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Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

 Like in any other skill-based activity, it takes time to become a “good” paddler.  There’s a lot that goes into paddling at a high level, regardless of which discipline you do.  The level you attain is a function of the time and the quality of the work you put into it.

Gladwell’s 10,000 hours

 You’ve probably all heard of Malcolm Gladwell who, in his bestselling book “Outliers: The Story of Success”, postulated that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to become an “expert” in whatever it is that you are doing.

While I think that 10,000 hours is a wildly random number, I do agree with the notion that it takes a very long time to achieve excellence in anything.  I just don’t think you can quantify exactly how long it takes to gain a level of true expertise in anything.

What’s wrong with 10,000 hours?  Well, for starters, consider that not all activities are created equally.  Some are pretty mundane.  Others are extremely complex.  Gladwell makes no allowance for differences in the complexity of activities.  Obviously, the more complex the activity that you are trying to master is, the longer it is going to take to achieve that mastery.

Secondly, Gladwell makes no allowance for that fact that individuals doing activities are all different.  Human beings are unique, each with their own talents, strengths and weaknesses.  Some people are faster learners than others.  Some people are more suited to learning intellectually and others physically.  There is no way that everyone is going to learn a particular complex skill at the same rate.

Lastly, Gladwell makes no allowance for how an individual that is trying to learn a skill is being coached or taught.  This can make an enormous difference in the rate of learning.  The most important thing when learning a new skill is that you are in fact learning how to do it properly.  It you’re being taught how to do something wrong, it’s going to delay your quest for excellence.

So, though the notion of 10,000 hours is catchy and sounds impressive, it’s nowhere near a scientific estimation of how long it takes to be an expert in anything.  The best we can say is that if you really want to gain a high level of expertise in something, you’d better be prepared to put the time in.  There are no shortcuts and, for complex activities that involve a lot of skills to master on the way to expertise, the time required can be very long indeed.

Paddling is a complex activity

 Let’s consider paddling.  It is a highly complex activity.  Excellence requires mastery of a wide variety of skills and a very high level of strength and fitness.  None of this can be accomplished quickly.

Let’s start by considering the technique involved in the forward stroke on a SUP or in a racing canoe (these motions are very similar).  Excellence involves mastery not only of a complex movement but the ability to feel “connection” to the water gathered and held on the blade.

I’ve written a lot in the various articles you’ll find on this site about technique and connection, describing the principles of both and how to become better at both.  However, what I’ve probably been remiss in describing is how complex it all really is.  The basic forward paddling stroke, done well, is a unique sport movement that, in my opinion, is much more difficult to master than other sport movements that are similar in the way they rely on, and begin with, the hips and legs to produce power.

SUP technique involves gathering water on the blade and securing it in place, then using body weight and big muscles to pull yourself to and ultimately past the paddle.  When you read “big muscles”, you should immediately be thinking of the center of the body.  The hips are the biggest, most heavily muscled joint in the body and, like in so many other sports, they drive the movement of the SUP stroke.  It’s worth taking a minute to consider a few other sport movements that are driven by the hips moving first and generating the bulk of the power:

  • Golf swing
  • Batting in baseball or cricket
  • Throwing (baseball, football, etc)
  • Volleyball serve
  • Tennis serve
  • Soccer kick
  • Hockey slap shot

These are all sport movements that can take a considerable amount of time to master.  However, there are two things that, in my opinion, make a forward SUP stroke in flat water much more difficult to master than any of these skills:

  1. The paddle stroke involves using an implement as an extension of the body and establishing connection with it, against a fluid, moving medium, to propel yourself forward while standing on something inherently unstable.Every other skill listed above involves standing directly on land, except hockey, in which you’re standing on skates on land.  There are virtually no stability issues involved when executing any of these motions.

Furthermore, every other skill involves throwing or hitting a projectile of some sort rather than trying to pull yourself forward through a fluid, freely moving, medium.  While there is a considerable amount of complexity to using an implement, like a bat, a club, or a stick to cleanly contact and propel a projectile (especially if it is moving), none of these activities involve trying to hold water on the implement in order to pull yourself forward.  We all know how difficult it is to hold water in our hands.  Well, it’s similarly difficult to hold it on our paddle blade to the degree required to propel ourselves through the water at an expert level.

  1. Every sport motion listed above requires that the hips move to generate power and then each motion involves a “follow-through”, which is a fairly natural continuation of the force producing movement generated by the hips.However, paddling is different.  It is the only sport movement that I can think of that requires the hips to stop moving and actually change direction during the production of force rather than simply following through in the same direction of movement.  It is also the only movement that is not a “one-off”.  Unlike these other movements that are one-time, isolated events, paddling is a cyclical movement that requires us to repeat the movement again and again and again.  This necessitates that, at some point in the movement, we need to reset our motion and reposition our body so that we can do the movement all over again.

When we gather water on our blade at the catch, we generate force in the loading phase by simultaneously rotating our hips and thrusting them back towards the tail of the board.  Our legs bend and our upper body collapses onto the paddle in follow-through motions that add force and body weight to the forces generated by the hips.  To this point, our paddling movement is pretty similar to these other sport movements.

