Pushing your self to paddle harder rivers and rapids is not always easy. Before you make that decision to put on, there are so many different pressures and questions: Will I make all the necessary moves? Am I ready for this? Where will that water push me? Why do I even want to paddle this? Is that stopper flushing enough? Will I get hurt? What if I go over?

Most of the time when I’m confronted with a harder rapid, these kind of questions start to race through my head. I would be worried if they didn’t. After all, fear is mainly formed by the unknown or negative past experiences. To paddle a rapid well I find my mind needs to be 100% clear, focused and committed. But with all those questions whizzing around, it can be hard to achieve.

Somewhere between scouting that rapid, and dropping in I usually manage to settle the nerves and get myself into that clear state of mind. Over the past few years, I have developed a technique that helps me to do this. So I thought I would share and discuss it, in the hope that it may be useful to you. It’s very possible its something you already do.

What I’m going to be talking about is commonly known as visualization, or simply, imagining. Think back to a rapid that you have paddled multiple times. I’m guessing the more times you paddle it, the better you get at it (excluding the odd unlucky mess up). There are many reason we usually paddle stuff better after a few attempts but in essence the main reasons are because we start to get a feeling for what the water is going to do to us and when we need to place our strokes to get us down in good style. If you agree with that, you will hopefully agree with this: If we can get good enough at visualizing ourselves paddling a rapid, then we have effectively paddled it, and have therefore already practiced it. So when we actually paddle said rapid, we should be better off than if we had not visualized/practised it.

An exercise for you; Imagine you are at the top of one of the more challenging rapids you have ever undertaken. You have scouted the rapid, safety is all set up and your boat is waiting at the top, now it’s all up to you. Can you imagine yourself paddling the line? If so, how vividly? Is your image in colour? Are you imagining your self in first person or third person? Can you make out every single move? Are you styling the line or do you see yourself messing up? Can you hear the water? Is it in real time, slow motion or fast forward? Can you sense what it feels like?

If you can answer some of these questions then you already know how to visualize (which I’m fairly sure everyone can do to some extent or another?) However like all skills, visualisation be improved with good practice.

To be good at visualisation, there are other skills which we need to master too. One of which is reading the river (the terrain/whitewater/rapids), knowing what a waterfall looks like from above or what a submerged rock does to the surface. If you’re new to whitewater, ask better paddlers about rapids, find out about the different features and how the river works. Reading the river is a skill I think we can always improve through kayaking.

Once you are able to read the terrain and pick a path, you need to have a good idea of how you are going to get your boat to follow that route. Here is where we need to understand the tactics (eg lateral momentum) and the hard skills (eg paddle waggling) of whitewater kayaking. We can chose the best route though a rapid, and know how to command the boat to follow that path. From that point on good visualization becomes a lot easier.

We are creating an image of a positive outcome (eg we style the rapid because we have picked a good line and rehearsed the correct moves). I think it’s important to point out that picking a line, is not the same as actually imagining your self paddling it. Going back to that first exercise, my questions about what you see and imagine, you can hopefully see that there is a sliding scale of creating an imaginary event. At its simplest we might just be able to see ourselves from a third person point of view, but the images is fuzzy and we can’t work out how every move might look. And at the other end, we can create an image so intense it feels real. The more realistic an imagining we can create, the more useful it’s going to be to us. Next exercise: Look at the photos bellow of the same rapid. Your challenge is to pick a line, and then visualize yourself paddling it.


from the top looking downstream


the bottom stopper, looking downstream

from the bottom looking up the rapid

from river left at the bottom, looking back up

If you can, it’s probably because you have paddled a similar rapid before! If you have never paddled anything like this, then it may be very difficult to picture.

Experience gives us shortcuts: engrams

When learning a new paddle stroke, our movements are often inaccurate and jerky. All of our muscles have to be monitored and told what to do by our brain. If we continue to practice and try to learn that stroke, our brain starts to write an ‘engram’. This is a file stored by our brain, with an instruction manual on how to do that movement. It’s also an effective shortcut which allows us to perform the skill with a lot less effort. Our brain no longer has to monitor thousands of muscle movements and signals, and we can concentrate on other things.

To put this in context, the larger the range of rapids we paddle, the bigger the selection of engrams available to us. When we arrive at a rapid that looks/feels similar to something we have done before, our brain is able use old engrams to help us. So the masters of visualization should be the people who are very experienced in their sport. They will have an engram for almost any situation, so like a jigsaw puzzle they’re able to put the pieces together to create an image for every part of the rapid. A less experience paddler may be able to look at a rapid, visualize breaking in, paddling over the waves, but then get stuck when it comes to getting over/around the final stopper, because they have never been over such a drop and do not know how it looks or feels.

Visualising how and imagining why?

The type of visualization we have talked about so far is creating a vision of yourself paddling a rapid. This is very useful for seeing where to go, and what moves to put in. In fact it has been shown by research that by visualizing a task, your brain is firing all same signals as if it were doing the actual task. For the purpose of this article I would like to call this ‘factual visualization’. You are trying to imagine what will hopefully come true. You are using the visualization technique to help you perform better. Factual visualization will only help us control our anxiety if we believe that in doing it, it will make our upcoming performance better.

There is another type of visualization that I would like to mention. For the sake of the article I will call it ‘motivational visualization’. This is where we perhaps need to boost our confidence and get ourselves all fired-up and ready to go. How to go about this? Well, I think its simple: picture some of the more positive moments you have had down challenging whitewater in the past. Remind yourself of what you have done in the past, and how capable you are of doing it. It will be most useful if you can picture a similar style of rapid. But if not, don’t worry, just keep the positive imaginings coming. Picture yourself as strong and capable and ready to style! Think of a game of tennis, so much of it is mental, when one player gets on a high the other may be on a low. Now think about how there performances differ. We want the mind set of the winning tennis player.

Some top tips for practicing visualisation

The great thing about visualization is that it can be practiced in most day-to-day tasks.

  • Put a ball on the floor then stand back a few metres, visualize picking up the ball, then shut your eyes and see if you can do it without looking.
  • Try closing your eyes, while you visualise, to help you focus.
  • Use your hand to draw the shape of your chosen line, this could be a helpful prop and put you in the right frame of mind.
  • Do some air paddling. It may look a little odd, but by practicing the sequence of stroke’s on the riverbank you will start to build up an idea as to how it should feel. Visualize your route down the rapid whilst doing the strokes.

The next time your out on the river, have a go at visualizing some lines (factual visualization), as well as conjuring up some strong positive images (motivational visualization). Try visualisation out on terrain you already feel quite confident in before trying it out on bigger rapids. Once you can see yourself getting all the way down, and hitting every move, see if you feel calmer. If you can’t see it or you can only see your self not making the line, then perhaps your not ready for that rapid?

I hope its been a helpful read. Cheers, Jake

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