Tuesday 15 June 2021
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How To Build Confidence on the Water


For many paddlers managing confidence on the water for themselves or those they paddle with is challenge that endures and evolves for the duration of a whitewater career.

Confidence can challenge some who paddle above their skill level, while others who lack confidence paddle whitewater well below their ability level, but in their comfort zone, sometimes to their own detriment or frustration of friends.

In this blog, I primarily want to address a few ways to deal with losing confidence on the river, and share ways to work back into feeling good about yourself and your paddling.

My personal paddling confidence is like the river itself: It ebbs and flows, spikes and drains, and has been something I have struggled with for years, as one small mistake or scare can set me back weeks or months of positive confidence gains.

I think it is important to differentiate between fear and a lack of, or low, confidence. For me, fear often originates from the unknown, and is something most kayakers experience at some point. Confidence, on the other hand, comes from a belief in and the trusting of your own abilities.

I think a lack of confidence can also arise from a dislike/discomfort of the perceived consequences of “failing” or missing a maneuver on the river. This is a trend I see with people who attach a greater emotional significance to small mistakes on the water that are often without consequence. This leads to my first point:

1.The power of positive thinking and language! Don’t say: “ I Can’t”

If you remember the little engine that could, she impressed her self and those who didn’t believe in her abilities by constantly repeating “I think I can, I know I can….” It is easy to set yourself up for failure if you choose to disbelieve in your own ability to accomplish something from the beginning. Instead, use language that allows you to grow: I don’t understand what I am supposed to be doing, I am scared, This is hard for me… rather than the definitive verbal excuse of “I can’t”.


2. Set Your Self Up For Success: Choose Challenge Without Consequence

Paddle to your comfort level. On days when you aren’t feeling it, choose a different line. Years ago in California, I hurt my shoulder and subsequently missed some pretty easy rolls. (I swam in flatwater.) This shook me up. A lot. And took away the confidence I had in my roll and myself. So, Instead of continuing to pursue rivers that contributed to my anxiety and took away my confidence, I chose to spend the next while working on playboating. This was because playboating felt controllable- I could see what was downstream- and it made me flip – forcing me practice the hard skill of rolling and facing the psychological fear of being upside down. It took time-almost six weeks- before I could flip over and not panic, but practice that let me work on skill gaps without major consequence meant when I returned to running rivers, I did so feeling good about my roll, and ready for what was down stream.


3. Re-define Failure and Try, Try Again.

In front of kayakers I admire or respect, I want to paddle my best, and I am often embarrassed if I make a silly mistake or mess up an easy move. This means that sometimes I don’t push myself when I should, because I don’t want to fail in front of said super-star, even though they are the best person to give advice. It is important to not be afraid to “fail” so that you continue to try new things. Remember that most of the time, missing one line or one move isn’t a huge deal. Most of what we see in videos or facebook posts are highlight reels- very few nail something the first, the twentieth, or even the hundredth time they try it. Just because you miss a move once doesn’t mean you can’t do it the next time. Shake it off, force yourself to go back and try again- even if it means getting out of your boat and walking. There are times and places where it is okay to mess up, and it is often these mistakes that teach us the most and make us better boaters. Try not to let one mistake color your entire paddle. I like to use the image of putting a mistake in a box, closing the box and putting it on a shelf to deal with later, so I can focus on what is ahead of me, rather than what has already happened.


4. Teach Others

Sometimes going back to basic skills and smaller whitewater can do a lot to remind you of skills you do have. Teaching others can help break things down, improving your own understanding of technique while putting you in a position of leadership. Give yourself a chance to excel, shine, and demonstrate the skills you do have. Having others who depend on you to be confident and lead them may let you surprise yourself.


5. Life is Like a River.

Lastly, accept that life and confidence are like rivers: constantly in flux.
Know that confidence changes depending on the day, the hour, energy levels, and a myriad of elements. The good thing is that just because you aren’t feeling your best right now, doesn’t mean that you can’t get your groove back. Remember that there is no time frame for how long it takes confidence to shift, so be patient. Finding others to boat with that can help push you and provide you with a safe paddling environment is key, but at the end of the day, confidence has to come from you, and the belief and trust you have in your own skills.

Happy Paddling!