A mulligan, a do over, surely we need one? After the recent lock downs should we take it easier and not expect too much too soon. The missed opportunity of spring has past us by and we again are confronted with old habits and their niggling outcomes, causing both uncertainty and hesitancy in our paddling. This the final part of the Waking Up series, we take a look at non-linear learning, constraints theory and a reset. It is never too late for a fresh start, but how do we begin?

Missed opportunity

In the past two articles of this spring waking up series, I talked about the promise of spring, and the opportunity of renewal spring can bring. About the hope for returning to the water and the chance of getting better, whilst seemingly coming off the bench from not paddling all winter. The concept of new skills acquisition was developed, and in waking up in spring, we have a fresh start, a moment of renewal, the chance to overwrite unwanted habits in our technique or style and learn a more desirable alternative. This moment of renewal in spring is fleeting and the opportunity with so many other factors to consider before and during the first paddle, may easily go on by unnoticed. So what happens if the opportunity of spring seems to have been missed, and those old habits that cause uncertainty and hesitancy on the water shape how you feel about our paddling – what can be done to overcome them?

Other considerations often induce mistakes, here on the third canyon of Soča, an upside down paddle goes unnoticed with so many thoughts clouding the paddler’s focus in early spring.

Setting up

So where did that first opportunity for seasonal renewal go? For many paddler’s it is down to simply being too busy, not the Monday morning kinda busy, but the hectic kind. Too many inputs, most of them highly variable and no time for listen to the in action feedback, only to react, with those reaction often framing how we feel about the occasion, especially upon reflection. There is little doubt that the first paddle can be a struggle. Although it is commonplace for people to want to get back on the horse after the winter off and to soon be able to gallop away. May be your friends have already gotten in a few early season paddles, or that the water conditions are so optimal, you do not wish to miss out. FOMO (the fear of missing out) is a powerful driver, and often people ‘bite off more than they can chew’ early on in the season.

Clearly a session or two that is both calming in expectations and the resulting activity would be a more pleasant way to start. So choose a location you’d enjoy and given yourself time too enjoy. The struggle of the first paddle is common place, perhaps we should give ourselves a mulligan, a chance to get the first paddle done, and strike it off as a free paddle with no expectations.

As ever with any habit, the same routines bring the same behaviour and inevitability the same outcome. The same inputs bring the same outputs – if habits are to be broken you’ll need to introduce disruptive patterns. Disruption in itself may at first feel like mindless action, yet through focusing on enjoying the change a playfulness can start to form and be fostered. A non-linear pathway for learning can be captured with the constraint led approach.

Threading a tight gap on the second move from the season start, can place a heighten demand and create anxieties about your own paddling expectations. Soon the wobbling and bracing can give way to more uncertainty or worst.


The image below is of a simplified version of Newell’s Theory of Constraints. In short this constraint led approach model has three constraints (a limitation or restriction), that of the individual; you the paddler, the task, what you want to do and environmental constraints; i.e. where you want to do the task. In coaching, like the scientific method, changing one constraint allows for comparison and useful observations. For the paddler, trying one move at one location, and then again at another, gives a comparison, we can comprehend, measure and change. If the paddler changes the task and location for the task, then this is of course more difficult to compare.

Newell’s Theory of Constraints

Why are constraints interesting for us? Well, it allows us to try a skill in a range of locations, or change the challenge of what we’d like to do at the same location. So in a non-linear learning approach (being disruptive) if something is not going well, we could do something else, at times anything else will do. This playfulness may lead to unexpected outcomes, some may be rewarding. If the chosen task at one location is proving too difficult, maybe go to a different perhaps easier location to do the same task. Ultimately in any performance endeavour, we should practise where it is easy, so when it gets harder, we know the move well. And if we add the constraints … we (individual) should practise (task) where it is easy (environment), so when it gets harder (environment), we know the move (task) well. Thus for our missed opportunity in waking up for the season, going to an easier environments or setting an easier tasks, affords us a chance to reset.

The fresh start effect

Recently I finally got around to listening to the Fresh Start Effect Freakonomics Podcast, a regular spot on behavioural economics. Which of course chimes in with my recent ‘opportunities of spring‘ article. Listening in, they spoke about a reset, and where ‘a psychological reset can lead to lasting change’. Using a data rich sport like baseball, the researcher Hengchen Dai outlined athletes whom were doing well before the reset, tended to do poorly afterwards, whilst the opposite was also true – those whom were previously performing poorly, after their reset were then doing better. How is this helpful for us?

In paddling a reset could be framed as a different location, using different equipment, setting totally different tasks, trying a different craft. The reset has clearly the potential to be a significant disruption to your routine or behaviour, and as such can be an incredibly useful method to stop yourself falling back to ingrained less desirable behaviours. Can such a sudden change have a long term effect? From a researcher into the Fresh Start Effect, Katy Milkman, New Year’s resolutions have an 8% success rate. There is of course motivation needed to change, it is not simply a wish, to set the goal and all is done. The breaking of less desirable behaviours also needs to be habit forming. If you buy the chocolate and it is in the cupboard, you are more likely to eat it, than if the chocolate is still on the shelf in the store. Changing routines is central to forming new habits and over-writing old habits, on average new habits take sixty-six days to form. Think of this in paddling terms, that is an average of sixty-six days of paddling sessions, which is arguably quite a way into the new season, so your motivation and focus is key.

Finding new habits, breaking routines, in this case sixty or so sessions into the new season, by mid May an improved upper back articulation leading to better power transfer for a more dynamic boof on the Gronda River, Valsesia, Italy.

Meaningful change

Whenever we set our own goals, it is important that they are based on a track record of success, even if these are the smallest of achievements, we all have to start to progress from somewhere. Whether through the disruption of routines, or using constraints to shape your paddling aims, developing our own mastery takes endeavour and focus when we are on the water, with reflection and guidance when we are off the water. Either way, taking agency over these choices and there outcomes ensures we recognise opportunities when they present themselves. Of course guidance in the form of help from a coach can get us on the path, but as ever any start, begins with the first step and a willingness to want to change.

Next time, I will start an open series on mistakes, whether mis-concepts or poor understanding of technique. At times the narrative no doubt will be more myth busting as I tackle “PLF”, and at other times will shift our thinking away from what may be seen as dogma with topics like “edging at the eddyline”, either way I hope this will be useful. Good luck out on the water, and we’ll speak soon.

Simon Westgarth