Sunday, July 8, 2007

On Fear Management

Let me start out by saying that Laura hates this picture and I thank her for letting me use it in this post. The one thing this picture illustrates really well is that special blend of fear and euphoria that comes with whitewater paddling. Mitigating fear is a skill, and like any other skill it can be learned and managed. No matter your skill level, there are practical tools that will help increase your enjoyment and success in the sport of whitewater kayaking.

Novice paddlers are aided tremendously by exposure to the basics of kayaking in very controlled environments. The skills that usually generate the most anxiety for beginners are flipping and swimming. Once they are practiced in the lake and river they become a lot less anxious about them. Novice kayakers can also address some of their imagined fears about kayaking with a basic understanding of the principals of paddling and knowledge of river hazards and features. Beginners learn quickly that the reality is often a lot less scary then what they once believed.

For Intermediate paddlers one way to reduce fear is by building on small successes. One example of this is to challenge your skills by finding the hardest or most complex route through a rapid that you are already comfortable in. The Falls on the Nantahala are a great example: being able to catch eight eddies through the Falls takes a lot more skill than just paddling through them. This practice of catching eddies through rapids not only builds self confidence but also teaches a critical river running strategy that helps alleviate the stress of running unfamiliar rapids. Breaking down rapids this way and taking it "one move at a time" is one of the best ways to control anxiety while paddling a rapid.

Advanced paddlers often develop personal routines that help them manage anxiety before running difficult drops. My personal mantra is PREP, short for Posture, Rotation, Vision and Positive Mental attitude. This simple acronym is my way of reminding myself of the very basics of paddling and revving the engine so to speak. Reciting my mantra takes just a second but it is key in helping me focus on the here and now and creates a positive mental environment that allows for optimum performance. In the upper levels of paddling, deciding whether or not to run a rapid is less about fear management and more about risk assessment than anything else. Underlying that risk assessment takes experience and knowledge about whitewater factored with the personal skills and limitations of the individual paddler. One more important aspect regarding fear is its affect within a group. It is important to realize that within the confines of a group, fear is contagious. If several members of your paddling group are nervous about a rapid that you are thinking about running, there seems to be a tendency for your personal tension to increase. It also can work the other way around with the group being very confident and the individual paddler feeling pressure to run a rapid he or she would otherwise walk.

Ultimately it takes courage to kayak, but courage is not defined as the absence of fear - it is defined as the ability to act in spite of fear. Acting in spite of fear is an integral part of kayaking and whatever skills you use to deal with it, being able to focus that energy in a positive, productive and fun direction is liberating.

All photos courtesy of Jon Clark

Here is a link to another great article about fear written by Chris Joose, click here.

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