It feels somewhat trivial to write about managing fear in the context of paddling, while we deal with the  all-encompassing existential crisis of the coronavirus that is sweeping across the globe. But, there are some parallels that can be drawn.

What is fear? The dictionary says that fear is a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined. This definition is insightful.

Firstly, fear is an emotion, and an emotion is something that can be controlled, albeit with great difficulty. We also know that fear can be rational or irrational. Fear is ultimately a powerful life-preserving function, honed over millennia of evolution. For most of human’s history, life was an endless battle to stay alive, and it didn’t really matter if the fear was rational or irrational – the only important factor was whether it kept you alive or not. We now live in an age where we willingly put ourselves in potentially dangerous situations, and our ability to deal with the fear is not necessarily a matter of life and death, but it can mean the difference between a shameful bailing out versus an Instagramable picture.

Secondly, the perceived threat can be real or imagined. This brings about some interesting permutations. It follows that one can have a rational fear of a real threat. But, one can also have an irrational fear of a real threat. On the flipside, one can have a rational fear of an imagined threat. Finally, one can have irrational fear of an imagined threat.

Let me create some context for these permutations as an understanding of the concept of fear will be beneficial before I get to the nitty-gritty of managing it.

  • Rational fear of a real threat: This is easy to imagine. Visualise being on top of a big waterfall, or trapped in the surf zone with a massive swell rolling in. Those are some real threats, and rational fear in this type of situation is a very healthy thing to have.
  • Rational fear of an imagined threat: This is not as silly as it seems. An imagined threat can be based on previous experience with a real threat that had the same appearance. Let us say for instance you’re paddling down a river and you see spray rising a distance away. Previous experience of seeing such spray will indicate that there is likely a waterfall ahead. But, in reality, it may just be a nice rapid where wind blowing from just the right direction has whipped up some of the spray. The fear is still rational, even though the threat may end up being imagined.
  • Irrational fear of a real threat: This is often the most harmful fear that paddlers encounter. As explained above, rational fear for a real threat is normal and often beneficial. But when one has the skill and ability to engage with the threat in a positive way, but the fear is so overwhelming that it is impossible to utilise said skills, the fear becomes irrational and debilitating.
  •  Irrational fear of an imagined threat: This is where the wheels really comes off. When one reaches this point, it is a hopeless exercise to continue and it is best to just get off the water and sort out your head.

When talking about a threat, it is natural to think of the threat as a physical thing, like a waterfall or a weir or a big wave breaking on a nasty reef. But, the threat can also be a psychological element, like failure. One can fear failure. One can also fear the unknown. There are many threats that can be feared, and fear can be paralysing.  

In managing fear, it is important not to confuse it with bravado or riding on adrenaline. Bravado often leads to injury, and riding on adrenaline is only good if it is rooted in a solid skill set. When dealing with fear, it is all about building the courage to face the fear squarely in the eye.

Courage is not a constant. It is slippery emotion that is affected by testosterone, experience, skill, fitness, injury, equipment and general state of mind. The good news is that, apart from testosterone, these are all aspects that can be worked on with a bit of effort. By consciously improving on these different facets, you create a positive mindset to overcome fear.

Skill

Knowing that you don’t have the skill set to deal with a situation is extremely debilitating. Get coaching! A good coach will help you to improve your skills in a safe environment, progressing to more difficult situations at a pace that you can handle. As much as the lack of skill can be debilitating, knowing you have a solid skill set can be equally powerful.

What is considered a solid skill set will depend on the type of craft you paddle and where you want to paddle it, but it will typically include the following: reading the water correctly, a variety of paddle strokes, rolling, knowing how to swim safely with your kayak, and knowing how to re-enter your kayak.

Experience

Nothing beats experience. Experience enables you to distinguish between truly dangerous situations and those that just appear to be so. In other words, to distinguish between real and imagined threats. Experience is gained through good coaching and by spending time on the water with paddlers who can pass their knowledge on to you.

Keep in mind that gaining experience takes time. If you’re sporty person, you might gain skills quickly. Don’t confuse skill with experience. Take it slow and keep it steady. Trying to advance too quickly can put you in a situation that you are simply not ready for.

