Friday 3 October 2014

Using Video to Help your SUP Technique

Video is a very powerful tool for athletes and coaches to use in the development and maintenance of effective technique. There's a lot to be said for actually being able to see what you're doing, and there are visual learners who really understand what they can see much better than what they are told.

The first time I was videoed in C1 was when I made the National Team in 1979. Until that point I had no idea what I looked like when paddling. I hoped that I looked like John Wood, Olympic silver medalist in C1 500m in 1976, and a guy who was my hero when I started paddling, but I really had no way of knowing. I used to spend countless hours looking at still photos of John in his C1, most of them in the set up or catch part of the stroke, and I remember when my first coach, Bill Collins, gave me a level 1 coaches manual that had a sequence of frame-by-frame photos of John's stroke I was mesmerized by it. I used to use a broom and get in front of the full-length mirror at my parents' house and try to get into the same positions I saw John in in the photos. And any photos anyone took of me in C1 I'd analyze carefully to see whether I was doing things properly like John was. However all that said, I never saw myself actually paddle till Florida training camp in March 1979.

My first reaction was disgust. It didn't look like John! Then I pretty quickly realized it was because it was me, not John, in the video. I tried to look more closely at what I was doing to see if I was doing anything similar to what I'd identified John doing, and what, if anything I was missing in my stroke. And of course I had a coach watching the video with me as well who was trying to help me through that process. It was incredibly valuable.

The problem with video in that era was that the technology was awkward and, in the age before lap top computers, tablets and smart phones, you couldn't take the video with you. You'd watch the video, get a great mental image of what you were doing and what you needed to work on, and then you'd get up and leave the room where you'd viewed the video and everything you'd just seen would, invariably, start to get blurry. It was almost as if that great mental image you had in your head would start to disappear in a cloud of static. In contrast, today we live in a video universe. Almost everyone can take quality video and watch it at their leisure. So why not take advantage of that to help us with our SUP paddling?

Using video to help understand and develop good technique and make yourself go faster begins with what seems a simple first step: acquiring the video.

Acquiring the Video

You're going to need someone to film for you while you're paddling, and may need someone to drive the motorboat for you as well if you are lucky enough to have one to film from. Make sure the people driving and filming know exactly what you expect of them and what you are looking for so you can be sure you are going to get the video you want. What follows are a list of things I've found useful to do (or at least consider) when having video taken.
  • Point of reference: Give some thought to the point of reference from which you are going to have your video taken. Although it is not always possible, without question the best way to take video is to follow the paddler from a motorboat. You'll get way more useful video of good paddling strokes than if you get someone to take video of you paddling by them on some stationary dock or point on shore. Generally videos taken from shore provide a good, straight on look at the paddler's technique for a stroke or two at most. Video taken from a following motorboat provides a consistent stroke-by-stroke view of what you are doing and provides a much more accurate picture of your technique.
  •  Have the video taken with the sun behind the camera: Make sure the person filming you isn't filming into the sun. If they are all they'll get is a shadowy silhouette of you paddling and you won't be able to see some useful details in how you're moving when you look at it.
  • Film at least 30 frames per second: If the video is taken at a setting that captures fewer than 30 frames/second you might get some useful video to look at in slow motion or frame-by-frame. Then again, you might not. There will be dropped frames that make the video you're looking at look choppy and jerky. Capturing 30 frames/second should give you lots of frames in each stroke to analyze in slow motion or frame-by-frame. You'll be able to see exactly what you're doing every stroke without something important being missed because it was in a dropped frame. Most cameras, tablets and smartphones take video at this rate on normal settings.
  •  Don't use the HD setting: HD settings aren't necessary and are just going to produce huge files that may make your play back run slower, be difficult to email or download if you want or need to do that, and just aren't necessary. I usually film at 640x480 and 30 or 60 frames/second.
  •  Decide what type of equipment you are going to take the video with: There are lots of different options. If you are going to look at it on the water or as soon as you get off the water then the way to go is to capture your video with an i-pad or similar tablet. The capture quality is very good, you can play it back immediately, and the screen is large enough to allow you to actually see details in your technique with a considerable level of clarity. While smart phones might take good quality video you won't be able to make much of what you see on playback until you put it on a tablet or a computer.
    When I am coaching canoe/kayak now and I want to show the guys the video immediately, I use an i-pad. It works perfectly and the guys can look at it on the water, get the feedback they need and then go and do another piece of work and apply what they've just seen/learned with maximal benefit.
    If you are planning to look at the video later you should send it to a laptop or desktop computer. You'll see a lot more and be able to use the cursor keys to make frame-by-frame, slow motion and reverse motion viewing very easy which will make your analysis easier.
    If I am going to show an athlete their video later, I always make sure I load it on my laptop. Then I email it to the athlete or upload it to a drop box where they can pick it up. I find the easiest way to do that is to capture video using a video camera that uses a memory card. I can just pop the card out of the camera, slip it into my laptop and immediately transfer the video file/files. I then can keep a video library for each athlete so I can track how their technique evolves and each athlete, once they get their video can add it to their own video library.
  •  Give some thought to the type of paddling you want to analyze: If you are looking at basic technique and are working at learning or refining an element of the stroke then film slower paddling. If you want to see if you are executing drills properly then film the drills. If you are interested in analyzing sprint speed, then sprint. If you want to look at your 10 mile pace, then paddle at that speed for the video. You'd be surprised at how many paddlers and coaches take video at speeds that are actually random without having given any of this some thought.
    Also make sure that the paddling technique is representative of what you want to look at. If you are curious as to what you look like when you normally paddle, then paddle normally. Don't over focus on your technique and paddle better than you normally do, as the video you end up watching will not be representative of your normal stroke. If you want to look at a certain element of technique or something that you're trying to change then you should put extreme focus into it and try to do it perfectly so you can see exactly where your technical skill is at that moment.
  • Be sure to get video from both sides, back and front: There are important things to see from each angle. In sprint canoe I like to get video of both the paddling and non-paddling sides so I can get a thorough picture of what is going on. So if you want to be really thorough you'll need to do that for both your left and right paddling sides.

