The Folly of Reaching for Perfect

It is a common sight among beginner and intermediate paddlers: the shake of the head below a rapid, the swell of embarrassment being off line and catching the slight edge or worse: the look of panic as they flip over and hopefully flip back up. It happens to the advanced paddlers as well but generally you see a shrug of the shoulders or a even a smile of “oops,” as they roll up at the bottom of rapid where they may have slightly botched their line. What is the difference? Why does it seem that the pros are able to take their licks and continue on?

Truth be told, the time when you absolutely ace the line as you pictured is pretty rare. A good majority of the time you are dealing with what the river hands you and improvising from there. That does not mean that you are simply relinquishing control, putting your boat into the current with no plan, holding on and seeing what happens. You would be an idiot to blindly put yourself into a rapid neglecting consequences and simply “see what happens.”

So, what is the difference? It is as simple as paddling in the moment and trusting your skills, understanding your botched line on any rapid is not necessarily an indication of how you are going to paddle the rest of the day… but sometimes it is.

I have a perfect example of how one less than perfect move affected a student of mine to the core… almost every time I teach! It is amazing ,in fact, how often this happens. I directly attribute this to the mindset of what the paddler deems is a success and what is a failure.  Beginners and intermediate paddlers, a good majority of the time, have a higher frequency of failure than the advanced paddler, though they are often not doing anything dramatically different than the advanced paddler.

So what is the difference? It is how the beginner and intermediate paddler perceive their failures. It is not that they are aiming too high with (their) skills, though sometimes that is an obvious factor; instead, they are allowing performance anxiety to become a controlling factor in their paddling and are no longer “tuned in” to the river. It is an instructor’s responsibility to help the student realize this, not to just push them into the obvious next step of the progression. Growth in the sport is not just learning the new skills but also understanding that, with growth, there are the inevitable growing pains and the development of thick skin to shrug them off. Basically, the growth in the learning curve is not always so obvious.

Sitting below a rapid and watching my students paddle through rapids is always a pleasure. I can literally watch their expressions and suddenly feel what they feel, think what they are thinking, and ultimately anticipate what is going to happen next. My goal is almost always to get them acting independently of me as they paddle the river, to ultimately become self-sufficient while still maintaining a group dynamic. The better a paddler is, the more self-sufficient they are.

Once, while leading a group downstream, I eddied out and turned back upstream to watch the group’(s) lines. The paddler directly behind me caught an unlucky rock on the hull of the boat on his downstream side, flipping him quite abrubtly and catching his paddle, causing him to lose grip and flip with one hand on the paddle. He quickly recovered by pushing off another rock in the shallow water and hip snapping the boat upright, regaining control of his boat and his paddle. He came down into the same eddy where I sat shaking his head the entire way. He immediately gave himself a harsh critique and said that he was not prepared for this type of boating. I actually thought quite the contrary.

The paddler in this scenario did exactly what he needed to do to: right himself and recover quickly in the shallow busy water of the creek; I thought that he actually had quite a successful run. However, in just that brief instance of calamity, he had already determined the success of a rapid he had not even run yet downstream by stating that he would not have what it takes to run the rapid because of his mishap. I quickly dismissed the stigma he had created by stating just the opposite and that, because of his quick thinking and ability to react safely and effectively, he had what it takes. Obviously, by making that statement I also felt that he had the competent paddling ability as well.

On this particular run I, too, had moments where I caught my edge, braced or moved slightly off of my line as well. The difference? I was aware that this will always be a part of my paddling. Not that I am sloppy, but that sometimes, you mis-read the current or the strength and stay of your stroke. I know that by making a plan, I have to have the ability to retreat from that plan, and re-plan. And as you become a better paddler, your ability to do this becomes much more acute, and therefore so does your ability to think quickly.

So how is it that those pro paddlers seem to hit those lines perfectly every time on the “BombClaw” videos? First of all, they don’t. The reason they do get a lot of them right however, is because they had a lot of them wrong at one point in time. Part of your ability to get something right is to anticipate what can go wrong, knowing that you will be dancing on that line between a good line and an off line.

On a side note, the higher the consequence does not necessarily mean the line is impossible or even hard; it means your ability to recover from a botched line is a lot lower without receiving that consequence. Likewise, just because a rapid is hard or the likelihood of messing it up is high, it does not necessarily mean that the consequence is dire. You may actually have what it takes to recover and paddle away, shrugging your shoulders and smiling saying, “next time,” or walking back to the top to give it another go.

Once this mindset becomes intuitive in a paddler, they have a much easier time reaching  a “zone” where they seem to just flow from one rapid to the next making adjustments as necessary almost as if they aren’t thinking at all but becoming a natural element on the river.

Photo: Lydia Cardinal, thanks Jason Wilhelm, for being brave and rolling on a 24 degree day


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