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Implementing Changes to Technique

Over the last several months I’ve written a lot about technique.  From the “Six Fundamentals” to a series on common technique errors and their fixes I’ve put a lot of material out there for people to read.  If you’re a Paddle Monster member with access to all the articles, there is certainly enough information for you to understand what constitutes “effective technique” and to identify both mistakes and the necessary corrections when looking at someone’s stroke.  

That said, it’s one thing to be able to identify a problem with technique and the necessary corrections.  It’s another thing entirely to implement the necessary corrections and actually make someone’s technique (or your own) more effective.  So, let’s look at a process and some of the tools you can use to affect positive change to technique, be it yours or anyone else’s.

Collect some video

While you can get a pretty good feeling for what someone is doing by just watching them paddle, you can really drill down on exactly what is going on if you assess someone’s technique on video.  

Video is easy to obtain.  You can just pull out your phone and grab some video as someone paddles by.  Similarly, anyone on shore can do the same for you and then share the video they take.  While it is obviously ideal to film from a motor boat that can follow along beside the paddler, it’s not necessary.  Filming from a boat will allow you to collect a lot of strokes from a direct side view, but you can get enough strokes to work from by simply standing on shore and filming as someone paddles by.  Make sure that the paddler is paddling on the camera side as they pass by and make sure they are far enough from the camera so that you can see their whole board and body but are not so far away that they are too small in the frame.  

If you’re videoing a relatively novice paddler, having them paddle at level 2 to 3 pace is adequate.  You’ll probably want them to do a few passes as well, as novice paddlers tend to be a little less consistent with their paddling than more advanced paddlers.  In this case, a larger sample size of strokes to evaluate is probably a good idea. 

If you’re filming a more advanced paddler, you can have them paddle by at race pace.  There is no sense in having someone paddle too slowly when you film.  You want to know what they are doing when they are working like they would in a workout or race, not when they are paddling really slow and cautiously.  Try to make sure that their paddling is consistent from stroke to stroke so that the stroke that ends up being directly in front of the camera is representative of all the strokes that the paddler is taking.  If there is any doubt about this, ask them to do another pass by the camera.

View the video

You can view the video on your phone initially to make sure that the quality of your filming is adequate.  However, for assessing technique you’ll ideally want to view the video on a bigger screen.  At the very least this means using a tablet.  Better still, use a laptop or desktop computer.  Using a computer allows you the luxury of using the cursor keys at the bottom right of the keyboard to advance the video.  Holding the forward or backward key down advances the video in slow motion either forward or backward.  Touching the key once advances the video one frame at a time.  Both slow motion and frame-by-frame provide real clarity to what the paddler is doing and allow you to stop the video at any point in the stroke to assess both paddle and body position.  

What to look for

In my opinion, the best approach for assessing video is to look at what the board is doing first.  How is it moving through the water?  Does it climb in the water through the stroke, indicating acceleration?  Does it sit up “on top of the water”, appearing to skip across the surface rather than plowing through the water?  

Once you have a feel for how the board is moving, start to look at the paddle.  Where does it first contact the water and how quickly does it get buried?  What is the blade angle once buried, and how well is effective blade angle maintained through the stroke?  Does the blade seem to speed a lot of time at or near vertical?  Or, does it pass through vertical quickly and become increasingly negative?

Where does the blade exit the water?  At the feet?  Behind the feet?  How negative is the blade angle upon exit?

Only after looking at what the board and paddle are doing should you start looking at the body and how it is moving, although you should already have a good idea of how the body is moving if you’ve figured out what the paddle is doing.  As you’re looking at how the body moves, consider that movement through the lens of the “Six Fundamentals”.  Does the paddler appear to be securing the blade in the water and then pulling him/herself to the paddle?  Are they using their body weight?  Are they using big muscles preferentially over smaller muscles?  How is their body movement affecting blade angle?  Are they minimizing the time spent with negative blade angle?  Are their movements direct and efficient?  Are they maximizing the run of the board between strokes by pushing the board forward off the exit?  

In most cases, you’ll start to see things by this point that you’ll want to take a closer look.   This is the point where you can start to refer to the “technique errors and their fixes” series of posts with a high level of confidence that you are correctly identifying the errors and can thus determine the fixes that should be made.  

