Most of my recent paddling has been in a slalom boat, training at Lee Valley.  GB Canoeing has started twice weekly training sessions as part of its Olympic Legacy programme, and although this is targeted at young paddlers I’ve been able to join in.  As Paul Ratcliffe said, it’s about creating a healthy slalom ecosystem that includes space for the more mature paddler. I’ve enjoyed helping out with coaching too, it adds a new dimension and focus when I’m watching other paddlers and offering feedback.

I’ve tried to teach the young paddlers a couple of things.  First, it’s important to always have a focus for a training session. It’s just not good enough to get on and paddle the gates mindlessly.  So I ask them to nominate one or two technical points that they want to pay attention to, or I help them identify what these could be.  I keep this really simple, like keeping the boat flat, stroke pacing, or noticing how far up they come out of upstreams. At the end of runs I ask them for their own feedback on what they did, and if I managed to see anything give them my feedback too.

The sessions include paddlers with a wide range of ability, so it’s easy to catch up a slower paddler or be distracted by a swimmer.  I encourage the young paddlers to accept the nature of the session and not waste time or energy getting annoyed.  This reinforces the need for emotional control in slalom, focusing on your own performance not others.

The final thing I emphasise is commitment.  Despite distractions or mistakes, I encourage the lads to always finish a run. I know how hard this can be if it’s all gone pear-shaped, but I believe it’s important to develop the capacity to ‘hang in there’ regardless.

Last weekend was the first Division 1 race of the season, a double header at Shepperton. It’s been unseasonably cold here in the UK, so it took a bit of discipline to manage racing over a wet, cold and muddy weekend.  Shepperton is a boily, multi-current Thames weir and the feature never really stabilized, especially as the river rose steadily over the weekend.  My main lesson from the first day was that I mistimed my preparation, and didn’t give myself enough time to really warm up properly on the water. On my first run my fingers were still cold before I started, and I was solid but not spectacular.  On the second run I wasn’t quite ready to go and my run was unsettled, with two penalties.  Despite feeling unsatisfied with my own performance, the result was good, finishing 6th overall and just behind Mike Scutt in Masters.

On Sunday I was keen to race better so I spent more time looking closely at the course and getting a really solid warm up.  I certainly felt more switched on at the start line and was determined to put in a good run.  Unfortunately I was a little complacent on the move across the main stopper (nailing it during practice sometimes doesn’t help!) and I lost my edge.  This led to a crowd-pleasing move and I kept the rest of the run together, but the lost time kept me behind Mike again.  The river rose so much that second runs was like a whole new race.  The course flattened out a little and was faster and easier.  My second run felt good, a little conservative perhaps but no big errors, and was my most satisfying of the weekend. Good enough for 10th overall, and again 2nd in Masters behind Mike.

Here’s a VIDEO of my exploits in the stopper,courtesy of Nic Perryman.plan B

It’s interesting to reflect on the different ways of approaching racing and assessing performance.  My results were better on day 1, but I think I raced better on day 2.  In psychological jargon this is the difference between seeking ‘self referenced mastery’ (i.e. judging performance by own standards) and ‘other referenced mastery’ (i.e. judging performance by how well you do in comparison with others).   I think it’s important to value both. Paddlers who base all their self-esteem on beating others can end up in a pretty fragile state, because no one wins all the time.  Yet focusing only on self referenced mastery misses something fundamental about competitive sport.  So it seems to me that the most robust way of thinking about slalom is to first of all focus on achieving mastery over the course, solving the problems the course designers have presented and striving to be the best you can be on the day.  A purist might say this should be sufficient motivation, but there’s an undeniable thrill in also wanting to win!