Turning competition from stress to fun in whitewater kayaking

An introspective based on 16 years of competition to help motivate more paddlers, especially women, to consider competition as a fun avenue for self-improvement to push their skills. 

This blog is cross-posted on Kokatat's team blog titled: Motivations for competing in whitewater kayaking

When I first started competing in 2005 it was fun because I had no expectations for myself with regards to results - I just did it for fun. Then, I spent many years competing in whitewater and feeling really stressed about it. I would enter competitions with high expectations and invariably be disappointed in the results. In 2019, I finally started having some fun competing again by being more intentional with my practice and more fully present with those who surround me. I am now able to experience the joys of focused improvement and share in the joys of others’ successes. And, results have followed. In this blog I use my own maturation as a competitor, as well as informal conversations with my fellow boaters to generalize about what makes competitions stressful or fun. My hope is to motivate more paddlers, especially women, to consider competition as a fun avenue for self-improvement to push their skills. 

My maturation as a competitor in portraits. Left: 2008 US Team Trials, 23 yrs old, boating for 4 yrs, portrait by Leif Anderson. Center: 2012 Whitewater Grand Prix, 27 yrs old, boating for 8 yrs, portrait by Wes Schrecongost, Right: 2021 NorthFork Championships, 35 yrs old, boating for 17 yrs, portrait by John Webster Copyright NFC.

I have noticed that over the last decade, despite more and more women paddling harder whitewater, the numbers of women competing in whitewater races have remained small (generally 1-5, almost always <10), although there seems to be a resurgence with the opening of the women’s division at NFC (North Fork Championship) (30 women in the Qualifier). In 2019, at Unleashed in Quebec, I competed with one other woman. Since there were only two of us, we simply decided to compete within the pack of 30 or so dudes, rather than having a separate two person women's class. This was my first experience after more than a decade competing against so many different people and the experience was vastly different and much more positive and fun than competing against only a handful.

I don’t expect all women to race. All men who are capable of racing don’t race either. But, I do think that proportionally more women opt not to race than men. To better understand why this might be so, I started asking both women and men around me two questions 1. Why do you race (or why not)? and 2. Do you have fun racing or do you find it stressful? Interestingly (and anecdotally), most women that I asked found racing stressful (a main reason why they don’t want to race) while most men found it to be a fun way to interact with friends. Most men replied with comments about how they are racing for personal improvement or because it is a social event to connect to the paddling community. Most women replied with comments about how they felt pressure to do well, to represent their gender or were psychologically hampered by an expectation or obligation to race. Based on my conversations, I came up with the following synthesis.

Competition will be stressful if you:

  1. Compete to win (or some other specific result)

  2. Compete to gain acceptance

  3. Compete out of obligation

Competition will be fun if you:

  1. Compete to to reach a goal and then achieve that goal

  2. Compete for social interaction (especially with friends)

  3. Compete for personal improvement

This was really informal sampling, so there could be a bit of bias in who I asked, but it made me ponder about how the number of competitors influences motivation in whether or not you compete and how much fun you have with it. 

When you are one of only a few competitors in a race class, you are always competing to win, whether you want to or not. Quite simply, you are either the winner, or the loser (if you ain't first you're last, sometimes literally). It sucks. It is much harder to compete for self improvement because you can not get lost in the pack and you always feel like you are the center of attention. Most growth happens when we challenge ourselves and allow ourselves to fail, because it is in the failures that we learn the most. It is very hard to focus inward on your own growth and be accepting of your failures when you feel like everyone is looking at you. It is also hard to use competition as a measure of your own progress when there aren’t that many people to gauge your progress against or push you harder.  Having a drive to do well in competition is a powerful motivator to practice hard and can lead to the largest improvement in skill. This is much easier to do if you have fellow competitors who are actually nipping at your heels. 

When you are only one of a few female competitors (or the only one) you sense that your performance matters so that all women can gain acceptance as being capable of paddling. You feel both a duty to compete and pressure to do well to represent your gender. This also sucks. When you mess up and swim as a woman, you become “the girl who swam”. When you mess up as a man, it's just “Jack swam”. Your screw-up as a woman is not tied to you, but to your gender at large, thus your mess-ups become a bigger deal in your own head. This is a reality that we face as women in group settings dominated by men, not just during competitions. It is simply easier to identify us with our gender than our name when referring to us. One year, I cataloged all the swims during a Whitewater Grand Prix event, not just the swims by the women in order to highlight that the best men were also swimming.