Implementing changes

As I said earlier, it’s one thing to identify necessary changes to a stroke.  It is another entirely to implement these changes.  At the most basic level, you (or the person you’re coaching) need to try to execute the suggested changes during each stroke taken, beginning in your next paddling session.  However, that can be easier said than done, especially if you are trying to do “work” on the water.  

Be prepared to take a step back to take two steps forward

The first step in fixing technique is to be prepared to take a step back in order to take two (or more) steps forward.  Simply put, going out and grinding out hard workouts while trying to implement changes to technique is counterproductive. You need to back off the “work” a bit and slow things down to get a handle on technique.  

Technique represents a pattern of movement controlled by the central nervous system.  Whatever you’ve been doing technically for any period of time becomes the nervous system’s default.  You’re going to paddle that way naturally and it takes a real effort to override that default and paddle differently.  To effect even simple changes to your movement takes real attention to detail.  In my experience these changes are most easily made by slowing things right down and moving deliberately and methodically to ensure you are precisely performing the movement the correction you need to make requires.  

If you want to change your movement is essential to perform the new movement as perfectly as you can as consistently as you can, again and again and again.  Repetition is the key, but you need to be repeating the precise movement that you want to set as your new default.  You’ll want to make sure you maximize the number of “good” strokes you take which incorporate the new movement you’re trying to develop and minimize the number of “bad” strokes you take that represent your old movement.  This is difficult to do when you’re trying to grind out a workout. When you get fatigued in workouts you tend to rely more heavily on your default motion, which is going to make changing your stroke very difficult.  In fact, while incorporating technique changes, it’s far better to stop, refocus and then start again when you feel you aren’t paddling exactly the way you want to than it is to try to keep paddling and fix your technique as you go.  Forget about “doing work”.  Your priority should only be paddling perfectly.  If it is not perfect, stop and refocus until you can make it so.  Be prepared to sacrifice your on-water workouts until you’ve got good command of the changes you are trying to implement.  If you’re concerned about losing fitness through this process, be prepared to do some land-based aerobic work to address your aerobic fitness instead.  

Use a resistor

Implementing changes to technique can involve a lot of starting and stopping as every time you feel that you aren’t performing your stroke exactly as required you should stop. It can be frustrating and discouraging initially, especially for those with a strong work ethic.  

One of the things you can do to expedite the process is paddling with a resistor.  Resistance slows the board down which accomplishes a couple of things.  First, it makes the stroke a little heavier, allowing you to more easily feel the muscles involved in the stroke and the sequencing of their contraction.  This can help you isolate the change you’re trying to make and better feel how you’re moving, making it easier to affect that change.  Also, because the resistor slows the board down, it gives you more time within each stroke.  This allows you to anticipate what you need to do and when to do it within the stroke, making it more likely that you’ll move properly.  

Last month, we looked at using a resistor to improve your paddling.  You should refer to that article before proceeding further and building and using your own resistor on the water.  

For implementing changes to technique, I recommend 2 resistor sessions/week.  Each session starts with 3 tennis balls for 10 to 15 minutes.  This is a really heavy load and should really help you isolate and feel the change that you are trying to make.  Paddle as long as you feel you are properly implementing the changes you are trying to make.  When things don’t feel right, stop, refocus and then start again.  After 10 to 15 minutes, you should take one tennis ball off (just pull it along the bungee onto the top of your board) and repeat the process with two tennis balls.  After another 10 to 15 minutes, pull the remaining two tennis balls along the bungee to the top of your board and do another 10 to 15 minutes with just the bungee.  Finally, take the bungee off and paddle with no resistance.  

Starting with a heavy resistance allows you to more easily isolate and implement the changes you’re trying to make.  As you progressively remove resistance you’ll need to work a little more quickly with your paddle and body movement to continue to feel the control over the changes that you are making.  I’ve found that this step-by-step removal of resistance helps you adapt progressively, so that you have a better chance of feeling without any resistance what you felt with the greatest resistance.

Again, I recommend doing this session 2x/week for the first few weeks of trying to implement changes to technique.  Doing it more isn’t likely to be useful as you can expect diminishing returns sue to nervous system fatigue from pulling against the extra load.  However, two sessions a week, well spread out, seems to represent a sweet spot for using resistance to implement changes to technique.  

