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Managing fear at the peel-out

Reposted from the Dagger blog, written by Chris Gragtmans

I’ve been fascinated with Sports Psychology my entire life. I took one class in this subject area, with Dr. Swoap at Warren Wilson College in NC. The class opened my eyes, and made me realize how much more there was to think about in athletics, and specifically kayaking, than raw technical skills. The one place where psychology enters the picture the most for me is above big, scary rapids.

Pat Keller once told me that sliding into a river and getting warmed up in the eddy above a huge drop is always the worst part for him. He said that once he commits himself to the current, and peels out, the decision making time is over, the fear vanishes, and now he must simply focus and make it happen.

Making decisions in Cali...

Credit: Robin Betz

I feel the same way. It’s easy to spot a person who is using their fear as a motivation and reminder to focus versus a person who is paralyzed by fear. This is something that I have always tried to keep top
of mind in my paddling, and there are a number of things that have helped me with managing fear:

  1. Pure Motivations. Calculated risks should have the correct motivation... not including cameras, reputation, competition, etc.
  2. Visualize. It's important to run through every aspect of the rapid exactly as it would go in a perfect run.
  3. Safety. Remind yourself of the support that exists below the rapid in the form of friends setting safety.
  4. Ask for help. I usually try to say a quick prayer and ask for guidance of my boat and paddle.
  5. Self-affirmation statements. Do some Googling on this as it pertains to Sports Psych... it's basically three words that you repeat to yourself during difficult situations to gain confidence and strength.
  6. Get a good song stuck in your head.
  7. Paddle into the current, think only good thoughts, look only where you want to go.

The amazing thing about this concept is that it doesn’t matter how good of a paddler you are. I experienced the same sensations above Nantahala Falls my first time that I still experience when I peel out to run a big waterfall. The better you are at controlling and channeling those emotions, the safer you will be, and the more you will progress.