Love the Conditions – Chattajack Version

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 stand up 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.

While negative thoughts and worry about the conditions can negatively impact performance 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. Sometimes, even better.  

A couple of years ago 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 move underneath us is better than tensing up.  When we’re tense we wobble when the board 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.  

Conditions can get interesting at Chattajack.  If you’ve done the race before you’re familiar with what it can be like.  If this year will be your first one you might as well learn about it now. Over the last couple of years we’ve seen some of the toughest conditions ever on the course with considerable headwinds in the faces of paddlers for most of the race.  In the last 6 miles or so the wind picked up and it turned into a real grind.  At one point, about 3 miles from the finish the wind was so strong there were two-foot whitecaps pushing us backwards.  Everyone moved at a crawl.  There’s also been rain, freezing temperatures and the Tennessee Valley Authority even shut down the flow last year, denying us any push from the current.

When things like this happen, especially in the late stages of a race when you’re tired to begin with, it can be heartbreaking and demoralizing.  While being physically well prepared usually means you’ll be less tired when you hit those conditions and stronger while trying to handle them, even extremely well-trained paddlers can get thrown off their race and broken if they let the conditions get the better of them.  It’s a mental game.  

Being mentally strong enough to overcome huge challenges like this is one thing, and there are many athletes that are strong enough to bear down and overcome almost anything.  But a much easier approach is to take challenging conditions in stride and not let them get to you.  Enjoy the challenge they present.  You don’t need to rely nearly as much on “mental toughness” to handle conditions you embrace.  

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 will always be 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.  Let’s all love the conditions and actively look for new, interesting and challenging conditions to paddle in. during our training.  We’ll accelerate our skill development in the process, have a ton more fun and be getting the most out of our paddling experience.  That will definitely leave us better prepared for Chattajack.

Here are a couple of other tips I’ve found that help you better meet the challenges that difficult conditions present:

  • Remember you aren’t the only one dealing with them.  If you’re paddling in a headwind, everyone else will be too.  In the late stages of a race like Chattajack that is going to bother everyone.  However, if you can remind yourself that everyone is dealing with the same thing and are determined to be the one least affected by it, it will help your performance immeasurably.  
  • Remember your gears.  Paddling is not unlike riding a bike in that there are gears we have at our disposal based on how much water we gather and hold on our paddle blade during the stroke.  Generally speaking the gear that works optimally for a long flat-water race is probably not the one that is optimal in a strong wind, regardless of it’s direction.  Finding the right gear for the conditions is crucial

Happy Training!


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