I crest the hill, and suddenly everything feels light. I feel like I'm flying, down through the trees as the path twists & winds its way downhill... Snow carpets the route but my feet find their placement without conscious thought. Yes! This is why I love running...
In my last blog post, I asked if you'd ever thought about why you paddle. What is it that you love about your watery pastime? Why do you get on the water? What really makes you get excited about that next outing?
This time, I wanted to focus on what you're aiming for. Goal setting; although that's not a term that gets many people excited...
And therein lies the rub. If your goals and your motivation aren't the same, will you be excited and motivated to work towards those goals? When it gets tough, will you keep reminding yourself to use what you've learned? To keep up with that great forward paddling technique when you get tired, so you can go further or faster? To paddle out again for just one more wave, when you're flagging but the surf is still good? To remind yourself not to put in that negative stroke?
That brings me to the first paragraph of this post: I'm not a particularly good runner, but I love it. For years though, I focused on entering road-running events. I'm not really sure why, if I'm honest: perhaps I thought 'that's just what you do'. I thought I should be faster, and worked hard to get my 5k, 10k or half marathon times down. I entered a couple of marathons, but the training felt hard and I always got injured before I hit the start line.
Then this winter, something changed. I decided just to run for fun, not to enter any events unless they really appealed, and purely for the beauty of the place. Instead, I altered my goal-focus towards running a route I've wanted to do for ages, not for anyone but me. It's a trail run, in a beautiful place, and just challenging enough that I need to get out and train for it. As a result, I'm thoroughly enjoying running and exploring trails, with no pressure to get faster or compete with anyone else but myself. That goal is still to be met, but I know I'll get there.
So what really motivates you? Do you just love spending time on the water with friends? Or the physical challenge of paddling in tough conditions? Or something else? What are you working towards, and why? Do the two things match?
If they don't, the chances are your goal will be a tough one to master. Just like my old running goals, of bringing my half marathon time down, if meeting your goal demands that you work hard at something you don't enjoy, the chance of you doing that, and not finding an excuse to avoid it, is very much reduced.
When I first began lifting weights, my trainer at the time laid it on the line to me: "The best form of exercise is the one you'll actually do". Wise words!
If your motivation is beautiful scenery, wildlife and enjoying wild places, will you really be motivated to get out in rough water in order to pass your Advanced Sea Kayak Leader award? If what you really love is the buzz of surfing a wave, should you really enter that Sea Kayak race? If you can't get enough of the smile on people's faces when they achieve success: perhaps your goal should be coaching-related?
So, should those goals be SMART? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound, right? Well, not necessarily. If it suits you to set a SMART goal, well, go ahead. It's a great way to work. But that doesn't work for everyone, and at the end of the day, we're all different. If it works for you to just have something you'd like to achieve which, well, you'll get to one day... Do you know what? That's absolutely fine!
Personally, I have a paddling-related goal I've been working towards for around two years now. I can see it perhaps taking another couple of years, or maybe more, before I achieve it. What I do know, though, is that it motivates the living daylights out of me. Come hell or high water, wind or rain, I'll get there one day. I've visualised it so many times, I can virtually touch the water and feel the spray on my face. There'll be knock-backs and disappointments on the way, and I'll have to work hard to get there. But I will.
Do you know why you paddle? Go on, have a think...
Hard question to answer, that, isn't it? And it's different for all of us. For some it will be social: enjoying the company of friends; for others, the natural world; and for yet others, the feeling of moving, of performing, of getting better at something. And for many of us, a combination of all three with a host of other factors added into the mix.
If you're a coach, have you ever thought about why you do it? Perhaps it makes you feel good, or perhaps you've used coaching to help you improve your own paddling. Or maybe you simply do it because your club needs you to.
All of our motivations are equally valid, and none of them static. One thing I've learned over the course of my paddling & coaching life (and indeed, life in general!) is that motivations change.
In my early paddling life, my motivation centred around getting out as often as possible, by any means possible. It was all about time on the water. Growing in experience, I focused on expeditioning, wild camping from my sea kayak at every opportunity. Occasionally my motivation would switch, and for a while I would live for getting to a particular tide race, or on a particular river. Always, though, this was with friends, with people whose company I enjoyed and who made me feel good.
Over the last few years, my motivation has shifted and settled. I have become focused on learning, on improving as a paddler and coach, on performing in challenging environments, motivated by the rush of pushing my performance to new places, discovering what's possible for me. The smile I get inside from the feeling of Flow. Many people think of the British Canoeing Advanced Sea Kayak Leader award as being the 'top' of their aspirations as a paddler, but for me that was when the 'real' focus on learning and performing began, on achieving freedom from the confines of a syllabus, and the ability to widen my own horizons, open my eyes to what is possible, and begin to experiment with performance.
