By Dave Rossetter – Head of Paddlesport Coaching at Glenmore Lodge
Whether you are a coach, leader or just paddle for the sheer enjoyment the need to improve and hone our skills is always there. Whether it’s bigger surf waves, rocky coastlines, longer distances or harder grade of water the need to test and challenge our existing skills is a constant draw.
Coaches are always looking for ways to test those that they are coaching, to ensure that the skill has been grooved and learnt. Leaders also struggle with the dilemma of when to lead their paddlers into that more committed environment. This short article looks at some of the ways that we can go about improving our skill.
The skill could be a technique or tactical ability but could also be the skill as a leader or coach. The content will be applicable to each of the roles and will stand as a reference for coaches and coach educators as well as the paddler who is looking to push the grade of water they are on.
Structure of practice
There are a differing ways in which we can go about our play/practice time. There are plenty of times when you see the same paddlers use the same bit of water and do the same moves constantly. While this familiarity breeds some confidence and sense of satisfaction of being able to reproduce certain moves it can let us down when we head off to somewhere new.
Don’t get me wrong, this reproduction of moves does lend itself to improving the muscle memory and attaining new knowledge. However, paddling takes us to new and exciting places where we our skills and knowledge are put to the test. As well as this massed practice we should be compelled to add variety to our practice. This variety sees us challenge our skills and helps when we find ourselves on the different side of the boat, different angle of wave or wind. By looking to achieve our favourite moves in differing ways sets us up well for when things don’t go to plan. Our paddling becomes adaptable and flexible. We have built up differing ways to achieve the same outcome.
Rolling is a prime example. How many can roll their kayak on one side 80-100% of time where you can get back up with the paddle starting in many different positions and the other side 50% if you are having a lucky day?
We practice and perfect on our favoured side until the skill has become so strong and autonomous that our other side is severely lacking. You then have a challenge in your paddling where what happens in the gorge, when you can’t get the paddle to your preferred side? Are you having a lucky day or not? Surely it would be better to be in a position with knowledge that you are strong on both sides.
The final part for us here to think about would be how we go about distributing our practice. Paddling in any form of water and especially moderate / advanced conditions requires the constant recalling of different strokes, skills and tactics to achieve the desired outcome. Putting yourself in a position where you have to use a skill for a short period of time then a different skill before having to use the original skill again forces the speed at which you can recall the skills. This is critical in more advanced conditions where we are constantly switching between skills to achieve a successful outcome.
Taking this a stage further in being able to improve, then there is research (Simon & Chase 1973) about how to become an expert, which details how we need 10,000 hours/ten years to get there. While this may be true, what we can look at is the work of deliberate practice as highlighted by Gilbert and Trudel (2012) when looking at defining what makes an expert coach. Three areas come through from this research and from Ericsson (2003):
- Clearly defined task designed with the appropriate level of challenge for the specific learner.
- Provision of unambiguous feedback.
- Repeatable to allow for error correction and subtle refinements.
This focus on task and using the feedback to help focus on any adjustments aids in the quality of what is happening. By forcing us to always be in a cognitive and/or practicing stage means that we are constantly thinking of how to improve what we have. As soon as we become autonomous this deliberate practice tasks us to gain feedback and focus on the improvements means we concentrate on the improvements. This means that we are asking the questions of others and re-establishing what we have. This marks us out on the path to improvement in performance.
Reflections on activity – if and then questions
To improve we need to reflect on what we have been doing. This aids us in critically analysing our performance. A great way to structure this is the use of ‘if’ and ‘then’ questions.
- If I did this then what will happen?
- If you were to do it a different way, then what would have happened?
These questions can be posed pre or post activity and are a great way to start the reflection process. We are very good at going out and having experiences but are we good at reviewing them with a view to learning from them?
The next time you are out paddling before making a maneouvre ask yourself ‘if’ and ‘then’ questions pre task and post task. When combined with the structure or deliberate practice then we are well on the way to improvement.
Coaching – get some!
Stuck on that plateau and can’t get off it?
Struggling to answer the ‘if’ and ‘then’ questions?
Struggling to know what aspect to vary to see if the task could be achieved a different way?
Well, coaching can help unlock all of those for you.
If you are a coach, then an interesting area that you may want to look at is that of using a constraints-led approach to your coaching. This is based on the work of Brymer and Renshaw (2010) where they look at three constraints and how by developing coaching in these aids the learner in developing skill.
The constraints of:
Are worked on as a way for the learner to develop ways to achieve the outcome. For example if someone can achieve the task it may be that we look at reducing the effort. So the outcome remains the same, the same environment but we ask the learner to reduce the effort.
Other examples could be going for a wide arc break in. Once the learner has achieved the task set the challenge (task) of reducing the size of the arc.
For the environment this could be staying efficient forward paddling despite going different directions to the wind.
The critical part here though is the questioning and reflection afterwards. What did the learner do to achieve each of the outcomes? They have completed an outcome and then the constraints are changed to force the learner into a period of working it out and coming to a conclusion. This of course doesn’t stop the coach in helping the learner but allows the learner the freedom to experiment and develop variety in their approach and helping shape the thought that are many ways to achieve an outcome.
Recently I have been looking into coaching and how best to get coaches to improve. One thing that keeps coming up is that of mentoring. Having that person that you can share your thoughts with that group of friends where the question of how do you do something is raised is essential if we are to improve.
Having a community where you can call upon to aid you in solving issues will stand you in good stead. These communities are more accessible now than they have ever been. With internet forums and the use of social networks and media it is now possible to have thoughts from all parts of the world. These can be a great way to share the knowledge and go to for different ways / opinions on how to do different skills.
This mentoring will be invaluable to new coaches coming through the system. It is part of the BC Level 5 programme but the introduction of the UKCC awards mentoring is now part of all the awards. This sharing knowledge and having that trusted mentor to aid in our thinking, helps with the improvement in our coaching.
Without we struggle, we need it to help with reflection and to improve. All of the above force feedback. It is the essential thing that happens in all of the above. By gaining feedback from mentors, coaches, the environment and the outcome of tasks aids us in our reflection and this in turn helps us move of the plateau.
Continual professional development
Seeking new knowledge and challenge/confirm existing knowledge – what a great way to improve.
By entering into these with open minds ensures that we can move on in our development. Symposiums, conferences, workshops, skill development weekends, coaching matters/update events and courses all help us with our development. Come to them with an open mind and you are sure to improve.
You will improve if there is genuine new knowledge available or a different way to achieve an outcome. You can also gain confidence in that of sharing your knowledge and skills to others.
Not afraid to experiment – play time!
All of this means it’s time to get out and do! One strong areas in those that achieve is the determination to get out and do. They are not afraid to pit their skills against different environments or different ways running the same rapid on their doorstep. This child-like approach to trial and error and being unafraid to get it wrong, is one of the ways that paddlers can develop.
- Are you happy to get it wrong in front of your peers?
- Do you not want to get the swimmer of the year award and drink the swim booty?
- Or do you believe if you are not swimming you are not trying motto?
Whatever it is, isn’t great that we have the opportunity to play with a purpose and use the thrill of getting right to develop that critical questioning of why it worked. If it didn’t work why not?
These eight areas are food for thought. They are meant to challenge what you do and if you want to improve from where you are then give them a go.
Whatever you do have fun doing it!
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.