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Improving SUP Paddling Technique While Standing on Land

Yes, you read that right.  It’s possible to improve your paddling technique, in a big way, on land.  Obviously, you’ve got to follow up what you do on land with lots of time spent on the water, but make no mistake, doing certain things on land to enhance your technique is going to make everything you do technique related on the water a whole lot easier. 

A thirteen-year-old stumbles onto a great way to teach and learn technique

I took my first strokes in a racing canoe in 1974 when I was 11 years old.  Actually, I swam a lot more than paddled that first year, but you get the idea.  At that point it was all fun and I didn’t really have any aspirations beyond being able to paddle a C1 without falling out of it.  

It wasn’t until I was 13 in 1976 that the sport captured my imagination and I discovered there was a lot more to paddling than I had realized to that point.  In 1976, the Olympics Games were  in Montreal, so our newspapers and magazines were filled with stories and photos of the world’s top athletes.  Being a paddler, I was particularly interested in all the items about the canoe-kayak athletes, and I clipped and saved everything I could find.  

By this time, I had started racing C1.  I wasn’t very good and didn’t like being lousy.  For the first time in my life I was starting to show the drive and determination necessary to actually get good at something.  But when I saw Canada’s John Wood, someone that my coach had started paddling, win his silver medal in the C1 500m it was a galvanizing moment.  I can remember watching it on TV and turning to my parents and saying, “That’s what I want to do.”  From that point forward, nothing was more important to me than paddling.  

In all my enthusiasm to become an Olympian, I thought about paddling constantly.  One thing that I started to do was take all the photos I had saved of the world’s top paddlers and arrange them around me in front of my parents’ full-length mirror by the phase of the stroke they depicted.   Then, I got my mother’s broom, which was just a little bit shorter than my paddle, and would get down in the high-kneel position used in C1 in front of the mirror.  The broom stick was about the same length as my paddle shaft and the bristles on the broom would flex a little bit when I leaned on them, sort of simulating the paddle blade going into the water.  

I’d literally spend hours studying photos of each athlete and then mimicking the exact position the athlete was in with my broom paddle.  I’d look a photo, then look at myself in the mirror, meticulously adjusting my position until I looked exactly like the photo.  I’d do this for all of the photos at the catch, where the paddle blade is entering and gathering water.  Then I would move on to the pull and the exit, mimicking those positions as closely as possible as well.  

Nobody suggested I do this.  I was just an enthusiastic kid who had become captivated by a sport and couldn’t get enough of it.  I had no idea at the time that what I was doing was actually going to be useful and make a difference in the development of my technique on the water,  but I do remember consciously trying to find the same positions in the canoe that I was getting my body into in front of the mirror.  

Funny thing, but this all coincided with taking a big step on the water over the next twelve months and leaving all my peers, including those that had been beating me previously, behind.  Yes, I was getting stronger and fitter as I trained and grew, but it seemed to be my technique that was making the biggest difference.  I was learning to move my boat further every stroke and underrate guys that were bigger and stronger than me.  I began to receive a lot of compliments on my paddling from some of the best older paddlers, and by 16 I was actually beginning to find I was competitive with them. 

By 17, I had raced in a World Cup final in the C1 1000m in Duisburg, Germany and come 5th, finishing in the pack with some of the athletes whose photos I had been studying only 4 years before.  And at 18, I came 5th in the C1 500m at the World Championships and won both the C1 500m and C1 1000m at the Junior World Championships.  

There are a lot of factors that come into play in an athlete’s development.  I was fortunate to have great coaching, role models and training partners.  I had parents that were 100% supportive and, when my father died just after my 16th birthday, my mom did everything to support me.  I followed a great training program and worked damn hard, following every instruction and doing the work with the greatest quality possible.  But my technique was a big part of my rapid rise and now, looking back, I credit a lot of that to what I did in front of my parents’ full-length mirror.  

Using land drills as a coaching tool

Periodically, while coaching sprint canoe, I’d get the athletes to do some drill work on land to help them understand the positions that I was asking them to achieve in their strokes on the water.  However, I never really thought much of my time in front of my parents’ mirror and so never really tried to build a method of teaching technique around land drills. 

It wasn’t until I had started Paddle Monster and was running clinics and spring training camps that I began to realize how valuable land drills could be in helping me help others.  

Explaining technique to others in clinics is done much more easily on land than on the water.  People tend to get too spread out on the water and are harder to communicate with because of that.  Also, on the water, people tend to listen only to the first thing you say and then start to immediately try it rather than listen to your entire explanation.  This means they don’t hear the subtleties of your explanation or the context of what you are describing.  In clinics, I’d end up repeating myself a lot nobody would improve as much as I thought they should.  Over time, I learned to explain things thoroughly on land first, before letting anyone get on the water, and that seemed to be much more successful. 

Part of explaining things on land involves demonstrations, and as I did them more and more, I began to remember the time I spent in front of my parents’ mirror.  I started to find that doing the demonstrations actually helped me paddle better when I got on the water and I began to think of ways I could make my demonstrations into drills that others could do in the clinics.  

