Jonathan Males In the Flow is a very personal book; it examined my own relationship with canoeing. I suspect it is also a very personal book for Jon too. However, this is no autobiography.
The book provides explicitly relevant insights from an accomplished expert, role model and friend. Males has explored Self-Confidence in a easy to remember way. He describes the four Fundamentals; Mastery Motivation, Decision Making, Execution and Teamwork. The book is a must read also in that it presents a paddlers insight as well as guidance for coaches and parents. The inclusion of attributes, warning signs and learning questions each add great value to the book.
This 2014 book is beautifully illustrated with photography by Antony Edmonds, Rob van Bommel and Deb Pinniger and benefits from quotes from the absolute elite among Paddlesport. Buy this book for no other reason that to read what these Olympic, World and trail blazers say about our wonderful sport.
I couldn’t put the book down and read every page. I will refer back to it again for sure. Personally, I am already aware that my own identity is strongly tied to canoeing. I will have to ask Jon what exactly this says about my 44-year old self! Canoeing has opened a thrilling world to me. I have visited the most inspiring places in the world and paddled alongside so many inspiring friends.
I studied Peter Terry’s 1989 book The Winning Mind on mental preparation techniques. Now though we have a performance psychology book specific to winning in canoeing and kayaking.
Thank you Jonathan. This is a tremendous legacy to share with us. We are all richer for your dedication.
Today, a short review of how the Olympic canoe slalom boat designs have changed through the history of the sport.
First, I have been asked about the significance of the name of last night’s post, my Ultimate Run. ‘The Ultimate Run – Canoe Slalom at the Highest Levels’ is the name of Bill Endicott’s iconic book, written back in 1983. The phrase ‘Ultimate Run’ has become adopted by paddlers worldwide seeking that performance excellence and perfect negotiation of the course. As an aside, the Ultimate Run eBook has been created by daveyhearn.com with the permission of original author William T. Endicott.
Boats for this elite Olympic level competition are made of either carbon or a mix of carbon and aramid (often recognised by the name Kevlar), mixed with an epoxy polymer resin. The vacuum construction means a higher percentage of fibres and less resin and so less weight and greater strength. These fibres have a very high tensile strength to weight ratio. Foam sandwich construction in between layers of carbon or aramid fibres is used to further increase the stiffness of the boats. Each new Olympics tends to drive the advancement of the boats to meet the nuances of the newly constructed artificial course.
The ICF rules of canoe slalom define the specification of the boats, and the length of the kayak and canoe classes has reduced. The kayak length has reduced from 4 metres to 350cm and this has caused the sport to evolve with an increase in the difficulty of the courses that can be set and accomplished. As described yesterday, the boat can be pivoted around by sinking the stern under the water even easier than in the older 4 metre length kayaks and as you will see it is possible to do an upstream red and white gate on just one stroke, which looks sensational. For the paddlers and the manufactures the shorter lengths have meant that the boats are a bit less vulnerable to damage, use slightly less material (less weight) and it is easier to put the inside seams in. With modern carbon construction it is quite feasible to manufacture the kayak less than 9kg. The boat is made up to the 9kg minimum weight by adding extra under the seat. This causes the boat to spin faster than it would do than if the weight were evenly distributed along its length. The boats will be weighed at the end of each run at the Olympic Games, to ensure that emptied of water they meet the required minimum weight. The C1s are 350cm in length, 65cm wide and minimum 10kg, while the C2 is 410cm long, 75cm wide and minimum 15kg.
There have been key individual athletes that have contributed to the advancement of boat and paddle design like Richard Fox or Michal Martikan. Michal paddles a C1 with a very high rocker design called the Martikan 07, which many other C1 paddlers find insufficiently stable, however, this suits Michal’s paddling style. A key component to defining the best boat (kayak or canoe) is the weight of the paddler. A 80kg paddler will need a different volume boat than a 55kg paddler to provide the same forward paddler speed and responsiveness in turning.
In respect of paddle design and in a similar way Michal has evolved a specific paddle design called C1 Martikan! Some kayak paddlers use a cranked or Double Torque shaft which is not straight and is believed to reduce the strain on the wrist and allow greater pull. The paddles are all made of carbon which is stiff, very light and transfers the power to pull the boat towards the blade.