Knowledge

When you want to step up your game and start paddling more difficult waters, whether that be on flatwater, whitewater or the ocean, arm yourself with knowledge of whatever you want to attempt.

If you are aiming to cross a big lake, learn the typical wind direction, what weather patterns to look out for, how cold the water is, etc. If you want to paddle a new river or a new rapid, get insight from paddlers who have paddled it before or study a guidebook. If you want to attempt a section of ocean that you haven’t done before, find out what the tides are doing, where the best launch sites are, what breaks to avoid, and so on.

The more you know, the less there is to worry about.

Fitness

Not being fit enough has both a psychological and physical effect. Knowing you’re not fit enough to deal with the consequences if things go wrong can be as debilitating as knowing that you lack the skills. From a physical point of view, as you get more tired on a trip, you also lose confidence. The solution is obvious: get fit! Being able to hold your breath for longer than just a few seconds if you’re trapped under water can make the difference between life and death.

Injury

Having an untreated or recovering injury messes with your head. You’re constantly aware of it, it may cause pain while you’re paddling, and it also makes you hesitant to do anything that could make the injury worse. Get it fixed, or give it time to heal.

Equipment

When situations get rough, your life depends on your equipment. Substandard equipment not only puts you at risk, it also affects your confidence when you know that your kayak or paddle could break at any moment, or that your PFD will not really keep you safe if you take a swim, or that your helmet may get ripped off if you capsize. This is the easiest thing to remedy. Inspect your equipment regularly, and fix or replace items timeously.

State of mind

When all these factors are dealt with, you are left with your own state of mind, and that is often the biggest hurdle to overcome. It is not a battle that you can win completely for all eternity, but the more you knock the fear down, the weaker it will be.

To quote the late Hendri Coetzee: “You will end up fighting the battles in your conscious mind on the plains of actual risk where they should be fought, not in the shadows of your subconscious mind where irrational fear rules”.

Getting to know your fear is like playing chess against the same opponent, time and again. You get to know its weaknesses and peculiarities. Everyone’s fear is different and has different triggers. By playing chess with your personal fear regularly, you learn to anticipate its go-to moves, and you figure out ways to obstruct those moves and counterattack. You get to understand when it is just a bluff and when it is the real deal.

Fear is a formidable opponent, and you cannot expect to win every time. Sometimes you will win, sometimes you will lose. The key is to not run away from the battle. And always keep in mind, fear exists for a reason. Sometimes fear has to get the upper hand to save you from your own stupidity.

Also, remember that fear is bipolar. Sometimes it is rational, sometimes it is not. It is brilliant at disguising its irrational side, pretending to act in your best interest. You only get to learn how to distinguish between the two when you intimately engage with it.

The best way to lose your fear of FEAR is to become desensitised to it. This means regular exposure in small doses. Get comfortable in its presence. Put yourself in situations that simulate your worst fears but that are not lethal. Face your fears in the presence of a good safety net; surround yourself with competent fellow paddlers. Take the beating, survive, and realise that it wasn’t so bad after all. And do it again and again.

You will learn that fear itself cannot hurt you and can be managed. You just have to practise being scared. The better you manage your fear, the more you keep its ugly cousin at bay: panic. Panic kills, and you want to stay away from it as far as possible.

Visualise

Remember that rational fear of a real threat is only useful when you have to decide whether you are going to do something or not. Once you have started doing it, there should be no room left for fear. You cannot afford to be distracted or paralyzed.

Therefore, once you have the skills, equipment and state of mind sorted out, you will be able to employ the most useful technique of visualisation. Visualising helps to eliminate unnecessary mental calculations when you’re in the thick of it, freeing your mind to achieve a state of flow where fear doesn’t exist. Practise visualising familiar sections. The better you get at it, the more beneficial it will become in difficult situations.

Everyone is different, and some will find some facets of managing fear more difficult to work on than others. The important thing is to be aware of your shortcomings and to consciously try to improve on them. With some practice, you will be able to better distinguish between rational and irrational fear and also between real or imagined threats, and you will have the tools to manage that fear.

Author: Celliers Kruger

This article was originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of The Paddle Mag. This digital magazine is free to read and is published every second month. View it (and other editions) online on Issuu or use the Issuu mobile app.