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It’s all in your mind!

glenmore lodge coaching

This article is all about the psychological area of white water kayaking

By Dave Rossetter – paddlesport instructor at Glenmore Lodge

The previous article (WW paddling skills) looked at getting the body in the right position to perform covering areas such as Paddlers Box, control of blade and understanding of edging/leaning. This article will open up the psychological area of white water kayaking. I am going to look at a few key areas that will help you be in the correct state of mind for the type of water that we are paddling. The following areas are not the only mental skills training that you can do to help while on the river however, they are areas that I find I am using a lot to help paddlers that I am coaching when they are feeling challenged by the environment. Mental skills training is a collection of skills and tools that can be tailored to particular situations so enhance our performance on the river. We can use these to manage our stress or anxiety levels to ensure that we are in positive state of mind.


The first area to be aware of is that of arousal levels.
Managing your arousal levels is critical. Being over or under aroused leads to a drop in performance and therefore a poor outcome on the rapid.

dave rossetter coachingArousal
A common factor is that there will be an optimum level for arousal for the skill/manoeuvre that you are doing. Recognising when we are over or under aroused will help us choose the correct tactic for changing or monitoring the correct level.

On your way to the river what type of music do you like?

Is this planned? Do you know why?

Arousing uplifting music is likely to increase your arousal level while more calming music is likely to lower your arousal level. The graph right can help explain why this is critical for us.

This helps to show that as we become more aroused then our performance can improve to a point. Become over aroused and we see a massive drop in our performance. This drop in performance can take a long time to recover from. I am sure that we all know of someone who has suffered this and taken a drop in his or her confidence on the river after failing a roll, missing a line etc. Consider what has happened since top try and recover from this.

Indicators for being over aroused

Recognising the signs of over arousal is critical for us:

  • Racing heart
  • Shallow rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Butterflies
  • Dry mouth

As we are all individual what works for me may not work for you and finding the solution for each individual will be crucial. Consider our music on the way to the river where one paddler needs uplifting music and the other more calming!

Other control strategies
Increase arousal – exercise including specific warm-ups.
Warm-ups are great at getting the body prepared for the activities ahead but can also help with getting the arousal level correct for the up coming activity. This could happen at various points throughout the journey on the river. This includes practicing specific moves leading up to the crux points.

Lower arousal – breathing control.
Looking at relaxing the breathing will help focus the mind on the moves that required. This is crucial to ensure that there is sufficient air in the body to so you have energy for the crux points on the rapids.

dave rossetter coaching

Other options
We can use these options to control our arousal level and control the mind to ensure that we are the best possible state to perform are:

  • Self talk
  • Pre-performance routines
  • Imagery

Self talk
We all talk to ourselves because after all,
“Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.”

However, depending on the type of chat you are having with yourself it may not be beneficial.

For example if your chat is negative – “I’ll never make that eddy” or “I hate that rapid I always end up rolling” then the response is a change in the arousal level which can lead to muscle tension, anger or lack of effort. If we can change the chat to positive then this can lead to an increase in control of the muscles and the ability to respond better to external factors.

Positive self-talk examples:
“This time I have trained to hit that line.” Or, “No rolling this time, keep the blade driving through the stopper.”
‘Rules of positive self-talk’

  1. Keep your phrases short and specific.
  2. Use the first person and present tense.
  3. Keep them positive.
  4. Say your phrases with meaning and attention.
  5. Speak kindly to yourself.
  6. Repeat phrases often.

This in turn can lead to an increase in confidence by focusing on the outcome i.e. where you need to be on a particular part of the rapid.

You can also link any chat that you have with pre-performance routines
Simply put what you do before you perform. Some paddlers will have a lot of habits prior to paddling this could be order of putting kit on, lucky shorts, splash on face prior to running rapids or mantras they say before a manoeuvre. Whatever they are they help serve the purpose of focusing the mind on the task at hand.

If however, you are new to using a pre-performance routine to help with controlling your arousal level then here are a few top tips for you to follow:

  • Focus on breathing – this will help deal with distractions and lower the heart rate
  • Be clear on your intent – this focusing on you means that you put you first and helps focus on the performance ahead and desired outcome
  • Transition – where do you need to be/when do you need to be there/spot your place

Critical for the success of these is to review them after the performance. Did they help you? What do you need to change?

dave rossetter coaching


Perhaps one of the most powerful tools that can lead to an enhancement of self confidence, selection of specific tactics, reviewing past performances and ultimately control arousal levels.

There are plenty of examples throughout sport where performers mention that they use imagery as a tool to mentally prepare for either the match or a specific skill during their performance. Some paddlers are naturally able to tune into the required skills and use imagery to help them. However, if you are new to using imagery then the following model will serve as a tool (from Holmes and Collins 2001) to follow:

Physical – put yourself in your paddling gear sitting in your boat holding your paddle

Environment – where does the activity take place, what sounds are around you? Put yourself in the environment where the activity takes place.

Task – what is the task that is required? Make sure it is at the appropriate level and that you are not imaging a top skillful performer doing the task. Ensure that is specific.

Timing – work in real time. What is the speed that you will be working and imagine this.

Learning – like all things we need to continually review. As you improve your skill so you need to delete the old images and create new ones based on current ability.

Emotion – put yourself in the position of what you should be feeling. Be positive and avoid feeling the fear and panic.

Perspective – there are times when you need to see the performance through your own eyes such as timing of a specific stroke.

However, others maybe are more beneficial seeing yourself as if you are on video. This would be true such as positioning on a rapid and seeing what’s around.

This can be practiced at various points for example before getting on the water at the start of the trip or prior to running a specific rapid.

Four areas of mental skills training that can help you first of understand any issues that you may have then some practical tools that will help you increase your performance and enjoyment on the river.
Ensure that you are training the mind as well as the body. Next time you are out on the river have a go at incorporating these areas into your training.

Happy paddling and hope to see you on the water.

dave rossetter coaching

Dave is the full time paddlesport instructor at Glenmore Lodge – Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre. He has been involved in the development of the new awards and provides expert advice throughout the industry on all things to do with coaching, safety, leadership and personal paddling. He is passionate about all things paddling and specialises in white water kayak and open canoe where he will most often be found. He is supported in his paddling adventures and coaching by Pyranha Kayaks, Mad River Canoes and Palm Equipment.

About thepaddlerezine (699 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK and Windsurfing UK magazines

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