The Kayak Roll Head Game
One manís journey to swim independence!
by Rob Hammond
Having trouble rolling that kayak in river when you need it the most? I must say that I have been there, done that, and have the humiliation to show for it! Let me introduce you to someone who we all know very well: Dr. Head Game. This good fellow is responsible for I would say 80 percent of the roll failures! Good ole Doc Head is that guy who lives in that inaccessible, dark and scary part of your brain, that likes to remind you that you canít do anything difficult and if you did try it, you would only get hurt. You will never find him telling you that you did a good job, or to GO FOR IT! However, we are getting ahead of our story; so letís start at the beginning, and we will stop back and visit with the good doctor!
In my very humble and experienced opinion there are 3 hurtles that you must surmount before you can have a bomb proof reliable river roll. The first is obviously to learn the basics of the roll. Although I prefer the C to C roll, there are several other techniques that work. But I am not going to talk about technique here; there are plenty of far better resources than I, to learn these skills from. What I am going to concentrate on is the control of the strongest muscle in your body, and the one that is most responsible for good or bad execution in most any sport. That muscle resides in the very large cavity located above your neck. In any sport, once you learn a new motor skill, you need to teach it to your body. You canít expect flawless execution if you have to think your way through a move. For instance, when you are being pummeled in a nasty hole right above a heinous and undercut drop, your brain may be a little preoccupied and likely will not have excess processing capacity to devote to recollection of proper wrist orientation and trunk rotation to properly execute a roll! No, I suspect that you would prefer a more automatic process that does not require any conscious processing capacity. And by the way, conscious processing is the most likely to be distracted by our friend, the good Dr. Head Game. Yep, when you are in that hole, and with all the important things you must devote to the top level conscious processing to, Dr. HG is in there, reminding you that you are gonna blow it, and if you were smart you would pull the rip cord and get out of Dodge as quickly as possible.
Once I learned how to rollÖto my very disappointed surprise, it almost never worked on the river!
Now the psychologically and neurologically literate amongst you, may dispute my characterization of how the mind works. But let me say right up front to you self anointed smarty pants out thereÖ PUT A SOCK IN IT!
Yes once your brain learns the basics of the roll, you have to teach it to your muscles, this memory that doesnít require any of the easily distracted and corrupted conscious processing power in your head. You use the subconscious all the time for things likeÖ picking your nose while talking on the phone! Some of us even use these skills to drive to work in the morning. Ever find your self on that long drive to the Yough, thinking about something, only to realize that you canít remember what happened for the last 5 miles, or that you passed your exit 10 minutes ago.
Allow me to relate personal experience on my long and painful road to swim independence! I learned how to roll in a pool and most of the time, had a good pool roll. Then I tried to use this new found skill in a river, and to my very disappointed surprise, it almost never worked! It took a lot of swims and rescues by my 13 year old son to finally humiliate me into moving to the second step. That step was to commit the skills that my brain understood to the muscles in my body. The smarty pants amongst you, would undoubtedly point out that muscles have no capacity to learn, that what actually happens is the brain somehow stores the information into a subconscious region, or some such rubbish! Anyway I knew that to commit the rolling concept in my head into a skill that did not require conscious thought, I would need a lot of repetitious training. So several days a week, I took my kayak to the lake and practiced my rolls after work. If my roll failed, I would roll up by using my paddle to push off the sandy bottom. And yes Virginia you will not dislocate your healthy shoulder from pushing off the bottom in still water. However, as a recent graduate from the School of Tweaked, Abused and Dislocated Shoulders, I definitely donít recommend this bottom bracing technique in moving water.
I donít know about your muscle brains, but mine are slow learners! It took a lot of repetition to get to the point that I did not have to think about stepping through the motions of the roll. I figure it took about 1000 rolls before I felt confident that I could roll every time, in still water. I would try to do 10 sets of 10 rolls every night until I had confidence in my roll.
So I return to the river with a new found confidence that I could reliably roll my kayak whenever I needed to. Imagine my disappointment when again I found myself separated from my vessel, and enjoying an invigorating swim! Although I was much better at hitting my rolls in the river, I still did not have a 100% reliable river roll.
