Advanced slalom techniques – what makes the difference?

Is there really any such thing as advanced technique or is it perfecting something through 10,000 hours of practice as suggested by Malcolm Gladwell in his excellent book ‘Outliers’? All these Olympic athletes have reached this 10,000 hours level in a kayak or canoe. Gladwell’s book also helps me understand why most World & Olympic champions are in their late 20’s because at that point they have reached 10,000 hours; Michal Martikan winning senior World’s C1 at the age of 16 was the exception. So much of advanced technique comes from that incredible comfort zone from being at one with the boat (kayak or canoe) and familiar with whitewater, no more so than in C2.

Richard Hounslow’s showing strong boat control at Lee Valley (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

Advanced slalom paddlers use their balance, body weight and the water itself more than the less experienced paddlers. They carve into eddies on the edge seam of the boat thus accentuating the turn and maintaining a higher boat speed. This requires good balance or edge control as we would call it. At other times, with straight forward paddling the boat is kept absolutely flat so that no energy is wasted rocking from one side to the other. The boat is also kept very flat on boils, which is water with lots of air bubbling up from underneath. Boils are common on artificial courses and are very unstable on which to paddle. On downstream gates in eddies the front of the boat is lifted and a C2 can use 150kg of weight in the boat to force a change in direction through a dramatic pivot turn. Elite paddlers have become masters of letting the water do the work for them rather than battling against it.  There are smart ways to use the power of the water to assist in spins or ferry gliding by using river features like stoppers or standing waves.

As the Olympic slalom paddler goes across the eddy line into the breakout their weight will be forward so that the upstream current in the eddy snatches the front of the boat faster and the boat turns much tighter. As these elite paddlers exit any upstream gates they are very quickly back on the power with a higher stroke rate to get the boat in the current and back up to speed. The classic definition of a breakout implies the paddler enters and exits on the same side, however, there are two exceptions 1) an upstream gate behind an obstruction in the middle of the current, particularly where the ideal exit is on the opposite side to the entry. This can be negotiated as a ‘S’ gate, describing the path the paddler makes going through the gate, entering from one side and exiting the other 2) a Merano upstream is one where the boat is paddled between the bank side pole on an upstream, then spin and enter the upstream gate line from the far side.

Again, I would refer to Scott Shipley’s excellent book ‘Every Crushing Stroke’. I particularly like his comparison or description of the Fox offset (stagger), Shipley offset and Ratcliffe offset, recognising that different paddlers have developed different paddling characteristic styles. Richard Fox was smooth,clean, crisp with a flat kayak, always passing through the centre of the gateline, whereas Paul Ratcliffe  ducked and dived around the poles. Advanced paddlers maintain excellent momentum at all times.

Using the back of the stopper wave to cross the current (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

The Olympic paddlers will have totally memorized the course in their heads and before they cross the start line they will already have planned down to the individual stroke. This is through the use of mental imagery. They will imagine themselves paddling every gate on the course, not dissimilar to a tennis player or golfer practicing the serve or swing in their head before they actually make it. You can either imagine yourself doing it through your own eyes, or seeing yourself doing it from above or feel yourself doing it (called kinesthetic imagery), where you imagine what it will feel like to do that particular body movement and the sensation of the whitewater hitting your boat. If you watch paddlers examining the course or at the start you will often see them with their eyes shut doing exactly this. Their bodies will often be moving accordingly as they run through this perfect mental rehearsal. Richard Fox was potentially one of the best at this, before he started he already knew how many strokes and how many seconds it would take him to complete the course and on asking him once at Nottingham he was maybe 1 second and a couple of strokes out against what he actually did. Stunning! Sadly and particularly on whitewater it doesn’t always go to plan. Here the Olympic paddlers thousands of hour of practice come in as they adapt very rapidly to a plan B until they can slot themselves back into the original mental rehearsed plan A.

We can assume the paddlers at the Olympics are all at the peak of their fitness, we can assume they have all done 10,000 hours in a canoe or kayak and so all have advanced whitewater skills and technique so there is little to choose between them. So what will make the Olympic champions? First, the Olympics are like no other event. At Worlds, World Cup, European Championships the only people there in general are those deeply involved in the sport, athletes, coaches, managers, officials, parents, spouses etc. At Olympics this is so utterly different. They are paddling in a 12,000 seater tiered stadium with the World watching. Those few athletes at Lee Valley this month who have competed in a prior Olympics since 1992 and those that medalled which is approximately 11 athletes are at an advantage because it will not all be new to them. Second, the Olympic champions will be those who can deliver the ‘Ultimate Run’ according to their own mental rehearsal plan or can adapt so quickly that they do not falter from their plan. There will be top paddlers who for a split- second are pushed off their intended plan by an expected wave or a touch on a gate and will lose their focus and mental plan. They will finish but not deliver their medal winning run. One exception comes to mind; Richard Fox hit gate one in the 1989 Savage World’s and accelerated so much through the rest of the course he won by 5 seconds including a penalty!

Great edge control and balance on a cross (photo courtesy of Michael Barnett)

After the course has been set, meaning the exact positioning and sequence of gates on the whitewater, the paddlers have no opportunity to practice on the course. This means that visualisation is all the more important, watching other classes paddle the course, detailed discussion with coaches and watching video have become much more important. One tip on working out the best route down the course is to start examining the course from the finish and work your way up from the last gate to the start. The paddlers and coaches will analyse the set course stroke by stroke looking at how the water flows around the gates and the effect this would be expected to exert on the boat. Split times are used so that they can analyse the best options and understand how specific paddlers are either gaining or loosing time on an individual section.

As suggested yesterday there are some great resources now available to learn including the BCU Canoe Slalom Technique Library videos. Peter Terry’s book ‘Winning Mind’ is excellent and also ‘Stress & Performance in Sport’ by J Graham Jones and Lew Hardy.

Tomorrow’s post will look at the appeal of canoe slalom to photographers and some tips on obtaining that perfect shot.

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