This is a far cry from the boats of the Munich Olympic in 1972, when canoe slalom made a single appearance on the Eiskanal in Augsburg. Not until La Seu d’Urgell in the Spanish Pyrenees did canoe slalom reappear as part of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. At one time boats were folding until 1963 when boats constructed of chop strand mat fibreglass or nylon, before the introduction of woven polyester fibres such as Diolen. Boats were heavy, usually over 65 pounds (30 kilos). With the advent of aramid and carbon fibres from the 1970s, the ICF reduced the width of the boats which could now pass underneath the gate poles.
Tomorrow we will preview what is to come at the spectacular Lee Valley Whitewater Centre starting on Sunday.
I paddle on to the conveyor and up to the start where I sit in my boat with my eyes shut running through every gate from start to finish, stroke by stroke, wave by wave, all the way to the finish. All is quiet and I have shut out the thunderous noise within the Lee Valley stadium. This is just another run on another set of gates on another day. I am calm. I hear the starters instructions and wait at the blocks in the centre of the start pool. I hear my number and three, two, one, go. I wind up to full pace and explode through the start beam just hearing the reassuring bleep as I accelerate down the first drop and into the course. My stroke rate is high. The line is good, the boat is dry, I feel the wave nudge the edge of my boat and react with the timed stroke on my left as planned to run down the back of the wave into the pocket above the sequence of green and white gates.
My deep powerful sweep stroke on my left brings the bow round and the high stroke rate, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight brings me right into the gateline of the next gate. I sense losing the sun for a split second as I come underneath the bridge and down the main section of the course.
I cannot see the eddyline of the upstream below the gate but I have already picked out a point on the bank to aim for as I commit myself to Big Ben. The boat drops away, I lean forward and reach and the boat is snatched by the upstream current. I watch the black ring around the bottom of the upstream pole two inches from my left shoulder. I feel my whole arm tense as the boat whips round on one stroke, how I love these shorter boats. The boat feels balanced and in control. I reach through the gateline, put my weight forward to catch the downstream current and straight back out. I pull as hard as I am able to accelerate my boat back up to speed, one stroke, two stroke, three strokes, four strokes bringing me exactly to the next gate as planned. Now, I lean back, edge and push the blade hard away from the right of my boat to bring the front up in the air and round, thumping down in the exact line for the middle of the next gate.
I approach the next drop inches away from the blue block at the edge, I lean back drop my blade in on the right near the back and feel the boat plane downstream into the eddy. I concentrate on keeping the boat running flat and straight so that it does not spin out into the eddy. I am in control. I run straight through the gate and a quick series of forward strokes brings me back on the line.
I nail the next breakout pinning the gateline exactly where I wanted it. It feels like a hot sunny day training on the river with the fun double upstream gates. I accelerate with six rapid strokes, with the last on my right, edge my boat and smoothly surf across the wave and edging the boat the other way as I approach the crest of the wave, the boat drops in 30cm below the outside upstream pole. I plant my blade and pull as hard as I can. The boat pulls up towards the paddle, I slice away, lean back, feel the whole tail of the boat sink, bringing the boat around. I quickly bring my weight forward so that I am in control and not the water and focus on my line for the next stagger sequence of gates.
I spin the boat on the crest of the next wave, to drive in on the ideal line, I plant the boat exactly where I had planned and with a little upstream edge I am able to use the stopper wave to carve the boat towards river right, quickly switching to a subtle downstream lean and powerful bow draw so that the boat doesn’t turn out and lines me up to turn above the next gate so my boat is already heading back across the river to the next gate even before I have negotiated the one now rapidly approaching me.
I am on plan A, I am not undecided and weighing up option A or B. My plan is fixed and I am where I expected to be. I am dry. The boat feels light and dances over the waves. I can feel my heart racing. One more upstream, river right with a trickier approach. I drop in tight to the wall in the calm water, I push my paddle directly off the side wall of the course, drop my right shoulder away so I have enough space between my PFD and the pole, as I need to exit out tight as the very last gate, downstream, is almost right behind me. The water here is less stable and can hold on to the back of my boat, I tighten my brace on the boat with my thighs to maintain control of the edge.
