Jonathan Males | Performance1 – Everyone knows that whitewater kayaking depends on your ability to stay confident. But a single bad experience can shatter this state of mind. The pain of an injury is a constant reminder that you made a mistake on the river, and injury can create a psychological challenge all its own.
Let’s look at the different factors involved.
Injury damages your self-esteem, not just your body
A serious injury does more than hurt your body – it can also challenge your sense of identity and self-esteem. Anyone who is talented, passionate about their sport and devotes serious time and effort will feel pride in their achievements and skill. Kayaking becomes more than something you do, it becomes who you are. This merging of identity with activity is more prevalent with younger paddlers. They often have more time to devote to paddling and they have had less time on the planet to diversify and develop different skills and aspects of their identity.
So whilst older paddlers might be more prone to getting hurt because of their ageing, battered bodies, the psychological impact may be less because they have a non-paddling career and family commitments that contribute to their sense of identity. For younger paddlers it’s important to develop a sense of perspective, especially about rehabilitation time spent off the water. This can easily feel like wasted time and create frustration – which isn’t good for confidence. Instead, see it as a positive opportunity to spend time with people and do things you wouldn’t normally do. Like learning Spanish in preparation for your trip to Chile, or visiting your family who haven’t seen you for the last six months.
A bad experience on the river, whether combined with an injury or not, can also lead to unproductive self-blame. You find yourself going over the incident again and again, wishing it were different and at the same time telling yourself how stupid / unlucky / clumsy / foolish you were to get in that situation. It’s important to reflect carefully on an incident and take appropriate responsibility for your actions, so you can learn and move on. But when this is also tangled up with lots of emotions it’s rarely productive. So what can you do instead?
First of all, give yourself time to acknowledge your own emotions. Particularly after a bad swim, this can take some time to work through. It’s often not easy to face strong emotions like fear or anger. And sometimes there’s a reluctance to do so, because gun whitewater paddlers are supposed to be tough, ice-cool in the face of danger, and always ready to get back in their boat and charge down the river. But the reality of suffering a bad injury or having a near death experience is not like that. Remember that emotions are short-lived physiological responses; so that if an emotion is lasting many hours after an event, the chances are that you are doing something in your head to keep it going. Naming and expressing emotions helps you to process them and move on. Write it down, tell someone, or just say out loud what you’re feeling, without the need to defend or justify yourself.
Learning from experience
Only once you have reached some level of emotional equilibrium, can you start to reflect more objectively and learn from your experience. It’s important to get the right balance when looking for reasons why things have gone wrong. Some causes will be down to you – so you need to ‘look in the mirror’. And it’s also likely that some causes will be due to other people’s actions or inactions, environmental factors or equipment – so you also need to ‘look out the window’. Focus only on the internal factors and you can endlessly beat yourself up and never regain confidence. Focus only on external causes and you may feel better, but you may also miss important learning about yourself. The key is to identify what you can control next time. By being objective and thorough it’s easier to draw a line under your analysis and move on. A useful framework for the controllable factors is to consider:
- What was my motivation for paddling the rapid? Was I doing it because I really felt up for it on my own terms, or was I doing it to maintain my ego and self-esteem? Did I allow myself to be pressured into it?
- What was the quality of my technical decision-making? Did I know the right lines and the key strokes? If I did what I planned and still messed up, what do I learn about my judgement? If I didn’t do what I planned, what do I learn about my ability?
- How well did I execute? Was my attention fully focused ‘in the moment’? Or was I distracted or complacent?
- What was the quality of team-ship at the time? Was I talking constructively with my paddling buddies, testing my thinking with them, watching their lines?
I explained more about these psychological fundamentals in an earlier post; http://paddleblogs.com/mally/2012/06/15/road-trip-to-val-sesia-and-ticino
Rebuild your confidence
Confidence is built up over time from three sources. After an accident or injury you need to systematically go back over all these areas to re-build your confidence.
Internal: Remind why you love paddling so much, think about the great times you’ve had and your favourite trips. If you can, watch video of yourself paddling well. Replace your inner critic with an inner coach if you find that you’re still beating yourself up. Don’t tell yourself anything you wouldn’t want to hear from someone else. Visualise yourself paddling well, and when you’re ready, re-play the incident where you were hurt or messed up, but in your imagination nail the lines and paddle the feature successfully.
Relationships: Hang out with people you like and who like you. And not just your paddling buddies, you can get strength and affirmation from friends and family. The important thing is to spend time with people who love and appreciate you for who your are – not just your paddling!
Environment: Even if you can’t paddle, spend time you doing good things outdoors. We are so fortunate as paddlers to spend time on beautiful rivers in fantastic parts of the world. It’s important to stay connected with this, even if it means walking rather than paddling. Once you start paddling again, build up gradually. You don’t need to go right back to the beginning, but don’t expect to start where you left off either. Make sure that you paddle with people you like and feel confident with, and focus on enjoying the whole experience – not just the stout stuff.