40 thoughts on teaching rolling

Learning to roll was the first challenge. Learning to teach rolling is the second and current challenge. Every training session provides as many learning moments for me the trainer as it does the trainee. The following forty thoughts represent some of the things this training season has taught me so far.

Keep them safe
1. Group size
One-on-one training is ideal, it allows a singular focus and does not require you keeping an eye on other trainees while focusing on developing an individual. Given that most of the time group training is more likely, it is important to put rules in place with the group prior to going afloat. Having too many people in a group will cause boredom to set in and you can lose control of the paddlers who may then put themselves in harm’s way. When working with an individual make sure to ask the others to watch and learn and talk to them about what is working and what isn’t. Those paddlers observing are resting their muscles, which is important, as it is unrealistic to continually roll for a couple of hours. I have found three paddlers to be an ideal number and aim to spend about 10 – 15 minutes with each person in rotation.
2. One paddler in the water at a time
When working with paddlers who lack a consistent roll it is important to understand you are responsible to keep them upright. If you expect people to do a wet-exit and recover they will quickly become exhausted. So only allow one person to be in the water at a time. This does not mean others can’t be afloat; just don’t allow more than one to be performing the current exercise. When working with competent rollers establish a buddy rule. If people are going to roll without you present make sure one of the other trainees act as their buddy and be prepared to rescue them. Ideally though still stick to only one person in the water at a time.
3. Be ready to recover them
Stay close to the trainee. At first always be in contact with them directly. I like to hold onto a shoulder strap of their PFD. Alternatively be in contact with their kayak. Holding onto a deck line gives you a quick way of applying force to the kayak when needed. Deciding which side of the kayak to stand on will depend upon the exercise you are teaching as well as the roller’s competency. Standing on the opposite or setup side provides the easiest position for a hand of god recovery, but gives you the least visibility and it is very hard to adjust the rollers body from that position. Standing behind a paddler can help recover them into the layback position as you can drag them flat before righting the kayak. The larger the paddler, the more critical your position can be. Remember you need to protect your own body as well as the roller’s.
4. Be deliberate and calm
As a rolling trainer you will have to rescue and recover many people many times. The first few times you need to recover a trainee it can be more than a little bit exciting. Remember your routine, don’t rush it, do it deliberately. Practice in advance with a buddy so you can quickly recover people from either side using Hand of God or similar techniques. With some learners it is useful to build their confidence by making the first thing you do with them a Hand of God recovery just to show them you will be able to take care of them.

Mental aspects
As important as helping the trainees to develop the physical aspects of rolling, by learning the correct body mechanics, it is important to get the mental aspects of rolling and training right.

5. Listen to what they want
As a trainer your job is not to train them to do what you want the trainee to do, it is instead to help the trainee learn what it is they want to learn. Sometimes this may be highly ambitious or outright impossible to achieve in the time you have (or ever) but if you don’t ask and then listen you won’t have a hope of meeting their expectations.
6. Learn what they think they can do
It is also important to what they think they can do. I used the word Think deliberately. In my experience people rarely accurately describe their own skills. The majority of male trainees I work with overstate their competencies, mainly in terms of reliability. Be careful of how you ask the questions. “Can you roll?” is a very poor question as someone who managed to roll up once two years ago may answer yes. Probe a little and find out how they learnt, what worked for them, and when was the last time they were training or rolling.
7. Have them demonstrate first
Assuming the trainee(s) have some prior skills have them demonstrate them. This has a few benefits, it allows you to witness their current skill level, and it also demonstrates that you are not ignoring their hard won pre-existing talent. There is little worse than the arrogance of an instructor who takes everyone back to basics because it is their way or the highway. Learn to build upon what foundations exist before you make the tough decision to tear down the house and rebuild from scratch.
8. Reset expectations
People are coming to you to learn because they don’t know how to roll. So it is not all that surprising that most people will not have a realistic expectation of how much progress they should expect to make. After you have listened and seen what they can do make sure to set some realistic goals for the session and share it with them so you are both working towards the same definition of success.

