The Importance of Goal-Setting In Whitewater Kayaking

Jun 2, 2014 by

Here’s what I’ve learned: if you don’ set goals, you won’t progress. If you set the wrong goals, you’ll take steps backwards.

After four years of ‘killing it’ on flat water, Dan, Rob and I thought we would seamlessly make the jump to whitewater kayaking. We got new boats, we got better paddles, we got the gear and watched the videos. I remember getting giddy when I got my Shred Ready helmet in the mail from Colorado Kayak Supply. We set a goal: run Cumberland River, Below the Falls. We thought we were wise to do two ‘warm-up runs’ to ‘test our gear’ and get prepare ourselves for Class III water. Step 1 – the Gasper in Bowling Green, a very small Class II run (at its biggest). Step 2 – Elkhorn Creek (Class II). Step 3 – run Cumberland! It was that easy, in our minds.

Thinking back, with dumb-luck, we escaped some potentially catastrophic situations on the Elkhorn. None of us knew how to roll, none of us had ever practiced a wet-exit. That wasn’t a problem for Dan because he didn’t wear a skirt (because he didn’t need a whitewater boat, he said) and he ended up swimming on the first decent rapid. His boat got pinned on a strainer island of trees. Like an idiot, I tried to paddle up to his boat and pull it out of the trees. I, of course, get caught in the strainer and got hella-lucky to wiggle free. Dan got slightly hypothermic after 30 minutes in the water unpinning his boat.

We drove away from the Elkhorn thinking we’d run big water and we were ready for the Cumberland River. Truthfully, the Elkhorn was the biggest water we’d ever run up to that point, but it’s not ‘big’ in any sense.

Cumberland BTF short version: I flipped in a hydraulic and didn’t know how to wet exit . . . panic, recirculation and a moment with my God. Rob, unable to keep his boat straight, swims twice, once with a dead deer. Dan doesn’t swim, somehow.

My friend Justin Thompson says that whitewater kayaking isn’t a beginner’s sport. After my first year, I agree; truly, it’s not. This is one of the few sports that will weed out the faint-of-heart. That day I nearly drowned I set the goal to ‘get better.’ But in making that goal, I repeated the same mistake I’d made that put me in that spot – I assumed I knew what ‘getting better’ meant and I over-simplified the challenge inherent in learning whitewater kayaking.

Reading and watching isn’t doing – I’d read a ton online and watched all the videos about how to improve. I thought I knew everything I needed to do and I had all that study time logged. But when I found myself on my local whitewater run, I would chicken out. I would just bomb the run and feel good about getting down the river without dying. I did this for at least 10 runs and it probably hurt me more than it helped me get better. I picked up a ton of bad habits that I had to unlearn later.

But gradually I tried to catch eddies. I’d attempt a few, screw them up by entering too far down or pussy-footing across the eddy line but feel good about trying. I changed my goal from ‘get better’ to ‘catch eddies.’ This was the first big step for me. By breaking down ‘get better’ into smaller goals, I was able to see real progress and be aware of my limitations. I refined my goals from ‘get better’ to learn to roll, learn to ferry, learn to peal out and learn to catch eddies.

Nothing will make you learn to catch an eddy like the fear of death. There’s a creek in Louisville that only runs during flash floods. Justin called me and talked me into running it with his crew. I remember him saying, ‘you do NOT want to get in Featherbed. You HAVE to catch the eddy on the right to avoid it.’ I asked him what should I do if I miss the eddy, He said ‘DO NOT miss the eddy. Featherbed will fuck you up.’ That was the day I got good at catching eddies – big ones, small ones, through trees and behind bridge pillars. Anytime he said ‘you gotta,’ I did.

Chickening-out is so easy to do.

Bombing a rapid is, for the most part, easy. I thought good kayaking was just getting down the river but I quickly learned that’s not how you improve. I didn’t really get good until I began paddling with people who were better than me. Justin, Nate Scally and Matt Gossett all took the time to help me learn how to paddle better. They also helped me identify goals. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked these guys ‘am I ready for this river’ or ‘what do I need to do be able to get down the X.’ If you rely on yourself to decide what is within your skill set, you WILL NOT progress. ‘Fear’ always creeps in and causes us to take the safe route. Trust your paddle buddies and do not let yourself say ‘no’ easily if they think you’re capable.

By letting go of ‘no,’ I am now decent at catching eddies, pealing out, etc., so I now work on trying to be smooth with those things. When I watch videos, I don’t sit in awe – I make mental notes – oh, he did a rock slide, lifted his edge and punched the hole – I need to work on rock slides . . . It’s amazing how much progress you’ll make once you break through your fears and stop taking the easy route. My mentality has changed – I’m always trying stuff out on small runs. I hit nearly every sloped rock and try to boof it, spin off it or slide.

My goal heading into 2014 was to run the Middle Ocoee, no walks or swims, and to run the Cumberland Below the Falls. After three successful runs on the Ocoee, I’ve lost interest in Cumberland BTF – not really a challenge. So, I’ve created a new goal for 2014- to run the Lower Gauley at GauleyFest this year. All the good boaters I know said to get ready for it I’d have to get comfortable on the Middle Ocoee. Then the Upper Ocoee. Mix in runs on the Tellico and Big South Fork Gorge and I’d be ready. So, that’s what I’m working on. I’ve done the Middle Ocoee and above BSF Gorge, the Gorge and the Canyon.


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