Adventure sports are different to other recreational sports like football or tennis. Nature is the referee, and she doesn’t always share the rule book before dishing out the punishment. When you’re playing in the elements, you are part of a changing world, one that has not been prepared or softened. It’s not a case of winning or losing, its a matter of enjoyment, challenge and respect.

We try to master a piece of equipment which allows us to interact with our environment; such as skis, a paraglider or a kayak. We need the ability to coordinate and move our body in certain ways, or the tactical understanding of which ‘line’ to pick down a mountain or through a rapid.

Looking into the Devil slide – photo James Shrimpton

Well-developed adventure sport athletes share a common thread which is the ability to fortify their minds in potentially hostile environments.

Have you noticed that some people seem to have an aptitude for certain sports? Personally, I’ve always been useless at the more traditional sports (I went to a very sporty school, so it was not from a lack of opportunity). But in adventure sports, I seem to do OK. Why is this? Well, I’m not exactly sure why I suck so much at the more traditional sports, but I do think I know one of the reasons I tend to do better at adventure sports: inner calm and focus in the moment. Sounds fairly hippy huh? But I think there is a lot to be said for this. Athletes who do well in adventure sports all excel at this.

In any adventure sport, there are times where you need to be focused and committed. These moments might come in waves. It’s unlikely that you will need to be that focused for the whole day. But rather, during snippets of that day. Managing your anxiety levels in between these snippets is key.

The people that seem to be able to control their fear and anxiety levels leading up to these moments often do much better at then staying focused. Why is this? I expect we could find many reasons. After all, everyone is different. I think it’s hard to train these worries away, but I do believe that its possible to fortify yourself.

At the top of the Stikine, all feeling a bit scared!

Self belief

I’d like to think we all have it in certain areas of our lives; as a good kayaker, chef, girlfriend, husband, or friend. It’s built on a set of positive experiences that outweigh the negative. Yes, I’ve cooked some awful meals, but I’d like to think I have cooked many more tasty ones and as a result, I consider myself a good hand in the kitchen.

Recently I crashed my paraglider and hurt myself. That was my last experience of paragliding. Currently my belief in my abilities there is a little sore (similar to my backside).

The first step to fortifying yourself

Make many positive experiences, in terrain where you’re likely to succeed. Make moves that challenge you, on water that doesn’t terrify you. Build your skills up to a point where you believe in them. Train the basics hard!

Step two

Don’t allow your ego to take control of important decisions. You’ll get an arse kicking and it won’t be there to back you up! It can be hard to ask for help or advice. Want to improve? Relish in learning from others. Top athletes in most sports have coaches, yet in the whitewater world, it’s not so common.

Realising you are perhaps not where you once were is also important. It’s the first step of getting back to your peak.

Self-talk will help. That voice in your head is a super important dude. It can be the angel or demon that sits upon your shoulder. But the thing is, ultimately we can kind of decide which voice we listen to. That is important. You can decide.

Step three

How you control your thoughts leading up to an event, will largely dictate how well you do. Here are some tools I use.

  • On the way to rivers that I feel are hard for me or when I feel anxious sometimes I just try hard not to think about it. Play music, or chat with friends. If that’s not working then I’ll think about other times on rivers, but just about the good experiences. In my mind, I play back rapids, how the moves felt. But importantly, positive stuff to set the tone for the day – success.
  • When I get on the river especially one that might be challenging, I set myself little challenges in the first few rapids (which are hopefully easy). They tend to be small accuracy based things. Like hit the top of that wave there, lift my nose up over that, or to hit the eddy exactly at that spot. They are challenges I expect to be able to do well and feel good whilst doing them. Why? Because getting those positive vibes about myself makes me feel good and it proves I can do stuff well. That really helps settle me.
  • Scouting. This is important. You need to be able to convert the information you see on a rapid, then contextualise it and act upon your findings. If you can’t do this well, then your going to have a tough time. So learn to read the water well. Ask people what they think features might do, relate them to similar features you’ve experienced before, build your case. The better you get at this, the more you will trust yourself to make good choices. Don’t just look from one position – if you can, get low down to the water so it looks as it will when you’re in your kayak.
  • Visualisation. You’re going to need to have that line stuck well in your mind. Learn to paddle a rapid in your head, tick off the features as you go, get the timing right as you come into that boof. If you’ve already done it in your head, it should be easier in practice. It’s surprising how good you can become at this.

I don’t think you can just expect to not feel nervous. But I do think you can take steps to help your self-belief. Heading into a rapid, focused and thoughtful, not blocked by fear and doubts is going to lead to a better performance.

Lower Rauma – photo Greig McColm