9. Maintain physical contact
It really should come as no surprise that most people are nervous when learning to roll. They are after all in a snug fitted torpedo about to stick their head underwater, where they won’t be able to breath, and attempt to get themselves upright again, with the assistance of a stranger. One of the most reassuring techniques I have found is to remain in contact with the trainee continually at the start of sessions. In #3 I suggest holding their PFD as a quick recovery technique, and this is also a very reassuring feeling for the trainee. It forces you to stand very close to them, probably in a position they can see your smiling face. It allows them to feel and see your presence continually and helps them to establish trust that you are there to help them recover from this crazy position you just put them in.
10. Provide (floatation) support
Until someone has learned that they can float, or brace, or scull for support they tend to assume they are going to sink and drown. Rather than allow them to prove themselves right and thus reinforce the “issue”, help them overcome their nervousness by ensuring they do actually float. Don’t let them submerge and get a nose or mouthful of water. Keep them on the surface by supporting them either through their pfd or shoulders, or by supporting the kayak.
11. Practice hang time
Rolling unfortunately does require people to go underwater. Eventually the trainee is going to have to hold their breath and go under water. Rather than do this in a kayak, consider doing this while standing in the water and help people understand that they can remain underwater for 20- 40 seconds without passing out. Once they have discovered this out of the kayak, repeat it again in the kayak with you acting as support and helping them recover. Transferring the knowledge of their hang time into hang time in a kayak can help them slow down their attempts to roll and decrease the panic reflex.
12. Consider the order you teach skills
Speak to the trainee and find out what causes them to be nervous. I recently taught someone who was nervous of the seemingly simple act of lying back on the kayak. When you understand the cause of concern consider ways to either develop confidence or alternative motions. Can you practice this on land or in shallow water? Is it possible to teach in a different sequence to build more confidence in recovery before asking them to put themselves in the position of concern?

13. Talk calmly
If you are not relaxed and calm your trainee will not be either. A calming, soothing voice reiterating instructions and offering encouragement will help relax the trainee. Be consistent in what you are saying. If you keep changing instructions confusion can set in. Keep it simple. Keep your voice tone moderated. Remember to reinforce what is right just as much as explain what is not working. Staying calm even when rescuing someone is important. Rescuing someone who is panicking and tense is significantly harder than someone who is relaxed. Talk to them calmly, asking them to relax and allow you to rescue them, but remember to tell them what you need them to do to help you. They don’t know how to help you, they just want to be out of the water as fast as possible.
14. Provide support
Providing physical support as described in #10 can help people to relax. Take for example people who have tension in their neck. This tension will probably result in their chin going to their chest and their head lifting up. Try putting your hand behind their head and asking them to relax their neck and let you support it. As you provide them support you can help them to relax and thus allow their bodies to float. When people experience the situation they are more likely to believe they can float and achieve the balance you are trying to get them to establish.
15. Massage out the tension
Even when you tell someone to relax they may remain tense because they don’t actually understand how to relax the muscle yet still hold the position you are asking them to hold. If you are working on a static brace as an example and the paddler’s arm holding the paddle is tense they will slowly sink the paddle. If talking to them doesn’t get them to relax then try touching the muscle you want them to relax. If that doesn’t work and you have tried #14 by supporting the body then try massaging the tension out – get their permission first though.
16. Practice floating
Many people do not appreciate the negative consequences of tension in the upper body. Perhaps they do not understand the impact tension has on one’s ability to float. Sometimes the best way for people to learn this is to experience it directly themselves. Get them out of their kayak and ask them to float. Talk to them about how their body feels and how relaxed it is. Then have them tense up and try to float. This can also be a good time to demonstrate and experience the effect of getting the shoulders flat on the surface and demonstrate the negative effect of raising the shoulders on ones buoyancy.

