Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Art of Whitewater: Fear Management, Part 2

This is the sixth in a series of posts about whitewater kayaking and some philosophy beyond the basics; ideas and concepts meant to help intermediate paddlers improve and get more out of the sport. As parts are added, these links will go live:

Part 1: Technique
Part 2: Momentum
Part 3: On or Across the Water
Part 4: Group Management
Part 5: Fear Management, Part 1
Part 6: Fear Management, Part 2
Part 7: Focus

Fear Management, Part 2

The Theory

In the first part on fear management I addressed the most common, and probably most obvious fear related to the sport: the fear of getting hurt. But there's a lot more going on inside most people's heads, more concerns and issues that are connected to the physical danger but also distinctly different. 

Some of these are caused by the physical risks. If you have a bad day on the basketball court, it doesn't really increase your chance of injury, but things are different on the river. The simple fact that we know making a mistake might lead to really bad consequences makes us fearful of the mistake itself, not just the possible outcome. And when you make a mistake, it might be your friends who are risking their own safety to help you out, or at the very least taking time away from their fun to make sure you are okay and don't lose your gear. It's this knowledge that our actions can have a significant impact on the entire experience and everyone in the group that creates a very special kind of performance anxiety.

Like fear itself, there is a useful side to this anxiety. It's helpful to realize that maybe we shouldn't go on this particular run with these particular people, because it may not lead to fun times for us or them. It's okay to limit yourself, to wait for another day and another team to push yourself, but it's all too easy to let the worries become an excuse and allow them to limit you in a way that ultimately holds back your paddling. Challenge is a part of this sport - a very good part - and with it comes some risk, physical and otherwise. To avoid it entirely is to miss out on one of the best aspects of kayaking.

How do you overcome this performance anxiety? For me, it takes a multi-prong approach. First, I start with the physical fear as related in the previous part of the series. The more I take my fear of the rapids out of the picture the less I'm concerned about what will happen if I 'fail'. When I'm confident in my paddling, I'm much less likely to spend a lot of time inside my head and create new problems for myself.

But confidence only goes so far. What's most important for me is the crew I'm kayaking with. If I know that they have my back, no matter how poorly I perform, if I trust them to help me out while taking care of themselves, if I know that I won't be judged or looked down upon for expressing concerns or making mistakes, then I have a good time paddling. As I've said before, if you surround yourself with good people life becomes a whole lot easier.

But that's not always possible - sometimes we paddle with whomever we can find because that's the way things work out. Some of us are more comfortable in a group of strangers than others, so on top of everything else we add in some social awkwardness and more personal fears of rejection. What to do then?

As an instructor, I paddle with strangers all the time. The truth is I'm an introvert; I'd rather be alone, or with a small group of people who I know very well. When I'm teaching, I'm supremely confident in my physical skills and experience, and being in charge makes it easier to feel in control. But when I venture out to new rivers and meet up with unknown folks to run class V rivers, I have lots of mental blocks to overcome. I feel the pressure to perform because I want them to like me, because I'm a professional who's supposed to be really good at this. I have an expectation of personal perfection that's very hard to live up to.

Here again I fall back on my experience. They may be new people, it may be a new river, but I've kayaked rivers before and met enough paddlers to know that they're generally very welcoming and supportive. I trust that my skills are what they are, that I might have trouble and I might walk some rapids, but I've always made it down (or hiked out safely) from every river I've done. I remember the times when complete strangers have jumped in to help me or my friends, and how at the end of the day my reputation and the opinion of strangers doesn't matter nearly so much as my own happiness and the joy that I receive from kayaking itself. Focus on the positive.

If you're still building up that experience, if your fairly new to the river scene, go outside the sport. We all have things that we're good at, that we've done for a long time and feel a sense of mastery with (even if it's just tying your shoes). Reflect on your journey a bit and you'll remember a time in the distant past when you lacked such skills - when your shoelaces flopped all over the place - but you persevered and it all worked out. Realize you are on that same path with kayaking, and that all of us have been on that path.