Adding and developing my understanding of performance in the gym gave me even more depth to play with, and scope to experiment with performance on the water. How could I use added strength & power in my boat?
As a coach, my focus and motivation has followed that of Zoe the paddler. If you do some coaching, whether as a profession or as a hobby, have you ever thought about why you do it? What do you enjoy? What really motivates you as a coach? Does that rub off on your learners?
The British Canoeing Educational Philosophy has this to say on the subject:
"British Canoeing Awarding Body believes in a participant-led approach when creating and enabling experience from which people will enjoy, learn and develop through paddlesport. These experiences will be delivered in an individualised way that also supports the inherent social aspects of the sport and fosters a sense of a paddling community.
Through this paddlers will achieve success, this success being focused on the journey and not the destination.
The experience will be safe, engaging and enjoyable, with the paddler at the heart of the process involving them in their own learning and development.
This will be delivered by a supportive and empowering approach to instil an active passion for the sport of canoeing, alongside developing understanding and respect for the environment in which it takes place."
I've italicised a few phrases that really stand out for me, in that statement. I love helping paddlers to become... better paddlers! So when that realisation dawned for me, it left me with a dilemma: do I focus on doing that, helping people to become better paddlers; or do I continue to work towards delivering syllabus-based awards courses?
Now, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Becoming a better leader or coach can help you become a better paddler. But that doesn't happen by accident: you have to understand how to learn, how to practice, how to help yourself get better. A coach can't do that for you, but they can help it to happen a lot faster. That's what I truly love about being a coach.
So, over the course of the last few months, after a lot of personal wrangling with motivation, philosophy, and staring at my own belly-button (metaphorically, you understand!), I've made a decision.
Most paddling coaches, organisations & providers offer a selection of syllabus-based courses. I'm going to go out on a limb and dare to be just a little bit different. For the time being, Zoe Newsam Coaching will not deliver Leadership or Coaching training or assessments. Never say never of course, like we said above, motivations change.
For now, though, I am going to focus my efforts on offering my clients a focus on improving their performance, on becoming better paddlers, fitter and more powerful people, and on achieving their personal performance goals, including the British Canoeing Personal Performance Awards. Focusing on being better, more in control, and more confident & independant in the environments and places they want to paddle, with the people they want to be on the water with.
How do I know that's the right thing to do? Well, I don't for sure. But it just feels good. How will you know when you've achieved success or made a good decision on the water, or given your all in the gym? Well, it just feels good... right?
So, what are you waiting for? Why not book onto a course this summer, and find out what it feels like when it just feels right?
I make a cafetière of coffee… and then, still half asleep, I pour cold water from a not-yet-boiled kettle on the coffee grounds. What a numpty… Let’s try that again.
The air outside feels cold, in spite of the blue sky & sun. My body tired from a full-on day on the water the previous day, I struggle with the motivation to get changed. The others are ready to go; it’s ok, I’ll be down shortly, I say.
I’m not really feeling it today, despite having great conditions and an awesome group of friends around me. I pushed myself hard yesterday, and both mentally and physically my reactions feel slow. No matter, I make myself get stuck in, and an early roll assures me it will be ok…
I’ve gone through a phase of lacking faith in my roll recently: with no other reason than a swim or two while I’ve been pushing myself in challenging environments. The human brain is a complex thing, and no matter how much I assure myself that ‘it’s ok, my roll works’, I couldn’t quite believe it hadn’t deserted me. Perhaps that self-imposed pressure is all the greater when the ability to roll ‘in anger’, so to speak, is part of your job description.
I’m at the Falls of Lora, a large volume tidal rapid on the west coast of Scotland. We’re on sizeable tides, the sun is shining and I’m with a group of friends I trust, who are not only superb boaters, but also super-supportive and great company. Feeling fresh yesterday, we all pushed ourselves to our respective limits; with successes-aplenty all round, having challenged one another to surf particular waves or make specific lines, we ended the day feeling shattered but satisfied. This morning, however, is different for me: I feel mentally & physically drained, and lacking in the energy to really commit to the move I'm aiming at.
I crack on… watching the others is inspiring, and I reflect on how fortunate I am to be here, in these conditions, with these people. I’m achieving moderate success, almost managing to surf the wave I’m aiming for, but something is missing from my usual power … I drop off the back, and hit the boils below… in a split second I’m upside down, and I wait for that magic moment when my hands hit air and I can instinctively roll up. It seems to take an age. The moment comes, and I try to roll, but there’s nothing there, no surface tension. I’m upside down again, and there’s no air to get my hands into. I can feel my bum being sucked out of my seat, and my paddle sucked out of my hands. I bail out after what feels like an age. I’m out of breath, out of my boat, and my shoe is being sucked off my foot. Not the most dignified of positions to find myself in!