17. Don’t meet it with your own stubbornness
People who have rolled, or already have received some instruction may have a preconceived notion of how they are going to roll. If you combine this prior knowledge with the right personality you can end up with a very stubborn person who does not appear to be listening. If you meet this personality with resistance and attempt to force fit your way over their way you will be unlikely to succeed and probably end up alienating the roller. I recommend going back to #5 and #6 and spend a great deal of time listening and learning about them.
18. Try their way
When someone has the answer, but the answer isn’t working out the way they expected I find it best to let them start their way and show me it fail. Then rather than explain why their way is wrong, start by identifying all the points that are correct. And then propose small changes to make to address specific elements that can “improve” upon their skill. Remember to stroke the ego rather than poke it. Help them realize for themselves what is going wrong rather than telling them.
19. Watch, learn and fix
People are not dumb. When a roll doesn’t work they know it doesn’t work. You don’t need to tell them. But what you want to do is make every roll a learning opportunity for people. Tell them what you saw happening right and the effect this had, and explain what you saw wrong and what its effect was. When someone keeps repeating the same mistake despite having had it explained, then they are probably misunderstanding the way you are describing the problem or the method of fixing it. Try using a camera to record the motion and then playback instantly, and freeze frame on the specific problem area. Once they have seen what they are doing try halting their roll at that point and moving their body into the correct position before they continue.
20. Provide reasons to try alternatives
Some people won’t change just because you ask them to, or tell them to. Some people need to understand why the change is necessary. Demonstrating correct and incorrect body posture and showing the effect can be a powerful way for those learners that need to understand why. Take the time to discuss the mechanics, physics and fluid dynamics of the roll so they appreciate the reason behind the request.

21. Start by understanding expectations
If your understanding of what the trainee is trying to accomplish aligns with theirs you are more likely to have a positive outcome for both of you. Without this alignment, frustration can set in if you take the student down a path they don’t want to follow.
22. Address probable outcomes upfront
As discussed in paragraph 5, above, many people have unrealistic expectations of progress. Try stating upfront what you think you will be able to help them achieve in the time you can devote to them. And remind them of the complexity of what they are trying to learn. Provide them examples of the amount of time and effort other people have needed to achieve the desired outcome.
23. Positive affirmation throughout the training
There are many stages we work through when learning to roll. Many different movements have to be learned. Celebrate each one. Each success celebrated will feel like progress. Do not ignore any improvement. Use positive reinforcement at every opportunity to build confidence in the trainee. Success breeds success.
24. Finish by describing progress you see
After every training session take the time to reinforce the trainees’ learning by describing how they started, and what changed, what improvements you witnessed. Encourage them to work on repeating those successes before they push to learn more skills.

Physical aspects
Prevent injuries
25. Warm up
As a trainer it is your responsibility to help teach in a way to minimize the risk of injury to the trainee. Cold muscles are more likely to be harmed through over extension or over exertion. I use either on-land exercises or a brief paddle as a way to warm up people’s muscles. Have people show up a few minutes early and have them warm up and stretch.
26. Stretch
Once muscles are warm it is important to stretch them. Most people are not routinely engaging in activities that move their bodies through the range of motion that rolling puts one through. A few simple yoga based exercises can help decrease the body’s tension and resistance to movement, making it easier to get into the crazy positions necessary to roll.
27. Over extension
When learning to roll it is easy for people to place themselves in harm’s way by over-extending their arms. This generally will place their shoulders at risk. As with braces, try teaching the standard roll with elbows tucked in close to the side of the body. If you see the paddler’s arm ending up reaching out to the side at the end of the roll this is an indication that the shoulder is at risk. Usually this can be addressed by training the paddler to fix the position of the pivot hand against their chest and not letting it cross their body. Similarly train people to end rolls with their paddle perpendicular to the kayak for layback rolls. If the paddle goes behind them they are more likely to place their shoulder at risk.
28. Over exertion
Some people react to challenges with aggression and displays of strength and speed. Neither strength nor speed is going to help someone learn to roll well. Don’t get me wrong, a can-do attitude is helpful. But fighting with the kayak and water will not get them rolling well. I frequently see displays of strength as a kayak rockets upright with a massive heave on the paddle. The paddlers may feel victorious but it is not a sustainable way to roll. The opportunity to damage the vulnerable muscles and ligaments around the shoulder is large. Additionally the paddlers rarely recover into a position that will provide them any stability, increasing the likelihood of a rinse and repeat cycle if any wave conditions exist.
Different personalities react differently to challenges. I have had some luck with people who are motivated by challenges. Phrases like “I bet you can do that slowly” make them see rolling the right way as the challenge, not just getting up.