However, we quickly reach a point in the stroke where the follow-through movements of the initial hip movement are no longer productive in moving us past the paddle.  Our hips cannot move back any further, and it is no longer effective to bend more at the waist or bend our legs any more.  Even though there is still a gap between our feet and our paddle that we need to close by pulling ourselves to it, that fact that the “loading” movements are used up and that we need to start considering how we’re going to get into position for the next stroke dictate that we need to find a new way to pull ourselves this remaining distance.  This is something that I’ve been referring to my writing as the “unloading” movement and it requires that the hips actually change direction and move towards the nose of the board in order to continue to generate force against the water held on our blade.

This change of direction is the single most difficult thing for new paddlers to understand and master because it is counter-intuitive to every sport motion that we have learned since we were kids in Phys. Ed. class.  It makes the simple forward stroke much more complex than any of these other sport movements.

Now that we’ve considered the complexity of the simple forward stroke in flat water, consider the fact that we need to be competent at using it on both sides.  Of all the sport movements listed above, only a soccer player or a switch hitter in baseball is required to perform mirror image movements from both sides.

Then, consider the wild variety of conditions that we need to use our stroke in.  I used to think that my C1 canoe stroke was a complex movement.  However, I was only ever required to perform it on the right side in reasonably flat water.  On a SUP, at some point you’re likely going to need to use your stroke in upwind and downwind conditions of varying size and intensity, in side chop, and in surf.  Just the balance alone required to use the stroke effectively in these varying conditions can take years to master.  Then you’ve got to consider all the various sub-skills specific to paddling or surfing in these conditions, like making your board go where you want it to go, that need to be learned and mastered.

The point of all of this is that paddling is a very complex activity.  It’s going to take you far longer to become “expert” at it than it might many, many, other sport activities.

Don’t forget about fitness

 If you’re going to become an “expert” paddler, you’re not only going to have to master the technique and skills mentioned above, you’re going to need to be fit enough to use them, repeatedly, for the period of time that you’re on the water.

Whether you’re a racer or a recreational paddler, lack of fitness can be a limiting factor in your ability to use the sport specific skills you’ve been trying to master.  It can even limit your ability to learn these skills in the first place.

The only way to develop the fitness necessary to be “expert” is to spend time at it.  First and foremost, you’ve got to put the work in on the water.  The nature of this work isn’t always the same as the work required to develop effective technique.  Often, a high level of paddling fitness can only be developed after basic skills have been mastered first.  As with technique, there are no short cuts to fitness.  It’s simply a question of putting quality time in.

Fitness development is rapidly accelerated by doing complimentary work off the water, either as land-based aerobic work or strength training.  However, this too takes time.

The point of all of this is that it can take a very long time to develop the fitness and skills of an “expert” paddler.  And so, instead of saying it takes 10,000 hours, we should say it takes “repetition, repetition, repetition”.   We can also say it takes “patience, patience, patience”.

So how long does it actually take?

 Again, this depends on the paddler and the type of paddling you’re interested in doing.  If you have no desire to ever paddle in the ocean, there are less skills you’ll need to master and it will take you less time to become an “expert” at the paddling you aim to do.  There is no firm definition of what “expert” entails.  One person’s definition of expert might differ from another’s.

We all learn at different speeds and we all learn different skills at different speeds.  Furthermore, the process of learning is never linear.  There are fits and starts to the process of learning.  Skill development can seem fairly rapid for a while and then suddenly hit the wall as you encounter a skill that, for no apparent reason, is more difficult for you.  There is no hard and fast answer to the question “how long does it take to become an expert?”.  You should be prepared for an ongoing process of skill and fitness development that can last for years.

It surprises me that this is something that many people find discouraging.  We live in a society that has, somehow, grown to expect instant gratification.  Many people start activities like paddling with unrealistic expectations about how quickly they can get “good.”  But I ask you, isn’t it better to start something that requires hard work to succeed and a lifetime of learning skills that you never truly master, then it is to do something easy?

If paddling were as easy as some people would like it to be, everyone would be vying to be world champion.  Where’s the fun in that?  If anyone can do it, what’s actually special about it?  This is my 50th summer of paddling.  Does anyone honestly think that I’d still be so enthusiastic about doing it if there were absolutely nothing left to learn?  What makes it fun is that I am still learning and getting better, and I’m 60 years old.  How good is it to be able to say that about anything at that age?  Having something that you enjoy doing and that provides you with the opportunity to still learn, or at the very least improve, is both a gift and a privilege.

Embrace the process

 My message to everyone in this post is simply to embrace the process of learning and improving.   Accept that there are going to be ups and downs and that getting “good” is a long journey that never really stops.  Celebrate the smallest gains and recognize that even small gains often take a very large amount of work.  Embrace failures as a necessary part of the process.  You don’t have to like failure, but appreciate that failures have value.  Failures are learning opportunities, and that makes them a critical part of the process.  Lastly, if you’re a racer, don’t ever take yourself too seriously.  You can’t win all the time and if you do, you’re in most cases just a big fish in a little pond rather than someone who experiences the joy of swimming in the ocean.

Paddling is an activity that can provide you with a lifetime of learning and satisfaction as you develop new skills and achieve new goals.  Make the most of it.

Happy paddling!



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