Thursday 5 August 2021
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Managing Fear

Fear is the elephant in the room at any kayaking class. As a kayak instructor you are part therapist; don’t take this too far, but do acknowledge that you need to be aware of how to help your students manage their fear. Fear can spread through a group like brushfire, consuming fun, confidence, and comfort in an instant. You must prevent this. Learn to recognize and avoid the root causes of fear in your students. Fear wears three primary masks in the realm of whitewater kayaking:

  • Fear of the Unknown
  • Fear of being out of control
  • Fear of letting oneself down.

Each of these fears can spoil a trip, a class, or even an entire paddling career.

Main Points:

Fear of the Unknown
Students can easily become scared of variables that they don’t understand. The same drive to explore and experience new things can turn on your students if they begin to feel overwhelmed. Every new complicated move and horizon line can become a major source of anxiety. To manage this, try to instill a sense of adventure and exploration in your students. Acknowledge that these experiences can be intimidating, and that’s ok, but that they are also the root of everything that is wonderful about paddling. If your students begin to exhibit a fear of the unknown, it is absolutely critical that you avoid giving them too much information. Although this seems like a likely solution, the most probable outcome of providing too much information at this point is overwhelming your students. Once a student is overwhelmed, and becoming timid, too much information becomes a bad thing. Let an apprehensive student follow you or a more experienced student so he or she can begin to re-build his or her confidence.
Fear of Being Out of Control
Another type of fear that often manifests itself in kayaking students is the fear of being out of control. Whitewater is a dynamic environment, if you are feeling overwhelmed you cannot simply stop, think, and rest. This is tough for students who really want to control the pace of their learning and take things one-step at a time. Even the mild surging motion of an eddy, that goes unnoticed by experienced paddlers, can lead to fear and apprehension in a student who just wants to sit still for a second. Put students in environments that are right for them. As you increase difficulty, make sure that you are giving students challenges that have low consequences. Pick challenging lines through straightforward rapids; this gives your students an opportunity to develop skills in an environment where they will be more likely to feel in control. In addition, make sure you are teaching students in an setting that gives them ample time for recovery. If your students know that the rapid they are in ends in a nice big pool with a warm, sunny, and sandy beach that they can get themselves to even when swimming, they will be more likely to feel in control of the situation.

Fear of Letting Oneself Down
Not all fears have physical harm or discomfort at their root. In fact, in some students, the primary cause of most fear will be tied to personal sense of progress and achievement. All of your students will have personal expectations. For students who are learning a skill in an environment that is not only foreign, but also unbelievably dynamic, it is hard to set realistic personal expectations. Therefore, as an instructor, one of your primary goals is to help students feel the progress they are making every step of the way. This frequently involves breaking complex tasks, such as the roll, into manageable steps. By allowing students to feel their progress, you will likely help to eliminate the self doubt that can lead to the fear of letting oneself down. Setting realistic goals, and helping students manage personal expectations will help to mitigate this fear.