A friend recently called me, frustrated and wondering what was wrong with his paddling. In the past, he had kayaked class IV to V rivers, but demands from his business had cut his time on the river to nothing for the last four years. Determined to pick up the sport again, he found a couple partners, and launched onto a solid class IV run on which he used to feel comfortable. It was a nightmare. He used the wrong strokes, caught edges and flipped. He thrashed until out of breath then swam. Frustrated, he felt he’d lost every skill he ever had. He’s a smart, self-made business success, and accustomed to learning easily. However, whitewater had been difficult for him and the skills symbolized a slow, hard-won struggle. Failure hit him hard. “Will I ever be able to paddle again?” he asked me.

Whitewater kayaking can present surprises where suddenly all your hard work and practice seem to vanish. Your bomber roll doesn’t work. Fun and confidence quickly become frustration and even fear.

This is a common experience and happens to excellent athletes and intelligent people. The good news is that it is relatively easily dealt with once you understand the dynamic nature of how your skills are learned and retained.

My friend’s struggle illustrates what few people understand: the fragmentation of already learned skills. This is distinct from “forgetting.” Fragmentation refers to the breakdown of our skill into the subparts we originally practiced while building technique. The skill literally falls apart. This can happen from over-practice, insufficient rest or a paddling hiatus.

Jumping into a situation that is too difficult—like my friend’s class IV run—is the worst thing you can do. The overall skill is already fragmented into sub-skills, so the difficulty forces mistakes and you cannot resurrect the moves you need in the moment. Every mistake generates a cascade of errors and in the worst case, a total break down of technique.

Fragmentation of learned skills can be reversed by reinstating the original practice schedule. This creates a process called consolidation, the opposite of fragmentation. One can reverse fragmentation in some simple skills, after periods of one month to as long as 15 years, in one practice and rest cycle. Research has shown that after 28 years of not doing the simple skill, people regained 100 percent of their prior performance levels with just two practice and rest cycles. Anything you practiced is fully retained regardless of time elapsed, but you have to reinstate the practice schedule to see it.

Whitewater kayaker Trevor Sheehan low braces in a creek boat in a rapid wearing a white Sweet Protection helmet and using an Adventure Technology paddle. | Photo: Tyler Roemer
Whitewater kayaker Trevor Sheehan low braces in a creek boat in a rapid wearing a white Sweet Protection helmet and using an Adventure Technology paddle. | Photo: Tyler Roemer

Of course, whitewater kayaking is not a simple skill. Consolidation and fragmentation take longer due to its complexity, but the principles are the same. For easy whitewater skills, performance can be regained in a few outings, while many outings or even a season are required for higher level skills on difficult whitewater.

Fragmentation that occurs with non-use degrades skill. This is not “forgetting.” Coming back to the sport after a lapse, you need to reinstate your technique, reflexes, and judgment by doing a graded sequence of runs, carefully practicing all the basics. Learning is not static; it is always changing.

In particular, the roll requires the coordination of at least three dissimilar, difficult to time and coordinated sub-skills (paddle slash/sweep, rolling hips and knee engagement), done in an awkward, upside-down position. Rolling is uniquely prone to fragmentation, and so it is typically the first skill that disappears.

However, your skills are never lost, they are just abiding, waiting for you to reinstate them. Each spring, take care to reverse any fragmentation that occurs by non-use. Or if you come back after a decade, don’t despair, because all of it will return. Be especially careful to reinstate your roll. It is the key to safety and fun. The roll allows you to make mistakes and get flushed, but pop back up to try again.

No other adventure sport comes so loaded with learning as our game of flow with the rivers of the world. Your learning is as dynamic as the river, which is precisely why we can leave the solid world behind and find such joy adapting to the new fluid one.

Doug Ammons is a world-class kayaker, PhD in psychology, author and speaker. He is known for making the first solo descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine. Learn more about Ammons here. 

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