Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Art of Whitewater: Fear Management, Part 1

This is the fifth 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 1

The Theory

This is a tricky subject because it is very personal for each paddler and there is no right answer or single philosophy. As I worked on getting my thoughts down on paper, I naturally broke it into two distinct areas, physical fears and social fears. The physical fears are fairly objective and relate to bodily harm: fear of drowning, fear of pain/injury, fear of death. I want to take a look at where these come from and give some specific techniques that might help work through them.

But there is more going on psychologically than hoping to avoid physical harm, like fear of embarrassment, fear of failure, concern over friends and strangers, worries about being accepted. While some of these are not whitewater kayaking specific, and not everyone has to deal with them, they are valid issues and I think they are worth addressing in the realm of kayaking, The more I wrote the more I realized these social fears are quite different from the physical ones and are worth a separate post of their own. Hence the part two of fear management, which will follow shortly.

Getting back to physical fears, let's start with the appreciation that fear is good. Fear is your friend - it keeps you alive. Without it, people would kayak class V on their first day and take risks that would lead to a high mortality rate. The goal is not to be fearless, the goal is to recognize your fears, learn how to handle them, and not to let fear limit you or take away your enjoyment of a sport that does contain some risk.

On the physical side, many fears start with the very medium we operate in: water. It's a very natural, instinctive thing to be afraid of water. We can't breathe it. It's often cold and violent, and when you're upside down in a kayak it gets all the way up your nose into your brain. You have every right to dislike it. But if you're going to kayak, you're going to have to get used to water. You can learn to minimize the frequency and duration of immersion, but it will always be there.

When I teach, I start with wet exits. Mostly it's a safety thing - I need to know that if a student flips over they know how to safely exit the kayak. But it also helps them - most students feel better knowing they know how to exit a kayak. Many of them still don't like it, many still are anxious about flipping over, but it's a start. To get over that fear takes time and practice - just like any other skill that I teach. The way to get used to being upside down under water is to do it repeatedly, ideally under controlled conditions.

The same time I do wet exits I have people practice swimming their boat to shore. Depending on temperature, I might have them do a little swimming in current or I might save that for later. I try to get all my students swimming in the river, maybe even in a rapid. People tend to be afraid of the unknown. They often know what it's like to swim, but not swim in moving water with rocks and obstacles. Getting the experience, knowing how to keep your feet up, learning to push off rocks, time your breaths in a wave train - doing these things once turns the unknown into the known, and it's really not so bad.

But swimming often leads to another fear - it's not just the water to be afraid of but the things in it: rocks, strainers, fish (yes, a number of people are terrified of fish attacking them. I blame piranha movies). And it's natural to be afraid of getting slammed into hard objects, or scraped over them, or stuck against them. Learning how to protect yourself is key, learning how to avoid them is better.

So where and when do these fears come up? They often start before the kayaking. Thinking about tomorrow's paddle, setting shuttle, putting on in the calm pool. Our brains often run away with us, either knowing what dangers lie ahead or not knowing and fearing the worst.

One way to avoid the descent into darkness is to arm yourself with knowledge. Read about a run to better understand how difficult it really is. Talk to those who've done it before. Think back over your own experiences and focus on the successes. Even if you've never run a particular rapid successfully, think about your buddies who did and how they did it. Think about similar rapids, or maybe even harder ones, where you were successful. Focus on the positive, because when you're paddling that's what you need to do - positive motions that take you to the proper line.

This all applies even more to the fear that comes up when scouting. There's nothing like standing there and seeing that big drop, noting every single hazard and obstruction in the rapid, to make you worry about the outcome. Some people prefer not to scout - they'd rather have beta from friends or rely on their memory. That works as long as you know what you're going to do. Most of feel better if we take the time to see the hazards, but then spend our mental energy working out the specific actions we will take to run the rapid - what angle do we want on entry, where is the green current, where is a recovery pool, what boof stroke do I take going off the lip.

Once you have a clear picture of what to do, go do it. The more time you spend evaluating the dangers and watching the recirculating hole the more you will be drawn to it. If you dwell on fear, it clouds the mind and tightens the body, the very worst things for kayaking.

The Practice

As I've said before, repetition and persistence are the keys to improving, and the same goes for dealing with fear. What I've found to be key is to try to control the situation as much as possible, so people can deal with a single, simple problem at first, building in complexity and challenge. What does this mean?