I feel energized. The familiar pain is burning in my arms. As I cross the gateline of the last gate I am struck by a face full of water. Too much to ask to finish without getting wet! I feel strong and I have enough left to accelerate the boat up to speed. I remember to keep my body fully upright, good posture, powerful strokes, boat flat just to the edge of the waves and keep going and keep going, pushing on the footrests. Now I am conscious of my coach’s voice, team and 12,000 other voices screaming. I lean forward, hear the beeeeep of the finish beam and I am done.
Yes!!!!! Perfect, clear I am sure, I have never know what the ‘Ultimate Run’ would feel like. That felt pretty close. I look up to the see the time.
Today we continue the theme of looking at the different roles of those that make Olympic canoe slalom a success. We focus on the role of the Judge and explain in more depth the rules of canoe slalom.
Like many aspects of the sport it too has evolved since canoe slalom reappeared in the Olympic programme in 1992. At the same time the rules of the sport have changed with the length of the boats becoming shorter, penalties changed from the old 5 second penalty to 2 second penalty after the Sydney Olympics and most recently a black band has appeared around the base of each pole to allow the judges to more easily distinguish the base of the pole from the water behind it. The rules also allow a gate with a single pole suspended above the water. The second inside pole would be found hanging over the bank at the side of the course. Video technology is now employed to allow examination of video replay to ensure penalties are justified. This is managed through a Technical Video Service who have cameras mounted to relay back video images to a section of the Scoring Office. This is independent of any commercial TV coverage.
The overall race is governed by the ICF Chief Judge and jury who have final control of the race. Top level experienced international judges watch each paddler down the course of gates to determine whether the paddler touches the gate poles and also correctly negotiate the gate. There is a 2 second penalty for touching a pole, irrespective of how many times or whether one or both poles on the same gate are touched. A 50 second penalty is awarded when a paddler fails to correctly negotiate a gate, for which there are several potential reasons, but are effectively game over for the paddler on that run. In the heats there is a second chance as qualification is based on the best result from the two runs, in the semi-final which is only one run, a 50 second penalty will mean the paddler fails to qualify for the final or immediately miss out on a medal. The paddler must ensure that their head and part of the boat pass through the gateline simultaneously, once only, in the correct direction. A 50 second penalty can be awarded if the paddlers boat but not their head of body pass through the gate, or if their head and none of the boat, if they are upside down as they pass under the gateline, miss a gate entirely, deliberately displace the gate to allow negotiation or hit a subsequent gate, e.g. gate 12, before attempting gate 11.
The gates are marked as red and white (upstream) or green and white (downstream) together with a number board identifying both the numerical order of the gate and the side from which it should be approached. The back (wrong side) of the gate has a red line through the number showing that correct passage is from the other side of the gate. The position of the gate is firmly fixed to ensure they are unable to move between paddlers. They are also weighted a little so that they are less affected by wind, as it is tougher for the paddler to cleanly negotiate a swinging pole than one that is motionless. Poles can on occasion be set in motion by the water for which the paddler is not penalized. The whitewater can though cause the boat to bounce up under the pole and therefore the paddler needs to keep their boat balance and paddles upright to avoid any touches. As noted in a previous post, Richard Fox had a classic style of always passing through the centre of the gateline while Sydney Olympic medallist Paul Ratcliffe had a known style for ducking and diving around poles, which Scott Simpson described as too high risk for most athletes.
Analysis of canoe slalom has previously shown that penalties are more common on the bottom portion of the course as the paddler’s lactic acid builds and one penalty can often knock a paddler off their mental rehearsed plan and sometimes more than one penalty is seen in short succession.
Penalties are communicated by the Gate Judges using a yellow disc or card marked with a figure 2, and red card or disc marked with figure 50. The judging duties are spread amongst a technical team of Gate Judges and Transmission Judges along the course and relayed through keypads, headsets and paper back to the Scoring Office. On complex gates there could be multiple Gate Judges all who have a different view of the gate. There is a very sizeable technical team of officials working behind the scenes, which also includes the timing team.