Do some exaggeration paddling

Exaggeration drills can be really useful for imposing and then consolidating change in your default movement pattern.  The idea is to exaggerate within the stroke the elements of technique you’re trying to master at the expense of everything else in the stroke.  I recommend doing exaggeration paddling in the follow manner:

  • Exaggerate the front of the stroke (or loading phase) for 1 minute (level 2 to 3 effort).  Elements you’ll want to exaggerate here are:
    • Ankle flexion
    • Hips forward (center of mass forward of body)
    • Reaching to catch (opening up angle between paddling side arm and body)
    • Holding rotation while entering by bending at the waist
    • “Climbing” on top of the paddle after the catch, continuing to load the blade using hips, legs and upper body weight

You’ll want to really exaggerate all of this by doing it all to a greater extent than you would in normal paddling.  At the same time, you should totally ignore the exit or back half of the stroke.  It’s okay to let the paddle drag past your feet.  All you are interested in doing is exaggerating the elements described above.

Rest 1 minute before doing the next exaggeration.

  • Exaggerate the back half (or unloading phase) of the stroke for 1 minute (level 2 to 3 effort).  Elements you’ll want to exaggerate are:
    • Once the blade has just passed through vertical, feeling the load on the blade up your paddling side arm and down your paddling side lat to your hips, then using that connection to pull your hips forward underneath your upper body towards the paddle
    • Once the blade reaches your feet, squeezing your glutes to continue to push your hips forward towards and past the paddle blade, with this movement initiating the exit of the blade from the water
    • The feeling of the board surging as it accelerates as a result of these movements

Again, you want to really exaggerate these elements to an extent you never do in normal paddling.  You also want to completely ignore the front half of the stroke.  This prevents confusion and ensures maximal exaggeration of the elements you’re concerned with.  It’s okay if the stroke is short and not particularly sound technically at the front of the stroke.  All you are interested in here is the exit. 

Rest for 1 minute before doing the next exaggeration.

  • Focus on the transition from loading to unloading for 1 minute (level 2 to 3 effort).  For this part of the drill you do not exaggerate any element of the front or back half of the stroke as you’ve done above.  Instead, just try to paddle normally, focusing on paddling rhythm, while trying to immediately begin to unload upon completion of the loading.  

Rest for 1 min before doing he next exaggeration.

  • Repeat each of the steps above three times for a total of 9 x 1 min.  Rest 5 min and repeat for a second set.  

I recommend doing this exaggeration paddling 2x/week while trying to implement changes to technique, alternating this workout with the resistance workout described above.  This would see you doing a total of 4 paddling sessions a week, which is optimal for learning new technique.  If you paddle more (up to 6x/week), I’d recommend doing each session again one more time for a total of 3 of each over 6 days.

Do land drills

Perhaps the most important thing you can do to successfully implement changes to your technique and reinforce good movement patterns is land drills.  These are simply drills that you can do on land that put your body into the precise positions it needs to be in on the water at three very important points in the stroke.  You’ll find it is much easier to put your body in correct positions on land because none of the dynamic factors that come with being on the water come in to play.  The theory is, if you can easily find these positions on land it becomes much easier to then find them on the water.  I’ve found that if you can find the three most important positions in the stroke correctly on the water, your body is intelligent enough to connect the dots between them in the most effective manner.  So, by reinforcing these correct positions on land, it is easier to find them on the water and, if you can find them on the water, it’s simply a matter of linking them together which is a fairly natural process.  

In my experience as a young canoe athlete, an aging SUP athlete, and a coach in both canoe and SUP, I have found land drills to be extremely useful in learning and teaching technique.  Everyone, without exception, that I have worked with has learned to paddle better, and learned more quickly, by spending about 10 minutes a day doing these drills.  

In the next article we will look at land drills in more detail and over the next few issues of The Catch, I’ll post video and detailed explanations of each of the specific drills I have found to be so useful.  I am certain they can help everyone refine or correct their technique.  

Final Thoughts

Technique is arguably the most important pillar of performance in any paddle sport.  You can be the strongest, fittest athlete in the world but if you can’t find connection with the water and move in a way that allows you to use your strength effectively, you won’t be able to paddle fast sustainably.  

Evaluating technique and determining what needs to be consolidated and what needs to change is the first step to paddling better or coaching someone.  Determining what changes to make and developing a plan to affect these changes is the next step, and the one that is the hardest.  Hopefully the suggestions outlined here will make that part of the process a little easier and more successful.  

Happy paddling!

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