Is There a Recipe for Greatness?

“Greatness is a lot of small things done well; day after day.” – Ray Lewis

Before I get in to what Ray Lewis has to say about greatness, I want to welcome you to the very first Kayak IQ blog post. Rory is my name. I imagine some of you will know me personally. Others, perhaps, will have stumbled upon the site through Facebook. Either way, it’s probably worth knowing a bit more about my story and why I started Kayak IQ.

The best place to hear that story is here, but if you want the summary-version, this is it in a nutshell:

For the past 3 years, I have been trying to answer the question;

“What would happen if you took all the resources of an elite track and field athlete, say, Michael Johnson, and applied it to freestyle kayaking?”

How rapidly would you progress? How far could you go? It was that simple; a random thought on a river bank in Italy. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would ultimately lead to me buying a motorhome, quitting my job as a dentist and living on the road around Europe. That was in September 2019 and I have been training full-time since.

So, back to Ray Lewis. If greatness is "a lot of small thing done well”; what are these small things for freestyle kayaking? I suppose this is exactly what the Kayak IQ blog intends to explore. As a starting point, I’ll offer an outline of what might be considered key ingredients in the recipe for freestyle kayaking greatness.

1. Kayak Training

Too obvious? Perhaps. But I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again; there is no substitute for time in a boat. It cannot be overstated, if you want to get really good at something, you’ve got to practice that thing A LOT. Just listen to Dennis Rodman talk about how he grew his rebound game during his time with the Chicago Bulls. For me, this meant getting to a wide variety of some of the world’s best freestyle features on a regular basis. How regularly? Well, how much time do you have? Can you increase that number? What obstacles are standing in your way? Where you live? What time you wake up at? What are you willing to change? These can be tough questions to answer, but can help find a way to optimise the training opportunities you have. That said, the most important take-home here is to make the most of whatever time you’ve got in the facilities available to you.

2. Strength training

Do I really need to go to the gym? For me the answer was, unequivocally yes. I feel so strongly about the benefits strength training has to offer, that I foresee myself writing a completely separate blog post/series on this aspect alone. Do you want to be faster, more powerful, less injury-prone? Guess what, strength training can achieve all of these things and more. Is it the only way? Probably not. But, in my opinion, it’s a hell of a place to start.

3. Conditioning

Conditioning goes hand in hand with strength training. It might be in the gym, in your kayak or often both. Essentially, it serves to prepare your body physiologically for the task at hand. For me, the task at hand is 45 second rides in my kayak with approximately 4-5 minutes rest in between each. This kind of exertion places a particular type of demand on your body. You can prepare for it. Importantly, this demand is different to what you would experience for, say, running a marathon. Knowing specifically what your body needs to be able to do on competition day is the first step in building a great conditioning program.

4. Nutrition

If the time and effort you spend training is an investment, then what you consume ensures you get as much return on that investment as possible. I had a lot of questions and, indeed, misconceptions in this area at the beginning. What’s a macro? How much protein should I eat? Is creatine bad? Again, this probably isn’t the time to get into details. All I will say for now is that nutrition complements your physical training. They’re like Ying and Yang, a virtuous cycle, one supports the other.

5. Your mind

This one is a biggee. Have you ever dropped into a hole, thrown a new trick or combo without even thinking about it and stick it first time? Then come back to the same move later that day or week and it feels awkward, disjointed or you straight up just fall on your face? Sound familiar? The mind. It can be your best friend and worst enemy all at the same time. It allows you to do so much, but the next moment can stand in the way of something extremely simple. However, as with all the other areas I have touched on so far, you can develop this aspect of your kayaking. It can be improved. It can be trained. Personally, I consider this to be one of the biggest, most influential factors in determining one’s ability to perform in freestyle kayaking.

6. Recovery

Ultimately, the energy and effort you can pour into your growth is finite. Nothing goes on forever. Eventually, you will need to sit down and take a breather. Either that, or you will end up getting injured. Recovery is what we do when we take that well-deserved rest. Should we jump in an ice bath? Get a massage? Take a nap? Down a protein shake? Go on the beer with our mates? Figuring out when you need to break and what you need to do during that break to come back refreshed and re-energised is central to optimising progress. At some point in the future, I’ll offer what works for me, and hopefully debunk a few myths at the same time.

7. Coaching

This is one universal factor that probably ties all of the world’s expert performers together. Anyone who achieved greatness, likely didn’t get there on their own. They had help. They had a coach. Or more likely, they had several coaches. If you want to be the best at something, it seems natural to want the best coach(es). But how do you recognise the true experts in a given field? Anders Ericsson suggests in his book Peak that having some objective measure of a coach’s performance is a good place to start. You’ll find that some coaches must hold industry-standard accreditations or are regulated by national sporting bodies. This can simplify things. Other areas of sports coaching might be more difficult to objectively measure. Just remember that you have a say in who coaches you. So at least consider what you consider important in a coach’s ethos.

8. Biomechanics

Any discussion on what makes a great athlete would be incomplete without considering biomechanics. This refers to how the body can be most efficient in producing the forces and movements required. Biomechanics considers, among other things, elements of the human body that are genetically endowed; height in basketball, wingspan in rowing, Achilles tendon length in the high jump. So what does the optimal freestyle kayaker look like? Are they tall or short? Broad or slim? Heavy or light? Big biceps or skinny arms? One of the wonderful things about freestyle kayaking is that the ‘optimum body type’ does not yet appear to have been defined. Perhaps it never will be. For every size or shape, there is a different paddling style to match. This is awesome. It’s inclusive and encourages people to challenge the status quo for how things should be done or to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

So there you have it, an outline of what I consider to be the key elements to address if you’re aiming to steepen your learning curve in your kayak and progress as quickly as possible. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be exploring these areas and others in much more detail. If you have read this far, you’ll probably have realised that there can be a lot to think about. So, to wrap things up, let’s go back to Ray Lewis who likes to keep things simple:

“The question is; what are you gonna do with your time?”

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