The biggest reason you are not rolling in the river is what happens to your reality when we are upside down This is where step 3 comes in. What was creating my swimming opportunities was not the improper execution of the roll maneuver. No it was the distractions from feeling trapped upside down, under water, in a decidedly unfriendly environment. There are really two issues here. The first is that unlike a pool or calm lake, there is a lot of stuff going on that can be very distracting. You know, things like bumping your head on rocks, the noise of the river, the currents buffeting your pathetically small plastic boat around. All of these things can be very distracting from your mission of returning your mouth to an environment friendlier to our lungs.
This is precisely where our friend, Head Game, starts doctoring the reality in our conscious mind. The first thing that the good doctor does is speed up time. Ok, any of us capable of paddling a kayak, can hold our breath for what; 30 seconds, 45 or even 60 seconds? Right, and the good doctor knows this, so what he does is speed up our perception of reality so that what we think is at least 30 seconds, is more like 3 seconds and probably 2 seconds! No wonder we are so quick to reach for the ejection button, obviously we are only seconds away from certain death! Donít believe me? Watch your buddies next time you are boating, if they canít hit their roll, how long is it before they are out of their boat? Typically I would say it is 5 seconds or less, a really focused boater may hang out for 10 to 15 seconds! So the first thing we need to do to control our fear, is realize that we are not in the dire straights that the good doc would have us believe.
Oh looky here, it looks like I am running out of ink, so I am going to wrap things up and will continue this journey next month with a conversation about things we can do keep Dr. Head Game under control. But let me leave you with this thought: the biggest reason you are not rolling in the river is what happens to your reality when we are upside down. The most effective thing you can do, while eagerly waiting for next monthís issue, is work on your 1,000 rolls. When your confidence is high, the good doctor canít mess with your head so easily! Roll sessions start in December, and this year we have both east side and west side locations.
And oh, just showing up at the pool doesnít help; ya gotta get upside down! Most of us treat the sessions as a social hour (me included). Why donít we go to dinner afterwards for our socializing and take full advantage of these great pool resources! Work every pool session, get those 1,000 rolls in, and you will have a solid leg up for the spring season!
The Kayak Roll Head Game-Part II
Ok, where was I when we ran out of ink last month? DamnÖ I knew I shouldnít wait until the last minute to write this part. Ok if you didnít read the last monthís article, you better go find a copy right now, it is on the Internet, read it, cause this part isnít gonna make much sense, unless you read the first part. After the article ran, I received some good pointers from people who had Dr. HG problems, so next month I will talk about some things that have helped other people. And if you have some experiences that you would like to share drop me a line, Rob@SCD-Corp.com (Names can be changed to protect delicate egos!).
As you remember last month we talked about how easily it was to have our head messed with when we are upside-down in a wet and unfriendly environment. The Good Dr. Head Game likes to fool us by speeding up our sense of time, so that what we think is 30 to 60 seconds of inhospitable upside down time is really more like 2 to 4 seconds. We also talked about "teaching our muscles" the technique. When we know any technique well enough that we do not have to consciously think about it, we are not as easily distracted when we have other entertainment competing for our attention.
So why is it that we can swim under water for 20 seconds without any panic, oh yeahÖ we may have a hankering for a breath of air, but we donít feel the sense of panic that we get after just a couple of seconds in an upside-down kayak? The answer is: when we are swimming we donít have the trapped feeling, we can come to the surface anytime we want. But when you are upside down in a kayak, you feel trapped because your legs are inside the boat and you can not swim to the surface. Now the objective amongst us, would point out that exiting an upturned kayak is a simple move that you can do in under one second. We all know that, but our friend, and I use the term most loosely, Dr. Head Game somehow makes us forget how fast we can get out of the boat. And now that he has us just a little concerned, he feeds on our fear and starts turning the time acceleration dial. You may have observed this phenomenon yourself in a pool. You are upside-down and after an eternity of thrashing, you canít seem to right your boat. Your lungs feel like they are going to explode and you canít wait a moment more. Fortunately your buddy is there with a bow to rescue you. As soon as you put your hands on your buddyís boat, with your head still under water, your panic subsides, and you seem to have all of the time in the world to bring your head up for that breath of air.
It is the trapped feeling that is the first hurdle that we have to overcome to get our head game under control. This trapped feeling can have a devastating effect on some people, to the point that it affects their boating even when they are upright. These people have the experience and skills for class III rivers, but are still very tentative on easy class II rivers. When someone is consumed with the fear from feeling trapped; donít bother trying to use logic to try and talk them out of their fear. Their rational brain knows that they arenít trapped in the boat, but Dr. Head has such a grip that he does not let reason penetrate to the Fear Central Command (FCC). The FCC is that part of the brain that protects us from doing stupid things that could qualify us for the Darwin award. You know, things like playing baseball on the freeway, or unless your name is Kennedy; playing football on skis on a steep, wooded Aspen ski slope. The FCC has an important roll in the survival of our species and therefore has a direct connection to the Senior Commanding General in our head.