Analyzing the Video

So you''ve got your video now. You've done the easy part. Now you need to assess what you see. This is the hard part. I think the first thing you need to do if you are going to analyze the video yourself is make sure you have a good knowledge of basic technique.

There are lots of resources available to help you get a handle on what good technique looks like. If you haven't taken a clinic and had a chance to talk technique with a good technician like Jimmy Terrell or Dave Kalama you can still find lots written on the internet about it, including stuff from Jimmy and Dave themselves. There's also a lot of video available of most of the top paddlers. Even if you've never taken a clinic or can't find detailed written descriptions of good technique you can learn a ton by watching some of the top paddlers. Recall what I mentioned about what I learned from just looking at still photos of John Wood. If you're smart about it, you can learn a lot about your own technique by comparing what you see yourself doing in your video to what others are doing.

Here are some suggestions:
  •  Look at a selection of the top paddlers, not just one.
  •  Try to identify trends in what the top paddlers are doing. Don't get lost or confused by a particular paddlers style (their interpretation of basic paddling technique) but rather focus on how they execute the fundamentals of good paddling technique and how their boards respond.
  • Remember the main fundamentals of good technique. I've included an example of a checklist you can use for your video analysis or as the basis for developing your own technique checklist. Click here to download it(Excel Format).
  • Look at your technique in the video you've taken. In my opinion the best way to view it is using Quicktime. Quicktime allows you to use the cursor keys in the bottom right corner of your keyboard to advance the video forward or in reverse frame-by-frame or in slow motion. This tells you a lot. Tap the right key (forward) or left key (reverse) once to advance it or back it up one frame at a time. Hold the appropriate key down to move it forwards or backwards in slow motion. Run it a real speed first to get a feel for your stroke and how your technique compares to the pro paddlers you've been looking at. Then start to explore your stroke at a deeper level using frame-by-frame and slow mo.
  • Don't be disappointed if you don't look exactly like your favorite paddler. You don't want to look exactly like anyone else. You can't. You're you, not them. But you can look to see if you are executing elements of the stroke in a similar manner to top paddlers.
  • Don't get hung up on minor things. Check for the main things first:
 Are you pulling yourself to the paddle and pushing yourself by it?
 Are you entering the water near the point of your maximum reach?
 Is your blade getting buried quickly?
 Are you maintaining a positive blade angle as long as possible?
 Do you have a nearly vertical blade at the deepest part of your stroke in the pull?
Are you maximizing the use of big muscles and minimizing the use of smaller muscles?
Are you relaxing muscles that are not actively involved in pulling yourself to the paddle?
Are you maintaining pressure on the blade (directed down the paddle shaft from your top hand) throughout the stroke?
Does your weight get off of the board and onto the paddle during the stroke? 

