By Sean Morley
Are you a new or developing paddler seeking professional instruction or have you been taking classes and not seeing the improvement you’d hoped for? First of all – congratulations! By seeking professional instruction you are definitely on the right path to becoming a better paddler. Working with a professional instructor is a great way to ensure you are developing safe, effective and efficient techniques and gaining knowledge and experience in a structured and safe environment. But do you want to ensure you are getting the most value for your investment? Compared to most other professional instruction, paddlesports instruction is very affordable, but even so, you don’t want to be wasting your money. So here are some tips to get the most out of the training you’ll receive and to help you become a better student:
1. Do Your Research
What is the difference between the American Canoe Association (ACA) and British Canoeing (BC – formerly the BCU) programs and which should you go with? The differences between the two organisations instructional programs have become significantly less over the years and one could argue that the differences that remain are mostly with the language that is used and the way the organisations market their programs. That said, it is probably still true that BC is perceived as the English-speaking-world’s premier paddlesports national governing body and many other nation’s paddlesport organisations and coaches look to BC for inspiration and guidance. That said, BC has gone through many evolutions and considerable turmoil in recent years, which has led to many US-based BC coaches losing their ability to provide BC programs. During that time the ACA has continued to develop it’s programs and with many ACA instructors and discipline committee members also holding BC certifications (and a few leading BC coaches being ACA certified) the cross-fertilisation has resulted in a healthy ACA program that is being increasingly sort after, particularly in South America and Asia.
The answer to the second question has far less to do with the organisation or program and MUCH more to do with individual relationships. Each program is unique, but there are also a lot of similarities and you should consider what your long term goals are. If your goal is simply to become a better paddler and you are not set on becoming an instructor within either one of these programs, it really doesn’t matter which program you choose, albeit ACA programs are likely currently more accessible. What is MUCH more important is that you meet with the person that is going to deliver the program, that you like that person, trust him or her to keep you safe and feel confident that you are going to receive the level of personal attention that you are seeking. Just going with the ‘big names’ in paddlesports coaching is not the best approach. We are all individuals with personal styles and preferences and while a good instructor should be able work with anyone and typically doesn’t get to choose who they work with, as a student you do have a choice and you should seek out someone that you are going to get along and have fun with. While working with a bunch of different instructors (such as at a kayak symposium), taking on board the bits you like and leavingthe rest, has some value in the short term, it can also be really confusing. Building a long term relationship with someone you really gel with and trust is going to deliver much better results over time.
2. Understand the Difference Between an Instructor and a Coach
This is a fairly controversial topic and has been the subject of a lot of discussion within paddlesports recently. The ACA uses the term “Instructor”, the BC typically uses the term “Coach” but has recently added a generic “Paddlesport Instructor” award. Is this just semantics?
The term ‘Instructor’ suggests a didactic approach, where the instructor is teaching a curriculum to a group of learners and the individual student’s needs are not necessarily the focus of the lesson. It suggests there is a structure to the lesson with defined parameters of time and content objectives that allows the process to be efficient but may not achieve the desired outcome for everyone within the group. The ‘Instructor’ approach might work well in a commercial context where the ratio of participants to instructor or risk levels are high.
The term ‘Coach’ suggests a longer-term, more personalized relationship. In the context of a one-day class, is it realistic for real coaching to occur? It could potentially be more challenging in the group context where the needs of the individuals within the group might compete or contradict, making session planning a seemingly impossible task, especially if the coach is working alone. A longer-term coaching relationship indicates as an expectation from both parties that it might take longer to achieve outcomes, but perhaps those outcomes may be of a higher quality. The ‘Coach’ approach probably works best in the context of a club, team or educational establishment where there is less turnover of participants than your typical commercial paddlesports outfitter.
Why the ACA and BC chooses to use these terms is perhaps a politically charged question but it reflects the historical roots of paddlesports in each country. In the UK paddlesports training has been delivered through a strong club structure supported by national governing bodies (BCU, SCA, CANI) and national training centers (Plas y Brenin, Plas Menai, Glenmore Lodge), whereas in the USA, commercial outfitters have been the main driver of paddlesports training, the owners of those businesses voluntarily staffing the discipline committees within the ACA and thus shaping their programs.