So what to do if Dr. HG is blocking reality from getting to the FCC? My experience is that you have to start from the beginning and do some wet exits, just as you did, or should have done, on the first day you were in a kayak. Then slowly progress to activities that increase the hang time in an inverted boat. You canít rush this phase, and you may have to go back to it from time to time. Cause, if the FCC rules that boat inversions are the equivalent of standing in front of a speeding locomotive, then boating is not gonna be something that you can put on youíre A list of fun and exciting things to do.
Main Squeezes respond much, much better to instructors that they donít sleep with.
Now this is to all of you out there who wanted your Significant Other (SO), to enjoy the sport that you have a high addiction level to. However, you just couldnít get them interested. Oh sureÖ they gave you all kinds of reasonable sounding rationalizations, but the real reason is very likely that their FCC, courtesy of Dr. Head Game, will not allow them to play with rattle snakes or skirt into a tippy little plastic boat and put onto water that has strange currents and obstructions that do inexplicable things to the craft. Those of us who have been in this sport for more than a month or two have seen our buddies bring their main squeeze to the river anxiously waiting for them to catch their whitewater addiction. Now look around and count the number of boating couples that you see, I donít know about you butÖ I donít need both hands to keep the tally! Now why is that? The primary reason is probably that you nominated yourself to be the head instructor! That Bunkie, is a bad idea! Leave the initial instruction to the professionals! You might be very capable of teaching your buddy, but Main Squeezes respond much, much better to instructors that they donít sleep with. If I have to explain this to you any further, then let me refer you that Mars and Venus book.
Ok, so youíre smart enough not to fall into instructor trap. The next challenge is way harder. That is the one where you expect them to progress twice as fast as you did. You are anxious to get on the rivers that you can have fun on, so we engage in a little harmless skill inflation. Yeah, that is where, after a month on the river, we tell our SO that they are good enough for that class V river that we love! Ok, maybe I exaggerate just a little, but you get the idea. We tend to not spend time on the basics. And the most crucial basic, is to make sure that the new boater is comfortable when they are not upright. If you blow by the wet exits, Eskimo rescues, and just feeling safe upside-down in moving water, then the FCC is going to kick in and put the brakes to any future forward progress! Now while we are on this couple message, let me point out that us guys are the biggest offender turning our SO away from whitewater boating. But I donít want you chicks to set back and think you arenít the cause of couple-less boaters as well. You have an even bigger challenge with your SO than the guys. And that is due to the Machismo factor. If you spook a guy on the river, doing a sport that you that you are already better at then he, than donít expect a second chance. A chick is far more motivated to spend quality time with her guy; and a guy is way less motivated to engage in a sport that has spooked him, and that he feels like he is a klutz at. So the boater dudís girl will go for the full 3 strike count before she hangs up her rubber skirt, where the boater chickís guy, will very likely bail after the first intimidating inversion!
So now, for what ever reason, we find our self with Dr. HG sitting back with a big grin on his face and our FCC has put a stop to any further Whitewater fun. You all have heard your doctor say that it is easier to prevent a medical problem than it is to cure it. The same applies here, when your FCC has put you in Whitewater Fun Arrest (WFA), you will need to spend some serious time in the Intensive Boater Rehab Unit (IBRU). All kidding aside, once boat inversion fear has overtaken your rational thinking, it is hard to push that fear into the background where it belongs. My experience is to start with wet exits. Note to WFA sufferers; you will need a patient buddy to help you out here. Now you may want to write off this step as too elementary. DONíT DO IT!! We are not trying to teach a technique here, we are trying to break down a big reinforced concrete wall that you have built up in your mind. Once a comfort level is established with several wet exits, work on increasing the hang time underwater, start with 3 seconds upside-down before exiting, and move up to 5, 10 and 20 seconds. Also use the same technique on Eskimo rescues where your buddy moves his boat close to provide a bow for you to pull yourself up. Work up a 30 second hang time for a bow rescue. Once you establish a comfort level with these drills in still water, try them in moving water, especially waiting for the Eskimo rescue. The goal here is to keep your fear under control, while you are upside-down in moving water. Above is a treatment regime I have used for boaters in full WFA. Most of us donít need that intensive of treatment. Instead of a full blown case of WFA, we may just be suffering from Boat Inversion Anxiety (BIA). This is a whole lot easier to treat, you may want to start with doing bow rescues and gradually increasing your hang time, but donít ignore this, in extreme cases it may lead to full blown WFA, but at the very least, it will keep you out of the Bombproof Roll Club. You may scoff at BIA, but let me tell you we all have BIA to at some degree.