Start in a warm pool. While standing in the water, flip a kayaker over and have them hold a tucked position and then flip them back up. All they have to deal with is holding their breath for a couple seconds while maintaining body position. If they're comfortable with that, try having them hang out upside down for a few seconds. Then maybe have them tap the boat when they're ready to come up. Have them reach forward and backward with their hands (engaging their brain for constructive action and physical reference). This is something I do before teaching someone to roll, but it's really all about helping them get over their fear so they can actually learn. Not enough people spend enough time upside down in a friendly situation before they end up upside down in a more chaotic environment.

Even if you've kayaked for years, if you aren't totally calm and in control when your kayak flips, take the time to do these exercises in a pool. Do them repeatedly over many weeks. Keep doing them until being upside down under water is a perfectly natural state of being. Then start doing it on the river in flat water. Then moving current (deep water). Be comfortable staying in your boat because it's almost always better than swimming.

As for fear of swimming, take a swiftwater rescue course. Let me repeat that: TAKE A SWIFTWATER RESCUE COURSE (and ideally a kayak specific one, like this).  If you're going to be a whitewater kayaker, you need to know how to handle things when they go wrong. Because they will, sooner or later. If you don't know how to swim in a rapid, if you don't know how to unpin a boat, or what to do with a foot entrapment, then you are a danger on the river.(As an instructor, I don't want to scare away newbies by forcing them into a SWR course right away. But this series is for intermediate paddlers - and they have no excuse for not learning the basic safety skills that are necessary for the sport)

Getting back to the fear - taking a SWR course gives you the experience, training, and practice of being in the water and that's the best way to deal with fear. Everyone I know who's taken such a course, or just practiced the skills with friends, ended up enjoying it immensely and being a better boater because of it. So there.

But even if you know what you're doing, it's still natural to get butterflies on big days, or while looking at a new rapid. The best thing is to come up with a system to deal with your concerns and get past them. Here are a number of other tactics you can employ when fear hits you on a river:

- Talk it out. One of the best parts of having good paddling buddies is the freedom to share your concerns and receive support. When I look at a hard rapid and say that I'm worried about the hole, my friends remind me I have a strong boof stroke. If I say I'm just not feeling it today, they say no problem and offer to help on the portage. Surround yourself with good people and life becomes easier.
- Be objective. Try to take your fear out of the equation and evaluate the danger level and risk factors as if they are happening to someone else. The conclusions you reach might help put your mind at ease.
- Watch the probe. Most of us paddle with people who are better than us (or just paddling better on that particular day). Let them go first and see how they do. Sometimes their ease will give you confidence, or sometimes their struggles will make you decide to walk around it. But either way it tends to give you a more certain feeling and help take some of the unknown out of the decision.
- Calm your mind. When I enter a rapid, whether I scouted or not, I have a simple mantra that helps me relax while keeping key point of technique up front in my mind. Relax. Sit up straight. Be aggressive. Those are the things I need - you might be different. But they are all positive actions/thoughts and make a real difference in how well I paddle (which makes a real difference in how often I swim).

Fear is an ever-present challenge, but it can be mastered. Like most worthwhile things in life, it takes conscious effort, learning, and practice. There isn't a single approach or technique that works for everyone, and that's fine. But work on it - try some different options and find what works for you. Start simple, start at the beginning, and never be afraid to admit your fear and ask for help. We all deal with it, some more openly than others, and everyone should accept your concerns. And I'd love to hear from folks on how they deal with fear and what works for them.

Part 2 of Fear Management


  1. Check out "The Mental Game of Poker 1" for gaining an understanding of the mental flaws associated with fear. The author, Jared Tendler a licensed therapist, also offers tools to help resolve issues around fear which can be a game changer whether its poker, kayaking or business. Even if you don't play poker, you can learn a lot from this guy. He's also coached golfers on the PGA etc. Highly recommended!. His book has helped me tremendously in my business. It's not just for poker!

  2. Awesome article. I just had a nasty swim on a river which led to multiple swims because I was afraid and unagressive. I am lucky in some respect to have survived without too many injuries swimming a mile plus of nonstop Rapids in a boulder garden.

    Now I have to rebuild my confidence to get back in my boat (I'll never quit endurance kayaking...but whitewater...tough). For those starting and is critical to build your skills up and understand growth takes a lot of practice to handle scary situations without panicking...because things snowball fast in whitewater situations.