The Chief Judge signs off on the official results. The paddler’s equipment is also checked at the end of each run against the requirements, ensuring that the boat meets the respective minimum weight requirement and that the PDF and helmet meet the standard.
A National Federation Team Manager can announce an intention to submit a protest on behalf of a paddler in his national team, then providing in writing clear explanation as to why it is felt that the penalty is not valid. This is reviewed by the Chief Judge who may refer to the Video Judge. Appeals (which are rare) may be submitted to the jury if the rules are disputed but not against matters of fact. The decision of the jury is final. The full ICF rules can be accessed through the ICF website www.canoeicf.com .
To win a medal the paddler needs to be fast and likely clean, meaning no penalties. As the run times have continued to get shorter the possibility to win or medal with a 2 second penalty is very remote. The Canadian Doubles, C2, presents a unique challenge for the Judges. Both paddlers must successfully negotiate the gate without either paddler touching the poles. It is amazing to see these big boats cleanly negotiating tight upstream gates with precision.
Tomorrow will look at the resources available at the Olympic Lee Valley venue for the national teams. Comments welcome here on @gregiej on Twitter.
The coach plays a pivotal role in supporting the athlete towards that ‘Ultimate Run’. However, this is not a short term partnership as the coach and athlete will have spent years working together to hone their performance. Each of the major nations competing at Lee Valley starting on Sunday has strong management and coaching support teams, who have been working for years to develop future paddlers towards podium finishes.
The sport has developed significantly since it reappeared in the Barcelona Olympics. At that time Great Britain had a strong heritage of World Championship medal performances and important developments in the quality of coaching. In 1992, the more affluent nations already had the availability of basic video cameras for video analysis. This is an area that has subsequently developed considerably in the last 20 years together with harnessing sport science to improve top level performance. One technical innovation was the use video analysis. “Dartfish software now helps us analyse and review our video footage” says Nick Smith, Technical Coach C2 Class, Podium Programme at GB Canoeing. Campbell Walsh, Olympic Silver Medallist from Beijing described how he has been using Dartfish for many years in both training and races to help choose the best lines and boat positions on the river. “We heavily use the split screen head-head function and slow motion with different racers to determine which lines are proving to be the most consistently fast. The differences in angle or position are too often too subtle to notice if we didn’t have this ability to watch both simultaneously and at a slower speed. We will use video clips from the demonstration runs before I race and use myself verses rivals in between my 2 competition runs. Then we look at the fastest on each section after the race as part of the review and learning process. In training, when I will complete the same sequence of gates many times with different techniques, I often using the split screen with the option of watching up to 4 clips on head-head to help understand the differences and determine which was faster”. Some examples of this technology can be found on YouTube or through the Sportscene website.
At a more basic coaching level the coach is able to walk the course that has been set and discuss how the water moves through the gatelines and the likely options or key strokes necessary to complete. In training the paddler can then run down the course, with the coach providing them feedback on what they actually did versus the ideal. Split times of different paddlers on one specific sequence of gates can be used to uncover where some paddlers are making up time or to evaluate different options. Again, in training the coaches are able to set a course of gates to challenge and test the paddlers.
At the national team levels, the coaches are invariably ex-elite paddlers themselves. The GB Podium coaches are led by Jurg Gotz, the Swiss national team member 1974-1984 who has coached paddlers at all 5 of the last Olympics. He heads a team of technical coaches: Paul Ratcliffe, Sydney Olympic silver medallist; Mark Delaney, Barcelona & Atlanta C1 paddler who coached David Florence to silver in Beijing and Nick Smith, Sydney & Athens C2 paddler. London2012 will mark the fourth Olympic Games led by GB Canoeing Performance Director, John Anderson MBE. Beyond the technical coaches the team is also supported by an extensive group of performance lifestyle advisor, strength & conditioning specialist, programme manager, physiotherapist, sports psychologist and performance analyst. Nick Smith added; “We gain an uplifting feeling of helping these athletes culminate years of work and preparation for the biggest event in our sport.”