Here is a tip from John Kobak, who, even though he is older than dirt, still can execute a roll once in a while. "At the top of a significant rapid, one that I see some of you boaters slip on your nose-plugs, try taking at least three really deep breaths." What this does, if you find yourself upside down in the rapid, is tell youíre FCC that you really donít need to breathe for a while. This actually turns off your BIA and allows you to clearly think about your roll without any distraction from little things like wanting to breathe.
I used to think that some people were exempt from BIA. Take my buddy Matt (Ratt Boy) Muir; he had a reputation of being able to roll anything, anytime, anywhere, every time. We all assumed that his super human stamina was due to the fact that, wellÖ he wasnít really human. With his personality it was quite easy to believe that he was an alien life form that only needed air to blow off his insulting comments to us. But even the mighty Ratt succumbed to BIA. I remember the day, 5 years ago, like it was yesterday! He and I ran the Upper Yough in the morning and in the afternoon we entered a down river race on the Cheat Narrows. I was the only one to show up without a sleek racing boat. When I saw my competition I thought that the only way that I would not come in dead last was to cheat, or if someone swam. To make this delicious story short, my buddy Ratt saved me from the shame and dishonor by taking a swim in his rickety and unstable race boat, and taking my rightful place as the last place contestant! So if we all have BIA, what do we do about it - as we try to move to swim independence? I think the most important things are: Practice, Patience, Focus and Tune-out. We talked about practice last month.
PATIENCE - is needed to wait for the right time. Frequently when we flip, the conditions are not ideal for an immediate roll, so wait until your boat stabilizes, or gets out of the foamy and aerated water where you paddle canít get any purchase. And of course; forget what Dr. HG is telling you. You generally only have to wait for a few seconds for conditions to improve.
FOCUS - on proper technique, when I miss my roll, I tell myself to slow down, go through the basics and focus on using good technique. Generally my problem is that my head comes up too soon, so a roll failure is my cue to keep my head down.
TUNE-OUT - is typically a big problem for newer boaters. They need to learn to tune out the distractions, things like bumping in to rocks, turbulent water, and most importantly Dr. HG. A technique that worked for me: was to analyze what went wrong after every swim. I started cataloging things that should not have been a problem but were, things like bumping into a rock, being stuck in a hole, pinned against a rock or breaking a paddle blade. When I came across the situation again, I recognized the problem and that it was not a threat. It was sort of a "been there, done that" moment. OhÖ you ask, what do I do when I break a paddle blade? I admit that it does not often happen. but the solution is simple: do an offside roll, that will put you on the good blade! pinned upside-down, and ready to bail out? DONíT! most of the time you will wash off the pin if you are patient, use a little rocking action, push or pull your way off the rock, and again, donít forget to use your offside roll, if the onside roll is not working. Raft run over you? I have seen people push their way out from under the raft. The main thing is; donít let a little adversity freak you out, there is plenty of time to pull the rip cord, so try a few things first, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that the bombproof roll club is not that hard to get into!
Remember it is almost always safer to stay in your boat and roll; than it is to bail out and swim. It really is!!! I can only remember 2 situations that I had to swim in the last 15 years. One was when my boat was caught in a sieve. I had to wait until they shut the water off at the Gauley dam to get my boat out. The second was when I dislocated my shoulder; caused by over reaching on a high brace. Come to think of it, I should have just done an off-side roll using my good
shoulder (I violated the Tune-out rule), so make that one mandatory swim! Now trust meÖ I have had more than one swim, but I only had to swim once. That means I have had at least 500 needless swims!
Send me your stories of what has helped you get over your boating fears, and we will continue our talk next month. Here is a hint, clip this article out, tape it to the fridge, and review it frequently when the boating season starts. Mean time, I ran across the following internet sites that have some useful info on kayak rolling. See Ya soon at the Bombproof Club meetings!!
Another Resource on rolling