After collecting myself, boat, paddle, shoe and composure, my pal turns up and offers me a rescue. Thanks Jonny! I’m grateful for his comforting presence, his smile and his encouraging words… ‘Come on, one more shot to get back on the horse’, he tells me. Wise words indeed.
I pull myself together and play some more, and as our energy is fading, Tony turns up, to tell us he caught it all on camera. After tea & cake, stories and photos are exchanged and on the drive home I’m able to begin to properly process the day's learning.
A day later, and I’m at home. A rest day, thankfully, as I’m feeling pretty fatigued. Time to process the ‘playtime’ and learning of the last two days, and to reflect.
In her article 'Learning in the Ugly Zone', Marianne Davies discusses the zone, just beyond our current ability, where we can try, fail, try, fail, learn, and eventually succeed, and so develop our skills through play, exploration and eventual understanding. Ultimately, if we never step outside of the bounds of our comfort zone, we never have the opportunity to problem-solve our way to the next level. Does that make that zone an easy place to play? It's a rewarding place, and mostly a fun place, but that doesn't always make it easy.
Intellectually I know we’re all between swims, but it doesn’t stop me questioning my skill level, doubting myself. I think there is often a stigma associated with failing, with swimming, with getting things wrong: in society as a whole, not just in paddlesports. But if we don't get it wrong, we never learn, right? Right. So how good do you have to be before you stop failing, stop swimming, stop falling, stop having to pick yourself up and try again? For me personally, if that ever happens it means I've stopped visiting the Ugly Zone... I've stopped trying.
My personal take-away? Every day’s a school day: if you’re learning, and pushing yourself, you will fail, and in paddling occasionally that results in a swim. Does that mean I'm not good enough? No, it doesn't. Does it mean I can still get better? Always.
With thanks to Tony Hammock of SeaFreedom Kayak for the use of his excellent photos, and Jonny, George, Sam, Laura & Jenny for their excellent company on the water.
Flow? What’s Flow? We do it for fun, surely? Whether you’re a competitive athlete or a weekend warrior, whether you paddle every day or once a year, paddlesports, by their very nature, must be fun to motivate us to take part in them. But what does that mean? What is it that makes it fun?
For me, it goes something like this...
The wave passes under my boat like molten glass, with no sound, no fury, just pure unadulterated beauty. Time stands still. My mind is empty of anything other than here and now. There is nothing, just me, my boat and this wave, working in harmony, as if they’re connected somehow. I turn my head, and in that moment my boat does as I ask, with no effort. It’s a feeling of pure ecstasy, ultimate control...
It can last mere seconds, or hours, but in those moments I have no worries, no fears, no space in my brain for anything other than the moment I am in. It feels like floating, or like effortless gliding, as though everything I’ve ever worked for has come together in that moment.
For me, that is the purest definition of fun. Does it happen every time I paddle? No, it most certainly doesn’t. Does it happen in other areas of my life? Yes, it certainly does!
So what is ‘flow’?
Psychologist Dr Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, building on the studies of Abraham Maslow before him, researched the concept of flow following his own profound experiences in a second world war Italian prison camp. He had discovered that by learning to play chess, becoming obsessed with the game, nothing else could enter his thoughts. He was completely immersed: his dire situation forgotten, the presence of prison guards irrelevant. He was experiencing flow.
Csikszentmihalyi has become synonymous with the concept of flow, but the idea has been around for millennia. Whether it’s called ‘Zen’, ‘Rapture’, ‘The Zone’ or any other name, it is a phenomena that humans have sought and used throughout history. For good reason, too. It’s an elusive mistress, a drug that we can’t pin down. But a drug it most certainly is: flow releases a potent mixture of hormones including dopamine, norepinephrine and endorphins, a group of neurotransmitters which between them make us feel good, respond to challenge or stress, and have a morphine-like effect. No wonder the result is such a high.
I remember being in a maths class at school, and being given a set of equations to solve. But instead of finding them difficult, I thrived on the problem: losing myself in the challenge, so that time disappeared. You might think a maths class a peculiar environment for this to happen, but flow is all around us; at work, in conversation… Ever lost a whole evening deep in conversation with a friend? That’s flow in action.
Not long after I started paddling, I remember watching Justine Curgenven’s film ‘This is the Sea 3’. It featured a few minutes filmed in Scottish Tide Races, and showed a group of paddlers at the Falls of Lora. Towards the end of the piece, a paddler crosses the powerful eddyline with power and grace, and surfs the glassy green wave with effortless precision… It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen: a paddler deep in the zone, absolutely immersed in the moment and totally in control, the challenge perfectly matched to the skill they’d worked so hard to achieve. Watching that moment remains with me to this day as a source of inspiration.
