When I was in high school I did a lot of ski racing and was fortunate to have some very good coaches work with me. One of the things that always intrigued me was how the right combination of words could have a profound effect on a person’s understanding and visualization of a desired movement. So much so, that my only goal in life was to be a ski coach because I enjoyed the challenge of finding that word or phrase that could change everything for someone trying to learn a new movement. Telling someone to bend their knees isn’t always effective, but telling someone to bend their knees as if they were sitting down in a chair gives them a very specific image of their goal. Telling someone to reach will really only get most people about 80% of the way there. Telling some to reach as if a $100.00 bill were just outside their grasp, usually will get them the rest of the way.
I’ve been traveling a lot in the last six months, which means I’ve been coaching a lot in the last six months. Which also means I’ve had the opportunity to observe what are the most common mistakes people make in their paddle strokes.
One general tip that I think everyone can benefit from is to analyze every single part of your stroke. If a movement doesn’t serve a specific purpose in making your stroke work, then change it or get rid of it.
Perhaps the most common mistake is to lower your top hand too much during the recovery or exit stage of the stroke. The reason you want to keep your top hand at shoulder level or higher is that the lower you take it, the more you have to raise it again to get into proper reaching position. The more you lower it, the more wasted movement you’re creating for yourself.
The first reason your hand will drop too low is because you pull the paddle back too far. In order for your paddle to go past your feet, your top hand has to drop to accommodate the angle. The reason that’s bad is because it is very difficult to generate much power or momentum once the paddle has gone past your feet and also at that point you are actually starting to pull yourself down into the water. The fix: Don’t pull the paddle past your feet and then your top hand won’t drop too low.
The second reason your top hand can drop too low is because during the recovery stage (moving the paddle forward to reach again), you lift the blade too high out of the water. I see people lift their paddles any where from six inches to three feet over the water while bringing the paddle forward. That’s anywhere from five inches to two feet eleven inches too much. Unless your paddle is much too short the only way for your blade to get that high is to drop your top hand to the side to accommodate the angle. Technically your blade only needs to be a fraction of an inch above the water to move forward without hitting. One way gain awareness about where your blade is during this phase is to actually touch the water on the way back to your reaching position. So while you’re swinging the paddle into it’s forward position give the water just the slightest tap at the half way point. This will insure that the paddle is not too high as well as give you instant feedback on how high the blade is relative to the water. As long as the front edge of the paddle is slightly higher than the back edge, your paddle won’t dive down into the water when you tap. Once you have a feel for it, just skip the tap and go straight to the reaching forward position.
Keeping your top hand above your shoulder can take a lot of energy, and fatigue you quite quickly, so here’s some free extra energy. Support the top hand by supporting the paddle with your bottom hand. Your bottom hand has good leverage, so it can do the work easily. This allows your top hand the opportunity to rest for a split second while the bottom hand is doing the work for the top by using gravity as an ally. By hooking your finger tips and cradling the paddle shaft in your bottom hand you can support the weight of the paddle and your top hand quite easily. That’s a lot of things to remember in mid-stroke, so you might cue that support when you break your wrist inward to feather the blade. Let your lower hand hold the weight and push the paddle forward toward the reach position while your upper hand rests.
One good way to be aware of your top hand is to actually focus on it and watch it for five stokes. I mean actually pick a freckle or knuckle or whatever is on the back of your hand and for five strokes keep your eyes focused on it. If your hand stays in front of your face you shouldn’t have to move your head, if you find you are moving your head to keep your eyes on it, then you’re moving your top hand too much, and you can tell if the drop in your hand is down or to the side. The trick to this is locking your eyes on the chosen spot and don’t look away or past it.
The second very common mistake is not getting the paddle all the way into the water. If you can see any part of the blade when you start to pull then you need to go deeper. A specific goal you can aim for is to have the top of your blade three inches under the surface of the water. This will enable the blade to do it’s job and permit you to get the most for your efforts. Another way to think of it is to get your ice cream scooper all the way down into the ice cream, so that you can get a full scoop.
The third and perhaps most important mistake I see, is people working way too hard. One example I’ve been giving people lately is this, imagine drinking a glass of water. You would grab the glass with very little effort, you would bring it to your mouth with very relaxed muscles, and doing almost no flexing of your muscles at all. Now imagine grabbing the glass with so much effort you almost smash the glass, imagine bringing it up to your mouth now with every muscle flexed like a body builder posing, the glass would be vibrating and water spilling over the rim. While that my be an exaggeration, I do see people exerting that type of force while trying to paddle. Paddling most of the time needs to be a very flowing and rhythmic action, not a tense muscle flexed series of positions, but rather a constant continually moving movie. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place to exert yourself, but if your base stroke comes from a place of rhythm and flow, when you exert yourself you will be much more effective and efficient. The best fix for it is to greatly reduce your power level and learn how to use your technique as your driving force, not your power output. Decrease your power to the level that you don’t feel like you’re doing any work at all, and just concentrate on technique. You’ll be surprised at how fast you go. Just like drinking that glass of water, get to a point of calm relaxed movement before you start chugging. Have fun.