Earlier this year I put this post up on Paddle Monster for our All-Access members. I think it is worth reusing here for those preparing for Chattajack.
Last year Chattajack was a challenge above and beyond the usual associated with 31 miles down the Tennessee River Gorge. Cool temperatures and strong winds made the course slow, and especially in the last 6 miles the wind was a back breaker.
You’ve got two choices when you face a big headwind late in a race like that. You can fold up and let the conditions defeat you, or you can dig even deeper, get more weight on your blade every stroke and find a way to persevere, keeping your board moving forward. The conditions are what they are. We can’t change them. We need to embrace them and the challenge they lay down in front of us.
Here’s hoping this post resonates with all of you. “Love the Conditions” certainly has with me and those training with Paddle Monster.
Love the Conditions
I’ve often felt that one of the problems of competing in an outdoor sport is that you’re subject to the conditions. In paddling, wind, waves and current can play a huge part in the outcome of any event. At the same time I’ve recognized how lucky we are to be competing in an outdoor sport. How boring would it be to have to paddle in a swimming pool every day?
Over the years I’ve seen athletes, whether in sprint canoe-kayak, outrigger or SUP, focus more on the conditions than what they need to do to paddle effectively. I’ve seen World Champions so worried about unfavorable winds on the course that they’ve totally psyched themselves out of the performance they are capable of when it matters most – at the Olympic Games. I’ve seen paddlers stand on the beach terrified as they watch sets of waves roll in, wondering how they’re going to make it through the break. And I’ve struggled myself to fight similar concerns over and over again through 40 years of racing with a paddle in my hand. It’s a never-ending challenge to keep negative thoughts out of your mind so that you can compete with the relaxed, confident focus that allows you to perform your best.
On the other hand if you embrace the conditions, whatever they may be, you’ve got a much better chance of having fun, paddling loose and relaxed, and performing to your ability. Or sometimes, even better.
Over the past summer I had the to pleasure to get to know a Paddle Monster member who has a pretty kick ass athletic background. A gymnast from age 3 to 13; then a National level snowboarder who competed at three Junior World Championships; and finally a member of Canada’s National Sailing Team, racing Laser at numerous World Championships. The only words that appear on Claire Merry’s Instagram profile are: “Love the Conditions”. They’re probably the most profound words I’ve ever heard for an athlete that competes outdoors.
The story goes something like this: When Claire was racing snowboards her father used to go to the hill with her and help her prepare before races. The last words he’d utter as she headed into the start hut were “love the conditions”. Snowboarders, in Southern Ontario in particular, are often dealing with icy, gnarly conditions that are very challenging, particularly when the course has been chopped up and rutted by other racers. Rather than get fixated on the challenging conditions in a negative way, by “loving the conditions” Claire taught herself to not only accept them, but embrace them. She’d look forward to racing in the nastiest conditions and excel in them.
We should all be taking the same approach on the water. We know that relaxing and letting the board or boat we’re paddling move underneath us is better than tensing up. When we’re tense we wobble when the board or boat does and suddenly stability becomes a big issue; it’s difficult to feel connection, we can’t load and unload the paddle properly, and it’s harder to find a good rhythm and a sustainable stroke. Moreover it’s virtually impossible to make use of the conditions by taking advantage of every little ripple.
Unfortunately waves and wind intimidate many paddlers. Some paddlers who paddle really well in flat water tighten up and struggle as the wind and waves increase. Over the years, as I’ve learned to paddle SUP, that has been me on too many occasions.
The amazing thing is that conditions only seem to affect us as much as we let them. If we’re stressed out when we stand on shore and look at the water, worried about how we’ll be able to handle the conditions, it’s a near certainty that we’re going to struggle with them when we get out there. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. However if we’re relaxed and positive, confident that we can not only handle the conditions but that it is going to be fun, there is a pretty good chance that we’re going to be able to paddle to our ability or even exceed it. It all depends on how you frame it.
I’m by no means an expert when it comes to big water. Despite a lifetime of paddling, most of it has been in flat water. I’ve had to learn how to paddle in big water and though I’m quite competent, it’s still a work in progress. I still frequently see conditions that test my limits and challenge me, and I see a direct correlation between how well I handle them and the mindset I approach them with. I’m definitely much better when I “love the conditions”.
“Love the conditions” should be a philosophy that we all embrace. After all, we’re an outdoor sport. Part of what makes being on the water special and interesting is that it is different every day. With credit to Claire and her father, I’m making “love the conditions” a hashtag. Let’s all love the conditions and actively look for new, interesting and challenging conditions to paddle in. We’ll accelerate our skill development in the process, have a ton more fun and be getting the most out of our paddling experience. If we love the conditions beyond the water, we’ll probably also get a lot more out of life.