Natalie's Whitewater Kayaking Talk: What makes a great kayaker?

So, I actually thought that I had posted this back in March, but I just realized that it never go put up!

This Spring I was invited to speak at Colorado Whitewater's Fundraiser dinner. I'd never been invited to speak before so I really took it seriously. Since I was invited to speak because I competed in the Whitewater Grand Prix (see our past posts in November through January 2013), and because I’ve noticed a more popular interest by more people in “running the gnar,” I took the opportunity to share with everyone my two bits about how one gets to the level of boating you saw in the WWGP and more generally, What Makes a Great Kayaker. This talk was really geared towards class III-IV and new class V paddlers, but I think that everyone got something out of it, whether you didn't kayak at all, or already considered yourself a badass.

I ended up putting together a talk that I'm pretty proud of. It was quite fun to actually sit, think, write down, and speak about some of my philosophies about how to get better at kayaking, how to learn and become badass without putting yourself in danger.  The talk ended up being pretty long (~1hr), but I had some pretty good things to say and some humorous moments. Here is the complete video of the talk.

For those of you who would actually rather read than watch the video below, you can also access the full written speech.  You can also see the powerpoint that I used which goes along with the click notes in the written speech here.  It is really hard to see the powerpoint in the video because the projector and video camera operate at the same frames per second which gives that psychedelic rainbow effect.

Since the video is so long, here is the general outline/synopsis and what time intervals they occur in the video.    Really the meat of what I say is in the last two much shorter sections.

1. Rachel Garza talks about the whitewater family (0-2:48)

2. INTRODUCTION (2:48-16:03).
Rachel Garza Introduces Me (2:48-5:00) 
I start my talk (5:00)
You can be a GREAT paddler at ANY level of boating and that if all paddlers strive to  be GREAT instead of just running harder runs, everyone will be safer on the water.

I then introduce the framework of the talk, which is about the three attributes (in increasing order of importance) that I think all great paddlers have: 1. Skills (starts at 16:03)  2. Awareness (starts at 43:25) 3. Comportment (starts at 48:03)

3. SKILLS (16:03-43:25)
This was by far the longest portion of my talk and perhaps the most tedious.  You might just want to read this outline, flip through the powerpoint, or just listen to a few points that you are particularly interested in.  In the future I think I would try to shorten this section A LOT!
  • (16:03-19:02) Intro
  • (19:02-26:20) I go through my timeline and growth as a paddler (see powerpoint for photos, hard to see in video)
  • (26:20-26:57) My pet peeve, the question:  "How many years have you been boating?"
  • (26:57-32:17) I talk about what I have learned about how to learn, valuable lessons from my violin teacher
    • Practice Often
    • Concentrate on the building blocks and the hard stuff will be easy
    • Getting good is more about how you practice than how long you practice.
  • (32:17-42:33) I then go through some specific ways kayakers can improve their skills.
    • Spend a lot of time on the water (32:17-34:00)
    • Flatwater (34:00-37:07)
    • Cross-training (ie. playboat) (34:00-39:44)
    • Make easy runs harder (39:44-40:48)
    • Observe, visualize, DO IT! (40:48-41:48)
    • Get a Mentor/Coach (41:48-42:33)
4. AWARENESS.  (43:25-48:03) (this is basically word for word minus tangents and examples)

Everyone can become skilled if they put enough time and effort into it, but you better be aware if you want to be great. Awareness is a quality of all great paddlers and encompasses many many aspects of a day on
the water.

A great paddler is aware of their own ability, the environment around them, the paddlers in their group, the paddlers in other groups, the run, how their skills relate to the run that they are doing, the skillset of other
paddlers, the dynamics of the group, risk, the weather and ….etc.

If you want to be a safe paddler, awareness is crucial. An aware paddler is often able to recognize potentially dangerous situations and either divert them or avoid them before they happen. For example if you are aware of your ability and how it relates to the water level, run difficulty, timing and group then you will be able to make good decisions about whether a particular run is safe for you on a particular day.

In addition, aware paddlers are able to respond quickly and effectively when things go wrong, because they aren't just reacting to situations, they are anticipating them. For example, they recognize tricky spots in
the river that may give themselves or other paddlers trouble and they already know what they are going to do.

Sometimes great paddlers can be less than great when they become complacent which often leads to a reduction in awareness. Another example of a situation that reduces awareness which could lead to unsafe  situations is the mega group phenomenon. For example, during the Whitewater Grand Prix there were a lot of big names all travelling together and training together. At times, it was almost impossible to be aware of everyone so what ended up happening was an “all for yourself” attitude on the water based on the assumption that everyone was good enough and could look out for themselves. I do not recommend this approach at any time, it just isn't safe, especially if the person at the back of the line isn't keeping up.

But how do you develop awareness? Becoming more aware starts from recognizing that you are not as aware as you could be. From there you make a conscious effort to become more aware. This process is similar to deciding that while you drive your car you are going to be more aware of your surroundings by checking your rearview mirror more often and not texting. Or, deciding that you need to drink
more water during the day. Most of us would agree that we don’t drink enough water during the day, and furthermore on any given day we don’t think about the fact that we aren’t drinking enough water. But
once we start making a conscious effort to drink more water we start to notice how much we haven’t been drinking. After a while, drinking more water during the day becomes a habit and we don’t have to think about it as much.

Really great paddlers are hyper aware, but they do it almost without thinking about it, it is habitualized. By recognizing your own awareness and making a big conscious effort to increase your awareness, you will
be on your way to being a safer and greater paddler.

