Competing at an international level for the last few years has taught me a lot about training and how to face competitions. When preparing for the freestyle World Championships this summer, I did a bit of research and tried to understand how to train better. In this blogpost, I am going to share a few concepts that struck me. To be clear, I have taken those main concepts from books and podcasts; they are not from me! However, they can be adapted to kayaking. This is how I interpreted four of them.


Simply put, to become an expert at anything you should train for twenty hours a week for ten years – 10,000 hours. If you look at the best kayakers in the world, they paddle every day, and often take their first gold medal after eight to ten years. In other words, if you want to make an international podium, you’ll have to spend a lot of time on the water …

Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, Ireland

Purposeful practice

Try to understand everything you are doing. Reflect on how and why a move did or did not go as planned. Being purposeful helps you to recognise patterns and connect the dots when things go well, rather than paddle mindlessly.

We often see amazing paddlers being able to take a decision or correct an error super rapidly. This ability comes from the number of dots and connections they have made over the years during purposeful practice. Having many connections departing from the same dot means that you have many ways to solve one problem.

Intervarsities, Limerick


Chunking occurs naturally in your brain, where pieces of information are grouped together. When you learn a new trick, you combine pieces of information to understand how to achieve the trick: plug, reach up, throw forward … after some time, this trick becomes simple, fluent and automatic, you just go for the plug and everything else just happens.

You cannot focus your attention on everything at once. When training, chunking allows you to put all your energy and focus on one little part of a trick to make it better because the rest is automatic. Repeat the move over and over until you do not have to think about it anymore. If you thought ‘paddling mindlessly’ was a bad thing, it is not! Once a skill becomes automatic you can focus on other things.

My first World Championships, August 2015
Ottawa River, Canada – photo David Wortley


During competitions, stress and high expectations can quickly undo your good work. Your ideal ride might have become automatic; you don’t focus that much to make it happen but during a competition, you end up ‘over focusing’ your ride. You disassemble all your tricks because you want every bit perfect. Unfortunately, it is too much for you. By breaking up those chunks, you now have way too much to focus on at once, and you are likely to miss all of your tricks. You choked up.

I do not have a solution. This year at Worlds, I tried meditating before my ride to find myself in a calm headspace, and then listened to my favourite songs to feel energised; I had completely forgot about my expectations and got rid of most stress. I approached my first ride calm and focussed on moving around the hole between tricks (happy I could pull off any one trick). This worked for my first ride, but I over-focused on my second ride because of an off-side McNasty I had only learned a few days before. Still a lot to figure out … but being aware of choking has helped me a lot.

2019 World Freestyle Championships, Sort, Spain – photo Heidi Walsh
Choking has happened to me several times during competitions

How can I train better?

How do we combine these concepts to train better?

  • Join as many dots as you can: watch videos, slow motion, ask questions, and relate what you understand to what you feel in your boat.
  • Put yourself in new and challenging situations. Create a problem, solve it and make more connections in your brain.
  • Practice your ride in different ways (starting from the third trick, backwards, as fast as possible), different places and situations (stressed, calm) and repeat all those different rides. By doing so, you make chunks for various situations. If something goes wrong during a competition, you effectively go from one chunk to another.
  • Learn how to balance what you do automatically and what you focus your attention on, and how to go from one to another smoothly.
  • Become an instructor! Teach people the tricks you know. Force yourself to temporarily break up your chunks to explain a trick and fight against ‘expert-induced amnesia (look it up …)  
Connecting dots in 2011 – Millau, France
Photo by my proud mom and dad

If you want to learn much more about all these concepts, here are the podcasts and books that helped me understand them:

Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice – by Matthew Syed (10,000 hour rule, purposeful practice, choking)

Hyperfocus – by Chris Bailey (dots and connections, chunking)

How to transform information into knowledge and wisdom – The Unmistakable Podcast, with Jared Horvath (chunking)