So here we are, the first of three instalments on the essential elements of how I understand freestyle kayaking. If you missed last week’s blog, for context, you should definitely read that first.

I decided to start with Position, not because it is the most important component but because it is perhaps the most familiar. A large chunk of freestyle revolves around learning new movements, new tricks. What is movement but a series of sequential positions? To excel, you must become intimately familiar with a huge range of positions: how they should look, how they should feel, the impact that departing from ‘the ideal’ has on the overall aesthetic.

A common approach to skill acquisition in freestyle looks something like this:

  • What am I supposed to do?

  • What am I currently doing?

  • What’s the difference between these two?

  • How do I reduce this difference?

  • Eventually, what you’re supposed to do is the same as what you are doing – you just learned a new trick!

This entire model essentially requires the identification, description and replication of positions.

The trouble is that each discrete position may only last for hundredths of a second in the context of a single movement. You can watch a trick repeatedly in real-time and still miss huge chunks of valuable data. I wrote an article on video analysis a while back that stresses this point; you have got to slow things down, ideally to a frame-by-frame format. The trouble with this is the sheer amount of data. The details are seemingly endless. To help athletes and coaches cope, the BBB model of analysis comes into its own. BBB stands for:

  • Body

  • Are you leaning forward or back and by how much?

  • Is your trunk rotated?

  • Boat

  • Is the boat on edge?

  • Is it pointing directly upstream or slightly off to one side?

  • What is its position relative to the seam line/trough?

  • Blade

  • Where is each hand?

  • Is the blade in the water? If so, how deep?

  • How are you feathering the blade?

It gives a simple structure for collecting and organising the details of each ‘checkpoint position’ that needs to be established by the athlete during the course of a freestyle move.

Once you have identified the positions that comprise a given movement, the next step is to describe them. The language you use here matters. Ambiguity inhibits accurate review and also muddies the waters when you try to communicate the message to others. You cannot assume that the rest of the world looks at things in the same was as you do. Hence the need for clear, specific language cannot be overstated; I might add ‘positive’ to the mix as well. Consider these two examples:

Coach 1: Don’t put so much edge on.

Coach 2: You’re putting on about 45 degrees of left edge, it will work better with 30.

The latter example is rooted in can-do, specific language with tangible references. There is less potential for getting wires crossed and the subconscious message is ‘you’ve got this’. Of course, coaches don’t walk around with a protractor in their pocket talking trigonometry all the time. My point is simply that, when describing position, it pays dividends to be clear, specific and positive.

The use of positive language applies as much to your own self-talk as it does to a coach’s choice of words. A left or right trick will always remain your ‘offside’ for as long as you call it your offside. So, stop calling it your offside. It’s a great start to restructuring your thinking and opening your mind to becoming an ambidextrous ninja.

So far, we’ve considered the identification, description and communication of position. Next comes the replication. To a large extent, this is a matter of physical ability. It’s important to ask the question:

"Are you mobile enough to actually move your body into the required positions?"

I suppose I should distinguish mobility from flexibility here. Flexibility is where your body can passively be put into a position (ie your muscles aren’t involved, something else is doing the moving for you – maybe a training partner or a weight). Mobility on the other hand is the ability to use your muscles to actively establish a given position unassisted.

In freestyle kayaking, we need exceptional mobility of the spine, shoulders and hips in particular. If your mobility is limited, it can usually be improved. Have a physiotherapist assess you and determine where exactly any limitation lies. Then follow their guidance on exercises to improve it. Consistent engagement in this type of activity can lead to dramatic improvements in a joint’s range of motion, especially if targeted mobility training is new to you.

Being mobile enough to establish a position is a great start, but it’s equally important to be strong and stable in that position too. Freestyle often involves the creation of tension through the trunk and shoulders. Moves like the McNasty, Lunar Orbit and Phonics Monkey are classic examples of this principle. If your body is not prepared to withstand this tension one of two things will likely happen:

  1. You’ll bail out of the position and fall on your face.

  2. You’ll hurt yourself.

So, how do you prepare your body to be adequately strong and stable in these positions? The short answer is, hire an S&C coach. The long answer is:

  • Identify the joints involved

  • Understand how they move and are loaded when practicing freestyle

  • Understand the muscles that control them

  • Learn how to train those muscles to be strong in unstable conditions

  • Consistently engage in their training (in a gym)

A gym allows us to target joints and muscles in sport-specific ways and in a controlled environment. We can load them beyond what’s required in a freestyle kayak if we want. Hence, our bodies become more than capable of working with the tension/loading that is part and parcel of many freestyle kayaking positions.

A final note on position is that, when you truly understand how they work, you can tweak them to produce an altered, preferable outcome for a given scenario. You can avoid touching bottom in a shallow feature. You can make tricks link smoothly from one to another. You can more precisely control where you land a trick. Developing a high-level understanding like this, can often be aided by dry land rehearsal; moving through a desired movement pattern on the bank, focusing on where your body is and how it feels.

This has turned into a much longer essay than I anticipated. It just shows how a single word, position, can be linked to many different parts of the learning process. That’s essentially what a mental representation is; how everything links together, how pieces of seemingly unrelated information can be grouped into one meaningful whole.

Let me know if any of this struck a chord with you. If you enjoyed the read, and want to check out the second instalment of this mini-series of articles, drop your email in the subscribe box below and you’ll get a notification when it goes live.

Thanks for reading,

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