Many of the coaches at a club level are ex-paddlers or parents of paddlers. The UK has an extensive club coaching scheme and network. The role of the coach involves hours standing on cold and wet river banks. Russ Smith, National Competition Development Coach for Canoe England and who himself won a gold medal in the K1M team event at the 1987 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in Bourg St Maurice said; “As to the opportunities for coaching slalom I believe that the Olympics being in the UK will open up our sport to a whole new batch of potential paddlers and coaches/parents. The spectacle of whitewater slalom being seen either live or via TV beamed straight into the home is truly a sight to see. For those who would wish to get involved in coaching try the UK Home Nation websites (below) or more information on slalom coaching can be obtained through http://www.canoeslalom.co.uk/info/slalom_coach_ed_programme.htm. Jimmy Jayes, a British National Champion in the 1980’s and a prominent figure in slalom coaching commented; “The technical knowledge of the coaches and athletes is still the deciding factor in performing well. This needs to have been made 100% solid in training and previous races and then carried over to be automatic for the BIG EVENT!” Nick concludes by describing what will make the Olympic medallists; “As usual in our sport, a bit of luck with the water but over and above is a calm head and ability to deliver on the hardest of whitewater courses.”
Tomorrow’s post will look at the role of the Judge in canoe slalom and describe more specifics of the rules of the sport. Please comment here or via @gregiej on Twitter.
The atmosphere of canoe slalom comes alive through excellent live race commentary.
Your live race commentators for London2012 at Lee Valley are Andy Maddock and Kev McHugh. They did an exceptional job commentating together with Richard Lee at the test event last year, and then at Great Britain team selection at Lee Valley in April. They provided great commentary for the first World Cup race at the Cardiff slalom course last month where David Florence and Richard Hounslow secured a win in the C2, and David in C1. The commentary makes such an incredible difference to the excitment and feeling at these competitions.
Andy and Kev have years of experience in the sport, both being part of the Team GB Sydney 2000 canoe slalom as specialist technical coaches. Andy is the Canoe Slalom Program Manager as part of GB Canoeing and was the Technical Advisor for the design of the Lee Valley course. He was Head Coach to GB Junior & U23 Canoe Slalom and has just recently returned from the Junior & U23 World’s in Wausau. Both Andy and Kev were top Prem paddlers in the 90’s.
The commentators will have several pieces of technology at their disposal to provide you the best live race commentary. First they have a good view of much of the course including the finish, supplemented by Technical Video Service camera feeds from along the course, so they can watch the paddlers down. Their computer screens will show the running time of each paddler and whether they have incurred any penalties. They will also see a split time on the course to know whether the paddler on the course is up on the paddler with the leading time. Kev and Andy know these Olympic paddlers really well so will be able to get out on the course side to talk to paddlers at the finish of their runs to capture the emotion and insights from the paddlers as well as from coaches and managers, at the appropriate times if they are willing. You should expect them to help explain the basics of the sport, terminology and the names of the features on the course. Find out what the names Big Ben and Ben Nevis represent. They will provide you background into the athletes on the course and those still waiting to start as well as describe the technical performance of each paddler as they battle this spectacular whitewater. Each paddler starts at 2 minutes and 30 second intervals and average run times of the course could be as quick as 90 seconds. All this will wrap up to provide a tremendous atmosphere to the 12,000 spectators filling the stands on each of the 5 days of competition.
I have some personal experience in this respect, as I have been fortunate to commentate on several international canoe slalom races including the ’95 World’s in Nottingham together with US co-commentators Kent Ford and Lamar Sims. The tension is beyond words. It was thrilling to watch Lyn Simpson win a World Championship title in K1W and see her on the podium with the National Anthem and Union Flag being raised. It will be emotional to see the Olympic medals awarded on July 31st, August 1st and 2nd. I can’t wait! There will be many Olympians also providing commentary to their national TV stations, including British Olympic K1W medallist Helen Reeves for the BBC and David Ford from Canada for CTV. Good luck to Kev and Andy. Listen out for them and keeping watching the scoreboards as they could change with each competitor. It will be incredibly tense with medals decided by the final run of the last competitor!