When I started whitewater kayaking I had a mentor. He was the most graceful paddler on the water and was completely at home in any rapid. He ran harder whitewater than I ever thought I would be able to do, and he always seemed relaxed and in control. In my own struggles as I developed, I often thought back to a story he shared about his first weekend on the river: he swam 37 times. That simple fact, knowing how he started and where he ended up, told me it was okay if I didn't master everything right away. It gave me permission to suck a little bit. Eventually I sucked less and less, and while I'm not sure if I paddle with the same grace that he does, I do all right these days. So can you.

The Practice

As I've been working on this article I listened an interesting story on a 'game' called Rejection Therapy. You can follow the link for the full details if it interests you, but the take away for me was to change your mental approach so the thing you are afraid of becomes the thing you seek out, making it trigger the reward center in the brain instead of the flight or fight response. It actually is exactly what I was talking about when I encouraged everyone to practice swimming.

How this applies to the social side of fear is a little different, but it can still work. If you're afraid of paddling new runs with new people, start by paddling a comfortable run with new people. Instead of going up to your local river with your usual friends, find another group to join for a day. This gives you the chance to interact with strangers while feeling confident in your kayaking. It will also expand your paddling circle and lead to more opportunities to paddle with people who are no longer strangers.

But when you want to step up, when you want to run a new run that makes you nervous, it's all right to be selective of who you have around you. Ask your more experienced friends, the best paddlers you know, and chances are they'll be stoked to take you down your first class IV. The vast majority of really good boaters I know are some of the most generous and helpful people around, and we truly like the opportunity to give back to the sport.

One reason for this is the role-modeling that happens in this sport. Most of us who've been around for a while have learned from folks who shared their time and passion with us. We've seen the spirit of the river and we want to pass that along. Whatever stage you're currently at in your kayaking career, you can create that sense of community yourself.

One way is choosing how you talk about these issues of fear and how you react to others. Be aware that if you're giving your buddy a hard time for not running the big rapid, the newbie next to him is taking away a certain message. Be conscious of the strangers on the river and offer your help even if it's not needed. People naturally have a tendency to hide their own concerns through bluff and bluster, but if you want to have supportive friends around you, start by being a supportive friend yourself.

(A little aside: this is one of my problem with the 'booty beer'. It's fine for those who want to partake of the tradition, but I don't want anyone to think our sport is about punishment and ridicule. If everyone is between swims, then swimming itself can't be a 'wrong'. There are circumstances where people swim when they shouldn't, and people whose rolls are not as strong as they should be, and I think some public pressure to remedy those situations is fine, but blanket public shaming of swimmers is not what kayaking is about for most of us.)

And most importantly, give others the freedom to make mistakes and give yourself permission to do the same. It's interesting how some of the most compassionate paddlers, the ones who are so quick to offer condolences and support others, are the harshest on themselves. Accept that you will flip, that swimming is an occasional if undesirable part of the sport, and notice that everyone does it. Take your expectations away from river ratings and put them towards paddling experience. I've seen smiles on class II rapids as big as anything on a class V expedition.

Social fear is most often rooted in our own heads, our own sense of insecurity. Pick your head and look around, and you'll find that kayaking brings together folks from all different stripes who share the joy of paddling, and most everyone is there to give you a hand, whether it's a round of applause or a gesture of support. Embrace the community and trust yourself, and have fun wherever and whatever you're paddling!


This wraps up my Art of Whitewater series - unless you all have more topics you'd like me to discuss. I've tried to get a little bit more into the philosophy of paddling, try to relate the things that I see among the most dedicated and skillful paddlers, and share them with those who have less time and experience in the sport. These have been some of the most challenging and rewarding posts to write, and have made me think harder about exactly what it is that I do and how I see people approach paddling. I hope you enjoyed it and I'll add more if inspiration strikes. Thanks.

1 comment:

  1. Really great information, thank you. I am not a whitewater paddler (not had the opportunity) but I'm sure your advice on maintaining momentum, picking a line early, crossing/entering/exiting currents etc will replay mentally when next I go paddling.