The weather in Britain has been cold and wet for a couple of weeks, and the only people not grumbling are paddlers who have appreciated the first Thames weir season for some 15 months.  I’ve managed three sessions at Hurley and one at Marsh weir.

Last Sunday I was paddling and talking with Tim Ward, as we both tried to remind ourselves how to pull off classic Hurley freestyle moves.   It’s fair to say that we’ve both come to freestyle late in our paddling careers, although Tim has a much better idea than me of what to do.

As well as working on the moves, I was also trying to practice rolling up on my right blade.  This is tricky, because my default is to screw roll leading with the left blade and it’s been like this since I learned to roll in 1976.  That’s a long time to groove a habit.  My normal roll is pretty reliable, but the times I’ve been let down on a river have tended to be when I’ve had to roll on my ‘wrong’ side due to a cliff face getting in the way. So I want to get more consistent on my non-preferred side.

I was noticing what it was like to hang upside down, out of breath after an intense freestyle ride. I know I will get up if I roll on my left, and I don’t want to spend too much time messing around underwater. So the first challenge was to resist a sense of panic and inhibit my natural tendency to do what is most familiar. The ability to inhibit an automatic response is a useful skill whenever we’re trying to change.  I first learned about this when I worked with a teacher of the Alexander Technique.  This is a system of body awareness that is used by musicians, actors and sports people.  As well as inhibition, it’s also important to have a clear intent of the new movement.  In this case I was thinking about making the initial set-up toward the left of my boat.  Most of the time I capsize at Hurley I’m going into a reverse loop because my stern has caught, so there’s actually time to set up as the boat falls backward into the water. I reckon I attempted a right-hand roll 50% of the time, and maybe half were successful first time.  That’s more right-hand combat rolls than I’d normally do, but I know that if I try a tame right-hand roll I’ll come up every time.  So clearly a work in progress – and that’s the third point about changing habits, the need for repetition of the new skill.

Tim made the excellent point that it’s important to introduce paddlers to the right habits early.   For example, teaching beginners active swimming when they capsize, rather than ‘wait there and hold your paddle while I come and sort you out’.  Or making sure they can roll equally well on both sides from the start!

So some questions; what good and bad paddling habits did you develop early?  And what habits have you managed to change? How did you go about it?  It would be good to hear some stories about this.

I’m off to Val Sesia in a week, so hopefully the next post will have some photos and stories from there.

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