Friday 18 December 2015

Improve Your Own Paddling by Helping Others Improve Theirs

Standup paddling is an awesome sport for a lot of reasons, but one of the coolest things about it is the very real camaraderie that exists between racers of all ages and abilities. People are generous with their time, expertise and experience, and equipment.

When I first started SUP I knew lots about paddling but nothing about doing it standing up. I knew something about the ocean from paddling outrigger, but had never surfed and found it a real challenge to do on a board what I could do sitting down in a one-man outrigger. I was confident enough to not be afraid of trying to figure stuff out for myself, but smart enough to know that there were a lot of people with more knowledge than me who would be very useful in helping me learn some SUP skills.

The amazing thing is I never really had to ask for help. I’m sure most newcomers to SUP can relate to this this – I was blown away by the willingness of people to share their knowledge freely and eagerly. As a consequence I learned a lot faster than if I’d been left entirely to myself.

I remember my first ocean experience was in Wrightsville Beach. I’d met Chris Hill at the Cold Stroke Classic, a flat-water race held annually in Wrightsville each January. When I came back to Wrightsville Beach in March for a visit, Chris paddled with me every day. He helped me with some strategies for board control in the flats and I was able to help him with some theory on basic paddling from the perspective of sprint canoe while we paddled pretty much stroke-for-stroke together. It was fun and I felt like at least I had something to offer him while I was getting so much from the help he was offering me. When we hit the ocean it was another matter entirely.

My first time in the ocean was a 9-mile downwinder with Chris and his son Brian. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. There was a strong wind from the southeast, and waves in the 3 to 4 foot range. Pretty small time when I think about it now, but at the time it was more than I could handle. Chris patiently helped me get out through the break and get started downwind. I fell a lot. I probably only managed at most a couple of minutes between swims and didn’t catch anything that remotely resembled a ride. When I finished I was banged up and bruised both physically and psychologically. Chris took the time to debrief the experience with me, encourage me and give me lots of advice that I could take with me for next time. I carried his lessons with me that entire summer as I chased waves on Lake Ontario and got more and more competent in rough water.

Chris was just one of many who took the time to help me out, and as my skill level has progressed there have always been paddlers with more experience than me who have been there to offer me sound advice.

I’d like to think that all the paddlers that have helped me have got something out of it for themselves for their effort. It’s always been my experience in sprint canoe that when I’ve talked about paddling with someone else it’s elevated my understanding of what I’m doing in my own canoe. I can remember discussing technique, training and race strategy with the guys I used to race against. It was pretty cool because it was an open, collegial environment as opposed to a secretive one. I’d learn from what my rivals had to say for sure, but I also learned when I tried to explain to them in some kind of meaningful way what I felt when I was paddling, or tried to do in my own stroke. Later, when I started coaching, I realized that the understanding of the stroke that’s required to coach effectively helps enhance your own paddling. The more ways I found to explain in detail what it feels like when you’re connected to the water or when the boat accelerates off the back of the stroke, the more in tune I would be with my own stroke.

It’s not much different today, now that I’m paddling SUP and blogging about technique and doing clinics. The more I think about ways to explain parts of the stroke, the more I become aware of my own paddling and not just what I’m doing, but also what I’m feeling, at each point in my stroke. I’ve had days this fall while working on my blog, where I’ve been paddling with what feels like really excellent connection. The speeds on my GPS are fast, and the flow and rhythm of my stroke feels magical. I know I’m paddling really well. What’s cool is that because I’ve been talking about technique so much and working hard to find ways to describe it, it’s like I have a super-heightened awareness of every element of my stroke. I can feel all the minute changes in my stroke if I change my focus, work on isolating the impact of one muscle group over another, or change, by even the smallest amount, the load on my blade.

I contend that everybody can benefit in this fashion when they take the time to help another paddler out. If, in the process of trying to explain or demonstrate something to someone, it makes you look more closely at what you do yourself, then it is a very positive thing. It might help you identify a weakness in your stroke that you didn’t realize existed. On the other hand, it might just help you consolidate something in your stroke that you already do well.

You don’t have to be helping a high level racer to get this benefit. Teaching a beginner how to steer without changing sides, for example, is pretty basic. Yet revisiting your own steering and board control techniques in the process offers real value to you. Every single time I do this, without fail, I feel like I control my own board better afterwards.

If you’re reading these blog posts it’s probably because you’ve caught the SUP bug and can’t get enough. If you’re like me, you don’t have to think too hard to identify those people who helped you get to this point, who had an impact on you, helped you develop your skills, or in some way helped the sport capture your imagination. You wouldn’t be the paddler you are without them. There are lots of paddlers that are new to the sport that you can have a similar impact on by sharing your knowledge and experience. In a way we all have an obligation to help these paddlers out, as in some way we’re returning the favor that was shown to us. But it’s more than that. We can be confident knowing that we’re never wasting our time helping out someone new to the sport, or someone who isn’t quite as experienced as we are. By helping them we’re helping the sport grow, but we’re also helping ourselves. We’re enhancing our own understanding of what we do to make the board move through the water and that, guaranteed, will make us better paddlers.

So this week’s Tip of the Week is to take the time to help another paddler. Don’t just recite things you’ve heard other people say about technique, training or racing.  Make it personal.  Share what you’ve discovered, what you feel when you step on your board and pull your stroke, or some of your experiences and learning moments. You’ll have a big impact on the person you’re helping, but you’ll also be helping yourself.