Overcoming Plateaus: 7 Considerations in Pushing Past Paddling Hang Ups

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a great day on the lower gauley with friends… overcoming big water fears!

There’s been a lot of talk lately about progression and extremes and pushing ourselves. It’s given me, a relatively new boater, a lot to think about. I don’t know what it’s like to truly fear for my life or someone else’s on the water but I do know that as I push my boating, the risks and hazards I maneuver around so carefully get closer and closer to me, and my margin for error grows smaller. I constantly ask myself if I have what it takes to emerge. Is my head on right? Do I feel good in my boat today? Sometimes I ask myself these questions knowing that even the worst of the worst might not be that bad, but I think hard about whether or not my confidence can handle those outcomes, as well as my health and safety.

It seems that as we progress from rank beginners to true intermediates, we encounter some real hang-ups as our consequences go from bumps and bruises to broken bones, shattered confidence, and maybe even some harrowing near misses. These realities can get harder and harder to manage mentally, if not in skill, too, and we often find ourselves, though seasoned and experienced, backsliding. What’s happening?

We have the burden of knowledge. We know what it’s like to take a risk and get kicked in the teeth… but we also know what it’s like to soar over the odds and feel the rush of adrenaline in the eddy at the bottom of a scary rapid. I have those moments, too, where I feel like maybe I’m not really as competent on the water as I thought I was or today, I just can’t handle the possibility of banging my head off rocks or even swimming. I find myself thinking hard about those moments where I’ve overcome myself and those moments when my head just isn’t on right for the day ahead. As we proceed, downstream and with our personal boating, I made a list of some near-truths that have allowed me to remain honest (sometimes) and comfortable (sort of) while managing new challenges:

  1. Get in a playboat. Seriously- DO IT. And don’t just get in a playboat and paddle downstream… charge into a hole, hop on a wave, and commit to being upside down. Reconcile with yourself that you will flip and you might bump your head; it goes a long way in creating comfort and grit on the water and under it.  BONUS: Even if you aren’t getting in a playboat, per se, paddling different boats allows you to experience the river in different ways. Try something new!
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    a plus to playboating? it can sometimes fit in the trunk of your car, which is pretty neat.

  2. “Catch every eddy, surf every wave.” Translation: play the river. I’ve paddled Section IX a dozen times now at various levels and I only just now took my playboat down for the first time; I had a blast. The same boofs had a different appeal, and I found myself willfully hopping in features because, well, that’s what my boat was made for. No eddy or wave is too small for you to at least attempt. This is generally best practiced on a run with which you’re already pretty comfortable. Which leads me to my next point…
  3. Make hard moves in easier whitewater. Push yourself to make challenging ferries, attainments, and lines in and through rapids that you know well and paddle with ease. Scare yourself in Class II/III to get the jump on Class IV and beyond. You’ll be glad you’ve been pushing yourself on easier runs when those practice moves become game-on moments as you step up your paddling.
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    an “extreme low flow” day on Wilson Creek was a fantastic opportunity to build confidence and work on more technical moves.

  4. Don’t be a level snob… just don’t do it. Those people that you trust implicitly to guide you down a certain run because they know it so well exhibit that comfort and prowess because they’ve taken the time to run rivers at a myriad of levels. Big, slappy water gives you the opportunity to work on boat control and stroke efficiency, not to mention edging and boofing water. Low water runs reveal the geology of the river and creates tighter, more technical moves with added gradient, requiring finesse and responsiveness. Yeah, you might be banging over rocks or getting slapped around by big waves, but ask yourself why you don’t enjoy that kind of boating, and you might be surprised to discover that it’s due to a lack of comfort, which is accessible by chasing that which impedes it. Commit to getting to know the rivers you paddle better, and that can only happen by getting on them at a variety of levels- within reason, of course. Flow can dramatically change the character of your favorite run, thus, creating a different paddling environment altogether.
  5. “Butt-in-boat” time. This one is pretty simple but the importance of which cannot be overstated. Spend time in your boat whenever y1374338_10100301066701742_1746043421_nou can, and be deliberate while doing so. If you’re getting on something that’s relatively easy for you, make sure you’re not just absentmindedly floating downstream. Flip yourself over and challenge yourself to go to your offside roll instead of your onside. Do an easy run in a boat you’re not familiar with. Long story short: grey skies and cold breezes shouldn’t keep you from opportunities to get in your boat and grow your understanding of the nuances of your kayak and the intricacies of the river. Get on the water!
  6. Mind your progression. This is completely subjective and dependent upon each and every individual boater but take a moment to consider: crossing off rivers as you run them as a simple indicator of progress and skill can be a slippery slope. Are you just surviving your way down and calling it a day or proceeding downstream with control and stability? Are you making challenging moves on rivers that have become easy for you before you step it up to the next, more difficult river? Walk before you run. Paddle with folks that are just as happy to see you portage a rapid you shouldn’t be running as they are to push you and set safety when you’re ready for the challenge. For the most part, these rivers aren’t going anywhere. Refer back to #4 and really get to know your runs before you decide to bite off some more difficult and consequential whitewater. You can’t avoid beatdowns but you can be deliberate with your paddling so that when beat downs happen, you’re walking away, not crawling.
  7. Don’t forget about instruction. I know, I know… you’re giggling right now because we’re shIMG_20130621_132733_119amelessly plugging ourselves, and we are… kind of. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re paddling; instructors do what they do because they are ambassadors for a sport they love that takes place at a venue they revere, and there’s nothing an instructor wants more than for you to enjoy paddling as much as they do- that means doing so in a positive fashion. Whether it is roll touch up, playboating, or soft skills like rescue or even confidence building, instructors are with you from Class none to Class V. Don’t be that paddler that spirals down to rock bottom, ready to sell all your gear and hang up the booties for good because you were too proud to ask for help. Instructors offer fresh, objective perspective and, at times, some much needed tough love about where you’re at with your paddling and how to get to where you want to be. Remember that these folks can be as invested in you and your boating as much as you are.

The intermediate plateau is a tricky one. We’ve got just enough experience to think we know what we’re doing but are maybe lacking in confidence or focusing too heavily on fear to feel like we can always take something away from our days on the water. We understand consequence,  and the burden of knowledge is a heavy one. Don’t forget what it felt like to be a rank beginner: the thrill of every combat roll and that grin you couldn’t contain after your first surf. Slow down and savor your time on the river, both in moments of prowess and moments of anxiety. Harder whitewater comes at you fast and your head can quickly jump into overdrive, calculating all worst case scenarios and creating an environment that seems impassable to you by boat. Seize the opportunity to refine yourself and not just climb the proverbial river running ladder; there is too much joy and beauty to rush downstream.

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