The bottom line is that I think that competition would start to become more fun for women if, quite simply, more women competed. This makes it easier to have ‘fun’ motivations rather than ‘stressful’ motivations. 

Here are some further ruminations and suggestions on how to replace your stress inducing motivations with healthier fun motivations that are based on my own experiences.

Focus on your practice, not your results

Take the pressure off ‘winning’ and engage yourself in smaller scale, easier, informal, or frequent fun races (e.g the “icebreaker” in Golden Colorado, and Gnarrows Race in Fort Collins, Colorado). Prior to a race where you really want to do well and have good results, give yourself space and time to make lots of mistakes and to learn from them. For example, prior to the Little White race in White Salmon we have a few months of informal races on the race course where a stop and end point is designated for a specific day, then everyone who wants to go out and gopros it and posts their time on a facebook group. There are no prizes or anything. This is really fun and low pressure and gets you working on race lines and studying other peoples’ lines. This could be as simple as getting a few friends to gopro a section of river on the same day. Sheer volume of practice can help too. When Andi Brunner visited to come race the Little White he stayed for five weeks and had 68 laps on the race course prior to the race.  I couldn’t help but be inspired. During his short stay, Andi logged more laps on the run than I have in two years living 20 minutes away. By the end, he knew what his race time was within a couple of seconds on a ~15 minute race. This made race day really fun for him because he knew exactly how he was going to perform beforehand.

After some focused practice, I surprised myself by placing first coming out of the qualifiers for the North Fork Championships, Idaho in 2021. Here I am on my way to a 2nd place finish in finals. Photo by Leif Anderson.

Set process-based goals leading up to a race rather than result-based goals and then achieve them! A process goal would be something like: I am going to get 3 practice laps per day every day before the race. Or: I am going to visualize the entire race course every time before I practice it. The outcome of a process goal is entirely in your control. The outcome of a result goal (like getting first) is out of your control and the results will depend on the actions of others. When you set process goals, you will notice that you feel really good about yourself when you achieve them. As a bonus, process goals will often set you up for success and the results will follow.

As a female, I have often felt demoralized by my results-based goals. Since there are often only a few females competing, there is almost no measure of gradual improvement - no small steps up the ranks and no background of other competitors to tell whether my competitor had a standout good/bad performance or if there was a change to my own skill. When there aren’t many other women competing I find that I am either much slower or faster than the other female(s) so instead of comparing my times to other women, I compare my times to the guys. I am often disappointed that I was much slower than guys who I felt that I should be even with, skill-wise. The only conclusion I have been able to draw from this is that for a woman to be faster than a guy, she does have to have more technical skill to overcome a power difference in raw upper body strength. Darby McAdams told me that you should subtract 10% from your time and then compare that to the guys.

Find acceptance off the race course

For many years throughout my twenties, I competed partly to gain acceptance among fellow paddlers as a ‘good’ paddler. It was tough because I wasn’t already well acquainted with my fellow races. I wanted to make a good impression, and in my head my performance was tied up with that. The unfortunate side of this is that acceptance really isn’t gained through your performance, but rather your enthusiasm and kindness and openness and interactions surrounding the race.  It's a lose-lose situation, because even if you paddle really well and win, you're not necessarily accepted, you're just a stranger that beat them, and it's not fun to be beaten.

Because I didn’t end up competing, I found it easier to interact with others during the 2014 Whitewater Grand Prix in Quebec, which made it more fun to compete with some of the same people in future events.

Acceptance and friendships are built in the conversations you have with your fellow athletes off the race course. The tough part is that when you link your performance with acceptance, you become so wrapped up in your own head that it is much harder to interact with others in an open and interesting way because you are more concerned about your own performance than finding out what is interesting about your fellow racers. So, when you are paddling for acceptance, it is actually much harder to feel as if you are accepted. 

