The ratio of a basketball to a golf tee is actually pretty accurate when describing the shoulder joint. Now imagine how easy it is to knock that basketball off the tee and you can see why shoulder dislocations are fairly common. If not for the skin, muscles, tendons, and ligaments that surround the shoulder, humans would perpetually walk around in slings. As it stands though, it’s only kayakers that perpetually walk around in slings. Usually, the paddle is the culprit when a kayaker dislocates his shoulder. Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum to place it on and I’ll move the world”. Your paddle is that lever, and although it’s only 197 centimeters long, it’s plenty long enough to apply the minimum pressure required to knock that basketball off the tee. Keeping your shoulder in a strong position while paddling is therefore of utmost importance. A strong position is one in which the elbows stay below the hands and the hands stay in front of the torso. The easiest way to achieve this strong position is by rotating your torso with all your strokes – especially strokes done at the back of the boat.
Strong and weak shoulder positions can also be applied to rolling. In the first picture below the paddler is executing a sweep roll. Notice how he has twisted his torso as he rolls to ensure that his hands stay in front of his body as his rights himself. (One of the easiest ways to achieve this is by following the lead paddle blade with your eyes). His left hand and elbow stay tucked close to the body to maintain a strong position. In the second picture the paddler is not rotating with the sweep. This puts a lot of pressure on the shoulder and is a weak position. The shoulder has become a weight-bearing joint – something it was never intended to be.
This concept also works with bracing. It is often said that a low brace is safer than a high brace. In actuality, a poor low brace and a poor high brace can dislocate your shoulder equally well. Both braces should be executed with the bracing blade planted in the water in front of the paddler. Bracing perpendicular to the paddler, or behind the paddler (even worse) places the shoulder at risk. The farther back you brace the more you load the blade with weight, and the more you’re depending on the shoulder alone, and not the other muscle groups, like abs, obliques, and pecs to stay upright. A high brace is perfectly acceptable so long as the hands aren’t rising above the head.
A low brace is acceptable as long as the elbows aren’t rising above the hands or head. Below are four pictures. The first and third pictures demonstrate a shoulder-safe high and low brace, respectively. The second and fourth pictures demonstrate an unsafe high and low brace, respectively.