Rolling has been on my mind a bit more than normal this year.
The Lockdown we experienced in the UK in the spring & summer of 2020 represented my longest break from paddling in almost 20 years, and in common with many paddlers I headed back to the water feeling both excited and a little anxious. How would my skills have suffered? What would it take to get back to feeling good in my boat? Could I still roll when it mattered? Could I still roll at all?
Of course, within a few days of getting back on the water, I began to feel more 'normal' again. But one little niggle remained: my roll. Somehow, I just didn't have the faith in it that I had before Lockdown, and it made me reflect on the role of my roll in that elusive feeling of confidence.
When my roll is working well, I feel good: I'm braver when I'm challenged, and more prepared to try things or push my boundaries a little. But also, when I'm feeling brave and prepared to challenge myself, my roll is more likely to work well, and my brain doesn't dive in to make me doubt it. It's a chicken-and-egg scenario. So, in those days of returning to the water, how could I (and by extension, how can others, perhaps) develop my faith in that oh-so-psychological but fundamentally physical skill? I spent some time looking around me, at what others in a similar position of returning to the water were doing, and reflecting on how it could help me, and I wanted to share those experiences in the hope that it might help anyone struggling with their own confidence in rolling, but equally in other skills.
Whilst working alongside another coach who I hold in very high esteem, I watched them do something I hadn't seen many (any?) other coaches do. During a series of tide race surfing sessions, they paddled into each of the races and deliberately rolled, in front of clients.
That one little act blew my tiny mind.
Why? Well, it struck me that that roll served many purposes: it said 'I need to practice too', and gave permission for the rest of the group to do the same. It made rolling in that environment just part of the game. Equally, it served to say 'practicing is good, and if it doesn't work and you swim, that's fine too'. It also meant that the coach in question did just that - rolled in a challenging environment, and practiced on a regular basis. From a psychological perspective, for me at least, rolling in front of clients is perhaps one of the most challenging barriers to hurdle: that nagging little doubt in your mind can escalate into 'what happens if I get it wrong, will they think I'm a bit rubbish'?
So I resolved to work my way towards the psychological position where I could do that too. And it changed everything.
During my next playday - at the Falls of Lora, as it turned out - I got on the water with the specific intention of just practicing rolling, deliberately, in as many difficult places as possible. I'd set myself up for success of course, and was there on a sunny day, with close friends who were happy to support my little challenge, and equally happy to join in.
Later, on a different play day with different friends in equally challenging conditions, a couple of them took swims and we chatted about the psychology of rolling or swimming. Why do we all find it challenging? How does the psychology of the group, and our own mindset impact how we feel about whether we swim, and by extension how prepared we are to challenge ourselves? Interestingly, we all had very different takes on that subject, and those perspectives reflected our differing personalities. We had one thing in common though: we tailored our paddling friendship groups to allow us to feel supported, and so that we trusted our companions with our physical & mental wellbeing.
I also reflected a little on when I practice rolling, and how I start each day. Many of us just get on the water & paddle away. And we often practice rolling at the end of the day. But surely, if my roll is fundamental to my confidence, I should be starting the day by practicing it? Why wasn't I doing that? So, I resolved to change that practice, and began adding a roll on flat water to my little warm-up routine. And what happened? It changed my mindset for the rest of the day. Suddenly, I felt happy to get stuck in and practice rolling in challenging places, in amongst the rest of my own paddling play & practice. As a result, my own psychological state became more confident, I felt good, and paddled well.
Why hadn't I done that before? Traditionally we've often practiced 'wet stuff' at the end of days, to keep dry & warm. But in these days of great thermals & Gore-Tex drysuits, is that necessarily the best time for it? When do you practice, and what impact does it have? I began to realise that practice at the end of the day when I'm tired is not only not helping me, but is actively hindering me.
So, have I tested it with clients yet? Yes, I have. It doesn't really matter when, or with whom. But did it change things? Yes, it did. For the better.
This process won't work for everyone of course: we're all different. But there is a stigma attached to swimming in the paddling community. I've heard of clubs who make their members 'write a trip report' if they take a swim. Why? To me, practicing rolling, practicing rescues, and taking a swim sometimes is an important part of the learning process. In order to learn we have to be able to fail. If we're punished for failing (by being laughed at, or made to do something like write a trip report) we never try anything that risks failing, and we never learn. We never get any better.
My dance with confidence and my roll will continue, probably for the entirety of my paddling life whether I'm working on the water or not. How's your own dance coming on?
Zoe Newsam is a Sea Kayak Coach & Personal Trainer, providing quality coaching both in person and online, based in the Highlands of Scotland & throughout the UK.