Soon I had everyone in the clinics doing the drills on land before they hit the water.  At least this way they were able to gain a better understanding of what I was asking them to try to do on the water.  Of course, gains people make in clinics are pretty limited.  The best you can hope for is that people really listen, remember your explanations and the drills, and then start doing them on their own at home.  This is how people can really improve from taking a clinic.  Simply taking a clinic and expecting to come out at the end of 2 hours a better paddler is a bit unrealistic.  

Now that I had some land drills for SUP I found that it was far easier to teach technique.  Whether it was in a clinic or a one-on-one lesson, having the paddlers doing the land drills first made everything I was explaining on the water more understandable and easier to perform for the paddlers.  Having them do them again at the end of the clinic helped me recap everything and help the paddlers put things in perspective.  I figured they might better remember the drills because of this recap and start doing them on their own.  

It wasn’t until the pandemic hit in 2020 that I started to think about using Zoom to do weekly conferencing with paddlers to coach technique.  My theory was, if I could do an initial video analysis and fully explain it to the paddler, then identify adjustments needed to their technique and prescribe drills targeted to address those adjustments, that this could form the basis of weekly conferencing were the paddler would submit a new video each week and I would go over it with them.  Technique evolves over time, and not always along a linear trajectory. I figured if the paddler was willing to do the work, pay attention to detail and approach the process with an open mind over an 8-week period, I could help them in a way not that dissimilar to the way I would work with someone if I were beside them daily on the water.  

As it turns out, this process seems to work even better than I hoped it might.  I’ve worked with close to twenty paddlers using this format now and all have improved dramatically.  We start with the land drills and some work on the water designed to help implement on the water what they are learning in the land drills.  Much like what I experienced as a 13-year-old kid that worked with a broom in front of the mirror, the paddlers I am working with now make remarkable progress in a short period of time because of the work they are doing on land.

Why land drills work

If you watch the best paddlers, you’ll notice that they all look at little different as they paddle.  They tend to have their own unique techniques.  It’s easy, for example, to tell the difference between Connor Baxter and Michael Booth from a distance on the water.  Though they are attempting to do similar things with their body and their paddle to make their board move forward, the fact that they are different individuals, with completely different sets of physical tools and different strengths and weaknesses, means that they are going to paddle differently.  There is no “cookie cutter” technique that we can copy.  We all have to find the way to paddle that works best for us.  

That said, if you start looking more closely at the top paddlers and gather some video of them, you’ll see that almost all paddlers pass through some common positions during their strokes to the point where, if you compared them in certain video frames, they look almost identical.  

At the catch, during the pull, and at the exit, almost all the top paddlers pass through positions where, for the briefest moment, they look almost identical.  It is how they move between these positions that gives them their own unique looking technique.

Clearly, if this the case, it makes sense that if we can teach less accomplished paddlers to find these same positions in their strokes, they will likely become more efficient paddlers, similar to, if not quite as fast as, the pros.  This is where the land drills come in.  They help us learn these positions fairly easily on land, which then makes them easier to find on the water.  Then, if we can find these positions on the water, our bodies are intelligent enough to connect the dots between them.  Before we know it, we are paddling with sound, effective, technique in a way that works best for our own unique physical tools and abilities.  

Land drills and the nervous system 

When we paddle, our central nervous system controls our movement.  When our brain says, “paddle”, our nervous system takes over and moves our body in a particular way that has been honed and refined over thousands and thousands of strokes.  We really don’t have to think of too much, other than how hard we want to go, to lock into our default stroke.  The muscles used, and the sequence they are used in to generate our movement, is almost automatic.  

However, if we want to paddle differently or change our technique’s default setting, we have to work very hard to control our movement.  It’s often a struggle not only because we are engaging in a new pattern of movement that we’re not familiar with, but because we also have to overcome the default which is our old pattern of movement.  

This is where the land drills come in.  We can move more easily into new positions we’d like to achieve on land, where balance isn’t a factor, where we don’t have to steer our board, and where we don’t have to worry about gathering water on our blade to feel connection.  If we’re trying to overcome our default technique setting, it’s a lot easier to do that on land which is a much less dynamic environment.  

Clearly, if our default technique was developed our thousands upon thousands of strokes, repetition is going to be key in overwriting this default technique and laying a new movement pattern upon our nervous system’s memory.  

Land drills work, but you’ve got to do them enough to make a difference.  You’ll need to spend at least 10 minutes a day doing them, diligently and precisely, if you’re going to have any hope of rewiring your technique or really consolidating what you’re already doing.  I actually recommend doing double that – 10 minutes twice a day – which is a small price to pay to expedite the process of learning new technique and ensuring that your new technique is as effective as possible.  

Next Month

In the next issue, I am going to start to introduce the land drills I’ve developed.  I’ll look at them one at a time, starting with the front of the stroke and working my way through to the exit.  The explanations will be detailed and precise because, if you’re going to find success using land drills, the way you execute them needs to be detailed and precise.  I’ll provide videos and step-by-step instructions and show how the position that each helps you learn is so incredibly relevant to the SUP stroke.  

In the meantime, feel free to challenge yourself and see if you can develop some land drills of your own.  Take a look at video of some of the top pros paddling.  See if you can identify points in the stroke where they all look remarkably similar even if, when we watch the stroke in its entirety they do not.  If you can identify these points and the positions you see these athletes in, it shouldn’t be hard from there to figure how to mimic those positions on land.  If you can do that, you’re well on your way to using drills on land to optimize what you do on the water.  


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