Nowadays there is a tremendous amount of crossover between the two organisations with many US-based ACA instructors and BC coaches wearing both hats to some degree. There is a strong focus on student focussed, differentiated instruction within ACA programs now and BC has moved away from an academic biased, performance oriented program to one more suited to the commercial context (hence the addition of the “Paddlesport Instructor” award.
When choosing which program to go with, look at the individual that is going to deliver the program. Don’t focus so much on their certifications but consider their personality, experience and the environment they use for their programs and see if these match your expectations.
3. Practice Makes Permanent
Taking a class will make you a better paddler – right? Wrong! A good class an effective instructor will hopefully give you some knowledge, experience and tools to help you become a better paddler, but you will not see significant improvement in your skills and understanding unless you PRACTICE!
‘Practice makes perfect’ – right? Wrong! Practice makes permanent and only perfect practice makes perfect. In other words, how we practice is really important. Sure, we could just go for a paddle. ‘Butt time’ in a boat is better than nothing. But if we want to improve our skills we need to consider setting aside time for deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is exactly what it suggests, a planned session or interlude within a longer outing where the focus is on a specific skill or set of skills.
Deliberate practice can be Blocked, Varied or Random.
- Blocked practice
‘Same skill, same effort, same environment – repeated over and over’ Blocked practice is brilliant for finding your groove. By repeating the same skill in a relatively controlled environment you are reducing the number of external factors that may distract you and allow you to really focus on technique. This is particularly relevant when you are working on new skills. You can break them down even more by thinking about “Whole/Part/Whole”. Think about each individual component of a skill. An example would be the kayak or SUP forward stroke: Set Up Phase – Positive Rotation; Catch – Paddle Blade Fully Engaged; Power Phase – Transfer of Power from Blade to Craft; Release & Recovery Phase – Minimize Drag. Practice the individual components in isolation, then put it all back together to work on the skill as a whole. Ask your instructor for some drills to help you break each skill. Remember that you need to ‘break a few eggs to make an omelette’. Practicing each individual component in isolation may feel silly and when you put it all back together it may feel awkward at first, but give it time and you should see significant improvement in your technique.
- Varied practice
‘Same skill with changes in speed, effort or environment’ Varied practice is a great way to test a newly acquired skill in different environments. Because we typically paddle in an ever changing environment we need to be adaptable, developing and blending a variety of techniques and tactics to achieve a desired outcome. Consider the kayak self-rescue. A cowboy rescue may work just fine in flat water. Challenge yourself to do it quickly. Do several, one after the other. Then take that skill to more dynamic water. See if it works there. If it doesn’t come up with a different self rescue strategy. Progressively take the self-rescue skill into more and more challenging (and realistic) conditions until you have identified a self-rescue that works effectively in any conditions. By focusing on the desired outcome, we can figure out what strategy and technique works best. We can then take what we have learned and apply it in different situations and locations. Adding variety to your practice will aid you in the long term. Challenge yourself to paddle in area you don’t know. This will help you develop a variety of options to achieve different outcomes.
- Random practice
‘Skill is practiced and then something different is done but the original skill is thrown into that activity’ By practicing the skill, then storing the skill and then recalling it at an appropriate time in an appropriate environmental context helps us to cement learning and understanding. Practice the heel-side brace on your SUP on flat water, then go surfing and use it in context.
- Bilateral practice
‘Practice skills on both sides of your body/craft’ What side do you typically practice on? Do you have a preferred side? Practicing consciously on your weak side will make you better on your preferred side as well. Try focusing on what the differences are between the each side and think about how to reduce those differences. It might be flexibility, coordination or fear. The environments that we paddle in demand that we need skills on both sides regardless of what craft we are in or on; the ability to turn in either direction effectively to avoid obstacles, or surf a wave that is going left instead of right. As well as making us better paddlers, it also helps to keep the body balanced, healthy, avoiding overuse injuries.