As someone who isn’t much of a partier, I also didn’t use the looseness of the after party to nurture any relationships or to engage in chit chat about trips or paddling goals. I was secretly pleased that the 2018 Unleashed in Ottawa/Quebec was cancelled at the last minute because I was then able to relax and simply enjoy paddling and getting to know some of my fellow female competitors that I hadn’t been able to connect with during other events (see Stakeout with the gals). As the years went by, I have slowly been able to get to know my fellow racers through interactions outside of competition. I have paddled with them informally and have started to get to know people on shuttles and small backyard gatherings. This has been huge for me, because now when I race I don’t saddle my need for acceptance with my race performance. I already feel ‘accepted’ as a human through my other interactions, and so the race is now simply way more fun. And, if a friend beats me, I get to celebrate their success with them, not just feel bummed about my ‘failure’.

If you struggle with this, I encourage you to get a bunch of friends to race with you. You will feel less anxious about your performance and how others will perceive you because you are competing against people who already accept you for who you are off the race course. Try not to dwell on your performance after the race but instead engage with others. Get to know your fellow racers by showing interest in learning about who they are, not just as a racer but as a person. You will make friends this way and in the future, racing against that person won’t feel as stressful if you know them a little. And heck, that awesome person you struck up a conversation with (and maybe ended up losing to) might just invite you on a paddling trip and open doors for you in the future because they enjoyed hanging out with you (it didn’t matter that you missed your line and got trashed in that hole during the race).

Avoid competing for obligation

Sometimes I have entered competitions because I felt obligated to. Obligated to sponsors, or Leif (my partner), or my gender or to future generations. I have experienced over and over that when I am feeling obligated, my motivation to practice is low, I have high expectations of myself and my performance ends up being mediocre, leading to feelings of disappointment. Furthermore, the whole experience just feels like a chore that I have to get through. Competing because you genuinely want to versus because you think someone else expects you to is a vastly different experience.  

Andi Brunner, pictured to the left of me and my family, is an inspiration for me. He is always so genuinely and positively excited to race for himself that it is highly motivating for me to want to race and to prioritize finding the time to focus on it myself.
In the past few years, I have listened more closely to make sure that I don’t sign up for a competition when my heart is not in it. If I find myself using the phrase "I should..." it is a red flag for me that I might be doing the competition because I think others expect it of me and it is time to reflect more closely on what is motivating me to compete. Just this year, I was on the fence about both the Little White Race (ended up first) and the North Fork Championships (ended up second). About a month before each race, I noticed feelings of obligation surrounding them. First, I gave myself permission to not race. Then I monitored my feelings up to each event. For the Little White Race, I was motivated by my fellow racing friends, especially Darby McAdams and Andi Brunner. Both of these amazing people were so fired up about the race that their infectious enthusiasm was too hard not to catch and my feelings about the race went from obligation to a desire to have fun with my friends and to see what I could do after a season of improvement from paddling the small Ripper. 

For the North Fork Championship I was feeling like I wasn’t really in shape and I was feeling pressure to compete due to my sponsorship and to show-up for future generations of women. However, what I really wanted to do was an overnight expedition with close friends. Instead of training for several weeks before, I decided to fulfill my need for the overnight and I pulled up stakes, drove to California, and ran Upper Cherry with one of my best friends from college. Coming into the event already having my soul fulfilled made it much easier and a lot more fun to settle into and focus on racing the North Fork. The trip helped to get myself into a state to be wholly present for race practice, not wishing I was someplace else. As a result, I had a blast practicing the gates and felt that the race was an avenue that was forcing me to become a better boater. I also had fun being there with my fellow female paddlers who really showed up en masse. It was fun for me to support them and to feel supported by them. My finals race could have been better, especially if I had more practice time, but I was happy with my decision to do Upper Cherry because it allowed me to be more grounded, present and focused for the practice that I did do. The final race ended up being a very accurate portrayal of where I am at as a paddler and how much time I spent focusing on the race course. There is always room for improvement and I am currently feeling motivated to schedule more practice time next year!

An impromptu paddle last year with several women who may beat me this year while I defend my title. May we paddle many laps together this coming Spring and double the women’s class (last year it was four)! Photo by Leif Anderson.

If you participate, it will make it easier for another less confident woman to also join the fun. Let’s grow the sport together and revolutionize the women’s class with sheer numbers of participation!


  1. This is so awesome Natalie! Great article for guys that scared themselves off from competition for similar reasons as well

  2. This is awesome. I’m not a paddler but it definitely applies to open water swimming!


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