Demonstrate, manipulate, state
29. On land demo
It is often hard to explain verbally what is happening to the paddler’s body during a roll. It is often intimidating to try and move their body while they are in the water. By first showing them the body movements yourself on land, and then having them try them on land it provides you a safe environment to help start the process of training their muscles to go through the correct motions.
30. On water demo
Showing people afloat how to roll can be valuable. I have found that it is critical to slow the rolls down as much as possible. It is also much more valuable if you can demonstrate in clear water so they can see what you are doing underwater. I rarely teach from within my kayak, preferring instead to be standing alongside the paddlers. However, demonstrating practice maneuvers and rolls is the one time I found it invaluable to get afloat with them. Just as valuable as showing what the correct technique is, showing common errors can also be useful. Showing the effect of not keeping your shoulders flat, or lifting your head can both be good comic relief during a rest period.
31. Move their body into position
Despite demonstrating on land, on water, practicing on land and then describing the motions, some people are simply not going to do the right thing. Many of these people are greatly helped if you can help manipulate their bodies into the correct position. Always ask for their permission first. Be aware of the amount of force you are using and make sure that you do not over extend or rotate them beyond where their muscles will let them move.
32. Learn language that works, explain it simply
Over time you will find language that works and language that confuses. During one session I kept asking a trainee to raise their knee to flatten the kayak, this thoroughly confused them as they thought I meant squash it. When people are doing the wrong thing despite being asked, it is quite often because they don’t understand what they have been asked to do and hence it usually comes down to the language you have used to describe the action you want them to practice.

Propose safe ways to practice
33. Training doesn’t end with the lesson
Once a trainee leaves your session your work is not done. Invariably they will attempt to replicate their progress the very next time they get afloat. You should arm them with advice on what sequence of maneuvers to attempt and what aspects to concentrate on. Keep it simple; no more than five key points to focus on.
34. Water depth
Many of the practice moves I teach for rolling can be done in very shallow water. This can provide a safer environment for the beginner to practice once they leave the safety of your session. Water shallow enough to support themselves with their hand on the bottom will give them the confidence to practice static braces, for example, yet allow them to recover without the need to wet exit. Clearly though, if they are practicing rolling fully they should be shown how to use their paddle to ensure there is sufficient water depth to roll without hitting their head on the bottom.
35. Floatation
Remind them to wear their PFD. Show them how to use their paddle float if they don’t have an avataq to use for training.
36. Buddy up
Safety can be dramatically increased if you suggest they only practice their maneuvers and rolls in the company of someone who has the ability and confidence to rescue them should they fail. Many people as soon as they have rolled once have a boost in their confidence. Make sure they understand they still have a long road to travel down until they have a confident combat roll that will actually be useful as a recovery tool. They are not ready yet to practice alone.

Adjust to the body type
37. Core rotation
Lack of flexibility to rotate their core can prevent many paddlers from getting their shoulders flat on the water. This will prevent most people from holding the static brace with just a paddle or hand. Similarly it can make a sculling brace hard too. In these situations teach first using a large float like an avataq and then move to half rolling in a dynamic manner. Attempting to get them to break the roll down and try to float in the middle is unlikely to result in success. Teach a good setup and recovery and leave the middle of the roll to a strong sweep.
38. Back bend
If people are unable to recline into the layback position due to either their back being inflexible or their kayak design, then consider if layback rolls are even appropriate. Consider putting them in an alternative kayak with a low back deck or instead try teaching them a forward finishing roll.
39. Over weight
Significantly overweight people can struggle to move their bodies into many of the positions necessary to roll well. A large gut can prevent a low setup and core rotation. Also the paddle position will be substantially higher if it is held up over a large chest. This can change the paddle angle dramatically and will require a longer paddle potentially and different training for hand movements throughout the roll.
40. Fragile
Be very aware of any pre-existing conditions. Prior injuries and weaknesses should never be overlooked wherever they are on the body. Shoulders, arms and hands are obvious points of concern. Keep an eye out for thigh, knee and leg injuries, and pay special attention to back and neck injuries. If someone has a pre-existing condition consider if the roll you are teaching is likely to exacerbate the problem. Is there a safer, more appropriate roll to teach? Should they be trying to roll at all?

I am sure there are many more thoughts that will come to me as the season goes on. I hope these first 40 will help you to transfer your rolling skills to others in the sprit of the Inuit. Remember, rolling should be fun, as too should be teaching rolling.

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