4. Train your Weaknesses, Race your Strengths
We like to do things we are good at and it requires a degree of self-discipline to work on those things we are weaker at. When considering what skills to practice, resist the temptation to work on skills you have already mastered and challenge yourself to work on skills that you know you are weak on. It may be working on skills you have not yet mastered or working on a skill on your weak side. Even if you think you have mastered the skill on both sides going forwards, try it going backwards. Even if we have a ‘bomb-proof’ roll, be sure to practice wet exits and self rescues – afterall, we are all between swims! The more we practice a surfski remount, the less likely we are to fall in. Be sure to practice in realistic conditions, not just flat water! The more we practice our cross steps on a paddleboard, the easier buoy turns will become and the more waves we will catch. The TTPP model suggests that a skill is made up of four components: Technical, Tactical, Physiological and Psychological. Consider where you may be weakest and work on that aspect first and foremost. For many of us, working on our physical fitness (strength, power, endurance and flexibility) could provide the biggest improvement in our level of skill. Those who find themselves muscling through a skill may well benefit from working on finesse, slowing things down, using less force and developing a feel for the water. Having good technique is no use if you don’t know when to apply it. Some folks make it look effortless don’t they? It’s because they are using good tactics. Spend time learning more about the environment, observing and strategizing and without using any more effort, you will become a more skillful paddler. Fear is a huge barrier to skill acquisition. Take baby steps in your progression towards more dynamic conditions. Make good choices when it comes to deciding where and when to paddle. By having just the right level of challenge, you will accelerate your learning. It’s okay to revert to our strengths when we need to. We can determine which way a fully laden sea kayak will broach by setting an angle as we approach the shore so that we brace on our preferred side. No, you don’t have to use a cross-bow rudder to make that eddy if a low brace turn will do the job. But having practiced your cross bow rudder, you will feel so much more confident on edge when doing that low brace to make that eddy.
5. Add Challenge
I often hear the excuse, “I just don’t have water like this to practice on at home”. Try to find ways to practice using what you have:
- Easy environment – easy moves
On flat water, work on your technique to improve the efficiency of the skill with the goal of seeking perfection. Use fixed objects to maneuver around or if there are none, bring your own! Floating bath toys, tennis balls or homemade buoys tied to a brick can all be used to create a practice course. Take video of yourself then watch it with a critical eye. Send the video to your instructor for feedback.
- Easy environment – hard moves
On easy water look to add challenge by making harder moves. The simplest eddyline can become challenging if done backwards. Then do it with your eyes closed. On flat water, throw some floating toys in the water and maneuver around them in as many complex ways as you can imagine. Set a fixed course and see how quickly you can do it. Then do it with your eyes closed. Once you have learned to roll your kayak, the possibilities are endless. Try rolling with just your inflated paddle-float, a swim kickboard, a ping pong paddle! There are a seemingly endless number of Greenland sea kayak rolls and braces to learn, many of which can be improvised with a ‘Euro’ style paddle and performed even in a tubby whitewater kayak! Learning these rolls and braces in flat water will inevitably make you a more confident paddler in dynamic water. Perhaps you only have access to dynamic water? In that case you need to start simple:
- Challenging environment – easy moves
With the right safety precautions in place (practicing with a buddy; observing hazards, understanding and assessing the risks and mitigating them where possible), practicing on dynamic water can be valuable. Start by practicing some skills you have already mastered on flat water. Give yourself sufficient time to really dial in those skills in the more challenging conditions before advancing to more complex moves.
- Challenging environment – challenging moves
Put it all together now by challenging yourself to blend several skills together to make a move that may require considerable tactical consideration and plenty of trial and error. Remember that failure is just a stepping stone to success! The more you practice, the sooner you will become an independent paddler. One of our goals as paddlesports professionals is to get you to a point where you don’t need us anymore. And then we need to be creative enough to entice you to come back for more!
Sean is an ACA L5 Advanced Open Water Coastal Kayak Instructor, L4 Open Water Coastal Kayak Instructor Trainer, L3 Surf Kayak Instructor, L3 Surfski Instructor, L3 SUP Instructor (Coastal & Surf).