After kayaking for more than 35 years I don’t know whether to feel embarrassed or pleased that I’m still learning about paddling.  Zen Buddhism has the principle of ‘beginner’s mind’; which emphasises the importance of staying open to new experience and not letting arrogance or preconceptions get in the way.  So I guess on balance I’m pleased that I’m still getting new insights into the sport, even if my arrogance takes a hit.  Here are some basic things I’ve being paying attention to lately:


Torso rotation is a fundamental component of good technique in any paddling discipline.  I was reminded of this when I was in Tasmania recently training with some young slalom paddlers (see last blog post).  Since then I’ve noticed that I’m actually pretty limited in how much I rotate, due to a lack of flexibility and also perhaps to paddling more conservatively.  So I’ve been working on different stretches when I’m in the gym a couple of times a week, and when I do my morning core routine of pilates and swiss ball exercises.   Here’s a link that shows some good yoga exercises for paddlers.

On the water I’ve also tried to look around more when I turn, knowing that my body will naturally follow my eyes and rotate more.  It’s amazing how much more turn this creates in any sort of boat, so I’ll keep working on it.

 Stroke placement on waves and holes

OK, this is the one I feel embarrassed about because it’s such a basic technique.  I was doing some downriver runs in my creek boat at Lea Valley last week, working on keeping my deck dry.  I realized that I have a tendency to pull the stroke short before a wave, then reach across to the top of the hole and try to pull through.  Something just clicked and instead, I really rotated and pulled on the stroke before the hole, so the boat just zips through. It’s the same timing that you would use to boof a drop, but its works just as well even on small waves and holes.  What was different was the felt experience of this, so that although I could have told you the right way to do it, this time it felt different.   I was reminded of the challenge in coaching to help people discover the experience and feel of a technique, not just the theoretical description.

 Upstream gate technique

This is slalom-specific, so feel free to skip ahead if you’re not into pole dancing.  I finally got around to watching a well-known video on upstream technique by Italian paddler Daniele Molmenti. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the link:

It really brought home to me that paddling a  ‘new’ 3.5 metre slalom boat is really quite different from the style that worked back in the old 4 metre days.  It’s all about turning much more aggressively off the tail, and I realised that I tend to be more conservative and use less body rotation than I need to.  So the last couple of times I’ve paddled I’ve been trying to replicate what I saw in the video, getting more leverage off the entry bow draw, leaning back and holding more of the turn off the same blade right through to the exit.  I was surprised to discover that I’m a bit lopsided, being better on right hand than left hand upstreams.  I think this is due to the lingering effects of a shoulder injury last year, which means my left shoulder hasn’t quite got the same range and strength as my right.  Still, I feel like I’m making progress.

Get the basics right

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised about any of this.  After all, doing the basics well is the foundation for success in any discipline.   But working on the basics can feel boring and it’s easy to take them for granted. I often tell the story of  when I was coaching the Australian slalom team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. We spent hours preparing on course at La Seu d’Urgell, learning every wave and feature . No-one knew what the actual lay-out of the course would be, but we knew it would be difficult. It was the Olympics after all… but we were wrong. TV schedules needed to keep things moving, so the day before the competition we saw a fast, open and straightforward course which skirted the difficult features we’d spent so long practising on. You could almost hear the collective groan of disbelief.

Despite their initial disappointment at such a simple course, I watched in amazement as some of the world’s best athletes blew their Olympic chances. Despite the simplicity, many athletes failed to deliver when it counted. It worked in our favour: the under-rated Danielle Woodward performed solidly and won silver for Australia.  She got the basics right on a day when many others didn’t.

So I’d be interested to hear about other people’s experience of getting new insights into the basics – and particularly into how you’ve developed ‘beginner’s mind’ to get past the barrier of already knowing what to do. What have you (re) learned lately?   If you’re on Facebook, you can post your responses here