5. COMPORTMENT.  (48:03-56:28) (this is basically word for word minus tangents and examples)

You can have great skill and awareness, but to be truly a great paddler it matters what you DO with your skill and awareness. Ask yourself: Are you someone that other paddlers feel safe paddling, want to paddle with and respect? Does your ego or or lack of confidence limit your opportunities by turning people off from boating with you? My last criterion for being a great paddler is having great comportment. Comportment is a bit of an old fashioned word and fairly out of style, but encompasses such qualities as style, behavior, outlook, attitude, conduct, bearing, approach, and demeanor.  Having good comportment is probably the hardest to achieve since it requires you to reflect on and possibly change your own attitudes and behavior, which is never easy.

For a paddler with great comportment, a run is never “too easy”, “lame” or “boring” for them, they are up for challenges, but know and respect their own limitations. They never feel pressured to run or not run a rapid due to the opinions of others and may choose to walk when everyone else is running it, or they may run a rapid when everyone else is walking it. Either way they aren’t running or not running a rapid to “prove” anything or to make a point but rather because they felt their decision was right for them in that moment.

Typically other paddlers don’t feel pressured by these paddlers to do or not do something, but rather are encouraged by these paddlers to takethe next step or are supported by these paddlers when they decide to play it conservative. It is really fun to paddle with these types of paddlers because if you are less skilled then them you never feel like you are a burden on them, you sense that they are enjoying themselves even on easier runs, and you respect their opinions about whether or not you can step it up and run a harder rapid or if you should walk. On the flip side, if a paddler with good comportment is not as good as you, they are still fun to paddle with. You don’t have to worry so much about them making peer-pressured decisions that may not be good for the entire group and at the same time they won’t sell themselves short and will be up for a challenge. They are fun to show new lines and tricks to because they will try it out whole heatedly without too much self judgement or second guessing.

Paddlers with good comportment generally have a good time being on the water and are focused in the now. They are never just doing a run so that they can say they can brag about it. They are never embarrassed about their own skill level and they are never resentful about slowing down.

The comportment challenge for less skilled boaters is about being confident of your own skills, whatever they may be. Some beginners feel pressured to run harder runs before they are ready which can lead to some bad experiences that completely turns them off from boating forever. Other boaters may feel pressured to get on harder runs/rapids in order to “get better” or “get a good picture” or “show them that they can hang” and to do this they mislead fellow paddlers about their ability level.  This can lead to some potentially dangerous situations since most paddlers will assume that you are being truthful about your own self evaluation of your skills. If you are this type of paddler, word gets around pretty quickly that you are “joe shit show”. Pretty soon it becomes much harder for you people to paddle with, especially on the harder runs.  Once you get this reputation it is really hard to shake it, even if you do get better. You might as well be honest from the start and own your skill level. Be proud of being a beginner (or intermediate) that wants to advance to the next level. You will end up getting much better advice and some more advanced paddler may even want to take you under his or her wing and help you get better.

On the flip side of that are the paddlers (typically more women) that play down their own skill level. They typically say things that marginalize their own paddling ability. These paddlers may say things like “Well, I’m not as good as you” or “I could do that, but…”, “I wish I could do that, but I just don’t have …”, “Do you think I could handle… (even though internally they know they can)” These paddlers are expressing their lack of self confidence in a different way than the first group of people by underplaying their skills so that they won’t be put in a position to “disappoint” the people they are around. They are so afraid of inconveniencing their fellow paddlers that they have trouble getting better and advancing to new runs, even if those new runs are well within their grasp.
In this case, these paddlers need to start practicing some self-aggrandizement. At least internally they should start saying, yeah, I’m the shit, I can do that! And then they need to show the paddlers around them their confidence in their own skills. No one likes a whiner or a wall flower. Be confident of your ability level.

The challenge for advanced paddlers is to recognize that you are never “to good for that”. Advanced paddlers with good comportment enjoy easy runs and often use these opportunities to improve their own basic skills (like their forward stroke, etc), enjoy being outside, or show others what they know. These paddlers recognize that just because it is easy for them, it may not be easy for others. It is important to recognize that putting off a run or rapid as too easy may make others feel inadequate if they think it isn’t easy. However, although it is nice to be inclusive, having good comportment isn’t about being accommodating. Another challenge for achieving good comportment is to be the one tell the paddler who isn’t ready for a run that they aren’t ready and to take the time to challenge themselves on hard runs without becoming inaccessible to up and coming boaters.

Having good comportment at its root is about being truthful, confident, self-assured and assertive, yet at the time being humble, non-judgemental and respectful of others. It isn’t easy. I struggle with being confident, self-assured and assertive with paddlers at a similar or higher level than me and at times I admit to having dismissed runs as boring or not worth it. I still have a lot to work on to become a great paddler and I figure that most people do.

6. CONCLUSION and QUESTIONS (56:30-end)
"Kayaking can be fun and safe at all levels from flatwater to V+.  If you want to become better, at times you will need to raise the bar and step it up, but that doesn't mean that you have to be unprepared when you do. 

Redefine your thinking, becoming a great paddler isn't just a linear trajectory from beginner to intermediate to advanced to great.

I challenge everyone to be less focused on running the hardest stuff that they can and more focused on becoming great at whatever level you are currently at: Build your skill set, become aware, and comport yourself well.  We will all be safer and have more fun because of it."


  1. Natalie, thank you so much for this speech! I've recently started paddling and had some doubts about my "slow" progress on the flat water but your thoughts made me think a lot and encouraged me in working on my confident "flat water" self. :) Thanks!

  2. Cool! Keep paddling, you'll get there. I spent 17 years as a kid learning to read water via rafting. getting comfortable on the water takes time!


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