So you want to be a “good” SUP paddler…

You’ve probably all heard of Malcolm Gladwell and his “10000 – Hour Rule” from his book Outliers, which states that to be a world-class expert in something it takes approximately 10000 hours of practice.

While I think the number 10000 is somewhat arbitrary and the time to mastery of a specific skill depends on the nature and complexity of the skill, in general Gladwell is right.  If you want to be really, really good at something it takes a long, long time.

Paddling on a stand-up paddleboard is a surprisingly complex skill, especially if you’re doing it on the ocean or in “big water”.  When I consider how hard it was to get to a world class level in sprint canoe it boggles my mind that I was actually able to do it.  Basically, it took me 8 years from deciding I wanted to win an Olympic gold medal to go and do it, and I had already been paddling for 2 years when that became my dream.

Yet as complex as sprint canoe is in terms of skill, technique, strength and fitness, SUP is on an entirely different level all together.  For starters, in canoe I only had to master technique paddling on one side.  In SUP, you’ve got to do things on both sides equally well.  That alone makes SUP a much greater challenge.  Then you have to be able to master an incredibly wide variety of conditions in SUP whereas in sprint canoe you’re usually racing in pretty calm, sheltered water.  

While from a purely paddling standpoint the two sports are very similar, it is the requirement to do things equally well on both sides in just about every condition imaginable that makes SUP such an incredibly complex sport to master.  So, if you’re new to the sport and have dreams about being “an expert”, you’ve got your work cut out for you.  It may not take you 10000 hours, but you had better be patient.  It is going to take you a very long time.  

The problem is we live in a world where people are increasingly impatient and seek instant gratification.  There are people who take up SUP who seem to expect that they can be “good” in a few months or in their first summer.  They aren’t being realistic.  Here’s what I say to everyone about SUP, whether they’ve been doing it for a while, have just started, or are expressing an interest in getting involved in the sport:

  1. Set realistic goals.  Rather than starting with the goal of “being the best”, start with much more modest objectives.  I always figure that a great goal for starting anything new is to “learn as much as I can and see where that get’s me”.  Learning is fun, whether it is knowledge or skills.  If you’re learning new things and getting better, you’ll be having fun and that will keep you coming back to the water.  If you set unrealistically high goals chances are you’re going to fail to achieve then leaving you feeling disappointed and frustrated.
  1. Be humble.  Expect it to be hard.  If it were an easy activity then everyone would be Kai Lenny or Connor Baxter.  They aren’t.  For the millions of people who paddle SUP worldwide there are only a few athletes at this level.  It is hard.  Why should it be easy for you?
  1. Be patient.  We’ve established that it is hard.  Give yourself time to properly learn the skills the sport requires.  It may not require 10000 hours to truly master SUP but be prepared for it to take a very long time.
  1. There are no shortcuts, but there are things you can do to learn things more quickly.  If you’re concerned about being efficient and reducing the time required to master new skills then the following will help:
  1. Make sure you understand what it is you’re supposed to the doing. There’s nothing less efficient than starting to do work when you aren’t fully aware of what’s involved.  Invariably you end up wasting time and effort.  Before starting to work at new skills make sure you have as good an idea as possible of what exactly it is that you’re trying to do.  You might have to search around for that information and then you’ll have to determine whether or not the information you find is good information, or you can…
  1. Get a coachA coach should be able to help you determine what you should be trying to do and provide you with an action plan to accomplish it.  They should be able to provide you with feedback so you know whatever it is you’re practicing it the right thing and that you are doing it correctly.  I cannot stress the important of this enough.  If you’re practicing the wrong thing or practicing something the wrong way you’re wasting your time and aren’t going to get a lot better.  On the other hand, being smart about what you’re practicing and how you’re doing it will save you time and have you mastering skills more quickly and moving on to new skills sooner.  
  1. Visualize.  When I was a kid I used to ride my bike 15 min each way to and from the canoe club.  On my ride to the club I used to use that time to visualize what I wanted to do and even what I wanted to feel like when I got in my canoe.  The result was that on days when I did that, I’d push off the dock and paddle well immediately.  On days when I didn’t, I’d push off the dock and spend the first part of the workout trying to put things together, searching for things I could do that would make me feel good in the boat.  The power of our brain to control how our body moves is immense.  Investing 15 minutes or so a day of quiet time to visualize what you want to be doing and how you want to feel when you get on your board increases the chances that you’ll be able to do exactly what you want to and feel good doing it.  It accelerates the learning process and the path to skill mastery.  

I’ve been paddling SUP for almost 10 years now.  Over the last 5 years I’ve done between 3500 and 3800 km/year.  At an average of 80 minutes/10 km that is just under 500 hours/year.  So, in 10 years I’ve spent about 5000 hours on a SUP.  Those 5000 hours have been piled on top of a lifetime of paddling in sprint canoe.  So, everything I’ve done is SUP has been piled on top of relevant knowledge and experience from another paddle sport.  Only recently, I’ve reached a point where I feel like things are really starting to come together, and that is happening on a 215” wide board.   Though I’m not where I want to be yet, what keeps it fun is that I keep getting better every day.  

My point isn’t to discourage people from paddling SUP by telling them how hard it is.  On the contrary, my message is that precisely because it is challenging it is worth doing.  It will provide you with a lifetime of satisfaction if you have the right attitude because you will never stop learning.  

Happy paddling!

Larry

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