New golfers don’t hesitate to seek guidance from an instructor to develop an effective swing, especially if their handicap is high and they are known for leaving a divot trail. In tennis, gymnastics, cricket, karate, archery and a multitude of other sports, coaches are commonplace. Why then do we hop into any kayak, pick up a paddle and just like that take up the sport?
Paddling, like golf, is a technical discipline where equipment choice, boat setup and stroke technique are best guided by a coach. Bad habits are easily entrenched because out on the water we don’t have a mirrored wall to check our posture and form, and anything that works to move a kayak forwards sticks.
In no particular order, because these are all important, here are five reasons why all paddlers should book a session with a paddle coach.
#1 – Kayak Choice
If you can ride a bicycle, you can ride Lance Armstrong’s bike without falling off. This is not true for paddling Henk McGregor or Bridgitte Hartley’s kayaks.
“Choosing the wrong boat, one that is too advanced, is a mistake that both beginner and long-time paddlers make,” says Johannesburg-based paddle coach Russell Willis.
He describes the common scenario of paddler with 20 years of experience giving a friend their boat-locker key and encouraging, with good intention, the friend to use their boat. This is a sure-fire way to entrench the belief that paddling is the sport of Olympic gods and not the average Joe. With the right kayak, the friend will be back again and again. One swim too many and they’ll never return. Indeed, a K1 really is not the best kayak for a first-time paddler.
A coach will start beginners in a kayak that they can stabilise, guiding them step-by-step. The coach will also ensure that the paddler doesn’t run before they can walk by guiding kayak choice over time. Boat choice is also connected to the paddler’s aspirations. Boats for kayak fishing, multiday touring, paddling for fitness, river racing and competitive sprints differ.
Paddlers with experience need to realistically consider that the kayak they are paddling may too advanced. Tell-tale signs include bad posture, poor stroke technique and swimming down rapids too frequently. A coach is able to recommend suitable boats and will know how to correct weaknesses in form and technique that have developed as a result of compromising for instability.
#2 – Paddle Choice
What water type? What paddle? What length? What blade? are the four questions that Willis asks. Incorrect paddle selection is as common as choosing the wrong boat.
“For flatwater, the blade is bigger and the shaft length is longer than that of a river paddle. You don’t pull as long or as aggressively on a river and strokes are faster on flatwater,” Willis explains.
He adds that paddlers typically underspend on paddles and he has observed that many paddlers use the same paddle for flatwater and river where they should buy dedicated paddles for each type of water.
Coaches can advise on the correct paddle length and blade type for the boats that you paddle across the paddling disciplines.
#3 – Stroke technique
Just putting a paddle into the water and pulling it backwards will move you forwards; but this is not necessarily efficient. Good technique can be developed but it is not a skill that is easy to learn and perfect on your own. It takes a coach to be able to identify faults and apply corrections.
“There is nothing harder to unteach than how a person grips the paddle,” Willis says. This includes correctly placing and distancing the hands on the shaft, and the grip of the control hand on a feathered paddle.
Willis uses techniques like marking the shaft for hand position and using an insert/bump to position the fixed hand.
“Holding a paddle correctly has nothing to do with handedness. It is about what you learn with,” Willis says. Like right-handers, most left-handed South African paddlers keep their right hand fixed to rotate the shaft in their left hand. This has advantages because if a lefty breaks a paddle, a right-handed replacement is more common.
“If you don’t feather correctly, there is usually less bite on the left causing the paddle to ‘wheel spin’. This leads to compensation in other areas of the stroke.”
In terms of technique, Willis identifies placement of the blade in the water as key and this is related to the cycle of height, reach, catch and pause. Whether a paddler is using a flat blade or wing, the blade placement is the same and paddling principles overlap.
A coach will assess and correct how the paddle is held and feathered, and they will provide drills to improve technique. Using video, a coach can point out where your strengths and weakness lie. This helps you to realise how to adjust your movements to achieve better technique.
Willis says that coaching a beginner from Day 1 gets the principles correct and that hardcore techniques only follow later.
“Even if you have been paddling for a while, don’t wait – go see a coach,” Willis advises. “Book nothing less than two sessions and then continue to develop your stroke in the right direction on your own.”
Willis’ experience has proven that even good paddlers benefit from technique practice.
#4 – Kayak setup
Partnered with boat selection is kayak setup. This includes getting the distance between the footrest and seat correct to ensure sufficient bend in the knees, and the right seat position (where the seat position can be adjusted), which distributes your weight along the length of the kayak.
When a paddler feels stable, their confidence grows and instead of focusing on not falling into the water, they can concentrate on stroke, rotation and pushing through their legs.
From his experience, Willis has seen men struggle more than women when learning to paddle. “Guys generally have worse balance than women. They carry their weight in the upper body; women carry it in their hips,” he explains. Willis encourages new paddlers to give it a few chances.
He reminds us of the basics that improve stability like initially removing the seat of a K1 to lower the paddler’s centre of gravity, sitting the correct distance from the pedals and initially paddling using only your hands in the water.
#5 – Steering
K1, K2 and surfski paddlers have pedals and a rudder to steer their kayaks; most recreational kayaks are rudderless and steering is by means of paddle strokes. While, learning paddle strokes would benefit those with rudders (rudder cables can snap!), this is an essential skill for recreational paddlers. Zigzagging across the water primarily because of imbalances in paddle placement, pull and hand position is frustrating.
With instruction from a coach and some drills to cement skills, paddling becomes a whole lot more fun when you can steer a kayak where you want it to go.
With coaching, your learning phase is over faster. Proper kayak and paddle selection, boat setup and correct technique improve your enjoyment of paddling and limit both injury and fatigue. Consulting a coach does not tie you in for weekly classes. Instead, the sessions give you skills to develop in the right direction on your own. A check-up will see you well on your way and a top-up, maybe even years later, will only further your paddling. Even Olympians have coaches.
HOW TO FIND A COACH
As paddling coaching don’t quite pop up in Google searches, ask your nearest paddling club. They will be able to refer you an appropriate coach.
Russell Willis coached the author of this article when she first started paddling regularly.
“I was taking a team of novices to the Abu Dhabi Adventure Challenge in 2008 and we were in for 120km of sea kayaking. I turned to Russell to correct and improve my technique and to teach my teammates how to paddle. He built us an efficient style for long-distance paddling. For three years, Russell coached me and my teammates (new ones each year). While I benefitted from his instruction, I also observed the transformation in my teammates from complete novices to decent and competent paddlers in a short space of time. Consistent paddling, two to three times a week, entrenched what Russell taught us.”
Lisa continues to benefit from occasional coaching as she learns new paddle strokes for whitewater kayaking and canoe polo from those with more insight and experience at her paddling club, Likkewaan Canoe Club in Parys.
Author: Lisa de Speville. This article was originally published in The Paddle Mag in the June/July 2019 issue.