Wednesday 7 October 2015

Technique – Take a “Big Picture” Approach

I’m frequently asked questions about technique that are quite specific about things like top arm angle, hand position at the exit, amount of bend in the knees etc. These days, before I answer, I ask the person asking the question what they think of their overall stroke. Are they moving the board as far as they can each stroke?

If you’ve taken a clinic with me in the last year or so, you’ll know that I’ve changed my approach to teaching technique. I can’t stand in front of a group of people and say, “This is how to paddle”. Take a look at as many of the top paddlers as you can. You’ll see that they all have their own styles and all have their own approach to making their boards move fast. Some look similar in the way they paddle and some look radically different. Consider three of the top male paddlers in the world, Danny Ching, Travis Grant and Connor Baxter. They all look markedly different, and when I’ve spoken with Danny and Travis and they describe how they paddle and what they focus on it’s easy to see why. They each have their own way of looking at technique and therefore take slightly different approaches to moving their boards through the water.

The fact of the matter is we’re all different. If we were to measure all paddlers anthropometrically we’d see that even paddlers of the same height and weight are different. Bone lengths, measured from joint to joint (elbow to wrist for example) are going to be different. Even if those lengths are identical for two paddlers it is almost certain that the origins and insertions of muscles crossing the joints are going to be different. And then of course the size and strength of those muscles is very likely going to be different as well. If no two paddlers are identical, why should we be trying to copy another paddler when we’re trying to develop our own technique?

In my opinion the best place to start when trying to learn or refine technique is to not worry about fine details in the stroke and instead take a “big picture” approach and start by considering what we are doing on a larger scale.

In my opinion there are four main elements of technique for moving the board forward in this big picture that we should be thinking of:

1. Securing the paddle blade in the water and pulling ourselves past the paddle.
2. Maintaining positive to vertical blade angle as long as possible.
3. Using big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles.
4. Using our body weight whenever possible.

If you’ve got a great memory and can handle three more then these ones are pretty important as well:

5. Separating muscles we need from ones we don’t and relaxing everything we don’t need.
6. Making our movements as fluid and rhythmical as possible.
7. Not doing anything to upset the forward movement of our board.

That’s pretty much it. For simplicity’s sake I’d prefer it if there were only four, and truthfully I could probably just go with points 1 to 4. However points 5 to 7 certainly aren’t insignificant and I think all seven are pretty straightforward and easy to remember. To me those are the principles of good technique. Everything else, all the fine details that people like to talk so much about, are basically things each of us do to try to achieve these seven elements. Each one of us is going to solve the problem of executing these elements of technique in a different way, depending on our own unique set of physical characteristics and our own interpretation of them. There isn’t one right way to do this and a number of other ways which are wrong, although there is going to be a right way for you. The trick is discovering it.

When I am teaching a clinic or doing private coaching now I look at the big picture first. I try to get a feel for how well the paddler is able to move their board by addressing those seven elements. If they’re really fast and appear to be meeting each one of those technical objectives but their paddling isn’t aesthetically pleasing, what am I supposed to say? That they’re technique is wrong and they should be doing something different? I think it is more practical to congratulate them for finding a way that seems to work for them to achieve these basic foundational elements of technique and make their board move fast, even if the way they do it isn’t the way I would.

More often than not, the paddler that has come to me for help isn’t hitting all of those main technical elements and either isn’t going as fast as they could or is expending far too much energy in every stroke. This is the time to start considering the finer details of the stroke. I prefer to take a trouble shooting approach, looking to see how things like hand and body positions might affect the paddler’s ability to pull themselves by their paddle or engage big muscles effectively. Usually small adjustments in the position of some part of the body or a suggestion of what to focus on at a particular part of the stroke are enough to make a big difference. But the paddler still has to develop their own movement with these new body positions and develop their own, unique interpretation of good SUP technique.

I guess you could say that our interpretation of how to best achieve these seven principles is our own unique “style”. We’re all different so we’re all going to have our own style and look a little different when we paddle.

I think it makes a lot of sense to watch other paddlers and look at their interpretation of SUP technique. There’s a lot we can learn by doing that, especially if we’re watching paddlers who do those seven things very well. We can borrow from another paddler’s approach and try to make it work for us. Often it will. But we’ll still look a little different doing it. What doesn’t make sense is to try to copy details of another paddler’s movement (even the very best) without considering that “big picture”.

Over the next number of weeks I’ll take a look at each of these seven elements of technique in more detail. I’ll try to identify common mistakes that make it difficult to do them well, and suggest some things you can try to do them better. Stay tuned.