Spring is always full of the promise of what may come. For any sport or pastime that has its seasons within the annual cycle, the start of the new season is a golden opportunity to wake up mind and muscle in such a way that casts off both the dust of our slumber and over-write old unwanted habits. In this article we’ll look at what happens at the beginning of learning something new, and in understanding this process we have the chance to start afresh every time when spring comes around.

Considering the first rapid on the walk in to the first run of the season.

Back to the beginning

Brace yourself, grab a coffee or whatever your brew is, some coach speak is a coming. When we learn something new, those movements, associated feelings and our body’s feedback become the first draft of a new skill. In sports coaching this process is known as ‘new skill acquisition’. Research suggests that the how and what we initially learn is pivotal to shaping the early development of our own performance.

The development of these motor skills in action within the environment frame the specific skills application and the recall of these skills upon demand. The objective when we attempt to learn a new skill, is to eventually arrive at a fluid and natural performance. Once the new skill is grasped, with good guidance through coaching, and a deliberate programme of practice with cyclical focused reflection, the eventual mastery of this skill can be obtained. However only after accompanied substantive experience can the development of expertise deliver a high end performance. – A pathway for development of expertise

That’s the ideal route to what can be described as an expert. Sounds like a lot of hard endeavour? You’d be right to think so. For those of us with less elite aspirations, this path is a fair road map to a better performance, these same behaviours are all within our grasp to replicate within our own available time. The road to mastery of any valuable skill takes time, yet the first step, the experience of learning something new, the moment of new skills acquisition is without doubt the first and foremost important step to get right. Otherwise hours, days, weeks or even years of frustrations may impede your our progress and of course your fun on the water.

Simon on the Upper Soča in Slovenia, with snow capped mountains of Triglav National Park.

At the beginning

For most of us, the process of new skill acquisition is fraught with inefficiencies, errors and mistakes a plenty. This is how poor habits are built, practised, deepened and embedded into our performance. These initial episodes of learning can be referred to as the ‘cognitive stage’, which is often full of awkwardness, errors, confusion and disorientation, all of which is to be expected. The learning process is a messy affair for all of us, whether plainly apparent or not. Finding the exercises that are most conducive to a good foundation for growth is the task of a coach, along with informative and positive feedback to ensure competence builds. Spending time at this early stage, with further extended tasks in easier predictable environments and with continuous feedback ensures resilience in skill development. An indication that this cognitive stage is over is when the skilled performance given is void of conscious thought, the paddler simply does the skill in action on demand.

Seasonal opportunity knocks

The first paddling of the season invites a renewal, an opportunity to go back to the cognitive stage of learning, and very importantly the chance to re-learn a skill without any recent motor skill recall with its potential error prone baggage. This will take patience and focus or perhaps mindful play – whether it is the shape of your forward stroke, or for some their kayak roll – there is time to enjoy relearning something without a heightened challenge. In these early days of the season, long time mistakes can be washed away, with an insightful coach at hand to give feedback can bring quicker change, and with self analysis and reflection.

As we re-emergence on to the water we may be tempted to make haste, to get back to the zenith of last season’s efforts too quickly, but the opportunity of a new season can be a double edged sword, and in our rush to the river embed new errors and development past mistakes that may stay a while … no opportunity comes without risk.

All smiles walking out from take out after the first run of the season during spring.

Taking time

Coach or no coach, the opportunity is real and the results tangible. We must not let our desire to enjoy paddling again, be overtaken by hastiness to want it all back during these first sessions. We can have it all, but not all at once. Where I live the rivers come to high water early in the season, it can feel like a no go … GO moment, flipping from nothing to EVERYTHING within a few hours. But the aims of those first sessions, are about selecting easily manageable challenges, finding the pleasure in the easy tasks, and not in any way expose my paddling to risks and uncertainty within the environment. Those moments will come later in the season, but for now taking time in the opportunity is the only joy I wish to savour.

Next time, I’ll get into the what happens if the opportunity of spring is seemingly missed, and those old habits that cause uncertainty and hesitancy on the water shape how you feel about your paddling, and what can be done to overcome them. Good luck out on the water, and we’ll speak soon.

Simon Westgarth