The Fearful Paddler

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

One of the biggest 'barriers to learning' is fear.


Fear of failure. Fear of danger. Fear of judgement. Fear of Water. Fear of Pride.


Fear consumes our psychological resources inhibiting working memory, creativity and problem solving (Edmondson, 2018). With an inhibition of learning capacity, very little learning is going to take place. Coaches need to be acutely aware of this and be able to spot any signs of fear and anxiety. However, we can’t spot everything, which is why it is important to implement strategies to reduce the ‘fear barrier’ and to prevent anxieties any paddlers may have and allow the learning to continue. Fear is ingrained, usually, by either bad experiences or nurtured by a significant other. Which is why the coach needs to create an environment where fear is okay but also conquered.


Combatting Existing Fear

We all know that fear already exists it is making sure that we can combat and tackle those fears without making the fear even worse by adding high levels of stress and pressure to the mix. Existing fears, have probably been stimulated either by a previous experience or a fear that has been learnt from a significant other, e.g. a parent. When working with paddlers that have an existing fear try using the following strategies:

  • Breathing exercises that encourage the paddler to think about the thoughts, reduce their heart rate and control their breathing.

  • 1:1 support - making the fearful paddler feel safer.

  • Talking through the fear and safety measures that are in place to ensure that they will be 'okay'.

  • Encouraging them to facing fears and having a go, especially in a safe environment.

  • Don’t draw attention to dangers, tell them and show them what is safe and the positive things that will happen.

  • Practice the basics and build up self-confidence; this might mean breaking the skill or situation down into manageable chunks - remember fear consumers our psychological resources.

  • When something goes wrong get them back on the water and have another go otherwise they will always remember that event and this will create an additional trigger. This trigger will continue to reinforce fear. And I can speak from experience. When I was around 12 years old - paddling with the freestyle Jackson Team - I was told to paddle straight into a hole (in whitewater it is a feature of water that pulls boats under, which is great of play boating tricks). See the picture below.

  • Now, this is what I thought I would look like - in real terms - I ended up whirling around stuck in my boat underwater. This, actually, happened twice in a row and to this day I still have a fear of this type of water feature. But, the picture above is me, attempting, to get over my fear.

A 'Fearful Paddler' will struggle to learn; therefore, it is our job to create the best possible environment so that the most amount of learning can take place.


Building a Positive Learning Environment

There are a huge range of strategies that a coach can use to build positive learning environments and relationships. If learners feel safe, they will relax - freeing up space in their working memory to process and, hopefully, learn more from their experiences. Additionally, if learners feel safe they will be more inclined to try something that they may have preconceived fears about - taking the risk.


Here are a few things you, the coach, can do:

  • Questions can be used as a focus; a stimulus that the learners can work towards trying out new techniques to work towards an answer. When working towards a common goal, learners will start to collaborate and share ideas. Resulting in answer that has been developed by a group of individuals (that may or may not have been directed by the coach). Just remember, questioning can be intrusive and direct; some people don’t like having to answer questions, especially in front of others. They may already have a fear of failure, fear of humiliation or fear of judgement from answering questions "incorrectly" in the past.

  • Try using the phrase - "have a go and show me the answer" or "go and practise and come back to me when you have an answer." Firstly, if they can show you the answer it is the perfect opportunity to have a look at their paddling and prepare some feedback (to give later on). Secondly, encouraging the paddler to 'paddle off' and think about their technique, will allow time for their brain to practise, reflect and formulate a more articulate response than before - they might even change their answer. Finally, the paddlers will, again hopefully, arrive at the answer at different times - this is the perfect chance to either have a more detailed conversation about their meta-cognition or to challenge them to think about the next step.

  • Avoid giving feedback and interrupting their answer. Think about how you can get them to explore why that answer might be wrong; nobody likes being told "NO, THAT IS WRONG!" It can create a negative 'atmos-fear' where learners as less likely to willingly contribute answers - incase of failure or judgement. Endeavour to provide the paddler with a question, a task or a movement to practise - do they still have the same answer when they come back?

  • Focus on outcomes rather than skills. There is no need to be perfect the first time round or even the hundredth time round. Focusing on a skill suggests that there is a 'right and wrong' way of performing it. Outcomes, on the other hand, are more subjective to success and are easy to adapt for a range of paddlers. For example, the outcome could be to paddle to a buoy. One paddler will make it to the buoy use a range of 'interesting' strokes yet they have still achieved something. Another paddler may arrive at the buoy using good active posture and focusing on the connectivity of their feet and the feel of the boat. Both paddlers have achieved. And to them, it is success. Everyone loves success that is what makes us come back to do it again.

  • Model failure (safely). The coach can, when appropriate, fail, get something wrong or have to try again to perform 'it' a little bit better. This can create an environment where it is okay to fail. It will also provide an opportunity to model the meta-cognition of moving forwards and improving skills (sometimes a skill lots of learners do not have).

  • Share fears and how you overcame them. Sharing a, somewhat, person fear and the strategies you used to overcome that fear will start to build an ethos and environment where failure is not just accepted but expected. The learners will start to expect failure as part of the learning process.


Together, let's build a 'fear-free' environment.


Please share experiences and/or any strategies you have used to overcome fear in the comments below or on our Facebook page.


Further reading: we would highly recommend Coaching Adventure Sports - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Coaching-Adventure-Sports-Dan-Wilkinson/dp/1838189203


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