So how can we access Flow? If it feels so good, is it possible to make it happen more often? Well, yes it is. Accessing flow takes a very particular set of conditions. But the good news is that the more you paddle, the better you get, and the more likely you are to be able to find this elusive state – but only if you challenge yourself. I’ve paraphrased the conditions a little to make them relevant for paddlesports:
Is it possible for us, as friends, coaches or leaders, to help others achieve the state? Well, yes it is. And even better, it’s beneficial for learning, too. Learning is long-lasting when it’s achieved through feel – and being in flow is all about just that.
So how can you influence these factors, for yourself or others?
So what are you waiting for? Get out there and challenge yourself; match the challenge to your ability, and let the present melt away. If you are a coach or a leader, experiment with providing an environment where your learners can concentrate fully on the task in had, with no distractions or interruptions. For a coach this is the challenging part: that means silence.
This article is based on literature, but also on my own ponderings and experiences, on my own learning, paddling and coaching. Get out there and try it for yourself- and then, when our paths cross, tell me what you think… So what are you waiting for? Head out and Find Flow.
Article first published in the Autumn 2019 issue of Scottish Paddler, the Scottish Canoe Association magazine.
There was an old saying "Behind every great man there is a great woman".
I've been thinking a lot lately about the reverse of this: the men that have supported me through my paddling & working life.
Anyone that knows me is very aware that I am a passionate advocate of gender equality, and particularly in the case of women who want to advance in male-dominated environments. I've had three careers, personally, all very male-dominated. And of course, the support of other women is critical in those environments, and female role models help enormously in making progress when you are among the first - or one of very few- women to achieve something.
However, it is my belief - and some may find this a controversial view- that it's just as important, if not more so, to have supportive and forward-thinking men around you in these environments.
In planning the Women's Essential Sea Kayaking Weekend I've thought about this subject a lot, an event that is being organised by myself and two male sea kayak coaches who I admire and respect enormously- so I thought I might share, and celebrate, a few examples of the extraordinary men who have supported me in my kayaking career.
I'm very lucky these days: I'm surrounded by supportive, forward-thinking male role models. I've had more than my fair share of sexist experiences too however, in thirty years of working in three very different industries. In my view if we are to change the way our society works, these wonderful men, who support us when we need it and help us fight our corner in achieving gender equality and challenging unconscious bias both in actions and in words, are not celebrated enough.
Thanks guys, I couldn't do it without you.
Sometimes things that seem less than ideal at the time can lead to all sorts of good: and so it was for me, last summer. I ceased to work for a company I've been associated with for some time, which got me thinking about what I represent, both on the water and off.
Then, beginning the process of becoming a British Canoeing Coach Award Provider helped me to develop my thinking about my 'coaching philosophy': What do I stand for, and how do I deliver that to my clients?
The debate will probably go on for me throughout my coaching and business life. But the constant for me is two-fold:
That same discussion with myself also led me to develop my business, and to begin the process of qualifying as a Personal Trainer: more on that later in the year!
Going through this debate led me to the conclusion that the way I represented myself- my brand, to coin a marketing phrase- no longer really represented what I do, or what I stand for. So, where to begin? With visuals, and a new logo...
My previous logo was designed by the extraordinary Jamie Hageman, so it seemed appropriate to use the work of another artist for the new version. I approached someone whose work really resonates with me: Amy Dunis, of Adventurous Pencil, to produce a new logo for me.
Amy took a long look at what I do, and came up with what I think is a lovely representation of it in visual form.
The image uses two symbols intertwined: the wave, and the infinity symbol.
A wave, you might think is obvious. I'm a sea kayak coach. There's nothing I love more than surfing a wave, in all its forms. However, I'm also fascinated by all the forms waves can take, and what they represent; the way they propagate after formation; that they are simply a physical manifestation of energy travelling through water; that they keep going, no matter what: a symbol of determination and continuation. If you're a wave geek, like me, check out The Wavewatcher's Companion. The sea itself is ever-present, the tides moving constantly, ever-adapting to the land they meet along the way.
Infinity is of course a mathematical symbol: I started life with a love for maths & science. But infinity also represents a never-ending energy and courage, the infinite value of growth, independence, knowledge & understanding.
Lastly, the two combined are just a little like the Koru, the Maori fern, symbol of nurturing and positive change. I first experienced the joy of sea kayaking in New Zealand, so I'm delighted that just a hint of that country's culture appears in the design.
I hope you like it... Watch this space for more developments throughout 2019!
Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer based in the Scottish Highlands. I love paddling, running, lifting weights, cycling, and moving well- and I love helping other people to do the same. I have to work really hard to build and maintain my skills on the water and my fitness, and I hope that helps me to understand how hard my clients also have to work!