big psychological challenges we all have to cope with when faced with the unknown or something that’s going to take us way beyond our comfort zone. Overleaf are my thoughts and beliefs of how to deal with this and hopefully some of you can relate to this.

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Understanding fear

You step out of your boat above ‘the rapid’ and anxiety and fear take over. It’s too big. I can’t do it. I’m going to swim. We have all been there and no doubt will be there again. So how do we combat these feelings? First things first, ask yourself what type of fear do I have, is it I am afraid if I swim; I will hurt myself or if I get it wrong; I will be mad with myself and look an idiot in front of others.

So a fear of swimming or hurting yourself usually comes from past history (you have taken a nasty swim somewhere) or you have seen others take hits and afraid it will also happen to you. So to make you more relaxed about swimming I would suggest a white water safety and rescue course asap, as this will boost your confidence in swimming in moving water and give you the skills to self rescue. Next is having an understanding of what you are looking at, “Is that wall undercut. Will that hole flush” etc. So what we are doing is eliminating the danger in swimming so the thinking is, “If I swim it’s safe” and so what! If you don’t know if its safe then ask more experienced paddlers around you. Remember if you have had an unpleasant swim in the past, try and think about how many times you have actually swam and nothing happened.

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Lastly, do you have confidence in the paddling crew around you. Do they have the skills and quick reactions to pull you out if need be? Fear of getting it wrong with yourself or in front of others also known as the ‘fear of failing’. Now this is a hard one and depends on the type of person you are. I have this fear of failing in front of others but that’s because I coach and in my mind the coach shouldn’t swim in front of the clients. However, when I paddle with my regular crew I am not so bothered about getting something wrong as they are not bias, nor do they make fun and respect any decision I make whether it’s to walk a rapid or not.

So again I can’t stress enough about having the right crew to paddle with. As for getting things wrong and beating yourself up about it. Next time ask yourself, why did I get it wrong, as this will instantly make you think about reversing the wrong and what do I need to do to get it right – whether that’s technical, tactical, psychological or physical. Remember we all fall for a reason and actually we need to fall sometimes so we can pick ourselves back up and learn from it. Kayaking is a leisure sport no matter how extreme you make it and is supposed to be fun – not a math’s exam. So what if you swam, laugh it off and try again!

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Inner and outer you

We have all had one of those perfect runs, you know, the one where it all went perfect. You can’t remember the lines or the strokes but just remember getting off the river absolutely elated with big smiles feeling very humble and a sense of achievement. These are the days we long for where we are not thinking about fear, skills or hazards and just flowing at one with our boat and the environment. This is the outer you — not thinking but just doing which takes time similar to learning to drive or talk a new language. For most of us we have the inner you trying to control you. This is that little person whispering in your ear telling you it’s ‘too hard’ or supplying you too much information and self-doubt. We need to control the inner you and tell them to be quiet! Self-talk and self-belief as mentioned below can control this or another technique other paddlers have include putting their mind somewhere else whilst paddling or even singing a song in their head or out load can work as well. Some will listen to their favourite music on the way to the river. Again this is focusing the mind and not letting inner you take over. We need to be outer you as much as possible when looking or running rapids.

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Comfort to panic

In order to get more confident in our paddling we need to know where in our comfort zones we will progress the most both mental and physical. If we stay on our local lake, river or stretch of sea and do the same thing month after month, year after year and get to know every inch of it means arousal drops, alongside enthusiasm and we are so comfortable in that environment that our progression drops. The opposite end of the scale is the panic zone, which is where you are taken into an environment that your skills and mental state are not ready for and therefore panic. Typical example is being shoved down a Grade 4 river and its only your second time on white water! So we have to find the happy medium in order to progress and build our confidence, which is the stretch zone. This zone is in between the comfort and panic zone where yes you are a little nervous of the rapid or exercise but it’s not too easy so will test your skill but not too hard and if anything happens it will be OK. Getting out into different environments and putting ourselves into our stretch zones is where ‘you will’ progress the most both mentally and physically.

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Technical and tactical

As we get better then we need to increase our skill level and tactical river knowledge. Lots of river time and paddling with better boaters than you plus professional coaching will make you more confident as you step up the grades knowing what strokes are needed, the speed, how to use the water and knowing what features are doing and how they will affect your outcome. Cracking your white water roll technique is essential as this will boost your confidence tenfold, knowing that if you get it wrong you will just roll it and the above fear factors won’t step in. In reality if you want to become a better and more confident paddler in white water then you need to put the time in. Paddling once a month on the canal with your local club and a couple of white water trips a year just won’t cut it.

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When you look at a rapid, instead of focusing on the hazards such as rocks, stoppers etc, look at the line in and around the middle ground and the exit then close your eyes and visualize yourself running it perfectly where you have ended up in the eddy at the bottom with a huge smile. Your mind is now prepared and has already seen the line and consequently, the body will follow. Some people can even take this further and visualize the actually strokes needed within the rapid. If you get this right you won’t even see the hole or the rock as your mind is focused on the line and outcome only.

Rewinding the mind is another great tool to have if you have a very similar or even the same rapid you may have done in the past. Think back to when you did this move — what did you do? Ahh I know, I remember it now and even if you didn’t get it right last time, by rewinding the mind you should know why and this time do something different. Also if you are having a bad day sometimes putting your mind back to a perfect river day can get you focused again and get rid of that self doubt.

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Self belief

I see loads of talented boaters out there who can paddle better than they believe especially female boaters. A great thing to do is give yourself some positive talk before you start the move or exercise — never be negative! This is a big one for me as I am not the most talented boater out there by any means but what gets me through the big stuff is positive self-talk and self-belief. This may seem like a big ego trip but you wouldn’t get Ben Marr above a 60-footer thinking, “I think this may break my legs”. No, you will get “OK boys are the cameras rolling as you watch me nail this”.

Tell yourself I am good, I have done this many times, it’s going to be great. Also having a good paddling partner can really boost your self-belief by giving you positive encouragement all the time. If you paddle with idiots who laugh when you swim then I suggest you find another paddling crew as this will have a negative effect on your mind.

I hope this article will give you a better insight to fear and confidence and remember to keep smiling out there.

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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