Part two about the psychological area of white water kayaking
By Dave Rossetter – paddlesport instructor at Glenmore Lodge
The previous article opened up the psychological area of arousal control by using positive self talk, pre-performance routines and imagery. This article continues the theme and covers the area of – Attentional Focus. When paddling there is a lot going on:
From environmental aspects:
Waves, stoppers, tide races, wind issues or wildlife encounters
Body position, stroke choice, where you are heading, technical or tactical decisions
Other paddlers, other water users or leadership decisions
The paddler needs to be able to focus on different areas at different times. A skillful or competent paddler makes things look so effortless and they seem to be able to link lots of things together with apparent ease.
This is due to as to when they get competent that skill becomes autonomous. It becomes part of them its what they do and requires little or no thought. If this is the case, then there is more space for the brain to be concentrating on other areas such as other paddlers or environmental aspects.
Think back to when you were learning something, perhaps learning to drive. In the beginning you are struggling to work out what the feet are doing while your hands are busy holding the steering wheel, while there are gears to change, indicators and other levers to worry about. That all needs to happen while you are looking at the road ahead then are aware of other road users, pedestrians and road signs. Then you have the driving instructor chatting to you at different times as well. Busy isn’t it?
Once you have more practice and passed your test then you seem to be able change your focus and things start to happen with no conscious effort. The ability to hold a conversation, change the radio station but also not worry about what the feet are doing.
While paddlers are learning there is a lot going. They struggle to look where they are going as they are looking at the blade for every stroke. Coaching some freestyle paddlers the other day I asked one of them if they were pushing on their heels at the end of the loop. They came back and said, “You want me to think about my feet as well? If I do that then I will have to forget about something!”
Learning to roll also creates the same issues. The paddler goes through all the movements on top of the water, knows what they are trying to achieve, says to you the correct things then goes upside down and due to the change in the environment and therefore the change of focus required, the roll is not successful.
All of these examples are about the focus that is required to make things more successful. For this to happen the paddler needs to be able shift the focus into different areas. There will be times when we need to be focused on multiple areas and other times when we can be focused only on one area.
This switching is key to successful performances
If you are into your football you can see great examples every week on the pitch and there has been plenty of examples in this year’s World Cup. During a penalty shoot-out for example, we see the goalkeeper doing their best to distract the penalty taker. There are a few aspects to this. First the goalkeeper has to attend to what they are going to do in terms of trying to save the shot but also how the opposing player responds. The player then needs to focus on what they are going to do and put aside the antics of the keeper and the noise of the crowd. This takes training to keep the focus on where it should be.
The other football one is where a player is caught ball watching. The focus has drifted from the task at hand onto what the ball is doing. Often something that we see beginners in matches doing.
Like self-talk, pre-performance routines and imagery these are skills that we practice in our performances.
Training and practicing
Training and practicing for this is something that can happen all the time in any of the environments you find yourself. Like all things if we need to effect change we need to work/find out where we are at in the skill. So what do you do?
You are coming up to the eddy line to break into the flow. You need to have the correct speed and angle of attack for the eddy line as well as being aware of where you are heading.
How do you recognize it’s time to turn? Is it based on seeing the eddy line or feeling the change in current?
For those that are still learning about eddy lines they will more than likely be looking for it. By the time they see it they have already started crossing it and therefore potentially miss the correct timing for the next stroke that pulls them into the flow and away from the line. The switching of focus has been late due to requiring to see the eddy line. If this is you or someone you are coaching work on this switching happening earlier or looking for clues that will alert you to the required change of focus.
In this practice we have the paddler who is very internal and narrow in their focus. What we are working on is the ability to have more external and broad focus in their paddling at this point.
Many will be aware of the old proverb, “Look before you Leap” and for those involved in coaching the phrase’ “Look where you want to go” is one that helps with this attentional focus.
You are out scouting a rapid and looking at the route choices. You are noticing all the aspects of the rapid but you are unsure as to what you need to do. You decide to observe what other paddlers do and observe their lines. As you watch them it leaves you feeling apprehensive as they made the line. was it because of their skills or because they are in a different boat to you they got through the wave or stopper.
In this scenario the paddler is external and broad in their focus. This can be useful due to the paddler seeing the big picture and recognizing there are options. However, by being too external and worrying about others they are not in control of their skills and what they need to do complete the rapid. Here we would want them to be more internal and narrow in their focus.
As a leader there are a variety of roles that needs to be undertaken in any trip. However, consider if the leader is focusing a huge amount of their available brain space on themselves what happens to the group?
This means that the leader who has to be conscious of their own skills, their group skills and what the environment is doing is in danger of something getting dropped.
The training required – using past experiences and the environmental clues around the leader stops everyone moving and run the rapid one a time with the leader as the safety person on the bank. Here then the leader now has the ability to put more focus on the group and what is happening around them. Moving from internal and narrow to external and broad.
Here again the training that is required in all of these scenarios is the ability to switch to a different perspective.
Where is ‘your’ focus?
How good are you at switching your focus? Areas to practice –
Task 1 – Throwbag games
In a group take time to throw a bag around the group. Start off random – where are you focusing?
Now change the task so that you are throwing to the same person and receiving from a different person. How has your focus changed?
Task 2 – Counting
When paddling on a familiar stretch of water count number of eddies, rocks, trees or bridges. How well did you manage to perform the outcome of paddling the stretch and counting? Keep a note of your performance and the number of things that you spotted and repeat. How has your focused changed?
Understanding what you are focused on will:
- Aid you in your control of your anxiety levels
- Aid you in your performance
- Help you to get to where you want to go
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 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.