In tomorrow’s post we will explore the role of the coach. You are welcome to comment here or @gregiej on Twitter
Sponsorship, funding and its relationship with the media has much to do with how canoe slalom has evolved in the last twenty years. Here we ponder this in more detail and look at how this exerts influence on the sport and the athletes. So far this week we have looked at the athletes who have been confirmed for the London2012 Olympics in canoe slalom, the competition schedule and then yesterday a comparison between the Olympics, World Championships and World Cup Championships.
Media coverage and sponsorship are intricately related in a chicken and egg way. Media coverage brings sponsors but without sponsorship it is challenging to get the media coverage. This was our reality in the pre-Barcelona era of the sport. There were some limited sponsors to whom we were exceedingly grateful and there was some limited media coverage like BBC TV’s ‘Paddles Up’ later sponsored by Norwich Union – remember? The TV coverage from ‘Paddles Up’ did pull many canoe slalom paddlers into the sport. Without big sponsors it is tough for local or national slalom events as well as international and World’s to get the funding necessary to make a big enough event to attract high calibre media interest. Several of us, myself included, wrote our own releases and took our own photographs and sent them to a select few contacts in the media. If we never said thank you at the time it was really appreciated. Many of the sponsors at this time were companies involved in paddlesport and local businesses close to our competition venues.
There is another aspect to funding and that is of the teams, thinking specifically of national teams and the funding of individual athletes. As Olympic silver medallist Gareth Marriott reminded me that at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the British athletes were amongst the minority of those nations who were part time athletes, fitting in training around their day jobs and taking unpaid leave to compete for Great Britain. Even then though, I think we were fortunate compared to many other nations as we could at least afford, beg or borrow video cameras. The other change that came about in the UK was the establishment of the UK National Lottery. They began funding athletes 15 years ago in 1997 so that they could train full time. This funding has played an important part in the GB Canoeing Funded Programmes set up in 1998. UK Sport is also a key funding partner in providing funding to the sports excellence.
Today, GB Canoeing has its first headline sponsor, Tesco, who actually have their international head office not far from the Lee Valley Whitewater centre. Thank you Tesco. It illustrates the point that Tesco’s sponsorship has generated significant PR and media interest at a national and local community level. This will encourage more members of the public to watch the sport, come and try and who knows stimulate a new generation of World Class paddlers. GB Canoeing also has a bronze sponsor, Fedex, plus supplier sponsors; Craft, Science in Sport, McLaren Applied Technologies and Peak UK.
This new reality does present some challenges essentially through a loss of control; small price to pay maybe. Once we could do whatever we wanted as long as it was consistent with the BCU and ICF rules. Now there are very many highly influential stakeholders, IOC, LOCOG, National Lottery, UK Sport, sponsors and broadcasters to name a few. European Championships, World Championships, World Cup races and Olympics have now taken on a very different project management set of skills to manage the relationships and stakeholders. Again, though our dream in the 80’s was to bring this incredible sport of canoe slalom to the masses and the Olympics particularly in the UK has done this in a most exceptional way, of which everyone involved is and should be duly proud. After the Olympics finishes in August the Lee Valley Whitewater centre is already confirmed as the venue for the 2015 ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships. We hope you come back.
Funding also creates high stakes for athletes from a selection perspective. Any funding is always limited and so there are qualifications for different funding programmes. Invariably, while some athletes benefit from funding others miss the cut off for funding and so have to find alternative ways to fund their further training and purchase of equipment and travel until the next funding cycle. The cost of travel both for local training and international training has always been one of the largest components in canoe slalom and dependent on an income stream!
The media itself have evolved in exciting ways through digital cameras and the impact of social media. The media interest in all the athletes is a new pressure on the athletes themselves but demonstrates the pubic thirst for information, which should do much to bring canoe slalom into the minds of the UK and Worldwide public.
Tomorrow as previously suggested we look at last week’s Junior / U23 World Championships which wrapped up in Wausau, USA. What bearing does this have on London2012 or for future Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 or beyond? As suggested yesterday, thanks for the 1200 views in the last two weeks. You are welcome to contribute by adding comments either here on @gregiej on Twitter.
Canoe slalom has an incredible appeal through the lens of a camera as well as making stunning TV coverage.
