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Planning and Visualisation for Whitewater Kayaking

When kayaking, have you ever had this experience, or one similar?

You commit to paddle a rapid and get into your boat. You signal to your team that you are good to go and you paddle out towards the point of no return. From the moment you enter the whitewater your world speeds up. Everything happens in a blur. Any element of plan is out of the window. Features whizz past, you put in some paddle strokes but who knows where. Once at the bottom you attempt to recall what happened and find you have total amnesia of the whole thing from the moment you started.

If the answer to the above question is yes, then perhaps you could benefit from techniques around planning and visualisation. What is happening here is that as you descend the rapid, your brain is being overwhelmed by the number of new images and feelings coming at it. The speed of the changing environment is faster than your brain is able to compute and adapt to. It can't process anything properly, and then when its over you wake up and wonder what has happened. Here, we are always one step behind the environment. The antidote? We have to get familiar and get ahead of the game! The more familiar we are with the rapid and what it will be like to paddle it, the less new information there is and the easier it is for your brain to keep up.

To make a good application of the techniques we are going to discuss the following will be helpful:

- Ability to read and interpret the whitewater on the rapid. - Experience of being on similar whitewater before.

- A strong enough forward paddle stroke to get yourself where you want to on the rapid.

- Ability to develop a plan for your run of the rapid that you think will work!

Within a team of kayakers, scouting, planning a descent, covering safety and paddling a rapid can be happening simultaneously.

Scouting to get ahead of the game.

When we scout a rapid we have two aims; Check for hazards and plan our descent (safe and fun!). The first of those aims can be met pretty quickly, assuming we have a level of experience of reading whitewater and know what to look out for. How we tackle the second aim is what will make the difference between a shambles, and a run where we feel in control and can remember with pride.

The first step is to make a plan for your run that gives you a succession of clear targets to aim for, the last of which will be the goal-point where you can relax- you've done it! It is helpful to identify your goalpoint first, and work back up the rapid from there. Try to identify big features on the rapid that will be recognisable from river-level. Your targets are where you will be focussed on, so need to be where you want to go- not where you don't want to go!

Try to keep it as simple for yourself as possible. If you're looking at a short rapid of less than 25 metres (a swimming pool length), your plan shouldn't need more than 1 or 2 targets along the way. Finally, don't forget to factor in your entry point. Is your boat already conveniently positioned in line with where you want to begin the rapid, or will you need to target your entry point too? If you've scouted well, you will have read the whitewater on the rapid and given yourself an easy to follow set of instructions to get to your goal point. This process will familiarise you with the rapid, and for some, this will be enough to help you style it. If its a complex rapid with one or two critical paddle strokes however, we may need to work a bit harder to get familiar before taking the plunge.

Jamie Greenhalgh with his hand out, using the 'ghost rider' method to visualise his line.
Ghost Rider visualisation in action on the Upper Bhote Koshi


Visualisation is a really great way for paddlers to build their familiarity with a rapid, with their plan, and prepare them for how it should feel as it happens. This becomes especially useful when it comes to rapids with complex lines, confused currents and critical paddle-strokes.

Method A: Ghost Rider (3rd person view). Get to a position on the bank where you can see the whole of your line down the rapid. Now use your imagination to input a ghost version of you onto your view and watch as they style your line. Ghost you never fails. You can help yourself to do this by reaching out and putting your hand into the frame and using it to signify where ghost you is as they paddle the rapid from top to bottom. The hand can also show which way the boater will be pointing and how leant over they are at any time while riding the terrain down the rapid.

Method B: Golden Eye (1st person view)

Golden Eye visualisation can help you nail the critical stroke

For this, you need to imagine what it will be like to be in the rapid and paddling your line. Getting to a position where you can see down the rapid will help, but isn't always possible. Imagination is key and it may help if you shut your eyes. This does two things. Firstly, It builds a picture of what the rapid will look like as you paddle it, making it easier to recognise and focus on your targets. Secondly, It gives you the opportunity to physically rehearse any critical paddle strokes, as if you are a shadow boxer. This technique is very popular for planning waterfall descents, where pass/fail will boil down to how you execute one stroke. If you're not a waterfall paddler, no worries! This technique is still really useful for every day river paddling, where certain well timed paddle strokes will give you the advantage when pushing through an eddyline, skipping over a hole, moving through a change in flow etc. Visualisation can help you to build a better picture of what executing your line will look and feel like. This means by the time you hit the crux of the rapid, you will know what to expect, and your brain can stay ahead of the game. When you finish your paddle having felt in control the whole way down, you'll thank yourself for putting in the extra effort on planning. There are a few other things that breed familiarity with whitewater: - Watching a demonstration, either live or on videos.

- Doing a rapid multiple times.

- Go kayaking more! The more you paddle, the easier it is to 'read and run' whitewater. Go out, enjoy, and let your imaginations run wild!

By Jamie Greenhalgh


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