The process by which we learn to kayak says a lot about how we deal with and define failure. The sport is failure: flips, swims, bad lines, hikeouts, skunks, and injuries burden us throughout our career. We must react. We must frame this in some way to deal with it, to make use of it. It is in this process that we define how the sport feels, and what value it has. The more important kayaking is to us, the more we are willing to fail at it before giving up. If it is not that important, then it would not be too long on the river before it does not seem worth it. Kayakers have grit.
This truth requires balance. Many instructors delicately expose people to failure. They build the value of kayaking before letting people fail. On the other side of the spectrum some of the greatest extreme kayakers have pushed themselves beyond their skill for many years without questioning the sports worth, having bad lines, swims, near death experiences, and putting on the next day. Sometimes people’s passion is so strong that no amount of failure can deter them. For many this level of risk is unacceptable. Failure does not only affect how we teach and learn, it impacts how we perceive and feel about our own progress.
Failure is what is necessary to learn, it is precisely the degree you fail that you learn, as long as you close that gap through meticulous practice. We can fail everyday and be learning so much, but it is hard to maintain that perspective. Sometimes failure just feels like failure! In order to mitigate the failures of kayaking you need objective goals. Goals will help you keep each day in perspective. You may have swam today, but your ability to deal with that and style the next rapid will help you complete expedition trips where swims are almost expected. Kayakers with bigger goals can keep their day to day in perspective. Each day at the end of a run I can look back at rapids and think about all the things I did wrong, the angle of my boat, the momentum, the incorrect use of a feature, and feel like I did not paddle that well. This minutiae is not your progress. Your progress is so much bigger than what happens in a day of kayaking.
This year I decided on a certain set of runs that I wanted to do, and a certain time in the Tobin race I wanted to achieve. Despite a long season with several swims, a small injury, and some skunks, I look back on an amazing year where I did accomplish what I wanted, despite some disappointment on the way. A lot can happen in a season, and even in a run, but the big picture is that if you are pushing yourself, you are failing and succeeding. This is your journey towards mastery of this beautiful art. Goals can help you look beyond the day to day and see how you have learned throughout a season or year. This is the role that failure plays, and how we have to approach it to in order to master our failures, our flaws, and have fun while doing it.