I admire the photographs over the years of a small group of slalom enthusiasts; Tony Tickle, Chris Worrall, Pete Astles, Robin Vowles, ICF photographer Balint Vekassy and recently Michael Barnett. I was in awe of the stunning images Tony Tickle took in the morning mist of the Savage River at the ’89 Worlds, sneaking my way into a presentation in Llangollen over the British International weekend. One of my personal favourites below we obtained permission from Allsport to use for an athlete profile of Paul Ratcliffe just after Sydney Olympic’s silver medal.
I asked Michael Barnett recently what appealed most to him about canoe slalom, his personal favourites. Here is what he said; “The water is never the same for any paddler. It is a living breathing element and is therefore exciting to photograph as it changes constantly. This makes each photo different. Yes the composition can be similar but the action is always different. Even when shooting at 10 frames per second. The changes can be astounding. There are two images of mine [Michael]which I am particularly proud of and both were taken at the Senior Selection event at Lee Valley during 2011. One is of David Bain and I think I have captured the power of the whitewateras it has thrown his boat nearly out of the water and David looks so calm and concentrated.”
“The other is of Richard Hounslow (GBR K1 and C2 paddler for the London 2012 Olympics) as this photo captures everything about Canoe Slalom – the concentration of the athlete, the ferocity of the water and the moment was perfectly frozen. I am also proud of this photo as it won Canoe England photo of the year for 2011, which isn’t bad for a completely unedited photo. My favourite class is C2. Having to get two athletes in focus when shooting at low apertures (to increase shutter speed) can be very challenging. We are also lucky in Great Britain as we have two of the best C2 crews in the World on our shores and the battles these boats undertake at selections can be very entertaining.”
As it happens I am not a complete novice myself behind a camera and have my own personal favourites from Nottingham, Bourg St Maurice and Bala, ironically all taken with the now old fashioned 35mm SLR camera! There is something wonderful and magical about the atmosphere of the natural river venues that is hard to recreate in photographs of artificial courses like Lee Valley. So what did I learn? If you have a good understanding of the sport then I think planning the perfect shots is key. If you sit by a breakout gate and watch the paddlers you start to understand on what their eyes are focussed, like the outside red and white upstream gate and so if you line yourself up just right you can be looking straight into the eyes as they approach.
Also as the boat comes in the eddy it is slowing making it a little easier to focus and avoid a blurred image. I think the key to good photographs is the right position, good camera and lots of patience. More than 90% of pictures taken are just not quite right.
Michael commented; “I suspect the course designers will try to make the most of the two big drops as these are two of the most exciting elements of the course. So be prepared for good photo opportunities at these points. Don’t leave your seat during the event if you can help it. The leaderboard can change during every run due to the fact the water is never the same. Some of the best athletes in the World could get caught out by the power of the water and it only takes one mistake for the leaderboard to change. It is just so unpredictable and exciting.”
I understand photography at the Olympics event is more of a challenge. The IOC has rules in place to prevent photographs being used for commercial purposes. Taking pictures at the Olympics may prove difficult due to the restrictions put in place by LOCOG. The camera you take must fit into a bag which measures 30cm x 20cm x 20cm. I might be able to take my Canon 50D and my 70-200mm lens at a push. Also at the Olympics you are not allowed to sit on the bank with your legs hanging over the side. So, if you are in the UK buy a copy of the slalom yearbook or look at www.canoeslalom.co.uk, pick an event and go along with a camera and a backpack of food, drink and warm waterproof clothing! Michael Barnett adds; “A camera which can capture the detail of the water and be able to capture the emotion of the athlete. I pride myself on not editing my photos and trying to get things right in camera.”
The web now provides access to thousands of stunning canoe slalom images during and immediately after the event.
Here are Michael’s tips regarding taking great pictures:
• Zoom in as much as you can
• Select as low an aperture as possible whilst shooting in AV mode so that you get a shutter speed quick enough to freeze the water
• Track the athlete’s head while they are canoeing down the course as this is something which is easy to follow
• Take as many pictures as possible. Due to the speed at which the paddles move, they can often restrict the views of the athletes
But most importantly enjoy yourself
Tomorrow’s post will show the Olympic events taking place in less than 2 weeks at Lee Valley.
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.
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.
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!
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 www.slalomtechnique.co.uk 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.