Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Art of Whitewater: Focus

This is the seventh 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


The Theory

"Start left to right, cut hard left after the big boulder, boof the hole, and pick your way through the run-out."

OK. Little splashes. Small curler. Left stroke. Follow Bob. Bright Sunlight. Small hole - dig hard. Water in face. Straighten out. Where'd Bob go? Is that a strainer on the right? Another wave. More water. Brace. Straighten out. Boulder. THE boulder? Holes, rocks, water, sunlight, shadow. Paddle hard. Ledge. Paddle harder. Underwater. Light. Dark. Bubbles. Spinning. Tuck. Roll. Roll NOW! Air. Water. Spinning. ROLL! Air. Kayak. Leslie. Rock. Brace. Turn. Paddle Hard. Right. Left. Sunlight. Flat water. Bob. Breathe.

There's a lot going on in whitewater kayaking and it can be really hard to keep track of everything and do what you're supposed to. One of the most important survival skills is to learn to focus. But what exactly do you focus on, and how do you do it? It's not a simple answer, but one that helps differentiate those comfortable and in control on the river versus those trying to survive. You can't focus on everything, but you can't lose track of the big picture. You have to focus on the immediate and the future, the near and the far.

You have to be aware of what's right in front of you and what comes first, otherwise you'll never make it to the big scary part down the road. It's natural to think about the crux of the rapid (or the crux of the day), but you have to take care of the business at hand and that means to be aware of your immediate surroundings and each and every move you need to do to get where you want to go. When I stop in an eddy with beginners and point out where we're going next, I always end the discussion by reminding them how to do a peel out to exit. If they flip on the eddy line, any other planning is out the window. You need to pay attention to eddy lines, side currents, small holes and river waves. Know what strokes you are taking and what you'll need to take next to put yourself into the position you want to be in. Take it one step at a time.

But you also need to have the big picture in your head. If you just look at what's right in front of you, you aren't calculating for the big hole and you'll go wherever the water takes you. The other common error for beginners running a rapid (and often advanced paddlers when they're stepping up) is tunnel vision. Their paddling becomes about reacting, and the problem with that is many challenging rapids are hard because they involve multiple moves. You have to keep your head up and maintain an image of where you want to get to next and how one move leads to another, far enough in advance to put yourself in the proper position for the crux when it comes. Even the hardest rapids are a lot easier when you're in the right place.

The Practice

First things first: the immediate. The key to handling what's right in front of you without losing the big picture is to be very comfortable with what you need to do. If you're paddling your first class IV, there's a good chance the rapid starts with class III water and moves. If you're still stressed and working hard in class III, you might not be ready for class IV. So spend more time in class III. Spend time going through class III features. Let yourself get offline, take the big hole to the face, make that hard eddy without paddling hard, work it until class III is easy enough that it doesn't consume all your mental energy. Then you'll find that class IV is a whole lot easier because most of the rapid IS easy for you. You need the skills and confidence to handle what's right in front of you without too much effort. If you're paddling at your edge the whole time you will never be able to look downstream.

Part of this comfort comes with technique practice. You shouldn't need to watch your paddle in order to get in a powerful stroke. Braces should be automatic, allowing you to react physically while keeping some mental distance. Practice skills on easy water, flat water even, and they will come to you quicker when they're needed in the rough stuff. Those physical skills will help you relax and your mental state of mind is probably the most important thing to get right when pushing your limits.

Another way to help accomplish this is with scouting, particularly from shore. The more you know what's coming, the more you've already seen the whole rapid and know where the hard parts are and where it's easy, the less you'll worry about the unknown. This helps you relax a little more in the easy part, allowing you to trust that it IS easy, so you can save your energy for where it's needed.  For crucial moves, sometimes you even want to map out exactly which strokes you're going to take where (though don't get too carried away with this - paddling is dynamic and every plan goes to hell almost immediately, so be ready for plan B - or C or D or Q).

Scouting also helps you keep a mental map of where you're trying to go and what it takes to get there. That's key for the big picture. As I mentioned, plans often go awry, but you still need to avoid the big hole and be aware of key dangers like sieves and strainers. Maybe that little waves turns you when you hit it - is it OK to get pushed a little right or do you need to immediately correct and charge hard left? Know the big points and keep them in your head so you can react properly instead of instinctively.

This all requires heads up paddling. It's a concept most are taught in driver's ed: look further down the road to see what's happening instead of just watching the bumper in front of you. It takes awareness, and awareness requires a fully functioning mind. Some of this comes back to the ideas covered in dealing with fear - fear takes away deliberate thought and forces us to focus on one thing: what which we're afraid of. So before you start that big rapid of the day, take a deep breath, get a clear picture of the whole thing, and relax a little bit. This is fun - focus on that :)

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