  • Try to ascertain how the board is responding in relation to what your paddle is doing. Your board should be accelerating from the catch through the pull. It will be decelerating as you exit and while you are in the air. How well do you appear to minimize deceleration and maintain board speed during the air work?
  • Do your body movements appear dynamic and forceful and connected to the paddle?
  • Do you look comfortable on your board? Do balance issues appear to limit the effectiveness of your stroke and ability to load the paddle (find connection to the water) and work dynamically against the connection you establish?

SUP Technique Checklist

Following this process and answering these questions should give you a pretty good idea of the effectiveness of your technique. Where you see what appear to be shortcomings with your technique you need to consider how you might be able to adjust your motion to address these shortcomings. This is where advancing and reversing your video one frame at a time is really useful. Can you identify what you should be doing more or less of? Can you identify how you can execute part of your motion more quickly to improve your technique?

Most people who have technique troubles usually miss, or are late with, a movement at one point in their stroke that subsequently messes up the rest of the stroke. It's like a chain reaction. Some people have trouble right from the catch and pay for that through the entire rest of the stroke. Try to identify where your stroke breaks down. What can you do differently/better/more quickly at that point to fix that break down and increase the likelihood of the rest of your stroke becoming better as well?

Think things through for yourself and don''t jump to hasty conclusions. Go for a paddle and experiment with your technique after you've viewed your video and then go back and look at it again. Did your experimenting give you any better insight into what you see in your video?

Once you've got a firm idea of what you're doing and what you need to adjust or change, it's time to devise a plan on how to implement those changes. I'd strongly suggest giving some thought to whether or not there are some drills you can do that will help you make, and consolidate, those changes. Remember drills are exaggerated executions of particular elements of technique that help accelerate learning and refinement of those elements. Your drills should address one element of technique at a time, be repeated for no more than a minute and then you should allow yourself to paddle normally for a minute or so before repeating the drill or moving onto a new one.

Give yourself some time to make the adjustments to your technique that you're trying to make. You aren't going to make any meaningful changes in a week unless you're a very talented and experienced paddler. More likely, you're going to have to work at it for a while. Paddlers that I coach at the canoe club are often working on technical adjustments for entire training cycles.

If you've taken your time and given your video lots of thought and still aren't sure about what you've seen then it may be time to ask some questions or get someone else to look at it. Think carefully about who you ask. There are lots of people who know their stuff and can give you some really good insight into your technique. There are also places where you can send your video to get it analyzed, which will cost you some money but may be worth it (buyer beware). What I strongly suggest you NOT do is post your video to one of the SUP forums and ask for advice. There is absolutely no guarantee that the people who respond know any more about technique, or are any better able to analyze a video, than you.

Establishing a Video Library

Obviously if video is a powerful tool it makes sense to use it on a regular basis. If you''re trying to implement changes or adjustments to your technique you can use video to help you assess your progress in making those changes. I strongly encourage you to keep a library of your videos, with the date of each video in the file name, so that you have a record of how your technique evolves over time.

Your technique most certainly will evolve, even if you are not consciously trying to implement changes. That''s another reason you should periodically use video. As much as it can be a tool to identify and implement changes to your technique, it is also a powerful tool for making sure good technique that you are satisfied with doesn't deteriorate, which can happen for a variety of reasons if you don't stay on top of it.

You don't need to be an expert to use video to monitor and improve your technique. Hopefully this post will encourage you to give analyzing your own video a shot. I'm certain you'll find the process interesting, and if you are the type of person who is curious and likes solving puzzles then I think you'll enjoy it and find a good deal of satisfaction in doing it.

It's been a while since I've been videoed myself, and my web site is in woeful need of some new video as the one currently on it is from fall 2011, so in an upcoming post I'll analyze a new video of myself and we can see how my technique has evolved over the last three years. I also have access to some pretty powerful tools that we are using with the National Team so I'm going to try to use some of them to look at the acceleration profile of my stroke, stroke rate, velocity, distance per stroke etc. It should be interesting so stay tuned!