Mountain Mama: Become a better kayaker in fifteen minutes a day

Is it possible to become a better kayaker in fifteen minutes a day?

Dear Mountain Mama,

The usual suspects keep me busy after my 9-5 grind – significant other, kids, and dogs. Despite my time constraints, I want to improve my paddling.

Any tips for making the most of what little river time I do have?


Office Guy


Dear Office Guy,

They say practice makes perfect. And that can lead us to believe we need to get in the water often to become better paddlers. When we practice the same mistakes we reinforce those bad habits.

For ten years I spent nearly every weekend kayaking. I hesitated and paddled backwards whenever a move intimidated me, which ironically amounted to putting on the brakes precisely when I most needed to accelerate. When I looked at the challenge lines on easy rapids, I’d think of everything that could possibly come wrong, until a Class III rapid became terrifying and I convinced myself that the only safe line was the one I’d previously paddled hundreds of times.

Then I learned that improving my paddling required me to tap into my ability to visualize. By visualizing your way to better performance, you can make the most of your limited time on the water.

One study showed the visualization can be as effective as practice. The study consisted of three groups of basketball players and their free throw effectiveness over time. The first group practiced free throws for twenty minutes a day, the second group visualized free throwing for twenty minutes a day, and the third group didn’t practice at all. As predicted, participants in the third group either stayed at the same level or declined. But shockingly, the group that visualized free throwing showed as much progress as the participants who practiced every day.

In fifteen minutes a day, you can improve your kayaking by visualizing success on the river. Carve out fifteen minutes in the morning when your mind is still lucid from sleep and sit in a quiet area. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breath, turning your focus inward. Then imagine yourself on the river, making a move that’s difficult for you.

Be as specific as possible with the scene you imagine, using all of your senses – touch, sound, sight, taste, and smell. Imagine deliberately placing your paddle, timing your strokes to the contours of the water. Imagine smelling the early evening air lift off the water’s surface as the water thunders over a drop. See the horizon line, waves, and rocks before you and the river below. Imagine nailing the boof, paddling your line exactly as you intended. Feel the happiness, relief and giddiness of success.

Next time you paddle the rapid or make the move you’ve been visualizing, take a couple deliberate breathes. Channel the same buoyancy you felt after visualizing and paddle with confidence toward the horizon line.

Paddle On!

Mountain Mama

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