The Mental Game of Rolling

Over this past weekend I was reviewing a rolling DVD with one of my students. He has recently learned how to roll. He asked why sometimes it didn’t work. My response to him was "rolling is a mental skill more than a physical one." Shortly after my statement I was asked by one of my paddling buddies (we were on the phone) about helping him with his roll. He said he was missing some rolls lately. I told him this was very coincidental because I was just talking about this problem. I asked him "do you know how to roll?" He said yes. I told him when I have seen him miss a roll it was because he was anxious or he was rushing it. I gave him a few suggestions for relaxing and techniques that can counteract the mistakes we make when we tense up. He said he would try it over the weekend. This is part of the e-mail he sent. "You were right. My rolling problem was mental. Yesterday, several of us went to practice in some warm water (close to 80 degrees). My first roll attempt was just that. I then realized that the paddle dove because I was gripping it too tight. After that, I eased up on the grip and everything worked. I even had one roll where I started to lift my head and I could feel myself going back down. I turned my head to keep watching the blade and extended the sweep a little longer and I was up."

I have taught hundreds of people to successfully roll their kayak. I am a student of observation. I love discovering the little nuances that can enhance or detract from performance. I am a firm believer that once a paddler learns the mechanics of rolling he or she's success in performing a roll on any given day and in any given condition will be their mental attitude.

Another good example of the "mental game of rolling" is my UCSB leadership staff. I get these college age men and women who are very fit and agile. They are doing the roll after five minutes of instruction. Ten minutes later they are doing their offside roll and then have the nerve to ask "how do we do a hand roll." Heck, it took me a few years to figure out to roll and many years after that before a hand roll was even a possibility. However, once I take them from the warm calm pool and put them into the ocean surf it is amazing how many of them miss their rolls and swim. They know the mechanics but the change in environment seems to cause anxiety, which translates to a failed roll. Yet, over time they become expert rollers in the surf.

Then I take these same surf rollers to the river in the springtime. The cold water from snow melt, the rapids and the occasional helmet bang on a rock when upside down causes lots of these rolling pros to wet exit and swim to shore because they either failed to roll or didn’t even try to set up for one. Of course, over time they are comfortable with the river environment and their rolls return.

The only consistent explanation I can find about these rollers missing their rolls is that anxiety is affecting performance, which is common with anyone performing a skill. What are the common mistakes we make when we are anxious and we miss our rolls?

When we examine the roll it is very simple in concept. Use the support of the paddle to allow you to flip your kayak upright and then let the body & head follow. So where do the problems come in? First off the roll is counter intuitive. Since we are air breathers it is only natural to want to bring our head up first to get some air. In addition, the idea of coming up naturally leads to coming up headfirst. Telling someone to come out of the water backside first followed by the torso with the head being the last thing out seems unnatural. This becomes an even greater concern when we get anxious and feel as though we are running out of air.

Unless you are the type of person who completely freaks out when going underwater, holding ones breath for at least fifteen seconds is not a major chore. In fifteen seconds it is relatively easy to set up and try to execute two rolls and still have time for a third set up or do a wet exit. Therefore, missing a roll should not be blamed on lack of air.

The key mistakes I have witnessed when rolls fail due to anxiety are the following:

  1. Head coming up first to get air. Your mantra should be "head up last."
  2. Rushing to do the roll instead of taking the extra two seconds to properly position yourself in the set-up position. Blades seem to go off course when they don't begin at the proper starting line.
  3. A death grip on the paddle usually leads to pulling down on the paddle rather than sweeping it out (if it is a sweeping type roll.) A tight grip also leads to having your paddle too deep in the water if you are attempting a C to C roll. A tight grip often translates to a bent elbow, which shortens your reach. I keep my fingers loose on the lead hand so I can really stretch and get my working blade to the surface.
  4. Overall body tension instead of being loose. When conditions get rough and I feel that anxiety building up, I like to let go of some of that energy by exaggerating certain movements. When I feel my trunk muscles tightening up I like to wiggle my hips from side to side as fast as I can to help ease that tension.
  5. Negative internal dialogue will not get you up. One of my favorite quotes is from the book Illusions by Richard Bach. "Argue for your limitations and they are yours." I know if I get nervous and say "I better not blow this roll" or "I know I not going to make this roll" or "I don’t want to miss this roll in front of my friends" my success is questionable from the start. Think in the positive. When you suddenly go over, take a normal breath before submerging and get into the set up position and them smile as you visualize yourself doing the perfect roll. Then do your roll in a relaxed manner. You will have a much greater chance of success.

Certainly there are other mistakes that are made but the ones I have mentioned seem to be the major road blocks we put up which cause us to not complete our roll even though we know how to do it.

I will also agree with those that will argue that some extreme conditions can affect a normal roll such as breaking waves, getting pinned against an obstacle and very cold water (inner ear equilibrium) to name the most common. However, the vast majority of the time when we miss a roll, I have to think we are dealing with some internal sabotage.

The concept of the "Bomb Proof Roll" is a worthy pursuit. However, I have to say my experience with some of the best paddlers in the world has shown me that everyone swims sooner or later. Therefore, you should have reliable capsize recovery skills if you do have to wet exit because you happen to be off your game on that particular day. The game that I am referring to is of course the mental game of rolling.

Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.

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