Challenges with learning a 1st roll – part 3 – Mental fitness

It’s not all in the mind, but the mind can certainly get in the way of one’s ability to roll.


Flexibility and muscle control are essential for successful rolling. When a new paddler is worried about their ability to complete a roll, they will inevitably tense their muscles and not relax. Being relaxed and calm while rolling will give the paddler the necessary time to achieve the correct posture, and in the words of Roy Martin “let the water’s fingers do their work”. The bodies natural buoyancy will, if allowed, help right the kayak as the paddler floats up to the surface. If the paddler it stiff and tense they can hold themselves in a tight tuck and not achieve the relaxed prone posture that will lead to successful rolls.
In some paddlers worry equals hurry. Worried about their ability to breath they hurry through the motions in order to get their head above water. Most people do not use good posture when hurrying rolls. They make compromises and use strength rather than finesse. Greenland rolling is rarely about strength. Slow, deliberate, yet relaxed body movements are the key.
So how can you help a new roller relax? First help them learn their own hang time. Out of the kayak practice holding their breath underwater. Do not let them push themselves too far as the consequences are bad if they become starved of oxygen. But show them how easy it is for them to hold their breath for 10 – 20 seconds, which is ample to do any roll. Then build their confidence slowly by not allowing them to rush to complete a full roll. Use a progression of learning techniques to build their confidence in their ability. Do not have them wet exit after every failure. Save them with a hand of god rescue, or better yet stand next to them in the water and just right them. You can also help them feel secure by keeping a hand on the shoulder or PFD throughout the practice so they know you are going to “save” them if they get the posture wrong.


Whether as a consequence of worry, or just a belief that they should be able to roll, many paddlers rush themselves. This manifests in two ways, first their movements are swift underwater, secondly they attempt to practice movements and rolls that are beyond their ability.
In order to temper haste I like to help the paddler progress through a defined path, and make small yet significant steps frequently. “How about we get you doing a balance brace today?”. “Let’s work on that layback recovery”, “how about focusing on sculling to help your sweep during the roll”.
The positive reinforcement a paddler feels by accomplishing a small goal can help them buy-in to a program of incremental steps towards rolling. Articulate the steps you propose and then help them achieve the first one.


Rolling is not easy. Getting a first roll is even harder. Losing a roll that once was achieved can drive a paddler quickly to frustration. Paddlers who once had a roll tend to try to relearn their roll by rolling. It makes sense to them, but unfortunately it is a hard way to recover a roll. Going back to the core practices, relearning the postures and redeveloping the muscle memory of the roll maneuvers is usually a more effective way of relearning than repetitive attempts (that fail) of the roll. It can be difficult to offer advice to the frustrated as they “know” what they are doing wrong and may not be in the right frame of mind to listen to advice however well meaning it is. Having someone observe the roll will probably identify the issue far quicker than the paddler can themselves. If you see a paddler struggling in this manner try and intervene early, the longer the frustration builds the harder time you will have getting through to them. If you have a video camera then film them failing so that you can show them on the screen the issue, then they may not be as defensive.


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 you 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.


As discussed in earlier posts, some paddlers’ bodies are not suited for some rolls. They don’t have the necessary flexibility or strength. And in some instances a paddler’s kayak setup may make learning to roll extremely challenging. Yet “damn it” they are going to roll their kayak. They don’t want to hear that they will have a tough time doing it. Similarly when their roll is not working how often have you heard “well (drop favorite coaches name) showed me this way at (insert favorite symposium)”. When someone is convinced they know the answer, and you disagree, I find the best outcome is not to focus on challenging the paddler’s position. Instead focus on a different maneuver (sometimes even a different roll) and through this practice show them the success they need to trust that you might actually be worthy of their attention. Then, maybe, you can overcome their earlier stubbornness.

Without question, becoming comfortable and relaxed with the idea of hanging upside down in the kayak, providing themselves the time to orientate their body and mind, will help paddlers get their first roll.

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